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Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

Normally this blog focuses on big issues such as the economic damage of government spending and the self-defeating foolishness of high tax rates.

Today, though, it’s time for another edition of “You Be the Judge.”

In this game, we look at stories and issues that require us to balance common sense, the principles of a free society, and justice.

Previous editions of this game include: Putting politicians on trial, vigilante justice, brutal tax collection tactics, child molestation, pay levels at government-owned firms, sharia law, healthcare, incest, speed traps, jury nullification, and vigilante justice (again).

Our latest example comes from Alaska, where someone with very questionable judgement was busted for floating down a river while consuming vast quantities of alcohol. Here’s some of the story from the Fairbanks Daily News.

A Juneau man faces a rare DUI charge for allegedly having a 0.313 breath-alcohol content as he floated through Fairbanks on an inflatable raft Sunday night. Alaska’s driving under the influence law applies to people operating motor vehicles, water craft and airplanes. …when Alaska State Troopers received a report of a “heavily intoxicated” man floating down the Chena River near the Parks Highway bridge at 6:40 p.m. Sunday, a wildlife trooper boat responded and arrested 32-year-old William Modene. …At 0.313, Modene’s breath-alcohol content was almost four times the legal limit for operating a vehicle, 0.08. …Under Alaska’s DUI law, operating a water craft means to “navigate a vessel used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water for recreational or commercial purposes on all waters, fresh or salt, inland or coastal, inside the territorial limits or under the jurisdiction of the state.”

So here’s the issue we have to decide: Mr. Modene doesn’t sound like a model citizen, and he may be swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool, but the question on the table is whether the government should have arrested him for DUI?

From a legal perspective, is it accurate to say that he was “operating” a water craft or “navigating” a vessel?

I’m not an expert on such matters, but it seems to me that he was doing nothing more than floating down a river. There’s nothing in the story, for instance, to indicate he had a motor on his raft.

From what we know, Mr. Modene posed zero danger to other people. He was merely a drunk, minding his own business as he floated along.

My gut instinct is that this case should be tossed. The government would be in a much stronger position if it had charged him with “being drunk in public” or something like that. But even in that case, floating down a river may not meet the test of being “in public.”

There’s a separate issue, of course, about whether the government can and should intervene if someone is engaging in self-destructive behavior. If there’s a report that someone has just taken a bottle of sleeping pills, most of us presumably would agree that it would be okay for the government to break down his door and tote him to a hospital to have his stomach pumped.

But the self-destructive behavior has to pose an immediate danger. We’d hopefully all reject, for instance, the notion of some Bloomberg-esque ban on unhealthy food because people sometimes shorten their lives by overeating.

Since I probably average one beer a month, I’m not competent to make sweeping statements about alcohol, but it’s my understanding that a blood alcohol level of .4 is when people begin to die. Since Mr. Modene was already above .3, perhaps there’s some argument for police intervention.

But set that aside. Pretend you’re on the jury and you have to vote on whether Modene is guilty of DUI. What’s your verdict? And if you also want to weigh in on whether the government had a right to interfere with his raft trip, don’t be bashful.

For me, that second question is more challenging. That’s why I like sticking with simple questions of right vs. wrong, such as whether I side with Switzerland or France on the issue of whether fiscal sovereignty and financial privacy should be undermined to help high-tax nations impose their bad tax laws on an extraterritorial basis.

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A couple of months ago, I discussed a column by Arthur Brooks, in which he explained that libertarians and conservatives need to make a moral argument for capitalism and not just rely on statistics and economic analysis.

This is correct, I believe, and I cited myself as an example. When the flat tax became an issue in the 1990s, I gave lots of speeches, and I pontificated about lower marginal tax rates and getting rid of double taxation. I quickly learned, though, that people were most excited about getting rid of the corruption in the current system.

Brooks now makes his case for the morality of capitalism in a new video.

A superb job. His insights on earned success are very important. Indeed, this is why the dependency culture is misguided for both taxpayers and recipients.

