Taking cash from the govt: A Moral Imperative?

Social Security card - hands offDue to my son's 3 month premature arrival, I recently applied for Social Security, which may give me some cash because of his long hospital stay. While I don't really need the money, I feel as though taking cash from the government is a moral imperative. After all, when a bandit tribe steals a third of everything I produce, year after year, and I finally get a chance to lighten their pockets a little, it feels pretty damn good. But should it? An anonymous commenter on my livejournal post wrote:

The problem here is that the State doesn't lose power when people take money from it. Instead, the State GAINS power -- its power is a function of how much money flows "through" the system, not whether or not it makes a "profit".

The notion that one is "getting one's money back" from the Machine by applying for benefits is IMHO a very dangerous one. The particular bureaucracy that is doling out the benefits will gain power, and its budget will increase. Some of that increase will be at the expense of other government bureaucracies, but some of that increase will be passed on to the taxpayers, which include ME.

While I'm not completely convinced, there is definitely an important factor here which I hadn't thought about. And it leads me towards some key clarifying questions. For example, who would get this money if I didn't? Would it be wasted by the agency? Would it go to some other, probably more worthy individual? (ie am I just winning a zero-sum game) Does it truly increase the agencies power to have doled out more money? Or does their budget increase via political maneuvering unrelated to what they actually do "on the street"? Is this agency spending money it has specifically been budgeted, or does it just have some formula for payouts and some formula for taxation, and the difference affects the general budget? My impression is that Social Security is more like the latter, in which case if I take a little more, doesn't that mean the government has a little less to spend?

These are complex questions, relating to the implementation of the government in question, and most importantly to the marginal effect of my dole on the rest of the system. Yet that marginal impact is the key to whether I'm helping or hurting Leviathan.

With only guessed answers to these questions, I lean towards my original judgement. The cash I'm getting from the band of robbers is real and definite. The effects that might make it a negative are less certain and less direct. So until I see is strong evidence for those effects, my initial glee will remain. I leave it to you, gentle readers, to change my mind.

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If you take the loot and

If you take the loot and then hand it over to some Libertarian charity, your conscience would be clear.

1. the money you take will

1. the money you take will make no difference whatsoever in the solvency of the country
2. if you think it's wrong to take this money, then I also encourage you to take no tax deductions, and perhaps contribute extra money to the government -- you might have trouble just sending them money (Lord knows, they'd probably send it back, how to figure?), but in that case just lie about your income by saying it's more than it is.

For example, who would get

For example, who would get this money if I didn’t? Would it be wasted by the agency? Would it go to some other, probably more worthy individual? (ie am I just winning a zero-sum game) Does it truly increase the agencies power to have doled out more money? Or does their budget increase via political maneuvering unrelated to what they actually do “on the street"? Is this agency spending money it has specifically been budgeted, or does it just have some formula for payouts and some formula for taxation, and the difference affects the general budget?

Yes.

It's probably all of them combined. Complexity, thy name is the U.S. Tax Code, Insanity, thy name is the Federal Budget.

My impression is that Social Security is more like the latter, in which case if I take a little more, doesn’t that mean the government has a little less to spend?

Yeah, that'll be the day! :roll:

The Fed. will probably borrow the $500 that you take out from China or France or Nigeria.

:beatnik: I don't worry about it, it's not like SS is going to be there when I retire.

No argument from me, Patri.

No argument from me, Patri. Well, maybe a small one: I would say that taking money from the government isn't a moral imperative, but it's not proscribed either. (Note to philosophy mavens: I know there's a special word for this class of actions, but it escapes me at the moment. Anyone know it? Joe?) I don't think you can argue it's an imperative since that would founder on the same arguments you use against voting -- the marginal effect of your taking what you can from system is negligable. But since libertarians expect individuals to do what's in their own interests, it would be strange indeed for a libertarian to outright refuse to take the opportunity for a partial refund on his taxes.

