Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"Entitled"?

Sorry for the light blogging again. The week has started off a bit busy, especially with my interviews down in the city. I was at a friend's apartment yesterday, trying to get her computer going. While waiting for the hard drive to finish formatting, her mother and I were chatting while watching the evening news. One news item was about the recent flooding in New Jersey. Some parts of New Jersey tend to get hit particularly hard by heavy rains: streets turn into rivers, basements get flooded, and cars get ruined from the high water. As always, there are people whose insurance won't cover the damages, so as the reporter said, they're hoping to get help from the state and federal governments.

I commented that these people knowingly and freely settled where floods occur regularly. Residents of these counties have known for the last, what, 300 years that their lands are prone to flooding? Yet they still expect government assistance after each regular inevitable -- why should any government be obligated to help them? My friend's mother replied, "Of course the government should help them, they're entitled to it!" More incredibly, she blames the government, because as she put it, it told people they could build on that land in the first place. I still don't understand her reasoning there: no government ever told people to build houses in those areas. There are zoning laws, certainly, but no person ever needed the government's say-so to put up houses there.

My friend's mother herself, before I made my remark, said that she'd never want to live in those areas. By the same principle, those people did choose to live there. People choose to live in California despite earthquakes and severe wildfires, or in the northeast U.S. with the occasional blizzards, or along the Atlantic and Gulf states where hurricanes wreak havoc. The government might control the particulars of living in a neighborhood, but it never had to give you "permission" or even "advice" to live in a general area.

It's impolite to argue with someone in her daughter's home, and I knew it would be a futile thing anyway. So I sighed to myself and realized I had found another unwitting state-worshipper. She means well, I suppose. She wants the people to rebuild and get their lives back to normal, but like many Americans, part of her way of "caring" and being "charitable" means declaring the government should take care of it. But it's not being charitable at all! You're not asking for charitable help, quite the contrary. You're only asking other taxpayers to make your house less expensive; you're asking them to subsidize the cost of your housing. Not the purchase cost, but the total cost of ownership, which includes repairs and rebuilding as the result of natural disasters.

When you decide to buy a home somewhere, should you not be aware if Mother Nature has a propensity to destroy homes in the area? A house is typically an American's largest single purchase, so before you commit all that money, it's wise to do all your homework. A good real estate broker might tell you about property taxes and local crime, and potential homeowners inquire about things like insurance rates to make a final decision. Logically, you should also be cognizant about floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes/tornadoes and other natural calamities that are known to occur.

And if insurance companies don't offer certain types of disaster insurance in the area, or they charge extremely high rates, you would ordinarily rethink living there. "Oh gee, I have a 30% percent chance of having to rebuild my house every 10 years," or some such figure. This is no longer so, not when the government is here to help! Now you can live in a high-risk area, because if Mother Nature destroys your home, you can tap into everyone else's wallet.

Years ago, my father told me about a conversation he had with my half-brother. I was a young teenager and not very aware of the politics behind natural disasters. My half-brother still lived in upstate New York, and he was irritated at the federal disaster relief being given to southern Californians in the wake of another massive wildfire. He said it quite simply: the rest of us decide to live in less-risky areas, and we have to pay for others who choose to live under regular threat of fires, hurricanes, and so on.

What got me the most was my friend's mother using "entitled" -- who is entitled to anything that rightfully belongs to another person? Nobody is. As Walter Williams put it so brilliantly, "What's *just* has been debated for centuries but let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well then tell me how much of what I earn *belongs* to you -- and why?"

Charity is great, don't get me wrong. But if the government "ought to help" certain people, where does that money come from? As my half-brother asked, why should the rest of us have to pay for others who willingly live in high-risk areas? Oh, but those people pay their share of taxes, and they should get something out of it?

Dr. Williams wrote almost five years ago that the problem isn't with politicians:
Today's politicians can't be held fully responsible for our growing constitutional contempt. We might blame them for not being statesmen. The lion's share of the blame rests with 270 million Americans. Our elected officials simply mirror our contempt for constitutional principles and our desire to live at the expense of our fellow American. It's unreasonable to expect a congressman, or a president, to live up to his oath of office, to protect, defend and bear true allegiance to the Constitution, if doing that means political suicide.
We elect them to "serve the people" and that's exactly what they do: we vote them into office so they, under the usurped authority of the government, can take money from some and give it to the rest of us.

