“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” — John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961.
When John F. Kennedy challenged Americans in his inaugural address, the idea that the government should somehow provide for the individual citizen was in its infancy. In his speech that day, Kennedy also said, “… the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Unfortunately, the concept of “state as provider” is now a fully-grown adult. Political candidates in both major parties spend most of their time telling various members of the electorate how the government is going to fix whatever problem is confronting them, usually by spending money.
Of course, the government doesn’t actually HAVE any money. It creates no products or services to generate its own wealth. Government gets its money by taking it from the citizens who create the products and services that do generate wealth. It calls that action of taking money, taxation.
There are tasks that only a government can accomplish, such as national defense and infrastructure, which benefit every citizen, and for which every citizen is assessed through taxation. But those tasks are limited.
In the “State as provider” role, the government requires much larger amounts of money. The only way it can get the expanded funds is to take more from the citizens. So when a political candidate promises to create or expand a government program to solve the problems of person A, he is really saying that he is going to take more money from person B to make his promise become a reality.
The loss to person B is obvious — taxes get raised.
But the effect on person A, while less obvious, is just as detrimental. Government programs are not like private charities. They come with a myriad of eligibility requirements that always allow the government to invade every aspect of person A’s life, so person A trades privacy for assistance. They come with complicated and far-reaching rules and regulations that allow the government to dictate how person A must live, so person A trades control for help. And they come with arcane success measurements that allow the government to direct person A’s decisions about the future, so person A trades opportunity for aide.
What the state provides for, the state controls.
And, to add insult to injury, the state does not even provide well. Independent analyses of government run programs report that over 80 cents of every dollar spent by the government on programs to help people with their problems never leave the government — in other words, person A trades away his life to participate in a program that is only 20% effective.
Reputable private charities more than reverse those numbers — with about 90 cents of every dollar going to the service. But private charities don’t give the government control.
Government social programming does. All the person A’s out there are now dependent on the state for some aspect of their lives, so they will oppose any change in direction that cuts the programs they rely upon. And, as the government continues to expand its reach, the increased taxation burden continues to move citizens from the person B category to the person A category, increasing the ranks of those whose lives government can direct.
Kennedy probably did not anticipate what would happen when an electorate began to ask its government what it could do for them, but his words were nonetheless prophetic. It’s time we listen to, and act upon, them.