Tuesday, 29 August 2006

The question of government money

Is it morally proper for a libertarian or Objectivist to accept government money? For an advocate of small government and an opponent of government theft to accept a government scholarship, a government research grant or a government job?

Good question. Ayn Rand's answer is "Yes" -- and she then proceeds to explain and qualify the answer. "There are many confusions on these issues," she says, "created by the influence and implications of the altruist morality." Read on and find out what confusions she identifies, and what those implications are.

The first confusion that many libertarians or Objectivists might face is whether even to accept private scholarships or private donations -- some might even mistakenly see such a thing as an affront to their independence, or as a "sacrifice" on the part of a donor. That would be mistaken, says Rand.
It is morally proper to accept help when it is offered, not as a moral duty, but as an act of good will and generosity, when the giver can afford it (i.e., when it does not involve self-sacrifice on his part), and when it is offered in response to the receiver’s virtues, not in response to his flaws, weaknesses or moral failures, and not on the ground of his need as such.

Scholarships are one of the clearest categories of this proper kind of help. They are offered to assist
ability, to reward intelligence, to encourage the pursuit of knowledge, to further achievement—not to support incompetence.

If a brilliant child’s parents cannot send him through college (or if he has no parents), it is not a moral default on their part or his. It is not the fault of “society,” of course, and he cannot demand the right to be educated at someone else’s expense; he must be prepared to work his way through school, if necessary. But this is the proper area for voluntary assistance. If some private person or organization offers to help him, in recognition of his ability, and thus to save him years of struggle—he has the moral right to accept.

The value of scholarships is that they offer an ambitious youth
a gift of time when he needs it most: at the beginning.
So much for private scholarships. What about government cash that's been stolen from taxpayers -- should a libertarian accept a government scholarship?
The right to accept [government scholarships] rests on the right of the victims to the property (or some part of it) which was taken from them by force.

The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism.

Those who advocate public scholarships have no right to them; those who oppose them, have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.

Since there is no such thing as the right of some men to vote away the rights of others, and no such thing as the right of the government to seize the property of some men for the unearned benefit of others—the advocates and supporters of the welfare state are morally guilty of robbing their opponents, and the fact that the robbery is legalized makes it morally worse, not better. The victims do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it.
I have to say that when I went through university it was back in the days when a derisory sum was paid in student grants, and I was very happy to take it. I also have to say that at the same time I was working and paying more in tax than I was receiving in grants -- but Rand argues (in the context of 1966 America at least) that such a calculation is irrelevant.
First, the sum of [a given student's] individual losses cannot be computed; this is part of the welfare-state philosophy, which treats everyone’s income as public property. Second, if he has reached college age, he has undoubtedly paid—in hidden taxes—much more than the amount of the scholarship. Or, if his parents cannot afford to pay for his education, consider what taxes they have paid, directly or indirectly, during the twenty years of his life—and you will see that a scholarship is too pitifully small even to be called a restitution.

Third—and most important—the young people of today are not responsible for the immoral state of the world into which they were born. Those who accept the welfare-statist ideology, assume their share of the guilt when they do so. But the anti-collectivists are innocent victims who face an impossible situation: it is welfare statism that has almost destroyed the possibility of working one’s way through college. It was difficult, but possible some decades ago; today, it has become a process of close-to- inhuman torture. There are virtually no part-time jobs that pay enough to support oneself while going to school; the alternative is to hold a full-time job and to attend classes at night—which takes eight years of unrelenting 12-to-16-hour days, for a four-year college course. If those responsible for such conditions offer the victim a scholarship, his right to take it is incontestable—and it is too pitifully small an amount even to register on the scales of justice, when one considers all the other, the non-material, non-amendable injuries he has suffered.
Hmmm. I'm sure Rand has already surprised you. What about accepting government welfare, the dole or a pension? What does uber-libertarian Rand, the arch-enemy of government theft say about that? What do you think? Perhaps instead of simply giving you Ayn Rand's answers on the taking of government jobs, government research grants (or of government money, taken to argue for the diminishment of the ability for government to take money), I'll leave those questions as an exercise for the reader. Here's some guidance:
The moral principle involved in all the above issues consists, in essence, of defining as clearly as possible the nature and limits of one’s own responsibility, i.e., the nature of what is or is in one’s power.

The issue is primarily
ideological, not financial. Minimizing the financial injury inflicted on you by the welfare-state laws, does not constitute support of welfare statism (since the purpose of such laws is to injure you) and is not morally reprehensible. Initiating, advocating or expanding such laws, is.

In a free society, it is immoral to denounce or oppose that from which one derives benefits—since one’s associations are voluntary. In a controlled or mixed economy, opposition becomes obligatory--since one is acting under force, and the offer of benefits is intended as a bribe.

So long as financial considerations do not alter or affect your convictions, so long as you fight against welfare statism (and only so long as you fight it) and are prepared to give up any of its momentary benefits in exchange for repeal and freedom—so long as you do not sell your soul (or your vote)—you are morally in the clear. The essence of the issue lies in your own mind and attitude.

It is a hard problem, and there are many situations so ambiguous and so complex that no one can determine what is the right course of action. That is one of the evils of welfare statism: its fundamental irrationality and immorality force men into contradictions where no course of action is right.

The ultimate danger in all these issues is psychological: the danger of letting yourself be bribed, the danger of a gradual, imperceptible, subconscious deterioration leading to compromise, evasion, resignation, submission. In today’s circumstances, a man is morally in the clear only so long as he remains intellectually incorruptible. Ultimately, these problems are a test—a hard test—of your own integrity. You are its only guardian. Act accordingly.
There. I feel better for getting that off my chest. Morality in the Objectivist view does not consist of a series of instrinsic commandments that must be followed in al possible situations -- an endless series of "shalt-nots" designed only to command your sacrifice and achieve your unhappiness. Acting morally involves making judgements and acting on them; knowing what your values are, and understanding how your values can be achieved non-sacrificially within the context of the world you live in.

As Rand affirmed, "the purpose of morality is not to teach you to suffer and to die; it is to teach you how to enjoy yourself and live." On the issue of accepting government money, as with so many other issues, the concrete results of such a policy can suprise those unfamiliar with such a view of ethics.

LINKS: Cue Card Libertarianism - Altruism - Not PC (Peter Cresswell)
'The Objectivist' - Article Descriptions -- Objectivism Reference Center (see article 'The Question of Scholarships,' June 1966)

Ethics, Politics, Libertarianism, Objectivism


  1. How can someone so thoughtful and learned as you still identify as a libertarian? By associating yourself with libertarians, you lend credibility to all the anti-business pacifist drug-worshipping fruitcakes who make up the majority of the party.

    You're an independent (or even an Objectivist). Let go of the libertarian label!

  2. I confess I haven't yet met any anti-business pacifist drug-worshipping fruitcakes in the New Zealand Libertarianz, although the US Libertarian Party is unfortunately infested with them.

    Perhaps if you do know any anti-business pacifist drug-worshipping Libertarianz fruitcakes you could give me their phone-numbers? :-)