Walter E. Williams: Most of the ways Congress finds to spend money are immoral

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 8 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Immorality in government lies at the heart of our nation's problems. Deficits, debt and runaway government are merely symptoms. What's moral and immoral conduct can be complicated, but needlessly so. I keep things simple and you tell me where I go wrong.

My initial assumption is that we each own ourselves. I am my private property and you are yours. If we accept the notion that people own themselves, then it's easy to discover what forms of conduct are moral and immoral. Immoral acts are those that violate self-ownership. Murder, rape, assault and slavery are immoral because those acts violate private property. So is theft, broadly defined as taking the rightful property of one person and giving it to another.

If it is your belief that people do not belong to themselves, they are in whole or in part the property of the U.S. Congress, or people are owned by God, who has placed the U.S. Congress in charge of managing them, then all of my observations are simply nonsense.

Let's look at some congressional actions in light of self-ownership. Do farmers and businessmen have a right to congressional handouts? Does a person have a right to congressional handouts for housing, food and medical care?

First, let's ask: Where does Congress get handout money? One thing for sure, it's not from the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus nor is it congressmen reaching into their own pockets. The only way for Congress to give one American one dollar is to first, through the tax code, take that dollar from some other American. It must forcibly use one American to serve another American. Forcibly using one person to serve another is one way to describe slavery. As such, it violates self-ownership.

Government immorality isn't restricted only to forcing one person to serve another. Some regulations such as forcing motorists to wear seatbelts violate self-ownership. If one owns himself, he has the right to take chances with his own life. Some people argue that if you're not wearing a seatbelt, have an accident and become a vegetable, you'll become a burden on society. That's not a problem of liberty and self-ownership. It's a problem of socialism where through the tax code one person is forcibly used to care for another.

These examples are among thousands of government actions that violate the principles of self-ownership. Some might argue that Congress forcing us to help one another and forcing us to take care of ourselves are good ideas. But my question to you is: When congressmen and presidents take their oaths of office, is that oath to uphold and defend good ideas or the U.S. Constitution?

When the principles of self-ownership are taken into account, two-thirds to three-quarters of what Congress does violate those principles to one degree or another as well as the Constitution to which they've sworn to uphold and defend. In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees, James Madison, the father of our Constitution, stood on the floor of the House to object, saying, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." Did James Madison miss something in the Constitution?

You might answer, "He forgot the general welfare clause." No, he had that covered, saying, "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one."

If we accept the value of self-ownership, it is clear that most of what Congress does is clearly immoral. If this is bothersome, there are two ways around my argument. The first is to deny the implications of self-ownership. The second is to ask, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi did when asked about the constitutionality of Obamacare, "Are you serious? Are you serious?"

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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