All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1973

Welfare as a Right

Mr. Foley, a partner in Souther, Spaulding, Kinsey, Williamson & Schwabe, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

“Welfare is a right, not a privilege” is a popular cliché which calls for an immediate and forceful rejoinder. Despite the obvious error latent in the phrase, this declaration assails us daily from myriad sources in varying guises. The National Welfare Rights Organization made the statement in its clearest form but similar utterances emanate from groups claiming that child care, food stamps, and all manner of handouts exist as a matter of right.

Reason permits penetration of myths and fallacies; and definition of terms, illuminating the problem, constitutes the first step toward reason.


Like other open-textured words, “welfare” possesses a variety of meanings. Like other terms utilized in the political arena, it is subject to corruption by both friend and foe.

Recur to Webster, the common authority. The primary meaning assigned to “welfare” encompasses “the state of faring or doing well, thriving or successful progress in life: a state characterized especially by good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity”¹ Dr. Sisson offers the following synonyms which reflect a similar understanding: “aid; future; good; happiness; health; progress; prosperity; sele; success; weal; wellbeing.”2 Thus, the traditional meaning assigned to the term conjures up thoughts of goodness, happiness, prosperity and well-being.

Webster’s secondary definition illustrates the gradual erosion of the word as it becomes politicalized: “Of, relating to; or concerned with welfare and especially with improvement of the welfare of social groups (as children, workers, or underprivileged or disabled persons)” (emphasis supplied). Thus, we move from a definition which described a desirable state of affairs (one which might be somewhat difficult to achieve) to a corrupted definition manifesting concern with improvement or imposition of that state, apparently by the actions of men.

Clearly, those who urge that “welfare is a right, not a privilege” do not by that statement mean that happiness, prosperity, well-being or good fortune constitute fundamental, unassailable rights — or do they?

The emasculation of the word becomes complete when we review Webster’s definition of “welfare state,” for here we discover that the polemical wordsmiths have journeyed from a descriptive meaning to an extensive one, an urge to action:

A social system based upon the assumption by a political state of primary responsibility for the individual and social welfare of its citizens usually by the enactment of specific public policies (as health and unemployment insurance, minimum wages and prices, and subsidies to agriculture, housing, and other segments of the economy) and their implementation directly by governmental agencies.

Instead of describing an ideal, those who use the word now seek to impose their views of the ideal upon others by coercion. Notice that each and every example in the dictionary definition of “welfare state” involves government coercion of the individual, a mulcting of his free choice. No longer is he able to seek his own destiny — his own way to good fortune, well-being, prosperity and happiness; instead some other individual or group arrogates the authority to decide for him what he wants or needs to secure euphoria. Thus has the definition moved from traditional description to methodology, and a false methodology at that!

In its primary sense, “welfare” remains open-textured; any individual can discern for himself what constitutes happiness, prosperity and well-being; these goals vary from person to person. In the secondary sense, “welfare” assumes knowledge on the part of someone of what constitutes happiness, prosperity, and well-being for all others within a group, class, or society.

Properly analyzed, then, the declarant of the cliché means that government interventions in the economy benefiting some individuals and groups at the expense of others is a right, not a privilege. Boldly stated, this utterance seems questionable; as we shall see, after a brief analysis of the concepts of “right” and “privilege,” it actually borders on sham.

What is a Right?

“Right” refers to another of those baffling terms which, seemingly clear in application, flit about like a noisy ghost when one seeks a precise definition. It is a word of many shadings of meaning, none of them exact; a perusal of Webster’s reveals one page of fine print devoted to the term; recourse to a jural lexicographer offers three pages of definition.3

Part of the confusion arises from the human tendency to use the same words at different times in different contexts to mean different things. Thus, a speaker may initially use the word “right” to mean any obligation legally enforceable by one man against another and yet, on another occasion, utter the same word as meaning a seminal power inherent in an individual just because he is a human being, notwithstanding (or sometimes, in spite of) the coercion of organized government. Black’s Law Dictionary exhibits this particular befuddlement:

… a power, privilege, faculty, or demand, inherent in one person and incident upon another. “Rights” are defined generally as “powers of free action.” And the primal rights pertaining to man are undoubtedly enjoyed by human beings purely as such, being grounded in personality, and existing antecedently to their recognition by positive law. But leaving the abstract moral sphere, and giving to the term a juristic content, a “right” is well defined as a “capacity residing in one man of controlling, with the assent and assistance of the state, the action of others.” (p. 1486)

Further blurring the identity, some append the adjective “natural” to “right,” when utilizing it in its fundamental moral meaning:

Natural rights are those which grow out of the nature of man and depend upon personality, as distinguished from such as are created by law and depend upon civilized society; (p. 1487)

Let us isolate and comment upon the essential meaning of a “right.” It is something fundamental, inherent in man’s person merely because he is a person. It cannot be justly disparaged by another man or group of men; it exists beyond the reach of mankind and emanates from the Essence of the Universe. It deals with free action, with voluntary use of faculties in all fields of endeavor.

