'Choice' matters only with rights
by Linn and Ari Armstrong
Some weeks ago, various public figures took the "Food Stamp Challenge," spending a week eating for $3.57 per person per day. When they could barely manage the task, they cried for more tax spending for food stamps. So your junior author and his wife (Ari and Jennifer) are spending all of August eating for less than $3 per day while accepting no free food. For the results, see FreeColorado.com.
On August 9, Ari and Jennifer appeared with Jon Caldara on KOA radio. Caldara, president of the Independence Institute of Golden, said, "I love food stamps." His reasoning was that at least food stamps offer recipients choice. He argued (and Ari agreed) that putting a bunch of bureaucrats in charge of planning the diets of welfare recipients would be an exercise in condescending nannyism. With food stamps, recipients can choose what to buy.
Caldara wrote in 2002, "Food stamps give the poor something else -- buying power. It doesn't change the production or distribution of food. It allows the poor to choose the products they want, how they want, when they want. A lot of folks don't like the idea that these welfare recipients are free to choose the foods they think are best and not forced to get some foods selected by a committee. Yes, sometimes stamps are used to buy Twinkies instead of broccoli. Food stamps assume that poor people are intelligent enough to make the right decisions for themselves, based on their values, not the values of the collective... Give the poor dignity. Give them money."
We consider Caldara a friend, we love his work, and often we side with him. But on this point Caldara is flat wrong.
We do not have only the options of "giving" the poor other people's tax dollars or micromanaging their lives through bureaucratic agencies. The third option is liberty.
People have the right to control their own lives and resources. You have the right not to buy other people's Twinkies, if you don't wish to do so. Indeed, it is morally wrong to force one person to buy the Twinkies of another. Or the broccoli, for that matter.
People also have the right to associate voluntarily with others. For example, you have the right to choose to help the poor with your resources, whether by donating to a charity or buying a bum a burger.
Choice is a good thing, but only in the context of individual rights. Outside of that context, "choice" can be bad or immoral.
Let's take a few exaggerated cases to make the point. In a Soviet-style economy, people might be "free to choose" which bread line to stand in. Is slavery somehow made less morally repugnant if the slaves get to "choose" to get married or take a day off every week? Some criminals choose with calculated precision their next victim.
Imagine a situation a little closer to the matter at hand. Suppose you come across somebody having a rough time of it and invite him to a restaurant. You say, "I'm happy to buy you any sandwich of your choice." What would be your reaction if the person replied, "How dare you! I want the filet mignon! I demand to have that choice -- and I demand that you pay for it."
What about the choice of the person picking up the tab? Don't you have any choice in how you spend your own money? Don't you have the right to decide to buy the sandwich rather than the steak for the complete stranger? Don't you have the right to buy broccoli instead of Twinkies for others? And don't you have the right to decide whether to donate to charity at all?
If you do not have such rights, then you keep part of what you earn only by permission of politicians and bureaucrats. And what is granted by permission can be taken away by fiat. The basic question is whether the money you earn belongs to you -- or to politicians.
Welfare is the forcible redistribution of wealth. If you don't pay, you go to jail. The alternative is voluntary charity. (At a broader level, the most important step is to protect economic liberty so that people have more opportunities to earn a good living.)
The advantages of voluntary charity over welfare are threefold. First, the people paying the bills have a better incentive to track the effectiveness of the efforts. Second, the charity organizations, knowing that they have to earn your money rather than take it by force, have a better incentive to use the resources wisely. Finally, the recipients of the charity have a better incentive to use the resources responsibly. Sure, there are successes with food stamps and failures with voluntary charities. But the tendency is for voluntary charity to work better.
Choice is great. But one person's choice must not violate another person's rights.