It's your money; you might

It's your money; you might as well take it back as long as it's not enough move you into the net tax recipient category. I say take the money and then use the fact that it was offered to you against the government. Tell everyone who will listen. Flaunt it. Let others see firsthand that Social Security is middle-class welfare, not a means-tested safety net. This program isn't getting the outrage it deserves, and I think you could use your story to help change that.

One thing to consider:

One thing to consider: while your paying in is non-voluntary, your getting paid out is. So by voluntarily increasing your involvement in government activity, you're helping to create the illusion of consensuality that supports much of the beuracracy.

You will do, far, far more

You will do, far, far more good by simply cheating on your taxes.

nmg

I ran into the same question

I ran into the same question a few years ago. I was working in Silicon Valley as an electrical engineer during the tech meltdown. In February 2002 I was laid off, and was faced with a choice. Do I work my ass off at much lower paying jobs, or take the $1500/month unemployment the People's Republic of California was offering me to hold out and try to get another engineering job (while going out and riding my motorcycle in the Santa Cruz mountains a few hours a day :cool:). I figure that it was one of the few times in my life I'd get a chance to take money back from the bastards who took it from me in the first place, so I took the money.

But I say the same thing that Brandon Berg said above. I don't feel guilty about taking that money. I don't pretend to feel guilty. I'll tell anyone who asks about it. And I'll freely admit that I could very easily have gotten any number of jobs in a matter of days that would have gotten me through that tough time. I was, plain and simple, exploiting the system when I didn't need to do it.

And it was easy! I had to send in a form asking whether I looked for work. It was just a check-box, no documentation needed. After a month or two, they asked me to go to some job-training thing so that I could get my resume put into job search websites (yeah, like I wasn't already on monster.com, careerbuilder, etc etc). I thought they were doing a check to make sure I was actively looking for work, so I made a printout of all the jobs I had submitted a resume to, all the emails I'd gotten back, etc. I thought I would have to justify why I hadn't found work any sooner. Nope. They didn't care at all. All they cared about is the fact that I showed up to their little "job-hunting" seminar, so they could keep sending me checks.

If you're going to do it, make sure you're explaining to everyone around you that you're exploiting the system for something you don't really need. Let them know that there are millions of people like you doing it every day, and *THAT'S* why taxes are so high. It's not "for the children", it's for people who don't need it because the government is too incompetent to target aid towards people who actually need it.

I draw a rather convoluted

I draw a rather convoluted line. I'm not willing to take handouts from the government for jury duty, unemployment, or government contracted work. When I get a tax refund, I send the check to the Advocates for Self Government. That gives me a serious incentive to ensure that I owe money at the end of the year: I don't want to be lending money to the government.

I build software products, and I'm sometimes in an influential position with respect to what gets built, or what consulting contracts are accepted. I have made it clear that I won't work on a direct consulting contract with the government. But I know that other people don't follow the same rules, so I don't exclude the possibility of working with others who do take government money. (I don't think the distinction has mattered to this point.) I don't think it would be possible to work in groups in Silicon Valley if I refused to work with people who follow different rules; especially since, as far as I can tell, I'm alone in where I draw the line.

When the time comes, I intend to refuse SSA payments. If they insist on sending them to me, as I have heard, I will probably send all the money to Cato for their anti-SS work. I am completely boggled by the fact that SS isn't means tested. There are far too many people with far too much money of their own who are getting that money, and somehow have accepted the view that it's right that they get that supplemental money because they are old.

Patri, the one part of your opening statement that most upsets me is "While I don't really need the money". They may have stolen some of that money from you, but they justify stealing from widows and orphans because it's going to a good cause. To them, you are just an example of "someone with a premature infant who is being helped by society's generosity." It won't stop as long as bleeding hearts think they're doing it for a good cause.

Patri, more money to smart

Patri, more money to smart people like yourself is good. So what if it increases the SSA's power relative to other government agencies? Cheating on your taxes might get the IRS more funding and increase taxes for others, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. I don't see how applying for SS is any different.

Patri, It is not a moral

Patri,

It is not a moral imperative. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The money is not being returned to you by the state; such would require the state be somewhat poorer. The State does not get poorer; all it's funds -- including those you receive from them -- are expropriated from others, either directly by taxation or indirectly by the printing press.

