THE PROGRESSIVE income tax, federal urban renewal, federal aid to education, and a host of other welfare and unemployment measures are precisely what Karl Marx had in mind with his ideal for the Communist Party, “… from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
However, we must not discard the practices of this social leveling principle simply because it had a sponsor we do not esteem or because it is the very essence of communism, a system we claim to despise. We must never reason from a premise as shallow as prejudice.
Let us reason from the premise set forth in the first chapter, the emergence of the individual. Keeping this in mind as our objective—the point of reference from which our conclusions are reasoned—what effect has the practice of this social leveling principle? Is the individual harmed or helped? That is the question!
A high school teacher of history and economics made an interesting attempt to explain how this principle would work should he apply it to his class.1 It went something like this:
John, you received a grade of 95. Dick, you received a grade of 55. I shall take 20 from you, John, and give the 20 to you, Dick. By doing this, each of you will have a grade of 75, adequate for passing.
Now, how will this Marxist principle work in practice? You, John, will cease to work because I have removed your incentive. And, you, Dick, will give up work altogether because work is no longer the condition for a passing grade.
Thus, you see, we have a workless class. In the grown-up world people cannot live without work any more than you can learn without work. How, then, is work to be induced? The answer is simple: get ourselves an authoritarian, one who forces us to do what he thinks we ought to be doing.
Mentioned in the teacher’s explanation to his class are the three distinct classifications of persons involved in the social leveling process, the archetypes of which are: (1) the person with “ability,” that is, the one from whom is taken, (2) the person with “need,” that is, the one to whom someone else’s property is given, and (3) the person who does the taking and giving, the political Robin Hood, the authoritarian.
The Person with Ability
If my contention is correct that all persons, in all three categories, are harmed by social leveling, then it must follow that the whole caboodle of what are called “social gains” not only fail to benefit anyone but, rather, have a deteriorating effect on everyone. Let’s examine these archetypes in their taken-from, given-to, dictator order.
At the outset, we must not assume common agreement that harm is visited only on the person from whom is taken. There are many well-to-do individuals, sensitive to the plight or suffering of others, who gladly turn over to government the responsibility of caring for all afflicted people and, along with this shifting of responsibility from themselves to the state, a willingness for the government to draw on (tax) their ability to pay. They, not I, should be the judge of the harm such shifting of responsibility does to them. I can only question their judgment.
Division of labor—me to my speciality, you to yours—is essential to an expanding wealth. But there are several aspects of life we cannot turn over to others without harm to our individual expansion. Religion cannot be shifted to others, and we are well advised not to leave our liberty in someone else’s hands. Further, I would suggest that charity is a distinctly personal, not a collective, matter.
President Cleveland vetoed a $10,000 appropriation to purchase seed wheat for Texans who had suffered a drought. Included in his message was the point I wish to emphasize:
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 whìch strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.
Can any person relieve himself of charitable concerns without losing a priceless ingredient of individual emergence? Does not a growth of the spirit and soul of man require that a concern for others be retained for strictly personal attention? President Cleveland gave an affirmative answer to these questions, as do I.
There are, however, millions with “ability” who wish to make their own decisions as to how the fruits of their own labor should be expended. They have judgments concerning people in their own orbits, based on intimate experiences and relationships, a knowledge which no agency—governmental or private—can possibly possess. Are these persons to be deprived of their own funds and the practice of personal charity denied to them because some others wish the government to pre-empt the welfare activity?
You, for instance, wish to practice an act of charity. But this voluntary act—one of the highest expressions of a common brotherhood—is thwarted when your honestly acquired income is taken by government. What was yours has been arbitrarily declared not yours; a “social” claim on your labor has been decreed. Indeed, government now operates on the theory that it has a first lien on your income and capital; your freedom of choice is severely restricted. As a consequence, you are restrained from practicing your own religion should your religion call for a personal charity toward others. The state will practice charity for you. A common brotherhood, by some quirk of reasoning, is to become a collective act of compulsion!
Then again, you may want to save that part of your income over and above your requirements for current living. Perhaps you may wish to “stash it under the mattress”! Who has any moral right to forbid it? Do strangers who didn’t earn it have any right, in logic and justice, to what you have earned?
