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Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber, was once asked why he robbed banks. He responded by saying, “Because that’s where they keep the money.” Perhaps we can learn something from Mr. Sutton’s response. In one short statement he pinpointed the cause of the national debt and continuing deficits. The popular wisdom today assumes that the federal government can provide an overflowing abundance of goods and services in place of the scarcity that people face in reality. As a result, government solutions are sought for problems ranging from the elimination of poverty to funding of the arts to money for the exploration of space.

The result of the ever increasing lines of people seeking government favors has been the escalating national debt through an endless stream of yearly budget deficits. The problem has become so bad that politicians don’t even discuss debt reduction. Instead, they quibble over various programs to raise tax revenues or to slow certain spending increases in order to reduce the size of the expected deficits over the near future. The average citizen is now aware of the adverse impact of such spending because of the enormity of the debt, yet feels helpless to do anything positive about eliminating, or even reducing, the problem.

In his book, The Flight From Reality, Clarence Carson grants insight into why the myth of government- provided welfare was originally promoted and why it has been embraced. He argues that social reformers have abandoned sound reason and logic by denying the very nature of man in order to pursue some fictional utopia. The reformer’s aim is to recreate man through some modification of the politico-economic system. However, these alterations always fail because they fail to recognize that human nature itself cannot be changed in this fashion. In the end, the efforts of social reformers have all proved disastrous.

The popular wisdom today assumes that the federal government can provide an overflowing abundance of goods and services in place of the scarcity that people face in reality.

The question remains: why would the average citizen go along with government programs which are essentially a means of legalized theft? It must be due to some rationalization. In particular, it must stem from the false belief that these programs promote compassion and lead to the development of the good society. Regrettably, the government can never create utopia on earth through its efforts to be philanthropic. This follows since the government, in and of itself, has no resource from which to be generous. The government is funded through taxation which involves the use of force. As such, if the government should attempt to become philanthropic, it can do so only by forcibly taking property from some in order to give to others. This would violate a fundamental prerequisite to all generosity: namely that it is a voluntary choice on the part of the giver.

Over time, as the reform movement gained acceptance in the United States, the government drifted further and further away from its original moorings. This occurred because unprincipled individuals sought political power for selfish ends and because misguided individuals pursued well-meaning but destructive governmental programs. To further complicate matters, the U.S. government has never fully protected the life, liberty, and property of all citizens. Slavery is an example of our government’s failure to protect the liberty of all people. Or, for a later example, consider segregation laws which undermined the liberty of people to associate freely with one another. In all such cases of injustice there is pressure in society for a remedy. The logical solution is to simply eliminate the law creating the injustice. The complicating feature occurs when those who have suffered under an unjust law seek to use the law for their own unjust purposes. French economist Frederic Bastiat provided a chillingly accurate statement of what happens in society when this occurs. In his book, The Law, he writes, “Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize power to make laws!...Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general.”

Therefore, as a result of the greed of unscrupulous individuals, the push for a false philanthropy, and the reprises resulting from our past sins, America’s government has been substantially diverted from its just purpose to pursue a multitude of unjust ends. What can be done? One option is that the American people could refuse to accept government largess. Every citizen who is truly concerned about the nation’s descent should first carefully examine their own situation and ask themselves whether or not they are lined up for illicit government hand-outs. If one finds that he is, then he could simply refuse to accept any more government favors.

What kinds of government largess do people accept? There are many types. First there are the entitlement programs. These programs offer subsidization of medical care, education, food, housing, social security, and a host of other items. In addition to these, our government has also created numerous direct monetary subsidies for business. In this age of ethical crisis in the business world, the principled businessman should reject such offers of largess if he wants to set a proper example for his employees. After all, why tell your employees that it is wrong for them to steal from the company if the company is stealing from the American people? In addition to the direct monetary transfer programs, the citizenry can also disassociate themselves from the special interest lobbying groups which seek to gain some larger piece of the political pie. Finally, if the opportunity arises, voters can support true statesmen who will take seriously their oaths of office and refuse to support government programs which violate the individual’s right to property. A concerted effort even by a relatively small group would not go unnoticed and could very well set the stage for a growing effort to reestablish just government in the United States. There are in fact many potential groups of people who should be willing to take such a course of action if they behave in a fashion consistent with their professed beliefs. Individuals in these groups are characterized by a fundamental belief that it is wrong to use force to take what they want from other people. The Christian community is one such group and perhaps the largest of all such classifications.

Consider for a moment what the Bible says a Christian should be like. In his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only at your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Thus we see that Paul admonishes Christians to behave in ways consistent with what is needed today. In another letter to the Christians at Ephesus he wrote, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” In this statement Paul calls Christians to pursue an appropriate form of philanthropy. He calls for generosity that is not brought about by theft, but by hard work and volition. Finally, the author of Proverbs warns, “My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, ‘Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse’— my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into sin, and they are swift to shed blood.”

If Christians are interested in living in conformity with their beliefs, then they must begin the process of self-examination. Furthermore, all other men and women of principle who believe that it is wrong to steal, must give up government favors if they wish to live consistently with what they profess to believe. If they would do so, then perhaps there is hope for our economic future. However, if they will not do so, then the outlook is bleak. This pessimistic forecast follows when we examine the very nature of theft itself. Suppose for the moment that you are the only thief in town and everyone else is hard at work producing things of value. In this case you will have many potential things to steal. However, as others decide to leave their productive jobs to join you, there will be more thieves competing to steal fewer available items. In the limit, when everyone becomes a thief, everyone will starve for there will be nothing to steal.

Paul A. Cleveland is professor of economics at Birmingham-Southern College.