In Tuesday’s House of Representatives debate, Rep. Chris van Hollen (D-MD) said that Congress had a responsibility to extend unemployment benefits to those who are “unemployed through no fault of their own.” Minority leader Nancy Pelosi used the same rhetoric in a floor speech a week ago, saying that the Senate’s two-month payroll tax and unemployment benefits band-aid “would secure a critical lifeline for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.” The Democratic Party’s website crows, “Democrats have provided relief for hardworking Americans who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”
In a recent Michigan state legislature debate about insurance reform, a Democrat state rep discussed “those, who through no fault of their own, will lose insurance coverage…” Democrats in Washoe County, Nevada, ruing the failure of the U.S. Senate to pass the DREAM Act, said of illegal aliens who were brought here as children, “These are young men and women who, through no fault of their own, came to this country and consider this country their own.”
It’s an interesting rhetorical device, one that allows Democrats everywhere to sing from the same sheet of guilt-inducing music. But, at the risk of sounding like Rick Perry’s “have no heart” believers in liberty, limited government, and the power of incentives, why should the question of fault be an important factor in how the federal government treats adult Americans?
Charity is only charity if given willingly. Money taken by threat of force, whether by a mugger or by government, is theft. As for the latter, Frédéric Bastiat properly termed it “legalized plunder.”
In his seminal work The Law, published in 1850 just before Bastiat’s death, the French economist elaborates on the proper role of government and its “almost universal perversion.” Speaking of men’s need to work to satisfy his wants and needs:
Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain — and since labor is pain in itself — it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.
When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.
It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder.
…[T]he law is used by the legislator to destroy in varying degrees among the rest of the people, their personal independence by slavery, their liberty by oppression, and their property by plunder. This is done for the benefit of the person who makes the law, and in proportion to the power that he holds.
The inclination to feel sorry for, and want to help, someone who has lost his job is understandable. But when government subsidizes unemployment for two years, it discourages people from finding new jobs. It’s not just common sense; the data show it.
So the key question for policy makers should not be one of fault. It should be one of economics, and perhaps of law and justice. When I say “law and justice,” I do not mean to imply that they are the same. Bastiat addressed this directly:
It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.
What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.
In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.
No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.
The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.
So why do Democrats keep mentioning the lack of fault of beneficiaries of redistributionist largesse? In order to confuse the non-socialist majority of Americans into believing that law and justice are, in the case of these laws, the same. Two years of unemployment benefits is no more just than any other mugging is, regardless of the law.
Furthermore, how does one draw a line between an unemployed person who lost his job “through no fault of his own” or someone who was simply not a very good employee? Do you really want bureaucrats making that decision one day? And what about the employer whose business was shrinking and thus he had to lay off employees? How about paying them for profits that fell “through no fault of their own”? No, there is no end to what might befall good people through no fault of their own, but our nation is built on a guarantee of a right to the pursuit of happiness, not a right to other people’s money.
A perfect example of politicians “moving the line” to buy votes followed by the inevitable result of massive redistribution bureaucracies comes from SCHIP, the federal program that gives matching funds to state health insurance systems that cover uninsured children in moderately low-income households. In New York, the legislature passed a law allowing SCHIP eligibility for children in families up to 400% of the federal poverty level — or about $89,000 for a family of four. It also covers pregnant women, parents, and — wait for it — childless adults. A 2007 Inspector General report of New York’s SCHIP operations estimates that the state made over 300,000 payments to ineligible recipients, totaling over $25 million in cost. Another quarter million payments totaling almost $15 million were made without file documentation that “adequately support[ed] eligibility.” And that was just the federal share of the cost, and just for six months.
The results of these infrastructures designed to implement legalized plunder on a massive scale do not change based on “fault.”
But make no mistake: Overpayments — meaning excessive theft from some citizens to give that money to other citizens — are, for the left, a small price to pay. Indeed, they would see the NY SCHIP outcome as preferable to the opposite, where eligible people were not receiving taxpayer-funded benefits, whether through fault of their own or not.
The more people become dependent on government, even if they are not technically eligible to do so, the more they will vote for politicians who promise to continue giving money for nothing despite Margaret Thatcher’s warning that socialist governments “always run out of other people’s money.”
A perfect example comes from a commenter on the far-left web site DemocraticUnderground.com: “…those who may be unemployed or homeless because of some ‘fault’ of theirs — whether illness, or a mistake, or bad judgement [sic] — why the hell are these people any less worthy of help to survive?”
That’s right: Someone who is unemployed because of bad judgment is just as “worthy of help” — which is to say worthy of some of your money — as anyone else. It’s pure and simple Marxism. And it is exactly what Pelosi and van Hollen are selling us when they want to extend unemployment benefits because some of the recipients are in an unfortunate situation “through no fault of their own.”
This particular Democrat rhetoric is the other side of the coin from their routine claims that high unemployment was caused by “the 1 percent” or “Wall Street” or some other evil limousine-driven elites working hand-in-hand (and this part is actually true) with government to rig the system in their benefit. So, if the misdirection about “fault” isn’t enough to get ordinarily anti-beggar-thy-neighbor Americans to play along with socialism-lite, perhaps a misplaced desire for retribution will be.
Bastiat’s analysis is again remarkably clear and prescient:
Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.
Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws! Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon the many, a common practice where the right to participate in the making of law is limited to a few persons. But then, participation in the making of law becomes universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests by universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general. As soon as the plundered classes gain political power, they establish a system of reprisals against other classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This objective would demand more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead, they emulate their evil predecessors by participating in this legal plunder, even though it is against their own interests.
It is as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice appears, for everyone to suffer a cruel retribution — some for their evilness, and some for their lack of understanding.
Now, Bastiat never met Nancy Pelosi, so there is a particularly subtle brand of evil that even he did not fully anticipate. Legal plunder is not against the interest of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party because it is only by funneling as much money as possible through the sticky fingers of government (and unions) that they maintain political power.
Thus it is that Democrats continue to offer “through no fault of their own” as a key reason to transfer money from one American to another. Sadly, while House Republicans are correctly opposing a two-month tax policy as more confusing than beneficial (not that this misguided Keynesian tax cut is economically beneficial anyway), Bastiat-like language is nowhere to be found. It is a rare politician, even a “Tea Party” politician, who will stand up in the well of the House and proclaim the immorality of basing economic policy on mellifluous Marxist language like “fault” and “need.” Our Republic is not safe until such language is no longer vanishingly rare in public.
Fault is the wrong yardstick by which to measure the appropriateness, either economically or morally, of government’s tax and spending policies. Instead, the proper question is this: Putting aside the claimed need for the money or lack of blame for the need, is the government’s action really anything more than legalized plunder?