Liberty Commentary

Why Not Separate Charity and the State?

from FFF

gun pistol firearm Second Amendment Harris Parker dc gun control caseThe welfare state is founded on force. With Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, education grants, foreign aid, and every other welfare-state program, the government forces people to share part of their money with others, including the elderly, the poor, farmers, students, foreign dictators, and many others. This coercive process is based on the government’s seizure of people’s income and then distributing the money to various people whom the government deems should receive government largess (after deducting an amount to cover the costs of government’s providing this service).

I’ve got a different idea. How about a total separation of charity and state, just as our American ancestors separated church and state? So, just as we don’t force people to go to church, so it would be that we wouldn’t force people to share their money with others.

Proponents of the welfare state argue that the system isn’t really founded on force because we live in a democracy. The American people have voted to have a welfare state and so, they say, that’s what democracy is all about.

That may be true but it’s not what freedom is all about. Freedom and democracy are not the same thing. In fact, democracy can be destructive of freedom. That’s why our ancestors protected us from democracy with the Bill of Rights.

Suppose 95 percent of the American people support a law that requires everyone to attend church on Sundays. Hardly anyone would argue that such a law would constitute freedom. Most everyone would agree that the law would be a severe violation of freedom notwithstanding the fact that 95 percent of the citizenry favor it. Forcing people to attend church is wrong even if most people favor the action.

The basic idea is that there are certain fundamental, God-given, natural rights that are not subject to majority vote. That is the principle that Thomas Jefferson enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. As he pointed out, these fundamental rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The obvious question arises: What do life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness encompass? Most everyone would agree that they encompass, at a minimum, the right to decide whether to go to church or not.

What if everyone in society uses his freedom by choosing not to attend church and by choosing not to send his children to church? We would say that that’s what freedom is all about—the right to make what some people feel is the wrong decision. If people are free to make only the choice that is considered to be the right one, then they cannot truly be considered free.

Why shouldn’t what a person does with his own money also be considered an essential part of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? That is, why shouldn’t a person be as free to do with his own money as he is to decide whether to go to church?

I would assume that most everyone would oppose a law requiring people to donate their money to churches. They would say that that’s a violation of freedom. Churches should have to rely on voluntary donations, most everyone would say.

But then why shouldn’t the same principle apply with respect to welfare-state recipients? If it’s wrong to force people to donate to churches, why isn’t it equally wrong to force them to donate to the elderly, the poor, farmers, students, dictators, or anyone else?

Would people engage in charitable activity if they weren’t forced to? That’s impossible to say. There are no guarantees when it comes to freedom. Theoretically, everyone could simply say, “No way! I’m not donating to anyone or anything. I’m keeping all my money for myself.” However, that’s not how most people respond when they are free. After all, no one is forced to donate to churches and yet lots of people do donate to churches. And let’s not forget that before America had a welfare state (and an income tax to fund it), voluntary donations built the universities, libraries, opera houses, museums, and the churches.

A separation of church and state would be based on the moral principle that people have the fundamental right to decide for themselves what to do with their own money and on the moral principle that it’s wrong to force people to share their wealth with others. The freedom to decide what to do with one’s own money is an essential part of what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all about. Moreover, a separation of charity and the state would be based on the faith that a free people can be counted on to help others in need, on a purely voluntary basis.