All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1989

At Whose Expense?

A question often overlooked in public policy debates is deceptively simple: “At whose expense?” Let us reflect for a moment on this question and see if, by answering it, we can clarify some current issues.

Take, for example, child care benefits. When described by child care advocates, the issue seems rather innocuous. “Shouldn’t working mothers,” they ask, “have a right to adequate child care at reasonable cost?” The answer to such a question would seem to be yes, since parents have a right to seek adequate child care wherever and at whatever cost they choose.

But these advocates often go a step farther. They maintain that a parent’s right to seek child care somehow places a burden on a second party to provide it. This second party is usually thought to be the parent’s employer, or perhaps the taxpayers. This second party, then, is the answer to the question, “At whose expense?” Immediately another question then comes to mind: why?

Why should an employer be forced to provide child care? Some will argue that unless force is invoked, there won’t be enough child care facilities. This is doubtful, since as a general rule the free market works to meet consumer demands. A demand for child care will be met by profit-seeking entrepreneurs, if the market is free from government interference. However, if child care providers are burdened with too many regulations, laws, and taxes, they may not find it worthwhile to stay in business. Furthermore, if entrepreneurs must compete with government-subsidized providers, they may be driven out of business, thereby reducing the options available to parents.

Most important, however, is the fact that employers are people too—and they have a primary right to do as they choose with their own earnings and property. This includes the right to decide whether to offer employee child care. This is truly an “inalienable” right, and takes precedence over other so-called “rights,” such as the parent’s “right” to child care at the expense of an unwilling second party.

Likewise, imposing the financial burden on the taxpayers still amounts to forcing the individual taxpayer to purchase child care for someone else. Why should you be forced to pay for my child’s care? I have no more right to use government to take your money than I do to seize it directly at gunpoint. The only just system is one in which child care is paid for without the threat of coercion. Any other scheme, regardless of the noble intentions of its designers, plunders one person to provide care for someone else’s child.

Catastrophic Health Care

As another example, let’s consider catastrophic health care for the elderly. We might agree that this is a noble and desirable thing—but again we must ask the question: “At whose expense?” And it is here that the arguments for mandatory health care benefits collapse on ethical grounds. For, as with child care, we discover that the burden of financing catastrophic health care is to be placed on an unwilling second party—taxpayers. By what right?

Logically, all people should be free to seek out health insurance from those willing to provide it. As long as the purchasers of a plan give their money willingly, no ethical problems arise. But when one person is forced to fund an insurance plan for another, that person’s rights have been violated.

Consider someone who has purchased health insurance for himself and his family. By what right should he be forced to also buy health care for strangers? The answer, of course, is that no one has the right to demand this of him.

The Homeless

As a third example, consider the plight of the homeless. It is a sad but unchanging fact that some people cannot and will not be able to afford a home. Some concerned citizens think the solution is to build housing for the homeless, and perhaps provide food and social services. But once again the question arises: “At whose expense?”

The usual answer is the government. But who pays the government’s bills? Clearly you and I do, through taxes taken from us by force. It is the individual taxpayer who finances any such “charity.” Advocates of such programs believe themselves empowered to force us to give to their cause, not by persuading us, but by threat of imprisonment under the tax laws.

But what if I have my own favorite charities or causes, and already give to them all that I can? Or what if my neighbor simply doesn’t believe he is obligated to build a house for a stranger? By what right can he be forced to give up his money simply because someone else doesn’t have enough of his own? The answer, again, is that no such thing should be demanded of him.

But what a cruel state of affairs, some will say. What about those too poor to buy insurance, or child care, or a home? How will they survive?

The answer is simple: private, voluntary charity. Human compassion runs deep, resulting in thousands of charitable organizations that exist solely to help the less fortunate, and which get no government funding. These organizations, unlike the government, are limited to peaceful means of persuasion. They cannot take from us by force; they must convince us that their cause is worthy and their goals are in line with our own. When we ask of their work, “At whose expense?” the answer is: willing donors.

A distinction, then, becomes clear. With the help of the handy litmus question, “At whose expense?” we quickly skip to the core of matters which otherwise might seem a confusing mix of merits and drawbacks.

The answer to the question will be either willing buyers or unwilling victims. In the first case, those who benefit from a good or service are those who pay for it, or for whom a charity has paid the bill; in the second case an agent, usually government, is employed to rob from some to provide for others in the name of “justice” or “compassion.” But America was founded on the principle that ends don’t justify means. Justice and compassion are never served by violating the rights of free human beings, even for the noblest causes.

  • Philip Steele is a California writer and teacher whose work has appeared in Reason, The Freeman, The Miami Herald, The Orange County Register, and many other international newspapers and magazines.