Archive for August, 2011

The Morality of Mooching

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Is it wrong to accept government benefits? Or, put differently, is it wrong to accept money that the government has extorted from you and your neighbors? Liberty-loving people who believe that government redistribution of wealth is an unjustifiable abuse of power face a difficult problem when living in an ever-more-socialist society. On the one hand, we believe that individual self-ownership and human equality make it immoral for one person to take the property of another. On the other hand, we cannot avoid having our own property taken through taxation, devaluation of the money supply, and unjust regulations. It is easy to see that knowingly accepting the fruits of robbery is immoral, but what if you are one of the victims?

Many of the conservatives and libertarians who I know refuse to accept government welfare programs like WIC, medicare, medicaid, and social security. Doing so is disparagingly referred to as, “feeding at the trough.” I grew up with this attitude, and I decided to forgo many of the benefits for which I was eligible. Lately, though, I’ve been questioning whether this attitude is based on principle or just simple pride.

The average American worker loses a substantial portion of his earnings to income taxes before he gets paid a dime. For the self-employed, the extortion is delayed until taxes come due—at which time, if he doesn’t pay, he is subjected to heavy fines and imprisonment. Even after getting paid, he is taxed if he uses his money either to buy goods or to invest. Then, to add insult to injury, the government dilutes the money supply by printing more money—devaluing through inflation any money the worker has managed to keep. And that’s just a small piece of the picture. So, is it okay for the American worker to recoup some of his losses by accepting those government handouts for which he is eligible? I am inclined to say yes, but there are at least a couple of problems:

First, it is impossible to calculate how much the government has taken. Figuring out how much a person has paid in income tax is easy, but how can a person calculate how much he has lost through currency devaluation? How can he discover how much he has lost because of oppressive government regulations which drive up costs and stifle entrepreneurship? If a person takes more from the government than what the government has taken from him then he has profited from government theft.

Second, since government epitomizes wastefulness and inefficiency, even if a person were able to calculate the exact amount of property the government had unjustly taken, recouping that amount through government programs would cost far more. In other words, if you were able to calculate that the government stole $10,000 from you one year, recovering that amount through government programs would actually cost far more than $10,000 because of administrative costs. And, of course, your neighbors are the ones who would get stuck paying those costs. One solution to this problem is to recover only $10,000 minus X where X is equal to the administrative costs. But then we run into calculation difficulties again.

In the end, though, these are practical problems, not principled objections. The simplest way to deal with these practical problems is to take few enough benefits that you are certain that you haven’t helped rob your neighbors—maybe just take roughly the amount you lost in taxes. So long as you don’t take more than was taken from you, I don’t see any principled objection to taking government benefits since you are just recovering what belonged to you in the first place.

So what do you think? Is it wrong to take government benefits?