How Government Welfare Programs Are Immoral and Hurt Everyone, Including the Poor

US Federal Government spends 19% of its budget on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid).

In 2016, the US Federal Government spent $740 billion, or 19% of its budget, on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid). It spent $1.57 trillion on Social Security and Medicare. Together these make up 60% of its budget. (Source)

A very common view today is that the government needs to provide welfare programs for the poor. This is the view that “redistribution of wealth to the needy” is a noble project, and such “government assistance” is necessary to keep people from starving in the streets.

This essay will challenge and refute this view. In Ayn Rand’s ideal society, under laissez-faire capitalism, there would be no welfare programs, and this would be a good thing.

The people who didn’t vote for welfare programs, yet are taxed to support them, did not consent to the taking of their money. They signed no “social contract,” and simply living near other people does not give those other people a right to take their money. If you doubt this, watching this short video should be helpful:

Welfare programs are immoral for the same reason that three people using guns to force a fourth to pay for all their dinners is immoral: It’s an injustice that violates the rights of the victims. It has the same moral status as a robbery.

Yet people still attempt to justify using government to “redistribute” (steal) money by force, by appealing to alleged good consequences that result from the practice. The main line of argument is that welfare benefits are needed to prevent the poor from starving, while wealthier people can “afford” to have a corresponding amount of money taken out of their incomes. Thus, the argument goes, there is a net “social benefit” to welfare redistribution.

This argument is wrong on four counts:

  1. Welfare is not needed to keep good people from starving.
  2. The effect of redistribution on the wealthy should not be thought of in terms of whether they can “afford” it.
  3. There is no such thing as a “social benefit,” in the way this argument assumes.
  4. Even if we dismiss the idea of “social benefit,” the argument falsely assumes that the “beneficiaries” of welfare really benefit, overall, from redistribution.

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Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Carpenter Working with Pencil and HammerThe definitions of the terms we use have consequences for our ability to think and communicate clearly.

Imagine for a moment that your friend told you that he defines “carpenter” as “one who shapes wood by shooting it with a gun.” You’re baffled and you ask him what word he uses for someone who shapes wood by other means, such as a saw, lathe and sander. He says that he really has no word for this. He has a couple of synonyms for “carpenter,” but they also carry the implication that the person shaping the wood used a gun.

Hopefully, you can see that the problem with this hypothetical situation is not merely that you and your friend are using terms differently: shooting wood with a gun is a terribly impractical way of shaping it into useful forms. If the only concepts you have of wood shaping mean using a gun to do it, then you can’t really talk about those who shape wood using the practical methods in their profession.

Ayn Rand held that the common concept of “selfishness” is in an exactly analogous position to your hypothetical friend’s use of “carpenter.” At root, “selfishness” means pursuing one’s own interests and well-being. But the common use today adds in a second element: “pursuing your interests/well-being by means that are shortsighted and hurtful to others.” In today’s culture, the approximate synonyms of “selfishness,” such as “egoism” and “self-interest,” tend to be regarded with the same connotations of shortsightedness and harmfulness, so they are not much different.

Yet Ayn Rand rejected the idea that being shortsighted and hurtful to others is inherent in pursuing one’s interests and well-being. In fact, she recognized that the pursuit of one’s genuine interests in everyday life is specifically the opposite of “shortsighted and hurtful to others.” An individual’s genuine interests require long-term planning to fulfill, and his well-being is not served by doing harm to others. Attempting to pursue one’s self-interest by shortsighted and hurtful means is like trying to shape wood into a beautiful chair by shooting it with a pistol: utterly doomed to failure.

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