Properly construed, a right exists without law, without the sanction of a legal system — once one assumes the necessity of a juridical unit to establish rights, he must also posit that that same body may limit or destroy those identical rights. Consider reality: if the right of free speech, free press, and free association, guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution do not inhere in mankind but exist only because of some writing on a crumbling document, the guarantees mean little: in periods of stress, martial law may be impaired by the same authority which produced the Constitution, allegedly justifying the “temporary” removal or restriction of those rights.

Contrary to Black’s definition, a right need not favor one person to the detriment of another. Properly analyzed, the existence of rights in one man benefits all mankind. Man should be free to choose his own destiny in all enterprises. The sole justifiable limitation on this liberty rests in the injunction that no man shall use his powers to coerce or deny an equal freedom in all other human beings. My freedom diminishes to the extent that I do not possess the right to murder my neighbor; his liberty likewise lessens because he may not lawfully take my life. But to ascribe to rights the attribute that the existence of a right in A diminishes the corresponding right in B fails to ring true. A’s right to order his life does not conflict with B’s equal, reciprocal right (except in the limited sense that neither may coerce or defraud the other); indeed, a vast multitude of actors, each seeking their own ends, effectively produce material well-being (or welfare in one sense) beyond the wildest imaginations of the utopian planner. My right to produce shoes does not infringe upon my neighbor’s right to produce shoes in competition with me; we each create value; that value is measured by the choice of others who wish to purchase shoes, exercising their respective rights to choose.

A fundamental right must preexist a jural system, but it may exist contemporaneously with such a system. The appropriate interrelationship between essential rights and the jural system appears in the Jeffersonian phrase, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”4 Rights inhere in man because he is a human being endowed with such powers by his nature and by the principles which govern the universe. The sole legitimate function of that organized force we call the state, or government, is to secure — protect against invasion — these rights in every individual. The result: each man remains free to follow the dictates of his conscience and to seek his own destiny.

Privilege Contrasted

Analysis of the concept of “privilege” indicates that such an assertion means something quite different than a fundamental right; indeed, the word partakes of the veiled meaning of right dependent upon legal sanction for its continued existence:

A particular and peculiar benefit or advantage enjoyed by a person, company, or class beyond the common advantages of other citizens. An exceptional or extraordinary power or exemption. A right, power, franchise or immunity held by a person or class, against or beyond the course of the law.,

In short, a privilege denotes a special power, favor or advantage granted by law to one individual or group, conferring particular rights upon the recipient to his benefit and to the concurrent detriment of others in society. Unlike a fundamental right, the existence of which benefits not only the holder but also all others in society, a privilege favors one and demeans another, all backed by the coercion of the state.

Monopolies and subsidies offer common examples of privileges. The state grants a monopoly franchise to ABC Power Company, excluding all others who wish to generate, transmit, and distribute electric power in a given territory, and exacting tribute in return by means of restrictions on freedom of choice (e.g., excise taxes, franchise taxes, limitations on hiring and personnel policies, rate tariffs). ABC Power Company receives a privilege — one for which it pays dearly in real terms. Again, Farmer Brown and Businessman Smith glean gifts of money from the national government for permitting land to stay fallow or for producing certain machine tools. Since government creates nothing, the funds transferred to Farmer Brown and Businessman Smith derive from other individual value-creators in society; the funds change hands by means of coercion; the creator of value is taxed by the state so as to support Smith and Brown, and he acquiesces only because he does not wish to be killed, maimed or jailed by the collective force of society.

These simple examples of privilege disclose another differentiating aspect from right: a privilege cannot exist without an underlying jural system since, by postulate, a privilege takes from one and gives to another by force and thereby wholly depends upon the law for its sanction.

Furthermore, privileges do not connote “powers of free action” for they inhibit the freedom of the disadvantaged person or group. Unlike fundamental rights, privileges, being dependent upon government, may be altered, changed, or obliterated by the granting authority. In sum, privileges lack the enduring qualities of rights.

Consider The Phrase: Is Welfare A Right Or A Privilege?

