Should Anti-Statists Accept Food Stamps?

Receiving food stamps has become an unfortunate American pastime.

Since the housing bust and subsequent financial crisis threw millions out of work, many have turned to the dole.  The number of Americans on food stamps has reached record numbers.  Zerohedge graphically represents the trend:

The food stamps phenomenon, as yet another instance of government-enforced dependency, has been used by Republican presidential candidates to launch political attacks on President Obama.  Newt Gingrich infamously called Obama a “food stamps” president.  The other candidates rightly criticize the President’s horrid economic policy but offer no alternatives to the welfare state.  Obama preaches the gospel of collectivism by declaring “we are all in this together” as if that legitimizes taxation.

This pathetic state of affairs is representative of the team blue vs. team red circus which passes for contemporary political discourse in the U.S.  The real solution, that is abolishing the food stamps program all together to end the vicious subsidization of dependency, is avoided all together.  Both parties champion the idea of prosperity negating the need for food stamps but neither will tell voters “no.”  That would cost votes and therefore their jobs.  Republicans, for all their talk of less, limited government, are afraid of being accused as heartless for attempting to rollback the welfare state.  Meanwhile Democrats sponsor entitlement programs to ensure a stable bloc of voters while diminishing the self-sufficiency of those they claim to help.

Libertarians remain principled in their opposition to the welfare state.  In understanding the market process, they realize how the unperverted pricing system allows consumers and producers to meet at the margin on an agreeable transaction.  This drives investment toward industries highly solicited.  If the food industry remained uninhibited by government regulations such as farm subsidies, thugs at the Food and Drug Administration, tariffs, and various other measures to prevent competition and falling prices, food itself would be cheaper on the market.  Economics 101 teaches that subsidization not only ensures the status quo of elevated prices but encourages price mark ups.  This says nothing about food prices being among the first to shoot up in reaction to central bank money printing.

By the same token, those libertarians of the Lockean, natural rights tradition, are against such government programs for the very fact that they are funded by coercive taxation, inflationary counterfeiting, or borrowing on future taxed funds.  The state functions solely off the productivity and wealth it steals from the private sector.  It owns no resources so any monetary benefit it offers has been pilfered off previous owners.  The political class creates no wealth, it simply transfers money from one party to another through violent confiscation.

Though libertarians recognize the impoverishing effects of food stamps and the incompatibility of the state with natural rights, should they not accept government transfer payments?

To answer this common conundrum (think how many times you have professed to being a libertarian and were then accused of being a hypocrite for using a government provided service) consider what a libertarian would do if they were attempting to stay true to form in not accepting state benefits.  They couldn’t drive on roads, enjoy parks, drink municipal water (given the fluoride content, this may be a good thing), or visit libraries.  Taken to its logical extent, these libertarians would be unable to purchase goods and services with government mandated currency, receive medical treatment by a government licensed doctor, eat food inspected by state regulators, be educated in a government sanctioned school, or even use electricity provided by a public utility or company granted a monopoly by a state or local municipality.  Such a person would have to live a life of extreme material scarceness.

But as Murray Rothbard pointed out, “surely there are no moral systems that require people to be martyrs.”

The state is unfortunately a reality that libertarians must face and deal with on a daily basis.  The thievery will remain in practice for the time being till a great intellectual revolution where enough people realize how much better they would be if the violence of government ceased and law and order was established under private enforcement.  This doesn’t mean that libertarians should take off to the sticks somewhere, homestead some land, and begin living the life of a rugged woodsman.  On the contrary, libertarians should not shy away from government benefits but should endeavor to acquire them in the largest amount possible.

Sound crazy?  Consider the following:

In your community there is a well known gang of thieves.  Everyday they break into homes and take the personal possessions of you and your neighbors.  For whatever your reason, those in your community are unable to stop this from occurring.  Perhaps it is legally sanctioned from a higher authority or the gang of thieves is simply too dangerous or strong to stop.  Maybe many of those who reside in the community actually benefit from this racket as we shall see. Whatever the case, theft is routinely occurring.  Most would likely flee such undesirable state of affairs but assume it occurs without protest.  Now, these thieves aren’t actually stealing items like televisions, computers, iPads, etc. for their own enjoyment.  Soon after the theft spree, they set up shop with the stolen goods and proceed to hand them out to the various takers.  They don’t give back the items to the rightful owners and actually gain a favorable reputation by handing the goods out to unoriginal owners.

As a libertarian, should you refuse to attempt and retrieve some of what was taken from you?  The thieves have unjustly acquired the goods they are handing out.  They have no moral or legal right under the libertarian code to either own these items or transfer their ownership to others.  As economist Walter Block explains, libertarians would be perfectly justified in accepting these items.

My take on this is that it is a positive virtue to relieve the government of its ill-gotten gains. Suppose Z steals an apple from Y and then X comes along and takes this fruit away from Z. Did X do anything wrong? Did he act incompatibly with the NAP? Is X no longer a libertarian? Of course not. Very much to the contrary, X did something entirely compatible with our philosophy. Certainly, all libertarian theories of private property rights, of punishment, would agree that of all people in the world, Z is the absolutely least deserving of this foodstuff.

Libertarians would rightly advocate for the end of the criminal gang detailed above.  As long a their activities are not encouraged and criticized, there is nothing unlibertarian about taking from a thief that which is not his.

The same goes for all government programs.  Food stamps are no different.  The money has, after all, already been stolen.

So for the question of whether or not libertarians should take food stamps, the answer is an unequivocal yes!  Take food stamps; take as many food stamp benefits as possible.  Relieve the state of its ill-gotten gains.

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