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29 March 2011

The Proper Role of Government: Legal Plunder

The Proper Role of Government, by Ezra Taft Benson
-- read the full text.
My commentary as I study his article:
Part I (Foundational Principles, Origin of Rights)
Part II (Separation of Church and State)
Part III (Source of Governmental Power)
Part IV (Powers of a Proper Government)
Part V (Government = Force)
Part VI (The US Constitution)
Part VII (Local Government)
Part VIII (Legalized Plunder)

Having looked at the things a government ought to do, Brother Benson turned his attention to the other side of the coin: things which it is right that a government should not do.


A category of government activity which, today, not only requires the closest scrutiny, but which also poses a grave danger to our continued freedom, is the activity NOT within the proper sphere of government. No one has the authority to grant such powers, as welfare programs, schemes for re-distributing the wealth, and activities which coerce people into acting in accordance with a prescribed code of social planning. There is one simple test. Do I as an individual have a right to use force upon my neighbor to accomplish this goal? If I do have such a right, then I may delegate that power to my government to exercise on my behalf. If I do not have that right as an individual, then I cannot delegate it to government, and I cannot ask my government to perform the act for me.

I believe that last line bears repeating:

If I do not have that right as an individual, then I cannot delegate it to government, and I cannot ask my government to perform the act for me.

This becomes a very simple starting point a we consider the issues of our day. It becomes an easy way to measure proposed legislation against principle.

Can I force my neighbor to pay for radio broadcasting?

Can I make my neighbor help with another's mortgage?

Is it right to make my neighbor subsidize veterinary education?

Incidentally, I found these on a list of bills that Congress recently voted on. I selected bills that had had final votes, and tried to take the first ones there (that I could quickly follow the title's meaning- some seemed rather arcanely titled), rather than cherry-picking votes that would illustrate my point. As it happens, none of these bills aims to do things that I would be comfortable compelling the lady next door to do.

Because in our government sovereignty (the right to govern) rests in the people, rather than the ruler, and the government exists because the People will it so, it is a government of delegated powers, the authority for those powers being derived from the Natural Rights of the People. The People created their local and State governments, and the State governments, in turn, created the federal government, which was ratified by a vote of the People. Federal power flows from the People. That is, federal power consists solely of power delegated to it by the People.

If I do not have that right as an individual, then I cannot delegate it to government, and I cannot ask my government to perform the act for me.

Brother Benson goes on to talk about how this can be a difficult principle to live at times:

To be sure, there are times when this principle of the proper role of government is most annoying and inconvenient. If I could only FORCE the ignorant to provided for themselves, or the selfish to be generous with their wealth! But if we permit government to manufacture its own authority out of thin air, and to create self-proclaimed powers not delegated to it by the people, then the creature exceeds the creator and becomes master.

Any time you hear an argument that starts out, "But what if people don't..." You're probably viewing first-hand the difficulty of this principle.

"What if people don't educate their children properly?"
"What if property values drop?"
"What if people don't pay a living wage?"
"What if..."

The list is nearly endless. Violations of this live-and-let-live principle come in other forms too. Freedom absolutely requires both responsibility and consequences. It can be uncomfortable at times, if we do not anticipate those consequences. Another example I recently heard, incident to Wisconsin's union privileges debates, was this:

"Could the wealthy be asked to contribute even a very small portion of their money (come on, you are a millionaire surely you can afford the same amount of money the the public employees willingly said that they would give up out of their $40,000ish salary ) I have yet to meet any millionaire public employee."

First of all, if it's the tax man coming to your door asking for a "contribution," he's not going to be coming, hat in had, with a polite request. He'll bring the force of the IRS's private army, and the threat of jail time for tax evasion. Regardless of how you, the "donor," feel about this as a use of your personal earnings, regardless of your own needs, and regardless of your thoughts on the justice of the cause in question. That's not asking. And, when it's talking about someone else's money, that's not "taxing ourselves" as another friend asserted later in the conversation. It's force. And it's wrong.

The woman who made the suggestion is a friend, and a good woman. I believe that she, like so many, has simply never really thought through the thing she suggests. It's been generations since these principles were taught in government schools. I know that prior to reading Brother Benson's essay I certainly could not have told you what was wrong with suggestions like this, which are plentiful. I like to think I would have been vaguely uncomfortable with the idea, but the fact of the matter is, I was pretty clueless before I read the essay, and the Robinhood-like nature of this common suggestion may have appealed to me. After all, we're supposed to care for the poor, right? Reading this essay and the book "A Glorious Standard" made me realize how important these things are: what the government does is closely tied to the freedom we have to exercise our agency to the fullest.

