Monday, October 8, 2007


In an odd coincidince a friend asked this morning what happened to the mentality found in "The Grapes of Wrath" where people would do anything to avoid the indignity of taking a government handout, and I somehow managed to come across this post on Volokh. I find Ilya's argument weak.

I'm not exactly a libertarian, but I do support a much smaller government than the one we currently have, especially at the federal level. Though I oppose all sorts of government programs, I have no problems driving on federally funded roads, eating foods that were probably funded in part by ag subsidies, taking government college scholarships, or working at a state school. I've even taken state unemployment insurance before.

My disagreement with Ilya is that my opposition to policy wouldn't change even if they were given to a small group. If the Federal government were reduced to one of very limited powers, I would stand by Crockett's constituent in opposing the allocation of funds for a Georgetown fire, even if I lived in Georgetown.

One possible defense for taking government benefits for services I oppose is that it is not the benefit I oppose, but state involvement in it. If some government agency decided that my transportation was so important I could steal a car to do it I could not morally countenance that as I believe theft is wrong. I don't think interstate highways are immoral and I certainly don't think driving on them is, I just think the people of Alaska and Hawaii shouldn't have to pay for a great highway system to connect the suburbs of Boston. My taking back roads to work every day isn't going to give the people whose money was commandeered to build and maintain I-75 their money back.

Related, it's possible that I oppose the benefit, but not at the cost that is going into it. If that's the case, and if my partaking doesn't significantly raise the cost, then I would be consistent in using it. Going back to Davy Crockett, Georgetown was given a fixed sum of $20,000 to rebuild. If I opposed taxing the national populace for that, but was offered $2000 I don't see it as being immoral to take it, given that I oppose the tax of $20,000 which is going to be done regardless of my actions. Similarly I have a job with a state university working on computers. I would rather see universities be private for two reasons: the first is that state universities frequently charge poor people who aren't going to get a chance to go to college (particularly via the lottery) so that they can send relatively rich kids to college; the second is that having the state run them means the state can control what is taught. My quitting my job and running computers for a private company isn't going to help with either of my two complaints.

Another reason is that like it or not, the government charges me for certain programs. At the very least I see no problem with taking money from those programs if they are fully funded. I'll use GA state unemployment insurance and my pension as examples. I think both unemployment insurance and pension funds (public or private) are a bad idea. If I were given the option of buying into such a program I wouldn't take it. But I'm not given the option. Money is taken from me every paycheck and stuck into a pension fund and an unemployment fund. It seems reasonable that if I come to have a use for one of those programs I wouldn't be hypocritical in taking out money just because I didn't want to put it in. This doesn't extend to things like Welfare or Federal Flood insurance, though. It might seem like paying premiums on Federal Flood Insurance justifies my taking money out if my home gets flooded, but the overwhelming majority of that money comes from taxing people whose houses aren't in a flood plane at all. The actual premiums are just an attempt by the fed to recover a small portion of their costs.

A third possibility is that I'm justifying hypocrisy. I'm pretty solid in my belief that these programs are wrong, and I would vote to get rid of them even if it were a personal loss to do so. It could be, though, that I'm just not sufficiently attuned to the shame I should have at taking money from the government.

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