My family meets regularly with a discussion group that covers all things related to the topic of liberty. I learn a lot from these discussions, and our last meeting was no exception. A new member of the group brought up something that really got me thinking. He stated that he thought that people should have their basic human needs taken care of: food, clothing, shelter, etc. After a little bit of discussion, it became apparent that he was a very compassionate person who was concerned that without at least minimal government intervention, people who are poor or unable to care for themselves would be abandoned with no one to take care of them.
Interesting question, isn't it? At least I thought so. Think about it for a minute. What if there was no government? Is it really true that without government as we now know it, masses of people would find themselves starving and homeless? I have to confess that for a while now, this has been a conundrum for me in evaluating my beliefs about government. Although I disagree with most, if not all, of the actions of current governments, deep-down I had the same concerns as my new discussion group friend. Without some kind of government structure, where is the justice for the weakest members of society? Wouldn't a stateless society be a world where the strong oppress the weak and chaos reigns? It would be survival-of-the-fittest with the weak and powerless simply being left to die, right?
Let me stop for a second and define my terms. When I say "government" or "the state", I'm not merely talking about leadership or organization, I'm talking about a group of people in a society who have the ability to use force to control the behavior of others in the society. Maybe others would define it differently, but for the purposes of this discussion that's what I'm referring to here. Does a society require someone with guns to force them to care for others, or could a completely free society accomplish this? What is actually necessary in a society to assure that people's basic needs are met?
I have a hard time with big, philosophical questions like this unless I have a practical example, so during our discussion group and afterward I was thinking of people I know who have fallen on hard times and needed help, and times when I've received help from others myself. I was thinking about what happens when we help each other compared to what happens when government steps in.
The first example I thought of is a good friend of mine who is a single mom of three little ones. We get together often and I have at times raided my pantry and sent her home with some extra groceries, or we have had their family over for a meal. I buy in bulk for my large family, so I can share some of my savings with her. I suppose I could just pay my taxes and she could just go get food stamps, which she could easily qualify for, but I think we would both miss out on a blessing if we relied on government to help. One really cool thing I would miss out on is the fact that my friend is a much better cook than I am and she cooks for us when we eat together! She also likes to clean and has even been known to come over and clean my bathroom, which for someone like me, whose love language is "acts of service", is the ultimate expression of love! The point is, by helping each other, we build relationships and community, something that government can't accomplish by simply handing out checks.
Another example is an online friend of mine who shared a story about a time when her husband was out of work and they had very little food in their house. A neighbor, suspecting that they were out of food, actually called social services to tattle on them. A social worker showed up at their door and told them that if they didn't sign up for government assistance their children would be removed from the home. The social worker gave her a ride and helped her fill out the paperwork to avoid having her children taken away.
This story is bizarre on many levels, but it showed me how messed up things get when we become accustomed to relying on government to meet basic needs. Do you suppose my friend's neighbor even considered the idea of dropping off a bag of groceries instead of reporting her? How about the social worker who gave her a ride and helped her with paperwork? Do you think it crossed her mind to give her a ride to the store instead and buy her some food? How do you suppose it made my friend feel to have this experience compared to how she would have felt if someone would have met her need without involving government?
When I look at these examples, it seems obvious to me that government can't do what community and relationships can do, and that our dependence on government kills community. I had struggled with how to write about this, but a blog post and comments I read from blogger friends Tim and David helped me to see it more clearly. It was pointed out that before we had so many government services available to us, there was a much greater demand for charity and kindness, so the supply of those things rose to meet the demand. People knew how to support each other. I hear many people complain about how people don't help each other out like they used to, but what do we expect? The need to build community is eliminated when there is a government program for every need, and we're left with neighbors who don't even know each other and a whole lot of people complaining about welfare recipients taking their hard-earned money (I know you get those forwarded e-mails too). If the goal of that system is cutting people off from all possible support systems, making them dependent, and creating class warfare, then it's working great. If the goal is to actually meet people's needs, it's an utter failure. We won't have community until we have liberty. How do we get liberty? Well, that's another question I ponder often. If you're asking it too, the video in my previous post might be helpful.