President of the American Enterprise Institute

And it’s also why I try to stress that bloated government is basically a racket that either allows people to obtain unearned benefits or makes it harder for people to achieve earned success.

P.S. Brooks also is more than capable of making traditional economic arguments, as you can see from what he wrote about Europe’s collapsing welfare states.

P.P.S. And he has produced some first-rate research on the loss of ethics in Europe compared to the United States.

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We know that the United States and most other developed nations are in deep trouble if we leave government policy on auto-pilot. And we know the painful day of reckoning will arrive even faster if we continue the Bush-Obama policies of expanding the burden of the public sector.

All this sounds very depressing, but the good news is that we know the types of policies that will solve the problem.

The bad news is that we often don’t do a very good job of convincing people of the changes that are needed.

Part of the answer is that libertarians and small-government conservatives are probably too utilitarian. Not in our hearts, but in the way we talk.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute addresses this problem in a column for the Washington Examiner.

…many who strongly believe in free enterprise steer clear of all public “moral” arguments. This is a mistake and a missed opportunity. A great deal of research shows that people from all walks of life demand a system that is morally legitimate, not just efficient. …Privately, free enterprise’s champions…celebrate capitalism because they believe that succeeding on merit, doing something meaningful, seeing the poor rise by their hard work and virtue, and having control over life are essential to happiness and fulfillment. But in public debate, conservatives often fall back on capitalism’s superiority to other systems just in terms of productivity and economic efficiency. …The dogged reliance on materialistic arguments is a gift to statists. It allows them to paint free enterprise advocates as selfish and motivated only by money. Those who would expand the government have successfully appropriated the language of morality for their own political ends; redistributionist policies, they have claimed to great effect, are fairer, kinder, and more virtuous. …Average Americans are thus too often left with two lousy choices in the current policy debates: the moral Left versus the materialistic Right. The public hears a heartfelt redistributionist argument from the Left that leads to the type of failed public policies all around us today. But sometimes it feels as if the alternative comes from morally bereft conservatives who were raised by wolves and don’t understand basic moral principles. …There just doesn’t seem to be a good alternative to the “statist quo,” and as a consequence, the country is slipping toward a system that few people actually like.

I think Brooks is correct. Most libertarians and conservatives are not motivated by GDP numbers. They believe in small government because it is morally sound (no government-imposed stealing) and fair (you don’t get rich without offering something of value).

During public policy debates, though, we rely on utilitarian arguments.

I offer myself as an example. When the flat tax became a big issue in the 1990s and I started giving lots of speeches about tax reform, I would make dry and technical arguments about marginal tax rates and capital formation. But I quickly learned that much of the support for the flat tax was motivated by a belief in a fair and moral system – no cronyism, treating everybody equally, ending corruption, shutting down loopholes, etc. So I modified my speeches and gave much more attention to the moral arguments.

That being said, there’s no silver bullet in public policy fights. We probably need a combination of morality and utilitarianism. And it’s obviously important to put things in terms ordinary people can understand. That, I believe, is what made Reagan so effective. And it’s what I try to do with this blog (albeit on a much more limited level).

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As a libertarian who became interested in public policy because of Ronald Reagan, it won’t surprise you to know that I’m more of a “right libertarian” than “left libertarian.”

I fully agree with positions that motivate left libertarians, such as the war on drugs doing more harm than good, foreign entanglements such as NATO no longer serving America’s national security purpose, and the importance of preserving constitutional protections of civil liberties. But since I’m a fiscal policy economist, I normally consort with conservatives.

And my frequent interactions with conservatives sometimes lead me to wonder why we aren’t closer allies. Well, maybe we can be if both sides read what Tim Carney wrote for today’s Washington Examiner.

His column is about Rick Santorum’s inability to unite proponents of limited government, but that’s secondary to the insightful analysis on how conservatives and libertarians can be natural allies. Here are key passages.