Thing is, the way we care for the poor is important. The method is as important as the outcome, if we want to remain morally correct. Because government has funds only through taxation, I believe that charitable works can only justly be done through by private entities. I cannot take money from my neighbor lady to give to the poor, so I cannot authorize my government to take her money to give to the poor. I further believe that in our current situation, where the government has manufactured authority to do "charitable" work, it creates a complacency among those who would otherwise give more generously - after all, the government's got it handled. The heavy tax burden that results also reduces the individual's ability to give. Plus, when the government is deciding who gets the "charitable" contributions, we are often forced to give to those who do work we do not approve of. For me, groups receiving tax money I contributed to, but to whom I would never make a voluntary contribution includes organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

But if we permit government to manufacture its own authority out of thin air, and to create self-proclaimed powers not delegated to it by the people, then the creature exceeds the creator and becomes master. Beyond that point, where shall the line be drawn? Who is to say "this far, but no farther?" What clear PRINCIPLE will stay the hand of government from reaching farther and yet farther into our daily lives? We shouldn’t forget the wise words of President Grover Cleveland that "… though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people." (P.P.N.S., p.345) We should also remember, as Frederic Bastiat reminded us, that "Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to send it in." (THE LAW, p. 30; P.P.N.S., p. 350)

In talking about government with my friends, I have found that a number of them reject the principles laid out in this essay by Brother Benson. When I have asked them to articulate what limits they see being on government, they haven't been able to do so, and at times have gotten quite upset with me over the question and my dissatisfaction with answers that boil down to "whatever the voter (or high court) wants." I cannot feel secure about any foundation for rights that leaves them vulnerable to the whims of the majority or our crooked politicians.


As Bastiat pointed out over a hundred years ago, once government steps over this clear line between the protective or negative role into the aggressive role of redistributing the wealth and providing so-called "benefits" for some of its citizens, it then becomes a means for what he accurately described as legalized plunder. It becomes a lever of unlimited power which is the sought-after prize of unscrupulous individuals and pressure groups, each seeking to control the machine to fatten his own pockets or to benefit its favorite charities – all with the other fellow’s money, of course. (THE LAW, 1850, reprinted by the Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-On-Hudson, N.Y.)

My husband and I often comment on the most recent round of "Who Wants to be the Biggest Victim." You see this "game" all over in the race to collect or protect the latest cash prize. Raise the minimum wage, stop picking on unions, expand affirmative action... the list goes on and on.


Listen to Bastiat’s explanation of this "legal plunder."

"When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it – without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud – to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated; that an act of plunder is committed!

"How is the legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime…" (THE LAW, p. 21, 26; P.P.N.S., p. 377)

The Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act that's being challenged in the courts rewards politicians that adhere to certain rules with tax money for their campaigns. That is, they take from the people and give to the politicians. Even worse, they have put a 10% surcharge on civil penalties and fines for this purpose: violate hunting or fishing ordinances and suddenly you're supporting a candidate of the government's choice. It's a clear case of the legalized plunder that Bastiat was talking about: those candidates couldn't take that money as individual citizens. It would be stealing. It's no different when the government does the dirty work for them. Arizona politicians who really want to be clean and principled will be opting out, in spite of the advantage to their opponent under this law (self-financed candidates trigger a donation to their opponent).

Our governments are rife with examples at both the state and the federal level. I'm confident it's at the local level too, I'm just not well enough informed to know of a specific case at this point.

As Bastiat observed, and as history has proven, each class or special interest group competes with the others to throw the lever of governmental power in their favor, or at least to immunize itself against the effects of a previous thrust. Labor gets a minimum wage, so agriculture seeks a price support. Consumers demand price controls, and industry gets protective tariffs. In the end, no one is much further ahead, and everyone sufferers the burdens of a gigantic bureaucracy and a loss of personal freedom. With each group out to get its share of the spoils, such governments historically have mushroomed into total welfare states. Once the process begins, once the principle of the protective function of government gives way to the aggressive or redistribute function, then forces are set in motion that drive the nation toward totalitarianism. "It is impossible," Bastiat correctly observed, "to introduce into society… a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder." (THE LAW, p. 12)

The Constitution of our United States exists to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. Legalized plunder leads to an ever diminishing level of freedom. We must speak up against it whenever and wherever we find it. We must elect leaders with the courage to say NO. We must find men of moral fiber, and that is a process that begins long before voting day. We may need to step outside our comfort zones and become those moral men serving the public ourselves, even as Washington was called from retirement several times to serve his country. We must wake up and defend our liberties from those who would plunder them from us, or we will wake up and find them gone.


Jeannetta said...

Very excellent my dear, I'm very proud of you :) As you've studied and learned, you've become quite articulate; because of you and others like you, I do have hope <3

Ritsumei said...

Thank you! I enjoyed writing and editing this one.


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