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Not Tax-Funded Aid to Myanmar

May 16, 2008

Tags Free MarketsInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

The destruction and suffering in Myanmar from the recent killer cyclone is incalculable. The death toll, which is rising by the thousands daily, has now been predicted to top 100,000 people. President Bush, after initially authorizing $250,000 in US aid, has now pledged an additional $3 million to help the people of Myanmar. The real question, however, is not how much aid the United States should give to Myanmar, but whether the United States should give aid to Myanmar in the first place.

The recent earthquake in China brings up the same question.

The answer to the question depends on what is meant by the United States. If the United States refers to the government of the United States then the answer is no. If the United States refers to the people of the United States then the answer is perhaps.

Overlooked amid all the attention focused on Myanmar is the $200 million Bush released last month for global emergency food aid. This was followed by his recent call for Congress to approve an additional $770 million in food aid to help the people in some of the world's poorest nations — "where rising prices can mean the difference between getting a daily meal and going without food," said the president — to cope with rising food prices that have caused hunger and social unrest. But this is just the beginning, for Bush has also said that the United States intends to spend a total of $5 billion on food aid this year and next year.

But whether it is termed disaster relief or food relief, it is still foreign aid funded by the forced looting of American taxpayers and given to countries that most Americans can't locate on a map and in many cases have never even heard of.

According to the latest Congressional Research Office report on foreign aid, "Foreign Aid: An Introductory Overview of U.S. Programs and Policy," the federal government provides some form of foreign assistance to over 150 countries. The five categories of spending are bilateral development assistance, multilateral economic contributions, economic assistance supporting US political and security objectives, humanitarian assistance, and military assistance. Foreign-aid spending is currently over $20 billion a year, excluding the billions spent on reconstruction projects in Iraq. The United States is the largest international economic aid donor.

Foreign aid enjoys wide bipartisan congressional support. Republicans in Congress who masquerade as the party of limited government frequently dismiss spending on foreign aid as insignificant, because the United States is the smallest contributor among the major donor governments when the amount of foreign aid is calculated as a percentage of gross national income. After all, foreign-aid spending is such a small part of the overall federal budget.

Only in a country with a federal leviathan like the US government that spends over $3 trillion a year is $20 billion considered insignificant. But regardless of the amount or the percentage, foreign-aid spending by the US government is only made possible because billions of dollars have been confiscated from American taxpayers. If the government sent all the households in America a list of all the countries in the world with a request to check off each country they wanted to help and the dollar amount they wanted to send to each, I suspect that very few Americans would comply — especially if they had to enclose a check to pay for it.

The US government has no business providing disaster relief to Myanmar, food relief to poor countries, or humanitarian aid of any kind. The purpose of government is supposed to be to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of the people who form it. The fact that all governments eventually deviate from their stated purpose is irrelevant. And besides, there is a calculation problem here. How much aid should the US government provide? What type of aid should be given? What strings, if any, should be attached to the aid supplied? How long should aid be maintained?

Even worse is the use of the military to provide foreign-aid services. The purpose of the military is to defend the country from attack or invasion, not to deliver food and spread good will and cheer. Yes, it would be better if the US military delivered bread and butter instead of bombs and bullets, but that is not the issue.

There was a time in this country when it was recognized to be improper for the federal government to provide humanitarian relief even within the United States. President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill in 1887 that would have provided seed for farmers in drought-stricken Texas. In his veto message, he wrote that aid from Washington only "encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character." The Texas farmers ended up getting ten times as much in private assistance as they would have received from Uncle Sam.

Still, humanitarian aid is very popular. Very well. If people desire to help with relief efforts, they will send money as they have many times in the past. In fact, the only case for forced aid is precisely that people would not send aid themselves — which is to say that they would not purchase this aid in the marketplace. But that raises an additional problem related to the utility and morality of overriding people’s voluntary choices.

Although any American is certainly welcome to contribute to the relief effort in Myanmar, no one should be forced to do so via his taxes or otherwise. It is a myth that there would not be sufficient aid to Myanmar without the government being involved in some way. Although I don't often agree with President Bush, he was certainly correct when he recently remarked that "the American people are generous people and they're a compassionate people." There is no doubt in my mind that Americans will give liberally to alleviate the suffering of the people of Myanmar. Many have done so already through donations to various relief agencies. But whether Americans give or don't give, it is still the case that it should be the decision of each individual American.

The case of Myanmar is a test of one's commitment to the freedom philosophy. A free society includes the freedom to be unconcerned, insensitive, or stingy. If the forced looting of the taxpayers for foreign-aid payments has always been wrong, then — cyclone or no cyclone — it is just as wrong now.


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