For many of today’s liberals, if something is bad — like the traditional light bulb, a very high health-insurance deductible, a gas-guzzling car, or a lack of racial diversity — the government ought to outlaw it. Maybe they can’t comprehend the mind-set of many of today’s conservatives, who revere both individual liberty and traditional morality as the necessary conditions for human happiness and thus say that certain behaviors are immoral but shouldn’t be illegal. Not only are traditional morality and limited government totally compatible, today they are intimately linked, as the Left uses big government to subsidize abortion providers and force all employers to pay for their employees’ contraceptives. …the moral law should guide our personal actions, and individual liberty should guide our political decisions. …When liberals cry that conservatives are trying to legislate morality, that’s typically projection and misdirection from liberal attempts to legislate morality — they say we’re trying to outlaw buying contraception because we oppose their efforts to mandate buying contraception. …More often than not, in the United States these days, it’s the secular Left imposing its morality on the religious Right. Don’t want to photograph a gay wedding? You’re fined. Don’t want to sell the morning-after pill at your pharmacy? You’re driven out of your job. Don’t want to pay for your employees’ sterilization? You’re a criminal. Don’t want to subsidize Planned Parenthood with your tax dollars? Tough, pay up. An alliance between libertarians and conservatives is natural and right today. …The proper conservative response is to fight for the liberty of all Americans, including religious conservatives, to manage their own affairs according to what they believe is correct. Increasing the size of government, even in the name of a more moral society, simply gives the Left more weapons to turn on the Right in the culture war — Obamacare is the perfect example.

Maybe Tim’s column makes sense to me because I’m somewhat of a social conservative in my personal life. I’ve never smoked, never done drugs, don’t like gambling, rarely drink, don’t deal with prostitutes (other than the non-sexual ones serving in government), and have a traditional view on the importance of family. But I’ve never thought my boring personal preferences should be part of the law.

But as Tim explains, leftists believe in imposing their views on everyone else. And the last sentence in the excerpt shows why conservatives and libertarians should be united in opposition to statism. Big government gives the left the tools to advance an agenda that undermines both morality and liberty.

So with that in mind, I’m going to do something similar to Mitchell’s Law and Mitchell’s Golden Rule. But in this case, I’ll actually give credit to someone else. As shown in the picture, libertarians and conservatives should unite behind Carney’s Fusionist Theorem.

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Along with many others, I complained a couple of days ago that Mercedes-Benz was morally bankrupt for using the image of a notorious racist, communist, and murderer as part of a marketing gimmick.

Well, the company has backed down. We won. It’s only symbolic, but let’s enjoy a small victory.

Here are some excerpts from a Foxnews.com story.

Daimler AG, the German company that manufactures Mercedes-Benz luxury cars, called its promotional use of an image of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara a “thoughtless” and “stupid” decision that was not intended to offend people. …In a statement sent to FoxNews.com, Daimler said it “was not condoning the life or actions of this historical figure or the political philosophy he espoused.”

That’s probably not the most heartfelt and sincere apology ever issued, but it will have a positive impact. Somewhere at Daimler AG, there’s a marketing executive that is going to lose a bonus (and maybe even a job). Other people in the fields of advertising and public relations will have seen the backlash and be much less likely to make similar mistakes.

And perhaps a few people who were ignorant will actually learn a bit about history and begin to understand the evil nature of communism.

I doubt this will have any impact on the empty-headed kids who wear Che t-shirts, but you can’t have everything.

From a personal perspective, the best thing about this episode is that I’ve been attacked by a water-carrying apologist for totalitarianism.

In my line of work, one way to measure whether you’re doing a good job is the degree to which you get criticized by bad people.

Being called a “dickhead” by this tool may be even better than the time a left-wing British columnist called me a “high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism.”

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Since starting this blog, I’ve cited several columns by Walter Williams (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), in large part because he’s so good at explaining economic concepts, but also because he’s very effective when demonstrating how big government undermines both freedom and prosperity.

