One of the core issues facing America is the question: What is the Proper Function of Government?
This question is almost completely ignored in today's culture, let alone seriously considered. Turning to government for provision of goods and services is, to most people, just another way of getting things done. Need a road or school? The government should provide it. Need money for college? Get a government student loan. Finding a cure for cancer of particular interest to you? Lobby politicians for government research grants. Who gets the credit?
Therein lies the subject of this post.
James C. Roumell, a self-described successful businessman, recently took the time to tell us “What I Built With Government Help.” He counts “government loans and Pell Grants” and other “public investments” among the “many factors” contributing to “my success.” “I met Claiborne Pell,” gushes Roumell, “and was able to thank the former Democratic senator from Rhode Island for introducing the Higher Education Act of 1965, which allowed me to go to college.”
If Roumell is successful, good for him. But let’s be honest: Pell did not pay for Roumell’s college. Other Americans were forced to, against their will, through their taxes.
There is nothing more phony than the politician practicing “charity” with other people’s tax money, then beating his chest and putting his name to it. Ayn Rand called them seekers of “unearned greatness.” It is such parasites to whom Roumell gives thanks.
The government itself, by its nature, produces nothing. Whatever it is—infrastructure, schools, space exploration, basic scientific research, college or small business loans, even charity—the money government “invests” is private money taken by force of taxation from those who earned it, and then paid out to other individuals who do the work of building or teaching or creating.
Without that money and the teachers and road builders and other productive individuals, government wouldn’t be able to “provide” anything.
The same productive people, and their money, that bring those things into existence exist outside of government. In many, if not most, instances, people might spend and invest their money in ways different from what government officials would like. But that is the whole point of freedom and limited government; to forbid government officials from seizing private wealth for the purpose of imposing their values on the citizens whose rights their job it is to protect.
Such is the nature of all “government help,” “public investments,” and the like.
What Roumell lauds is essentially a political money laundering operation, with politicians converting illegitimately seized private funds into seemingly legitimate government provisions.
To be clear, my intention is not to degrade the people engaged in all of these government programs. As Roumell notes, it is “the decent thing to do” to give a nod of thanks to all that is available to us through the efforts of others. But let’s give the credit to whom it belongs, which is not the government.
One question that arises is: If the provision of roads, schools, and tuition grants represent money laundering, isn't the same true of, say, the National Guard, which was cited by Roumell in his litany of government "help"? The definition of "money laundering" is; "The process of taking the proceeds of criminal activity and making them appear legal." This is essentially no different than what I described above as "political money laundering"; politicians converting illegitimately seized private funds into seemingly legitimate government provisions.
The National Guard is a legitimate government provision, as are the police, military, law courts, patent office, and any function that serves the purpose of protecting the individual rights of a nation's citizens. The money taken from private citizens to fund these operations are not illegitimately seized, because these taxes pay for legitimate government services. Therefor, they can not be considered money laundering. (In a fully free society, such taxes would be voluntary. But even though they are not, they are legitimate payment for legitimate government services. I recommend How Would Government be Funded in a Free Society in The Objective Standard for more details.)
“Let us have a real debate about the costs and benefits of government spending programs,” implores Roumell. “The attitude that smugly denigrates the public sphere while applauding the private one is misguided,” he lectures, smugly disregarding the actual nature of “government help” and the politicians who take unearned credit for it.
Let us, instead, have a debate about the proper function of government. Let us have a debate about the moral propriety of violating the rights of people to spend and invest their own money as they see fit, in order to fund undertakings that government has no business engaging in. Whenever you hear “government spending programs,” “public investment,” “government help,” or any other catch phrase designed to obfuscate the truth, think of money laundering.