Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Paid Volunteers

"As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose--that it may violate property instead of protecting it--then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder"

-Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, 1848

Today, President Obama has signed into law a national service bill that comes with a $5.7 billion price tag. I honestly have a difficult time wrapping my head around spending $5,700,000,000 on volunteer programs. To make sure I wasn't missing something, I looked up the definition of volunteer over at dictionary.com:

1. a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.
2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

I think if you asked the average person on the street, you'd get something close to # 2.

It is even more amazing in the face of the President's directive to find $100 million, or $0.1 billion, in "efficiencies". Eliminating $100 million from the federal budget is something that any senate staffer could probably do over lunch. As Dr. Mankiw points out, that's about like a father asking his family for ideas on how to save $3 over the course of the next year. I don't mean to complain, mind you, I would just like to see some more zeros between the 1 and the decimal point on that initiative.

Back to the new bill (in more than one sense of the word); I'm not surprised, nor should anyone be. Bastiat explained this behavior 150 years ago and summed up quite well how we got to where we are today. President Obama has a history as a community organizer, so it only makes sense that he would see to it that his pet interest gets its turn at the teet of the American tax payer. This is not a partisan phenomena, as the previous president's faith based initiative can attest.

But Bastiat didn't stop there. He went on to describe this type of activity as a perversion of the law. Of course, we don't think that way anymore because we've become socialized to this type of thing. It's normal. No big deal. Forget that it forcibly takes money from one group of citizens, via taxes, such that it may be given to another set of citizens who had the political power to make it happen. We're all used to people asking us to make contributions to their favorite charity, but this charity didn't ask, it just took. If the charity had done that directly, it would rightfully be called theft. But when the law does it, does that make it less than theft? President Obama means well, I have no doubt. But in this time of economic crisis, is this sort of "philanthropic tyranny" (again, Bastiat's words) really what the country needs? Is this really the rightful role of the government, regardless of the merits of the cause?


The full English translation of Bastiat's "The Law" can be found here: http://bastiat.org/en/the_law.html

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