More than likely, however, you will not act like King Midas but, rather, will invest your savings with the hope of some returns. This, beyond doubt, is one of the best ways to become a benefactor of mankind; for this is how capital formation is brought about. The capital is turned into tools and factories and power machinery—aids which help workers to produce more with their labor.2 This increased production can, in turn, be put to savings and family security.
It isn’t possible to see other than harm done to the person with “ability” by the compulsory taking of his income.
The Person in Need
Now, to the second archetype: Does any able adult person “in need” really benefit by living on the confiscated income of others? Does this ever improve his character or his mental and physical faculties? His growth? Does anyone ever benefit by the removal of self-responsibility?
The something-for-nothing idea appears to flourish wherever there is a failure to grasp the purpose behind the struggle for existence. The fullest possible employment of one’s faculties is what makes for strength of body, of character, of spirit, of intellect. Non-use of faculties leads to atrophy. The story of the wild duck that joined the domestic ducks, was fed, but later couldn’t fly above the barnyard fence; of the gulls that fattened up at a shrimp plant but starved when it shut down; of the cattle that became accustomed to pen feeding and died rather than forage any more; of the hand-fed squirrels that laid up no nuts for the winter but bit the hands that fed them when the hands no longer held food—these and other stories of nature attest to principles of biology which are as applicable to persons who cannot use reason as to animals which lack the faculty of reason.
Life’s problems—obstacles—are not without purpose. They aid the processes of self-development, as well as of selection and evolution. They demand of the individual that he gather new strength to hurdle each new obstacle. The art of becoming is composed of acts of overcoming.
It is no accident that the vast majority of top-ranking Americans, whatever their walk of life, are men whose careers have been associated with hardship and struggle. Rewards not associated with one’s own effort tend to weaken the sinews which make for growth. Such rewards—handouts—remove the necessity for production and invite potential producers to remain nonproducers. In short, there is an ever-present danger that they may encourage a person to become a parasite, living off what others produce. Parasitism is not associated with man’s upgrading.
Only casual reflection on the principles of organization will make clear that responsibility and authority should always be commensurate; they are meant to go hand-in-hand. When the responsibility for one’s own welfare is surrendered to government, it follows that the authority to conduct one’s life goes where the responsibility is reposed. This is a matter over which we have no choice; it is a law of organization.
The idea set forth in the Declaration of Independence that each person has an inherent and inalienable right to life becomes meaningless when a person loses the authority for his own decisions and must act according to someone else’s dictates. Unless an individual is self-controlling, his life is not truly his own. Before a life can be valued for its own sake—not simply a means to someone else’s goal—that life must retain its own power to choose, along with its own quality, its own dignity. Without self-power, there is no basis for love, respect, and friendship, in short, a common brotherhood; the powerless person becomes either a puppet or an unwanted burden. Even a mother’s love for an invalid child cannot exist unless it is voluntarily bestowed. Aged persons and others who depend on the income of others, confiscated by government, become mere numbers in the confused statistics of political bureaus. Neither bureaus nor statistics have the capacity for charity or a common brotherhood.
Keeping in mind Emerson’s accurate observation that the end pre-exists in the means, it should be plain that the evil means of confiscating income must lead to an evil end to those who live on it.
Actually, we are dealing here with a problem arising from a double standard of morality. Comparatively few persons will take private property without the owner’s consent. We think of that as stealing and frown on the practice. Yet we will form a collective—politically group ourselves—and take billions in income without consent; we thoughtlessly call it “doing good.”
Doing politically what we reject doing individually in no manner alters the immorality of the act; it merely legalizes the wrong and, thus, gains social absolution for the criminal; giving it the political twist keeps one from being tossed into jail! But to anyone who rejects the authoritarianism of a majority as much as that of a Stalin—to anyone who believes in the right to life and to one’s honestly acquired property—no moral absolution is gained by legislation.
Those who think only materialistically may argue that the stealing of a loaf of bread is a loss to the person from whom it is taken but a gain to the thief, if the thief “gets away with it.” This is an incorrect view. The person from whom the loaf is taken loses only the loaf. But the one who takes the loaf without the owner’s consent loses not only the respect of all who know him but loses also his integrity! Man can never realize his creative potentialities without integrity. This virtue lies at the root of emergence. To live on loot appears to be no further removed from evil than to take the loot.
Unless one believes in authoritarianism—that men should lord it over men, that some fallible humans should cast the rest of us in their little images—it is not possible to see anything but harm done to the person in “need” who is “aided” by taking the income of others without their consent.