Montreal, January 15, 2005 No 150




Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Chicago.




by Gennady Stolyarov II


          While the attention of the world is occupied with distress at the calamity of the recent tsunami devastating Southeast Asia, my attention is aimed at a critical issue overlooked by most in addressing this tragedy. While private relief agencies, such as the American Red Cross and groups affiliated with the Catholic Church, have been diligently and effectively working to provide assistance to victims, undertaking actions fully in accord with the stated purpose of these organizations, the forthcoming involvement of a new player in the relief effort is far less desirable.


          President Bush has, in the past days, announced his intention to allocate $350 million of government funds to "assist" in the relief effort. While the devastation wreaked by the flood was by no means deserved on the part of its victims, I do not believe that two wrongs make a right. Government intervention in this case, as in all cases where government exceeds its proper boundaries, will only act to the detriment of the flood victims, the American taxpayer, and the principle of the minimal state.

          How is it, one might ask, that government relief to flood victims would damage them, whereas private relief would assist them? Then again, how is it that government aid to the unemployed robs them of the stimulus to return to work and resume earning an income for themselves? How is it that government efforts to rehabilitate criminals, drug addicts, and alcoholics have corresponded with a statistical increase of all three groups over the past several decades? How is it that government efforts to "protect consumers," through regulatory agencies such as the FDA, have resulted in millions of consumer deaths from disease because of the time delays involved in forcing new drugs to undergo unnecessarily stringent tests before being released to the open market? How is it that government labor laws and minimum wage statutes damage the least skilled among workers by forbidding employees to hire them at rates that their skills warrant and are simultaneously profitable to companies? We find that, whenever government intervenes on behalf of a group it deems a victim of society, personal deficiency, private action, or nature, its intervention only serves to further incapacitate the victims.

Voluntary generosity

          Though contemporary politicians have all but forgotten this principle, one of America's much-underrated great presidents, Grover Cleveland, knew it in amazing depth. In 1893, when a massive drought afflicted Texas farmers, Cleveland categorically refused to grant federal aid to the victims. He issued an eloquent written justification for his decision:

          I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit... The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune... Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthen the bond of a common brotherhood.

          Cleveland's words skillfully represent the contrast between the effects brought about by the voluntary generosity of private parties and those created through the exercise of the coercive powers of government. Private individuals, when not hindered by government intervention, have a choice in how to allocate their funds among the various purposes that they deem to be of importance. Many of those individuals, as evidenced in the outpouring of private relief for the victims of the recent tsunami, consider assistance to those afflicted by such inadvertent calamities as a value and as a priority. In a free market, they have the full capacity to put their values into practice and organize effective aid to those they believe will benefit from it.

          It is no coincidence that, during the time of Grover Cleveland, the late nineteenth century, the majority of the vast private charities of our time, including the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations, the American Red Cross, and the Salvation Army, were founded. During that era, there existed virtually no government intervention in the realm of charity, yet people, of wealthy and moderate incomes alike, were far more eager to be generous with their funds than they are today, in an era of massive welfare-statism. The reason? In the late nineteenth century, government did not take away thirty percent of those people's incomes and thus leave them with fewer discretionary funds to spend on purposes outside their immediate needs. Today, however, the government not only appropriates these funds, but also deprives private individuals of the direct choice of how the funds are to be spent. In a private market, an individual can choose to finance innocent flood victims who wish to rebuild their lives, or struggling young geniuses assisting whom might pay off with later inventions and discoveries, and not choose to finance homeless drug addicts, seven-time rapists on rehabilitation, or chronic welfare bums. In a welfare state, the choice is made for the individual, and it is often a contrary choice to what he would make on his own. At the same time, while bureaucrats spend his money on unworthy purposes, the individual has less money to spend on ones he considers worthy.

"In the late nineteenth century, there existed virtually no government intervention in the realm of charity, yet people, of wealthy and moderate incomes alike, were far more eager to be generous with their funds than they are today, in an era of massive welfare-statism."

          But, as Cleveland aptly points out, even when government uses its funds to assist innocent and potentially productive victims, a possibly worthy purpose, the government inevitably fails. Private individuals have flexibility in the disposal of their funds, and can allocate them to some individuals and not others, depending fully on the donors' evaluation of the recipients' worthiness. The economist Milton Friedman would term this phenomenon "Category II spending," an individual spending his money on somebody else. Because an individual has limited resources to spend, he will necessarily be concerned with furnishing the most effective solution at the smallest cost, thus being prudent with the allocation of relief, ensuring that the aid serves only those who truly cannot survive without it and those who, once they receive it, will resume their autonomous, productive lives. Government spending, on the other hand, is "Category IV spending," or an entity spending someone else's money on someone else, with the government having no direct incentive to ensure the most cost-efficient and consequentially effective allocation of resources. After all, whether or not the government relief program accomplishes its stated purpose, the government will continue to receive an indefinite supply of funds through the taxpayers.