His latest column, though, is now among my favorites since he succinctly explains the moral difference between markets and government.

In a free-market system, in order for one to get more for himself, he must serve his fellow man. This is precisely what Adam Smith, the father of economics, meant when he said in “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (1776): “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” …Free-market capitalism is relatively new in human history. Before the rise of capitalism, the way people amassed great wealth was by looting, plundering and enslaving their fellow man. Capitalism made it possible to become wealthy by serving one’s fellow man.

I’ve tried to make similar points, particularly in my post about government coercion vs. private charity. But Walter has a way with words.

I also like the way he closed his column. After explaining that big businesses often oppose capitalism, he then shows the similarity between tyrants and other statists.

Free-market capitalism has other enemies — mostly among the intellectual elite and political tyrants. These are people who believe that they have superior wisdom to the masses… Tyrants do not trust that people acting voluntarily will do what the tyrant thinks they should do. They want to replace the market with economic planning and regulation. The Wall Street occupiers and their media and political allies are not against the principle of crony capitalism, bailouts and government special privileges and intervention. They share the same hostility to free-market capitalism and peaceable voluntary exchange as tyrants. What they really want is congressional permission to share in the booty from looting their fellow man.

If you want to learn more about this remarkable economist, here’s a video about Walter’s life and here’s an interview about his latest book.

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It isn’t fair to compare and contrast the views of a distinguished economist with the envious ramblings of a career politician/community activist. But it’s also not right for the government to use coercion to impose bad policy, so I don’t feel guilty about sharing this excerpt from a recent Walter Williams column.

President Barack Obama, in stoking up class warfare, said, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” This is lunacy. Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire produced the raw materials that built the physical infrastructure of the United States. Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft and produced software products that aided the computer revolution. But Carnegie had amassed quite a fortune long before he built Carnegie Steel Co., and Gates had quite a fortune by 1990. Had they the mind of our president, we would have lost much of their contributions, because they had already “made enough money.” Class warfare thrives on ignorance about the sources of income. Listening to some of the talk about income differences, one would think that there’s a pile of money meant to be shared equally among Americans. Rich people got to the pile first and greedily took an unfair share. Justice requires that they “give back.” Or, some people talk about unequal income distribution as if there were a dealer of dollars. The reason some people have millions or billions of dollars while others have very few is the dollar dealer is a racist, sexist, a multinationalist or just plain mean. Economic justice requires a re-dealing of the dollars, income redistribution or spreading the wealth, where the ill-gotten gains of the few are returned to their rightful owners. In a free society, for the most part, people with high incomes have demonstrated extraordinary ability to produce valuable services for — and therefore please — their fellow man. People voluntarily took money out of their pockets to purchase the products of Gates, Pfizer or IBM. High incomes reflect the democracy of the marketplace. The reason Gates is very wealthy is millions upon millions of people voluntarily reached into their pockets and handed over $300 or $400 for a Microsoft product. Those who think he has too much money are really registering disagreement with decisions made by millions of their fellow men. In a free society, in a significant way income inequality reflects differences in productive capacity, namely one’s ability to please his fellow man.

Here’s my contribution to the debate, a video listing five reasons why class-warfare tax policy is destructive.

The only point worth adding is that not all wealth is legitimate. Those who profit from crony capitalism and/or insider connections have accumulated money through coercion, not through their ability to serve the needs of others.

That’s why I explained, in this interview, that it is important for defenders of capitalism to draw a bright-line distinction between earning honest wealth through free markets and obtaining dishonest loot via statism.

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After any news appearance, I torment myself by watching the clip and telling myself I should have said something differently or raised a different point.

But I’m actually happy with this appearance on Fox Business News because I (hopefully) explained the difference between wealth that is honestly accumulated and loot that is obtained through government coercion.

I also am pleased when I get to use the line about “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.” One of the reasons I loathe bailouts is that such corrupt practices discredit capitalism.

If the Occupy Wall Street folks actually understood the difference between capitalism and cronyism, there’s a chance they might join the right side.

