“If government doesn’t relieve distress, who will?”

By Leonard E. Read

President Grover Cleveland, vetoing a congressional appropriation of $10,000 to buy seed grain for drought-stricken Texans, may have given us all the answer we need to this cliche:

“The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. . . . Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”

No doubt many of the congressmen who voted this appropriation were sincerely asking, “If the Federal government does not save these poor Texans, who will?” President Cleveland had only to veto the measure and write an explanation. But we private citizens have no power beyond reason and suasion. What, then, might we have said? This would be one honest answer: “I am not clairvoyant and, thus, do not know who will relieve these people. However, I do know that Texans acting on their own initiative and with their own resources will take care of themselves better than they will be taken care of by any number of politicians imitating Robin Hood and applying the theories of Karl Marx.”

The question, “If government does not relieve distress, who will?” is illogical. No one can ever answer, who will? Thus, the cliche-maker wins his implied point with- out a struggle — unless one lays claim to clairvoyance or exposes the fakery of the question.

Every reader of these lines can prove to himself, by reflecting on personal experiences, that the relief of distress is an unpredictable event. Time after time, each of us, with no preconception, has observed distress and then taken steps to relieve it — with his own income!

Prior to the nineteen thirties, before the Federal government assumed responsibility for “relief,” no one could have foretold who would come to whose rescue; yet, since 1623, there is no record of famine or starvation in this country. Among a people where the principles of freedom were more widely practiced and government more limited than elsewhere, there has been less distress and more general well-being than history had ever recorded. Societies saddled with bureaucracy have no record of coming to the aid of free societies; it has always been the other way round.

Charity is a personal virtue. When government does not undertake police grants-in-aid — “relief” — millions of adults stand as guardians against distress. Their available charitable energy is totally at work observing distress in its neighborly detail, judging and coming to the rescue with the fruits of the labor of each charitable person. And on occasions of major disaster, there has been a voluntary pooling of individual resources, often extravagant.

What happens when government takes over? Charity gives way to politics. Funds coercively collected are dispensed to individuals according to group, class, or occupational category. This has no semblance of charity; it is the robbery of Peter to pay Paul. Further, when government constructs a feeding trough and fills it with fruits forcibly extorted from the citizenry, it creates new claimants and aggravates the problem it set out to solve.

It is not only the so-called “relief” projects that are based on the same tired cliche, but most other cases of government intervention in our society: “If the government doesn’t do the job, who will?” If the government doesn’t level mountains and fill valleys, drain swamps and water deserts, build highways over waters and seaways over land, subsidize failure and penalize productivity and thrift, send men to the moon and promise the moon to mankind, and a thousand and one other projects — if the government doesn’t do these things, that is, force taxpayers to do them, who will? And more often than not the answer is that probably no one in his right mind would ever think of doing such things — at his own risk, with his own money. Eventually, a time might come when some ingenious person would see a way to do one or more of these jobs, in hope of profit, and would take the chance. But there is no way to determine in advance who that pioneer might be. The most that can be done is to leave men free, for only among free men do pioneers emerge. Freedom affords every opportunity, in charitable enterprises or on the market, for the best — not the worst — to rise topside.