Now, I would agree that you have the right to seek restitution, but your current position implies that restitution does not require a burden on the theif -- that property knowingly coerced from any innocent party will suffice.

If you view the acceptance of known stolen property as legitimate, then it is required that you view the theif's stolen goods as legitimately owned. This in fact would hold theft as a legitimate means of transferring property rights, and as such the original theft from you must be viewed as legitimate, and you would not be in a position to demand restitution for anything.

Given all this, the only consistently moral means by which one could recoup expropriated funds would be to cease all taxation, and start selling off the real assets of the government. Until then, Paul is still being robbed so the state can give "aid" to Patri.

To me, the consequential

To me, the consequential argument comes down to a question of solvency vs legitimacy.

Are states hurt when they lose money? No. They take more via taxation or inflation. They're not like a company.

Are states hurt when they lose legitimacy? Yes. The Velvet Revolution about which a post that I recently linked to on Samizdata was "velvet" because nearly overnight, the commies lost legitimacy, and the regime crumbled. Legitimacy is the glue that enforces the social contract and the political economy. When you take that away, the state loses power.

So does your taking SS money hurt the state by causing it to lose money? No. It can always take more.

Does your taking SS money do anything to the legitimacy of SS? Yes, it reinforces it.

But then again, as Brad said above, if you advertise the fact that a middle class individual like yourself who doesn't really need the money but is taking it anyway, SS the program may marginally lose legitimacy.

(That isn't to say that you are obligated to avoid SS payments; if they took it, nothing wrong with getting it back. The above argument is merely about efficacy.)

I second Cornelius's

I second Cornelius's thoughts on the matter.

The money is not being

The money is not being returned to you by the state; such would require the state be somewhat poorer. The State does not get poorer; all it's funds -- including those you receive from them -- are expropriated from others, either directly by taxation or indirectly by the printing press.

You say this as if it is an invariant across States. Yet surely it depends on the exact budgeting/taxation process of the actual State. We could easily conjure up a potential state where taking handouts *did* make the state poorer, and cause increased taxation or inflation.

Hence the various empirical questions I asked about this state, and my openness to being convinced by empirical evidence about how Social Security in the USA works. Since your argument assumes the answer to what I said was the key question, I find it rather unpersuasive.

(Oops, should read "...and

(Oops, should read "...and did *not* cause increased taxation or inflation")

Brandon Berg's comment sheds

Brandon Berg's comment sheds light on another aspect: If Patri's argument is correct and taking money from the government is a moral imperative, doesn't that make Hoppe very moral? (I'm not trying to slander him; merely using him as an example since he's a well-known libertarian in the public sector.) More generally, do you guys think it's ok and even praiseworthy for people to work in jobs like the post office, public/private universities, etc, or is it morally objectionable and something libertarians should avoid? Brandon Berg offers the opposing viewpoint:

It’s your money; you might as well take it back as long as it’s not enough move you into the net tax recipient category. I say take the money and then use the fact that it was offered to you against the government. Tell everyone who will listen. Flaunt it.

I can think of a couple comments/criticisms:

1) If the entity in question is not directly part of the "governing" part of the government (i.e. high-level positions in the IRS or DoD, Richard Feynman working on nukes, etc) then is it still immoral? For example, you work for someone who works for someone who works for someone in Congress, or if you work at the post-office. Or for a McDonald's where Bill Clinton buys a Big Mac (supposing McDonald's accepts corporate subsidies from government). It seems the farther you go out the less certain we can be how much a percentage of the money is coming from thieves and how much is coming from non-thieves. Patri's view here I guess is that the moral thing to do is not necessarily taking or refusing to take government money, but in figuring out how to do it so that less rights are violated.

