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Friday, October 3, 2014

#25 – “If Government Doesn’t Relieve Distress, Who Will?”


The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government.

Our society is inundated with half-truths and misconceptions about the economy in general and free enterprise in particular. The “Clichés of Progressivism” series is meant to equip students with the arguments necessary to inform debate and correct the record where bias and errors abound.

The antecedents to this collection are two classic FEE publications that YAF helped distribute in the past: Clichés of Politics, published in 1994, and the more influential Clichés of Socialism, which made its first appearance in 1962. Indeed, this new collection will contain a number of essays from those two earlier works, updated for the present day where necessary. Other entries first appeared in some version in FEE’s journal, The Freeman. Still others are brand new, never having appeared in print anywhere. They will be published weekly on the websites of both YAF and FEE: and until the series runs its course. A book will then be released in 2015 featuring the best of the essays, and will be widely distributed in schools and on college campuses.

See the index of the published chapters here.


#25 – “If Government Doesn’t Relieve Distress, Who Will?” 

(Editor’s Note: Leonard E. Read was the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946 and served as its president until his death in 1983. A version of this essay first appeared in FEE’s book, “Clichés of Socialism,” in 1962.)

 President Grover Cleveland, vetoing a congressional appropriation of $10,000 to buy seed grain for drought-stricken Texans, may have given us all the answer we need to this cliché:

The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune….Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

No doubt many of the congressmen who voted for this appropriation were sincerely asking, “If the federal government does not save these poor Texans, who will?” President Cleveland had only to veto the measure and write an explanation. But we private citizens have no power beyond reason and persuasion. What, then, might we have said? This would be one honest answer: “I am not clairvoyant and, thus, I do not know who will relieve these people. However, I do know that Texans acting on their own initiative and with their own resources will take care of themselves better than they will be taken care of by any number of politicians imitating Robin Hood.”

The question, “If government does not relieve distress, who will?” is illogical. No one can ever answer, who will. Thus, the cliché-maker wins his implied point without a struggle—unless one lays claim to clairvoyance or exposes the fakery of the question. (Furthermore, implicit in the question itself is the dubious assumption that if government does it, it will be done well, efficiently and without corruption.)

Every reader of these lines can prove to himself, by reflecting on personal experiences, that the relief of distress is an unpredictable event. Time after time, each of us, with no preconception, has observed distress and then taken steps to relieve it—with his own income! (Editor’s Note: Author Marvin Olasky in his 1999 book, “The American Leadership Tradition,” notes that the private, voluntary donations that poured in to help Texas after Cleveland’s veto amounted to at least ten times what the President had vetoed.)

Prior to the 1930s, before the federal government assumed responsibility for “relief,” no one could have foretold who would come to whose rescue; yet, since 1623, there is no record of famine or starvation in this country. Among a people where the principles of freedom were more widely practiced and government more limited than elsewhere, there has been less distress and more general well-being than history had ever recorded. Societies saddled with bureaucracy have no record of coming to the aid of free societies; it has always been the other way around.

Charity is a personal virtue. When government does not undertake coercively-funded grants-in-aid (“relief”), millions of adults stand as guardians against distress. Their available charitable energy is totally at work observing distress in its neighborly detail, judging and coming to the rescue with the fruits of the labor of each charitable person. And on occasions of major disaster, there has been a voluntary pooling of individual resources, often extravagant.

What happens when government takes over? Funds coercively collected are dispensed to individuals according to group, class, or occupational category. This has no semblance of charity; it is the robbery of Peter to pay Paul. Further, when government constructs a feeding trough and fills it with fruits extorted from the citizenry, it creates new claimants and aggravates the problem it set out to solve.

It is not only the so-called “relief” projects that are based on this same tired cliché, but most other cases of government intervention in our society: “If the government doesn’t do the job, who will?” If the government doesn’t level mountains and fill valleys, drain swamps and water deserts, build highways over waters and seaways over land, subsidize failure and penalize productivity and thrift, send men to the moon and promise the moon to mankind, and a thousand and one other projects—if the government doesn’t do these things, that is, force taxpayers to do them, who will? And more often than not the answer is that probably no one in his right mind would ever think of doing such things—at his own risk, with his own money. Eventually, a time might come when some ingenious person would see a way to do one or more of these jobs, in hope of profit, and would take the chance.

But there is no way to determine in advance who that pioneer might be. The most that can be done is to leave men free, for only among free men do pioneers emerge. Freedom affords every opportunity, in charitable enterprises or on the market, for the best—not the worst—to rise topside.

Leonard E. Read


  • Nobody can name the names in advance of those who might come to the aid of fellow citizens in distress. The question is illogical.
  • Without government assistance, a massive amount of private, voluntary aid has poured forth from American citizens since the first settlement here. Is there any reason to suppose that politicians are more caring, compassionate or effective in providing relief with other people’s money than individuals who get personally involved in the relief of citizens nearby?
  • Government is not true charity.
  • For further information, see:

“Government and Disaster Relief” by Lawrence W. Reed:

“Disaster Relief Then and Now” by Janet Sharp Hermann:

“Saying No to Federal Disaster Relief” by William B. Irvine:

“Lessons from the Chicago Fire” by Daniel Oliver:

“Government, Poverty and Self-Reliance: Wisdom From 19th Century Presidents” by Lawrence W. Reed:

“Uncle Sam’s Flood Machine” by James Bovard:

“Disaster Response Restores Confidence in Government?” by Tyler Watts:

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”