Benjamin Franklin, statesman and signer of our Declaration of Independence, said: "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." John Adams, another signer, echoed a similar statement: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Are today's Americans virtuous and moral, or have we become corrupt and vicious? Let's think it through with a few questions.
Suppose I saw an elderly woman painfully huddled on a heating grate in the dead of winter. She's hungry and in need of shelter and medical attention. To help the woman, I walk up to you using intimidation and threats and demand that you give me $200. Having taken your money, I then purchase food, shelter and medical assistance for the woman. Would I be guilty of a crime? A moral person would answer in the affirmative. I've committed theft by taking the property of one person to give to another.
Most Americans would agree that it would be theft regardless of what I did with the money. Now comes the hard part. Would it still be theft if I were able to get three people to agree that I should take your money? What if I got 100 people to agree ?— 100,000 or 200 million people? What if instead of personally taking your money to assist the woman, I got together with other Americans and asked Congress to use Internal Revenue Service agents to take your money? In other words, does an act that's clearly immoral and illegal when done privately become moral when it is done legally and collectively? Put another way, does legality establish morality? Before you answer, keep in mind that slavery was legal; apartheid was legal; the Nazi's Nuremberg Laws were legal; and the Stalinist and Maoist purges were legal. Legality alone cannot be the guide for moral people. The moral question is whether it's right to take what belongs to one person to give to another to whom it does not belong.
Don't get me wrong. I personally believe that assisting one's fellow man in need by reaching into one's own pockets is praiseworthy and laudable. Doing the same by reaching into another's pockets is despicable, dishonest and worthy of condemnation. Some people call governmental handouts charity, but charity and legalized theft are entirely two different things. But as far as charity is concerned, James Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, said, "Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government." To my knowledge, the Constitution has not been amended to include charity as a legislative duty of Congress.
Our current economic crisis, as well as that of Europe, is a direct result of immoral conduct. Roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of our federal budget can be described as Congress' taking the property of one American and giving it to another. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid account for nearly half of federal spending. Then there are corporate welfare and farm subsidies and thousands of other spending programs, such as food stamps, welfare and education. According to a 2009 Census Bureau report, nearly 139 million Americans — 46 percent — receive handouts from one or more federal programs, and nearly 50 percent have no federal income tax obligations.
In the face of our looming financial calamity, what are we debating about? It's not about the reduction or elimination of the immoral conduct that's delivered us to where we are. It's about how we pay for it — namely, taxing the rich, not realizing that even if Congress imposed a 100 percent tax on earnings higher than $250,000 per year, it would keep the government running for only 141 days.
Ayn Rand, in her novel "Atlas Shrugged," reminded us that "when you have made evil the means of survival, do not expect men to remain good."
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.