          Moreover, this inexhaustible supply of funds implies that, unlike private individuals, who will supply aid for a limited time with the expectation of the recipients' resumption of an autonomous condition not requiring aid, the government can, under pretexts of compassion, afford to give this aid to so-called "victims" indefinitely, thus creating a myriad of money drains like today's farm subsidies (a direct violation of Cleveland's policy of no federal aid to farmers), welfare programs, rehabilitation programs that do not rehabilitate, and Medicaid for drug addicts. Thus, the former expectation of the victims recovering from their conditions transforms into the expectation of the victims continuing to rely on the perpetual magic fount of assistance, fueled, of course, by money unjustly taken from good, productive citizens. Thereby does government, through furnishing this manner of assistance, become the "paternal" entity Cleveland warned us of and discourage otherwise generous and charitable people from helping the new class of perpetually dependent grown-up infants the government has created. After all, a prudent private citizen would not invest his funds into a building that will never be completed or a product that will never be marketed. Nor should he be expected to invest in a person who will never improve as a result of the investment.

          Furthermore, government assistance to the tsunami victims will deprive those forced to assist under such circumstances of the ability to practice the moral virtues of benevolence and generosity that private aid entails. According to philosopher Ayn Rand, "The moral is the chosen." The very reason why the concept of morality has any value to an individual is that the individual has the free will to choose to act morally in the face of an alternative. An action that an individual is forced to perform by someone else, be it a government or a private agent (whose use of force would classify him as a criminal), adds nothing to an individual's moral integrity, because, even if he would have done this action independently, he cannot be credited as its initiator, for he had no choice in the matter. Somebody else made the decision for him and enforced it, be it through direct compulsion or the threat of force. In Rand's words, "Morality ends where a gun begins." Indeed, the government's deprivation of another $350 million from already heavily burdened taxpayers is tantamount to putting a gun to the taxpayers' heads and telling them, "Your money, or your life." The taxpayer has but to try not cooperating with this aid allocation to verify the truth of such an assertion. Almost everyone reading this has at some time been a benefactor, host, or patron of some individual or organization, in at least as minor a way as inviting the beneficiary over for tea. Is this the way he would wish to be treated by his beneficiary, or by any intermediaries that might exist between them? And is there much difference between biting the hand that feeds one, and threatening to bite it if it does not?

Negative obligations

          Lastly, our Founding Fathers established the United States under the premise that "that government is best which governs least." Indeed, the sole function of government is to enforce individuals' natural rights to life, liberty, and property, formulated by John Locke as prerogatives to action and the ability to keep what one already has, rather than the reception of positive goods from somebody else. In other words, rights are negative obligations, not positive ones, and the proper role of government does not extend to natural disasters. It only extends to people and the barring of people from inflicting harm upon others. Natural disasters are unfortunate and, indeed, devastating, but nobody's rights are violated in them, for individuals maintain the ability to act in full accordance with their free will in the aftermath of the disaster. The only manner in which rights can be violated is when a man is forced by another to perform a course of action he would not have himself chosen.

          Thus, the only legitimate function of government is to protect man from other men, and from the government itself, which, in its modern Leviathan scope, is the chief violator of individual rights. Nobody can have a right to disaster relief, however undeserved the calamity afflicting him might have been, for a right to positive goods implies an obligation on the part of somebody else to provide them. This means that the provider's life, liberty, and interests must be made subordinate, for a time at least, to the needs of the victim, thus creating a hierarchy of value that rewards need at the expense of ability, a purely Marxist notion antithetical to the founding principles of America. If government rewards need and penalizes ability in this manner, need, or pretend need, will eventually become more profitable than ability, and more people shall be inclined to enter a state of need or fabricate their need so as to receive government handouts, hence the sorry spectacle of welfare fraud in modern America on a colossal scale, or the phenomenon of farm lobbies trying to maintain and increase subsidies for some of the most financially successful farmers in the world, cases that could easily repeat themselves in the realm of disaster relief.

          As horrified as I may be by the damage inflicted in this unforeseen tragedy, I am more horrified when the sanctity of the most fundamental principles of justice, reason, morality, and natural law is utterly transgressed by the United States government, which currently seems oblivious to the examples set for the correct application of original American values by such men as the Founding Fathers and Grover Cleveland. Disasters, however terrible, are temporary and can be recovered from. The consequences of a loss of fidelity to principles, on the other hand, cannot be undone, for principles are permanent and universal, and, without their guidance in proper decision making, there can exist nothing but perpetual suffering for individuals, both the givers and the receivers. Acting with the alleged intention of alleviating suffering, the government, through its involvement in tsunami relief, will only serve to perpetuate this suffering on a scale that only a welfare state is capable of.