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Government Aid?

February 6, 2001

Tags Free MarketsMedia and Culture

Among those who see privatization--the disassociation of government from goods and services that are otherwise economically viable---as a very desirable thing, a debate has raged for quite some time. Should government subsidize what is being privatized as a step away from nationalization? 

The same sort of debate would be quite appropriate when it comes to assessing the merits of President George W. Bush's proposal to give at least some government support to faith-based charity groups.

The same question arises in relation to vouchers. Should a voucher program in education be supported or should we fight to simply sever all relationships between education and government? The voucher advocates claim that subsidies to private schools, or least to parents using them, are a step in the right direction. Opponents who still favor privatization think once money goes through government's fingers, returning it will have strings attached, which will be detrimental to education. In the end, the system may become more statist, not less. 

A similar issue arises in connection with Bush's proposal. He believes it is a good idea to hand government support to organizations even if they function as the arm of certain religious denominations. George W. and his allies sense that forbidding such subsidies amounts to a kind of unjust discrimination. (They might consider, also, that exempting only the press from government regulation suffers from the same flaw - why should other professionals be subject to government regimentations and only the press be free?)

The real problem with viewing the subsidization of faith based help organizations as some kind of sound advance on the status quo is that it isn't. Here we have community efforts that are completely voluntary. They money they spend is solicited from people who believe in what the charity is doing. But with government aid, the charities will be infected with government's meddling, some of it with funds and some of it with rules as to how the funds must be spent. 

This subjects private charities to state control, changes the focus of fund raising, and spends taxpayers' funds for projects others decide to support. Just as no one ought to be forced to support abortion clinics, and hence tax-funded abortions and birth control is not sensible, so no one ought to be forced to support other projects they did not consent to have supported. For some of us supporting at least early abortions is a good thing, while to others it is to be an accomplice to murder. So clearly the funding should come from those who are not outraged by the practice. 

And for some of us, quite possibly, helping people in certain ways is just the wrong thing to do, so we should not be forced to support such ways. This is especially true when it comes to foreign aid, which often goes to top politicians and generals in rather despicable countries. And from the viewpoint of some American citizens, financial support of certain faith based help groups may well constitute an act that they do not believe they should perform for reasons of their own (to which they are entitled).

Of course, these days nearly everything you can think of--and present to an interested politician--can be put on the list of subsidized projects government might take on. So who knows how much of yours and mine and anyone else's funds are going to projects which we do not want--or fail to go to ones we do want--to support. 

Sorting this all out would take nearly revolutionary restructuring of government, so that it would turn into an organization with proper limits to the exercise of those powers that are required to protect our individual rights. That may for now be a pipedream. But it makes sense to keep in mind what is wrong with the system as it stands and as it is likely to stand for quite some time. We can thus anticipate some of the forthcoming controversies and foul-ups reported henceforth in the media.

Clearly, faith-based charities do a better job at caring for the poor than government bureaucrats, just as private schools do a better job (generally) than public schools. But one reason that is true is precisely because they are funded and operated independently of taxpayer support. And when funded privately, what they do and how are not questions that concern public policy. 

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. See his Mises.org Archive or send him MAIL.

 


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