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Whenever I find a story that involves a thorny issue of right vs wrong, I like to see what readers think.

Indeed, this has become a semi-regular feature of this blog. I’ve cited some tough cases in previous posts, dealing with difficult topics such as vigilante justice, brutal tax collection tactics, child molestation, Sharia law, healthcare, incest, jury nullification, and vigilante justice (again).

Today’s episode of “You Be the Judge” features a legal case in Florida involving whether motorists can be ticketed for warning other drivers about speed traps.

When the Florida Highway Patrol pulls someone over on the highway, it’s usually because they were speeding. But Eric Campbell was pulled over and ticketed while he was driving the speed limit. Campbell says, “I was coming up the Veterans Expressway and I notice two Florida Highway Patrol Cars sitting on the side of the road in the median, with lights off.” Campbell says he did what he always does: flashed his lights on and off to warn drivers coming from the other direction that there was speed trap ahead. According to Campbell, 60 seconds after passing the trooper, “They were on my tail and they pulled me over.” Campbell says the FHP trooper wrote him a ticket for improper flashing of high beams. Campbell says the trooper told him what he had done was illegal. But later Campbell learned that is not the case. He filed a class action suit which says “Florida Statue 316.2397″ — under which Campbell was cited — “does not prohibit the flashing of headlights as a means of communications, nor does it in any way reference flashing headlights or the use of high beams.” …Since 2005, FHP records show more than 10,429 drivers have been cited under the statute. …Campbell says FHP had no right to ticket him or anyone under the current law and he adds the agency is not being honest when it says it doesn’t write tickets to increase revenue or punish people, but rather to get the motorist to slow down on the highway. If that were true, Campbell says the FHP should be delighted with him, because drivers did slow down before troopers could give them a ticket.

I despise the use of speed traps, particularly since they always seem to be set up in places with inappropriately low speed limits, so it won’t surprise you that my gut instinct is to side with the motorists. And since there apparently isn’t any law in Florida against flashing your high beams, this is a slam-dunk issue.

But let’s take this to the next level: Should there be a law against flashing high beams?

Presumably not, but I confess this example raises broader issues. Let’s say the cops are doing something completely legitimate, such as searching for a murderer. I assume all of us would view it as wrong for an otherwise innocent person to warn the murderer the cops were about to search a certain area.

In cases like that, an obstruction-of-justice charge (or maybe aiding-and-abetting, I’m not a lawyer, so I’m guessing) seems appropriate. But where do you draw the line? If you know your friend is smoking pot, should you be liable for not ratting him out? Hopefully not, but what if your friend is a rapist? In that case, I hope we would all agree it would be right to inform the cops. But keep in mind the real issue is whether you should be subject to arrest if you don’t.

These are hard issues, and they underscore the importance of having laws that are just. It’s much easier to support strong enforcement if we know the government isn’t using the law to generate revenue or harass people engaged in victimless behavior.

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After World War II, some Germans tried to defend venal behavior by claiming that they were “just following orders” from their government.

Governments in America have never done anything nearly as awful as the Nazis, but there certainly are some very unpleasant blemishes in our past – and some very bad laws today.

This raises an interesting moral quandary. To what extent are we – as moral individuals – obliged to obey (or help enforce) bad law?

As is so often the case, Walter Williams has strong feelings and compelling analysis.

Decent people should not obey immoral laws. What’s moral and immoral can be a contentious issue, but there are some broad guides for deciding what laws and government actions are immoral. Lysander S. Spooner, one of America’s great 19th-century thinkers, said no person or group of people can “authorize government to destroy or take away from men their natural rights; for natural rights are inalienable, and can no more be surrendered to government — which is but an association of individuals — than to a single individual.” French economist/philosopher Frederic Bastiat (1801-50) gave a test for immoral government acts: “See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” He added in his book “The Law,” “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”

I don’t pretend to know where to draw the line, but, as suggested by my posts about jury nullification, I fully subscribe to the libertarian principle that “not everything that’s illegal is immoral, and not everything that’s immoral should be illegal.”

