The Optimistic Christian
The Role and Scope of Government: Property and "Redistribution"
While many Americans retain this view of government's proper role today, much of the infrastructure of modern government is based on the opposite view: that the state should intervene to command uses for the people's property. Obvious examples are the Social Security and Medicare programs, which direct the people's income into entitlement systems, and the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010—ObamaCare—which mandates, among many other things, the purchase of approved health insurance by individuals.
States have various requirements and mandates as well. A requirement levied at both the state and federal level—one that Americans rarely think about—is the set of employer contributions to government funds (unemployment, disability), which are usually calculated as a percentage of an employee's level of pay. In all these cases, the employee is providing value to the employer but not being paid the sum total of that value. The difference goes to the governments involved.
Many Americans would see as much as 25 percent more in their paychecks if chunks of their compensation were not being distributed to government funds and government-mandated insurance payments. These extractions from pay are a pervasive, deeply embedded intervention in the people's use of and prerogatives over their property, but they are not the only kind America has come to tolerate. In the name of helping the poor, we have all but accepted the premise that government is empowered to point down at one citizen and move his property to another, for no other reason than that some particular constituency calls that "fair."
The legitimate purpose of helping the poor is probably one of the best prisms through which to illuminate clearly the separate ideas of limited government and statism. For the limited-government advocate, helping the poor is to be done at the level closest to each of the individual poor, by cities, counties, and perhaps—but not necessarily—states. It is a matter of seeing, face-to-face, who is in distress, and providing temporary relief and a helping hand. The people may legitimately tax themselves to ensure there are funds for this function, and in fact, American political entities have taxed the people for this purpose since before the Revolution. There is nothing new or modern about using public funds to provide assistance to the poor.
What is modern is the idea of systematically and perpetually "transferring" assets—the income and wealth that have been created and are owned by some citizens—to other citizens for the purpose of changing a statistical "distribution." Implicit in this idea is the premise that if we can observe a "distribution" of some category of things, we can intervene effectively to change that distribution. There are very few things about which we make such heroic assumptions, but today it is popular to make them about the "redistribution" of the wealth and earnings other people have created.
Seeing government as the logical agent for this assignment is one thing; seeing it as the proper agent is a direct contradiction of America's founding idea. The limited-government idea has never excluded the use of public funds to help the poor. What it does exclude is leveraging that purpose to change the relation of government to the people. The basic idea of a right to property, including the fruit of one's labors, cannot survive as a controlling principle of law if government may overturn it arbitrarily for any multitude of purposes. Modern class politics sees this as an irrelevant objection; America's founding idea sees it as essential to the preservation of liberty. In the latter project, the foe is not people in other economic classes but the easily-abused power of the state.
J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval intelligence officer and evangelical Christian. She retired in 2004 and blogs from the Inland Empire of southern California. She writes for Commentary's CONTENTIONS blog, Hot Air's Green Room, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.