Happy Dependence Day!


Government's natural relationship to power is much the same as a man's natural relationship to sex: it wants as much as possible from as many people as it can get to give it up. In a civilized society, it tries to have its way through charm and persuasion; among savages, it takes what it wants by force. But always and everywhere, there is one unfailingly certain method of scoring the booty: buy it.

Trading welfare for power is the second oldest profession.

Wherever the government seems to provide, it actually rules. This is the "mild" despotism feared by Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant 19th century political thinker whose writing inspired Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom. This seemingly benevolent form of dictatorship, he wrote in the second volume of Democracy in America, is a tyranny that would "degrade men without tormenting them," "an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure [people's] gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood."

The debased citizenry this nanny state ultimately produces was described in a deathless phrase by the great Roman satirist Juvenal. Writing less than a century after the Romans had frittered away their republic, he observed, "The people, who once gave commands, elected officials, bestowed legions and everything else now care for only two things: bread and circuses."

Entitlements are the bread in Juvenal's equation.

Whether or not entitlements are given with charitable intentions, they are not charity. Charity is freely bestowed. It ennobles the giver and may create within the recipient a gratitude and sense of responsibility that moves him to self-reliance. Entitlements are an act of force. Government wrests property and services away from one person to bestow them on another at its own will, by its own wisdom and ultimately to its own benefit. At first, the recipient may think that it's only the rich man's freedom which is being stripped away and what's it to him? But soon enough he finds that government is now well within its rights to control whatever it is paying to support: his behavior, his consumption, his religion, his words. He may live well only as long as he lives in obedience.