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When is "Helping the Needy" UNLAWFUL?

money

by Michael Peroutka, Institute on the Constitution

Imagine you and I are strolling down the street one fine day on our way to have a nice lunch, and we come across a woman who is truly destitute.  She needs many things, including food to feed her baby.  Imagine also that you just cashed a check and you know, and I know, that you have $200.00 in your pocket.

Now imagine that I decide that you should give the 200 dollars to the woman.  (Remember, she truly is needy.)  So I take out my handgun and I order you, at gunpoint, to turn over the 200 dollars to the woman.  Not wanting your brains splattered all over the street, you comply.

But it’s not over.  Let’s just say that I am so moved by this woman’s situation that I order you to come to my house tomorrow, and the next day, and every day until you die, and give me more money, so that I can provide for her and her children and her grandchildren indefinitely.  Furthermore, I make it clear to you that if you do not do as I command, I will use force against you and your loved ones.

Of course, if I behaved this way toward you, I would be acting criminally, because I have no right to force you to part with your property, even if the cause is a worthy one.

The question then becomes, would this action on my part be legal and moral if it was done not just by me, but collectively? Let’s say, everybody on the whole street agrees that we should take your money and give it to the needy woman.  Is there any moral principle that makes collective force acceptable, when the use of force individually would be a crime?

The answer is, of course, “No.”

When government steals from some to give to others, it commits a crime.  Does the fact that this has been going on for a long, long time justify it, or make it legal?

Of course not.

Frederick Bastiat dealt with this very question many years ago in a book called The Law.  Bastiat said that law itself was nothing but the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.  He reasoned that if every person has the right to defend his liberty, his person and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly.

So common rights are based on individual rights and the common force that protects these rights can have no other purpose or mission than that for which it acts as a substitute.  Therefore, if I can’t INDIVIDUALLY use force against your liberty or your person or your property, then the common force—the collective force—government force—cannot lawfully be used to destroy your person, or your liberty, or your property.

Now, since men are fallen creatures and work is required for making a profit that can be used to satisfy men’s needs and wants, it will naturally occur to some men that it may take less effort to steal the profit that other men earn, rather than to take the time and expend the effort to earn profit for themselves.  Men will tend to do this so long as the effort and risk are minimal.  So according to Bastiat, one purpose of the law is to restrain the exercise of this sinful behavior, by punishing the plundering of men by other men.  In other words, the punishment that the law meets out will turn men back to the honest and peaceful methods of earning profit for themselves, thus satisfying their own needs and wants and allowing all to live in peace.

But since those who are in authority in the land are also tempted to steal, it is common and natural that they will invent “laws” which allow them to steal the profit and the substance of others, by means of the very “laws” they have created.  Bastiat calls this activity “legal plunder” and says this: 

It is impossible to introduce into society a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

What are the consequences of such a perversion? . . .

In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.

No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree.  The safest way to make the laws respected is to make them respectable.  When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.  These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

When the local or state or national government violates God’s law (what Jefferson and our Founders called “THE LAW OF NATURE AND OF NATURE’s GOD), or when it violates the limits placed on it by the Constitution (which is its contract with “we the people”), it is acting criminally.

And when government uses the force of law to break the law, “we the people” must think clearly and act morally.  Out of our love of our Country and for the honor of God, we must weed out the evil of socialism . . . first in our own thinking, and then, in our civil government.