“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” – Proverbs 9:17
My wife had a friend in high school who, as it turns out, had a fair bit of disregard for how her actions impacted others. A few years after they had graduated, this friend relayed a rather disturbing story about grocery shopping. This friend (and her roommate) ventured out to the grocery store one day and, as they entered, found a shopping cart full of groceries already bagged, waiting by the curb. (This is somewhat standard practice in the south; you put your cart on the curb, go get your car, and pull around to load up – we’re a trusting lot.) At this point, they snatched the bagged groceries, loaded them in their car, and headed home.
In the telling of the story, she expressed happiness, near joy, over the wonderful fortune that had befallen them – free groceries! It is here that my wife (actually, future wife, we weren’t married yet) explained to this friend that her actions actually do impact others. Somewhere there was a family who had lost a week’s worth of groceries. In working class towns, there are quite a few people who live paycheck-to-paycheck and don’t have near enough money to overcome losing a week’s worth of groceries. They may well have gone hungry that week, or much more hungry that usual.
Coming to terms with your own sin can be a harsh reality sometimes. “You did this, you caused this family to go hungry for a week, you stole bread from the mouths of children.” It’s harsh stuff.
I caught an article earlier today discussing fraud in California welfare programs. In California, those in need are given debit cards, whose accounts are funded by the state. The article notes that $12 million of welfare aid was spent in Las Vegas, nearly $2 million was spent at apparent vacation spots in Hawaii and Florida, and over $16,000 was withdrawn from ATMs on cruise ships.
Somewhere, there is a family in California, working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet, that can’t dream of taking a vacation – because recipients of government largess are spending the family’s hard earned tax dollars on a vacation of their own.
While I view both of these as clear-cut theft, I would like to point out that there is a policy distinction between the two. In the first case, we have free people behaving unscrupulously and stealing from others. Against such a crime, the rightful role of the government and “the proper authorities” is to prosecute, and hopefully prevent future crime through fear of retribution. As Bastiat notes, the rightful role of government is organized, collective defense of individual rights. Those rights include life, liberty, and property (spawning from life and liberty) – which would certainly include a week’s worth of groceries.
The second theft is different though. The theft, as it is constituted, can only exist through the enabling of the government. The government took money (property) from citizens, gave it to other citizens, and then asked those citizens to spend in an “appropriate” manner (which they did not).
I bring this point up because, as the article notes, the defenders of the state’s welfare system declare that the state’s welfare fraud rate is extremely low. It may well be. It’s one thing for a crime rate to be low because law enforcement has been effective at addressing the problem. It is completely different for the government to enable the crime through its policies and then claim that the enabled-crime-rate is low and should therefore be tolerated. I just don’t get this line of reasoning. Especially when there are ways to distribute aid without allowing cash withdrawals. (But, no matter how aid is handed out, the black market will find a way to appropriate those resources for purposes other than intended by the benevolent legislature.)