photo credit: Jérémie A.

It’s hard to discuss the immorality, illegality, or illegitimacy of a program or policy with a person who is benefiting, or has in the past benefited, from that program or policy. He who has profited from your pocket reacts with defensive disgust when explained, even in the nicest of terms, that what he has done is theft.

What’s further difficult about this situation is the pervasiveness of the programs that create such a situation. 90% of mortgages are now owned by the federal government; 41 million Americans now use food stamps; over 20 million people receive unemployment benefits; 47 million are enrolled in Medicare, and 58 million in Medicaid; and for the first time since the Great Depression, Americans receive more government aid than they paid in taxes.

Try telling your average recipient of these federal funds (confiscated from other individuals through taxation, burdened upon all by debt, or stolen from all by inflation) that these programs should not exist, and you’re likely to elicit an emotional story about a dire need that this financial assistance satisfied. An unemployed and low-skilled father of four, a sick child of a low-income couple, or some other situation comes fraught with tears and desperation. If you then tell the person that you’d support removing this opportunity for support, you quickly and naturally become the enemy.

Being principled in such times can be difficult, for those who in some cases might be pejoratively referred to as “ideologues” are often incorrectly accused of lacking compassion. After all, if you really want to help such people, why would you not support these programs? Many can point to lives saved or extended as a direct result of access to food and medical services through these programs. “If you had it your way,” one supporter could easily argue, “my father would be dead.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Really: when you pit the forcible confiscation of a hundred dollars per month against the life of this person’s loved one, do you really think that your ideological argument is going to overpower their deeply emotional conviction? Good luck with that.

Those who cling to principle and oppose such immoral, illegal, and illegitimate programs walk a fine line, having to defend the virtue of liberty while not appearing selfish and indifferent; it’s hard to win people over when they think you will cause them more suffering.

One man to whom we should look as a role model is Frédéric Bastiat, who on one occasion addressed this topic thusly:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

It takes similar clarity of thought and political consistency to demonstrate to social welfare beneficiaries the destructiveness of the programs they see as personally beneficial. I myself have experienced on several occasions the sensitive defensiveness of those who have profited through plunder, and I remain unsure of the best way to approach such topics with them.

In the end, though, the defense of liberty is more important than making a person feel good about their participating in a socialist system of theft. Finding ways to do that, while remaining sensitive to others’ problems and effective in persuading them to the cause of liberty, is a monumental effort—one which I have yet to master.


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