The Morality of Mooching

August 28th, 2011 - by Quincy

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?

6 Responses to “The Morality of Mooching”

  1. Starr says:

    To complicate your calculations, is it theft if you support one or two of the programs that your tax dollars support? For example, the fire department. You may disagree with how it is run, but, for the sake of argument, you like having someone willing to risk their life to save your property in the event of a house fire. Would you haveto deduct the amount that it costs to run the current fire department, or the amount that it would cost if it were run the way you want it to be? There is mo easy way to actually calculate how much was stolen from you because it is nearly impossible to calculate the benefits that you gained.
    My opinion is that the programs exist for the purpose of helping someone get back on their feet. They are horribly mismanaged and overutilIzed, but It is not immoral for a person to use a program temporarily to get back on their feet and be self reliant once more. It is immoral for someone to use the programs indefinitely with no effort to become self reliant. It is up to each individual to determine where on te spectrum of morality their case fits (but I am happy to help them judge if they can’t figure it out for themselves).

  2. John says:

    http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6162

    President Benson, BYU 1977

    “When you accept food stamps, you accept an unearned handout that other working people are paying for. You do not earn food stamps or welfare payments. Every individual who accepts an unearned government gratuity is just as morally culpable as the individual who takes a handout from taxpayers’ money to pay his heat, electricity, or rent. There is no difference in principle between them. You did not come to this University to become a welfare recipient. You came here to be a light to the world, a light to society–to save society and to help to save this nation, the Lord’s base of operations in these latter days, to ameliorate man’s social conditions. You are not here to be a parasite or freeloader. The price you pay for “something for nothing” may be more than you can afford. Do not rationalize your acceptance of government gratuities by saying, “I am a contributing taxpayer too.” By doing this you contribute to the problem which is leading this nation to financial insolvency.”

  3. Quincy says:

    @ Starr

    I see your point about calculation, but even if you personally like a government program, that doesn’t change the fact that by voting for it you have also voted for the government to use force to make others pay for the program as well. Even if you think the fire department is a great idea, you don’t have the right threaten your neighbors with the use of force to make them fund it with you. That is the basic problem with all government programs.

    @ John

    That’s a strong quote, but I don’t think it answers the question. Would you say that taking a tax-return is immoral? What about driving on a road funded by tax dollars? Where do you draw the line and say taking these government benefits is ok while taking those is not. We live in a society that does not allow you to keep the fruits of your labor. Where is the wrong in recovering what is rightfully yours anyway—regardless of whether it is through food stamps or fire protection? The way I read the quote is that it is wrong to take more than what you have put in. If you take more than what was taken from you then you have done something immoral—even if you have contributed some small amount into the system through your own taxes.

  4. Maggie says:

    What if you’re doing it to purposefully bankrupt the socialist programs–thereby giving American citizens more incentive to have the government cut them? ;)

  5. Lauren says:

    It does get complicated, and all kind of blends into each other. Public schools are government subsidized. So is food production. So are roads and any number of other things. Where do you draw the line between what you’ll benefit from (either directly or indirectly) and what you won’t? We all benefit from living in the society. (No man is an island). I think that what goes around comes around.

  6. Quincy says:

    @ Maggie

    This post actually started out with that idea in mind. I wonder what would happen if every person who is eligible for government benefits were to take as much as they could–as a form of political protest. Would this drive government to raise taxes beyond what the general public could stomach? I don’t think it would be moral, though, because the unfortunate taxpayers would suffer even more losses than usual.

    @Lauren

    It is important not to mistake the benefits of living in a market society for government benefits. Even if government were not involved in food production, road construction, etc., we would still have food, roads, and so on. The difference would be that the market would efficiently determine how much of these goods were produced and how they would be provided. The myth that without government subsidies we would still be living in the dark ages is nonsense. So the fact that we all benefit from living in society can never justify a person reaping unjust gains from government extortion. The benefits of living in society come from voluntary cooperation, while government benefits are the product of involuntary taxation.

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