So if you’re dodging taxes, cutting hair without a license, or smoking pot, the government better not put me on a jury if you get arrested. An if you have an expired registration sticker on your car, an unregistered gun, or a stockpile of normal light bulbs you plan on selling after the ban takes effect, you can safely confide in me.

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Time for another episode of “You Be the Judge.” I periodically come across stories that present very difficult (at least for me) moral quandaries, so I figure why not see how other people react.

I’ve cited some tough cases in previous posts, dealing with thorny topics such as brutal tax collection tactics, child molestation, Sharia law, healthcare, incest, jury nullification, and vigilante justice.

And speaking of vigilante justice, that’s the topic of today’s post. A woman in Spain was not very happy when the man who raped her daughter decided to gloat about the crime, so she decided to do something about it. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the UK-based Telegraph.

A Spanish mother has taken revenge on the man who raped her 13-year-old daughter at knifepoint by dousing him in petrol and setting him alight. He died of his injuries in hospital on Friday. Antonio Cosme Velasco Soriano, 69, had been sent to jail for nine years in 1998, but was let out on a three-day pass and returned to his home town of Benejúzar, 30 miles south of Alicante, on the Costa Blanca. While there, he passed his victim’s mother in the street and allegedly taunted her about the attack. He is said to have called out “How’s your daughter?”, before heading into a crowded bar. Shortly after, the woman walked into the bar, poured a bottle of petrol over Soriano and lit a match. She watched as the flames engulfed him, before walking out. The woman fled to Alicante, where she was arrested the same evening. When she appeared in court the next day in the town of Orihuela, she was cheered and clapped by a crowd, who shouted “Bravo!” and “Well done!”

The story is from 2005, and I confess that I have no idea how the case was resolved. But let’s imagine that something like this happened in the United States and you were on the jury. How would you vote? Would you practice jury nullification? Or what if you were the prosecutor, and had some discretion in what crime to prosecute. What charge would you file?

I know this is an impulsive answer and probably not the right approach, but I would be have been part of the crowd at the court cheering the woman.

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I would not be a very good juror, particularly if a judge expected me to suspend my moral judgments and narrowly follow the law. And I say this even though I realize that a good legal system should be based on that principle.

I’ve cited some tough cases in previous posts, dealing with thorny topics such as brutal tax collection stories, Sharia law, healthcareincest, and vigilante justice.

Our latest you-be-the-judge story comes from Massachusetts, where a 57-year old man in a wheelchair is in legal trouble for slugging a 27-year old guy with a baseball bat because of allegations that he molested a little girl. Here are excerpts from a story in the Daily Mail.

A wheelchair-bound paraplegic grandfather could face up to 10 years in jail after using a baseball bat to hit a man he suspected of molesting his three-year-old granddaughter. Frank Hebert, 57, has been hit with a felony assault charge over the incident involving 27-year-old Joshua Hardy. …Computer salesman Mr Hebert said: ‘I’m not a hero, that’s for sure. I’d do it again tomorrow, knowing the consequence. …Mr Hebert, who was left confined to a wheelchair with only partial use of his arms after a car crash in Falmouth a decade ago, was summonsed to Edgartown District Court on March 25 and charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. …Mr Hebert claims it was over Christmas that the child began asking her grandparents to protect her. He said that on February 22 his partner took her daughter and granddaughter, who were visiting, back to the mainland to talk to police, while he lured Hardy to his Mac PC Sales and Service shop in Vineyard Haven. According to the Boston Herald, Mr Hebert said ‘fear’ prompted him to bring a baseball bat and to call state police to back him up. Mr Hebert said he pointed the bat at Hardy and ordered him to stay seated until police arrived. He said he used the bat after Hardy stood up and laughed at him.

If the government insists on bringing this case to trial, how would you vote?

