The Ethics of Receiving Government Benefits

Many liberals like to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the people featured in the article, who rail against big government, demand lower spending, and simultaneously rake in benefits from the federal government that they hate. The central figure in the article, Ki Gulbranson, works hard yet has barely enough money to support his family, even with the earned income tax credit* and reduced-price school lunches for his kids. His conclusion: the country is going bankrupt, but people don’t make enough money to pay more taxes, so we should have smaller government. He would rather go without his current benefits—but he can’t imagine retiring without Medicare and Social Security. [Ed.—the rest of the article is worth reading as well.]

I have no opposition to people pursuing or receiving government benefits if they’ve paid into the system, even if they oppose the offering of those benefits. There are two reasons for this.

First, if you’ve paid taxes, you should be able to recoup them because the government is supposed to act in your interests. Some benefits will be indirect (military spending, e.g.), some are indirect (highway construction, e.g.), and some are direct (welfare, e.g.). The problem with government is that all benefits are part of the same basket; you can’t opt out of paying for any of the benefits. As such, there is little reason to opt out of receiving any benefits because you’ve already paid for them and, as is the case in a democracy, they belong to you (what with it being a government of the people, by the people, for the people and all).

Second, the government does things that incentivize the receipt of direct benefits. Taxation is one example, in that taxation prevents you from taking care of things for yourself. More people would be able to afford their own health care if the government cut health spending and the corresponding taxes. Another example is regulation (which is in many cases not enacted democratically), which also makes many things more expensive. More people could more easily afford the things they need if regulatory compliance costs were reduced.

Now, political principles are indeed wonderful things, as they give us some idea of where we want to go. But we should never mistake political principles for political reality. It would be great if there weren’t any unconstitutional government programs and their corresponding taxes. But that is currently not the case, and our ethical considerations need to account for the various distortions that come at the hands of the government. If the government is going to force you to make bricks, there’s no principled reason to refuse their straw.

* Caveat 1: while I argue that people shouldn’t be considered hypocrites for receiving government benefits that they argue against, they should also be aware that there are costs to qualifying for government benefits, and that they should be prepared to comply with them.

Caveat 2: this ethical analysis only applies to people who have paid taxes. Those who haven’t paid a dime in taxes should not receive a dime in benefits.

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