Dr. Williams quoted a few presidents who said there is nothing in the Constitution to provide for charity; they're popular sayings in libertarian circles. The quotes I always found most stunning are by James Madison, who, as its chief architect, certainly knew what the Constitution does and does not say:
I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.
I've mentioned before that I had a political science professor that said "Congress has the implied powers to tax and spend to promote the general welfare" -- and she actually believed "welfare" meant the social program. It's a shame that hardly any schools will admit Madison clearly explained the language, which Dr. Williams cited in the same article. Really, though, big government can't let schools teach that Madison said things like this:
With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers (enumerated in the Constitution) connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.
But, many say, the government must engage in charitable acts, because private charity is not enough. Well, recently I pointed to one of Russell Roberts' recent posts at Cafe Hayek, where he asked precisely that. I noted that he ended with a wonderful passage from Bastiat's The Law, which I think it's time to partly quote here:
Suppose that the law does not force us to follow certain forms of religion, or systems of association, or methods of education, or regulations of labor, or regulations of trade, or plans for charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly plunge into atheism, hermitary, ignorance, misery, and greed?
Bastiat had just finished declaring, "Law is justice." If the law does not compel us to do "charitable" acts (which then lose their value as "charitable"), we are hardly prohibited from doing them.

Can private charity be as good as government? That is something I answered here. Yes, I do believe so, and that it can do more:
...This fellow's arguments rest on two fallacies. First, it's the assumption that if government doesn't do it, no one else will. Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek recently reminded us of what Bastiat said in The Law:

...

Second, what is "poverty"? Poverty in the U.S. means a low income, but not one where someone is starving to death. Poverty no longer means dirt floors and a lack of indoor plumbing.

Third, a lack of health insurance does not mean a lack of access to health care. I myself don't have health insurance. (In fact, right now I'm in-between jobs.) Am I worried that something will happen to me? It is a possibility, but it's futile to worry about something over which I have no control. Meanwhile, without insurance, I visit a doctor and dentist only as needed, not under the erroneous belief that, "Oh, my insurance covers it, I might as well."

As a conservative with strong libertarian leanings, I think it's improper for government to donate charitably. As James Madison said, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." However, I give President Bush much credit for donating $10,000 to the tsunami victims, and for having a history of personal charity. I wonder how much Eliot Brenowitz gives to charity? Let those who call for charity be donors themselves.

Charles Dickens championed the poor and downtrodden, yet how did his characters propose to alleviate their condition? Did the men seeking money for the poor tell Scrooge they would call upon Parliament to raise taxes for the poor's relief? Did the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future visit Parliament? No: the men and ghosts went to Scrooge, to change his heart.

I said once that there's something about Americans that I believe pushes us to compensate for those who aren't or cannot be charitable. Despite all our taxes, we still donate a quarter-trillion dollars each year in private charity. In just the first couple of weeks after the tsunami disaster, Americans came up with a couple hundred million dollars.

I believe that government "charity" has greatly dampened the spiritual aspect of American life. "Spiritual" doesn't necessarily refer to believing in God (which I do), but to that American essence of community. Not this ridiculous notion that we're all a "family," but that we are a community. And for all our "cutthroat" competition and entrepreneurialism, we still manage to help our neighbors in need. Though man is capable of great evil, we are still capable of great compassion. I further believe that, after several decades of being told that only government can significantly alleviate poverty and other social problems, we've been deprived of an ineffable part of American character. I think it's an innate quality, the same thing that drives many of us to believe the U.S. is still the best country, despite our flaws.
What I should have added about "the poor" is that it's technology that has brought them up, not government "equalizing" society. Christ said in the scriptures, "For ye have the poor always with you," and it is indeed true. After all, "the poor" are simply those at the bottom levels of income; there will always be "the poor" relative to everyone else.

The best thing we can do for "the poor" is to promote economic growth for everyone, even if "the rich" benefit. "A rising tide lifts all boats" isn't just about economic growth, but about the standard of living. As we continually advance our technology and abilities, today's latest technology will eventually become more affordable to the lower incomes. This is how today's "poor" are able to have lighting, indoor heat and telephone service, which once upon a time were things only "the rich" could enjoy. The "capitalist competition" that socialists claim is evil is the very thing that alleviates the condition of the poor.

And meanwhile, let us have charity on an individual level, for those who are truly worthy of help. We don't need government to tell us that, proven in Americans' private donations to charity, now up to a quarter-trillion dollars annually. Nor should we need government to direct us to help the less fortunate. I'll say again: when government does it for us, we lose something in our spirit. Today, how many of us think to help the widow, or the orphan? Very few, because government has conditioned us to believe that it will take care of things." We're a less caring society for it, in danger of degenerating into impersonal units. That's just what a socialist economy needs: workers, not individuals.

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