I almost certainly would practice jury nullification and vote “not guilty.” To be sure, I say this with some hesitation because we don’t know for sure if the guy who got slugged, Mr. Hardy, actually did molest the child. And we also don’t know whether he was seriously injured or just bruised. It might also affect my decision if I found out that Mr. Herbert hit Hardy one time or twenty times.

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Michael Gerson is upset that the GOP budget would trim some money from the foreign aid budget. In his Washington Post column, he regurgitates Obama Administration talking points, claiming that less foreign aid will kill tens of thousands of poor children in Africa.

USAID estimates that reductions proposed in the 2011 House Republican budget would prevent 3 million malaria treatments. …this means about 1.5 million people in need of treatment would not receive it. About 3 percent of untreated malaria infections progress to severe malaria — affecting 45,000 children. Of those children, 60 to 73 percent will not survive, yielding 27,000 to 30,000 deaths. …global health programs are not analogous to many other categories of federal spending, such as job training programs or support for public television. A child either receives malaria treatment or does not. The resulting risk of death is quantifiable. The outcome of returning to 2008 spending levels, as Republicans propose, is predictable. …One can be a budget cutter and still take exception to cuts at the expense of the most vulnerable people on earth. …Cuts for global health programs should be of special concern to those of us who consider ourselves pro-life. No pro-life member of Congress could support welfare savings by paying for abortions.

Gerson’s moral preening is a bit tedious. He’s a guy who presumably is part of top 2 percent of income earners in America. And I bet his family’s overall level of consumption must be in the top 1 percent worldwide. Yet he wants to take money from the rest of us, with our lower living standards, so he can feel morally superior.

Having met Gerson a couple of times, I don’t doubt his sincerity, and I’m guessing he probably gives a lot of money to charity. Moreover, I doubt he personally benefits from more spending in these areas (i.e., he’s not an overpaid bureaucrat, a consultant with a fat contract from USAID, or anything like that).

But I still have a hard time taking him seriously because he thinks the coercive power of government should be used to spend money in ways that he finds desirable – even if that means that people with much lower levels of income and wealth are picking up the tab for something that Gerson wants.

My Cato colleague, Roger Pilon, had a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal examining the broader issue of whether federal spending is an appropriate way of fulfilling charitable impulses. As Roger notes, it’s not charity when you make other people pay for things that you think are important.

‘What Would Jesus Cut?” So read the headline of a full-page ad published in Politico last month by Sojourners, the progressive evangelical Christian group. Urging readers to sign a petition asking Congress “to oppose any budget proposal that increases military spending while cutting domestic and international programs that benefit the poor, especially children,” it was the opening salvo of a campaign to recast the budget battle as a morality play. Not to be outdone, Catholics for Choice took to Politico on Tuesday to run “An Open Letter from Catholic State Legislators to Our Colleagues in the US Congress.” The letter condemned “policies that unfairly target the least among us,” echoing a blogger at the National Catholic Reporter who averred last month that the federal budget is, after all, “a moral document.” …The budget battle is thus replete with moral implications far more basic than Sojourners and Catholics for Choice seem to imagine. They ask, implicitly, how “we” should spend “our” money, as though we were one big family quarreling over our collective assets. We’re not. We’re a constitutional republic, populated by discrete individuals, each with our own interests. Their question socializes us and our wherewithal. The Framers’ Constitution freed us to make our own individual choices. The irony is that Jesus, properly understood, saw this clearly—both when he asked us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, and when he spoke of the Good Samaritan. The ads’ signers imagine that the Good Samaritan parable instructs us to attend to the afflicted through the coercive government programs of the modern welfare state. It does not. The Good Samaritan is virtuous not because he helps the fallen through the force of law but because he does so voluntarily, which he can do only if he has the right to freely choose the good, or not. Americans are a generous people. They will help the less fortunate if left free to do so. What they resent is being forced to do good—and in ways that are not only inefficient but impose massive debts upon their children. That’s not the way free people help the young and less fortunate.

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