Not Yours to Give
Governor Matt Blunt has requested federal disaster relief aid for 42 Missouri counties affected by December’s winter storms.
On the surface, federal disaster relief sounds like a wonderful idea. Shouldn’t the federal government (with its deep pockets), be called upon to help communities affected, through no fault of their own, by natural disasters? Surely no one would object to such a magnanimous act of charity, particularly not in the richest country in the world.
Yet it always reminds me of an old Davy Crockett story (forget about George Washington and his cherry tree growing up in Texas, we learn stories about the "real" Founding Fathers, who all died at the Alamo).
When Davy Crockett was a congressman from Tennessee, he voted for a bill which appropriated $20,000 to assist with a rebuilding effort in Georgetown after a fire. Two years later, while campaigning for reelection in Tennessee, a farmer criticized him for his charitable appropriation, to which Davy Crocket responded:
"Certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just the same as I did."
To which the farmer replied:
"It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. … The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a [tax], which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be. … So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he.
"If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. … You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.
"The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution."
So maybe you think the government should have the power to assist with disaster relief; that’s fine, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But I’ve always liked this story because I think it illustrates an important point about the proper role of government. All too often, we turn to the government to fix our problems. A dollar here, a dollar there who is it hurting if it’s for a "noble" cause?
But who decides what’s noble and what’s not? And how much should be spent on such acts of "charity"?
The power to spend other people’s money is one of the most dangerous powers a government is entrusted with. Missouri’s request for $28 million is just one example of the flippant attitude we take toward our tax dollars. How many jobs could that $28 million have created? How many people could it have helped it if was donated to charity instead? And how many struggling families’ pockets did we tap so that we could relieve the suffering of others?
At the very least, we should be asking ourselves those questions with every tax dollar spent.