2) The charge of immorality stems from the charge of injustice. But given nobody knows how to redistribute the total net worth of government justly, it follows that even if Hoppe gave up all his money noone would know where to send it. So shouldn't he just keep it? On the other hand, if Patri is right, then the moral thing to do here is whatever helps lessen the influence the government, and if taking handouts and then boasting about it accomplishes that, then it's good, but if it somehow results in increasing government power, then it's bad. By this standard Hoppe is doing very well, because he takes government money as salary and writes lots of scholarly articles opposing the government.

3) If Patri is right in the sense that taking government money can be moral, it still might be there are better alternatives. Maybe the world really will be more free if you work at McDonald's instead of FedGovCo. Or doing something else entirely. So being a net tax recipient on this view wouldn't be wrong, just inferior to better alternatives that exist.

Yet surely it depends on the

Yet surely it depends on the exact budgeting/taxation process of the actual State. We could easily conjure up a potential state where taking handouts did make the state poorer, and did not cause increased taxation or inflation.

We can conjure up a great many things, though the situation you outline does not exist. So long as it can tax, the state does not get poorer by doling out welfare (even if one choses to view this as a recoupment of expropriated funds). The very fact it exists in perpetual deficit should prove this rather plainly.

Hence the various empirical questions I asked about this state, and my openness to being convinced by empirical evidence about how Social Security in the USA works. Since your argument assumes the answer to what I said was the key question, I find it rather unpersuasive.

Ah, my apologies for my lack of clarity by using general terms. As an empirical matter, my "assumptions" are not so. This is how it works, irrespective of the department and its exact budgeting/taxation process, once you cut through the internal accounting fiction.

Here's the way I look at it,

Here's the way I look at it, Patri: to the extent that government engages in activities that would be legitimate if carried out through voluntary association and mutual aid, it is crowding out the alternatives. And its taxing system reduces your purchasing power for such voluntary alternatives. So long as a major part of the necessary activities of society are carried out through the state, there's no shame in making use of them; all the while, of course, we try to destatize them as much as possible, shift their funding to a voluntary cost basis, and devolve them into the social body. Since the state preempts channels of voluntary cooperation, our strategy should be to seize the state's functions and change their character, not to penalize ourselves by paying for them twice.

The money doesn't rightfully

The money doesn't rightfully belong to anyone. It once did, but it can no longer be returned. There's nothing wrong with you taking it and whether or not you're getting more or less than what's been extorted from you is not a relevant consideration.

Obviously you stand better relative to the Leviathan after taking the money - $1000 a month means a whole lot more to you than to it.

It's nothing like a moral

It's nothing like a moral imperative, but it ain't a bad practice.

Jonathan, Does your taking

Jonathan,

Does your taking SS money do anything to the legitimacy of SS? Yes, it reinforces it.

Really? When Patri takes SS benefits does it increase the legitmacy of SS in your estimation? Or did you just mean among the feeble-minded?

Because I don't see why the misunderstandings of the feeble-minded should be a relevant consideration.

I am currently doing

I am currently doing volunteer work for Boat People SOS, an organization that helps Vietnamese refugees gain citizenship and learn basic English, computer literacy, etc. I plan on turning down their request to have me write grant proposals to the office of Health and Human Services. I couldn't in good conscience do it, what with being a libertarian and all. I'm more than happy to do other things, like pretend to be an INS officer in mock interviews (lol), but the rejection of my writing skills in the service of government fund procurement may hurt my resume a bit. What say y'all?

You don't need to phrase it

You don't need to phrase it that way on the resume. Just leave that out.

The cash you get from the

The cash you get from the government is somewhat tangible and concrete.
All they want in return is the soul of your first-born son, a rather abstract and nebulous concept. You'd be selling his patri-mony for a mess of pottage, but it's your choice. This one can be argued either way.
I'd suggest investing in some tax planning. For example, instead of buying a house, you could start a 501c3 think tank, have it buy an office and arrange for you to be the artist in residence. Shelters both income and property tax. Consult your tax advisor. Not to be construed as legal advice.
Chris, if you are the guy who did the SSN FAQ, kudos.
Dain, my current gimmick to pad my resume is to get nominated for a nobel peace prize. http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_11_20-2005_11_26.shtml#1132596092
no bidders yet.