Armed with this linguistic analysis, let us now consider the utterance, “welfare is a right, not a privilege.” What does the declarant mean? He or she can only mean that a system of government and law which supplies advantages, subsidies, and favors to one segment of society (the “disadvantaged,” whoever they are at that moment) endows the recipient class with a fundamental power to receive this largess, a power which pre-exists and supersedes the state, even though these donations unduly hamper the freedom of choice of other individuals in that society.

Can a rational man truly accept the position that the state should coerce and defraud citizens of value they have created so as to benefit other, less productive creatures? Even assuming that the state has the power to bestow exacted value upon selected members of society (less a substantial handling charge, of course), how can intelligent people really believe that the ability to receive such benevolence not only pre-exists the state but also stands beyond the reach of popular termination? What the proponents of the cliché truly propose is a system whereby benefits, once granted, can never be diminished or terminated. Most aid programs never cease, but the voluntarist retains the fond hope that someday, somehow, libertarian legislators will dismantle at least some of the cumbersome, expensive and freedom-throttling machinery of the state. No objective observer can accept the proposition that once a program designed to promote the real or imagined well-being of one person becomes law, that law forever freezes into the system beyond the possibility of change. Yet, apparently that is the expectation of those who cry, “welfare is a right, not a privilege.”

Realistically viewed, the shibboleth asks mankind to weld into a juristic and socio-economic system the concept that “might makes right.” Reduced to its bare bones, the phrase means that some group should gain at the expense of others, and that the state should not only effect that gain by use of its collective force but also supply some sort of moral sanction for its own activities as well as those of the beseeching donees. Simply stated, the welfarists assert that they are entitled, because of ability, talent or some other inherent attributes, to the fruits of the labor of their neighbors at a particular point in time and that once they start receiving these advantages, no one should ever interfere with the steady flow of coerced goods into their coffers. They possess the power to mulct others but they deny an equal reciprocal power to others to protect themselves, and they possess the additional audacity to demand that their victims acquiesce in the looting because the conduct, while reprehensible to most of us, deserves the armor of moral propriety!

Contrary to the fallacy implicit in the phrase, power and coercion do not constitute moral absolutes in our universe. You may steal my goods, or destroy your neighbor —you have that power. Existence of power does not equate with what is right, just, and proper. Might does not make right.

Man’s Capacity for Sympathy

Clarify the analysis. No one rails against the unfortunate members of society who are disadvantaged by accident, illness, tragedy, or station in life. Sympathy exists as a natural and desirable attribute of man. Each of us feels sympathy and empathy for those less fortunate: the widow raising young children, the blind man, the crippled veteran, the homeless alcoholic. In some instances, tragedy visits those who do not seem to deserve that fate; in other cases, man acts in such a way as to encourage his own problems. in either event, most human beings feel a very real sorrow and compassion for their beleaguered neighbors.

Because of this natural capacity for sympathy, most of us are interested in the well-being, happiness, and prosperity of others in society; to that extent, we favor their welfare. But it is a far cry from this position to condone gifts of assistance to these sympathetic creatures when the gifts are ravaged from other people who created value and whose only crime consists of the desire to keep what they created. Who knows whether those despoiled could have put their property to better use than the donees? Who among us possesses the god-like faculty for making this kind of arrogant value judgment? Perhaps welfare subsidizes a needy one-legged veteran, but the tax which pays the subsidy is exacted from a hardworking woman in poor health who valiantly strives to save some of her earnings for early retirement so she can live the rest of her labored days in comfort and perhaps stretch the pleasurable portions of her life out by weeks, months, or years. Which of us possesses the omniscience to foresee and fit each life together to achieve perfect harmony and justice in the balance? And who among us truly desires and possesses the capacity for making such awful judgments? Not I.

The Needy Veteran versus the Spoiled Brat

But to make the point more lucidly, let us posit the welfare recipient as a bedridden veteran, crippled and blinded, unable to secure gainful employment through no fault of his own with three motherless infants to rear. Presuppose that the recipient’s subsidy emanates directly from the pockets of a ne’er-do-well scion of a millionaire who has never done a lick of work in his life, whose sole career appears to consist of drinking, wenching, and riding trail bikes in sylvan glens. Almost all of us would sympathize with the condition of the disabled veteran; many of us would gladly donate from our meagre store of value so that he might live a more prosperous and happy life — and we would do so voluntarily sans coercive government. Moreover, many of us would say that the spoiled brat of the rich man led a worthless life and ought to support the poor veteran. But even this supposed situation should not sway us from our firm resolve never to deprive our neighbor of his equal and reciprocal rights. Even in such a stark setting, not one of us, not even the poor veteran, possesses a right to coerce or defraud the rich young man of his life, his liberty, or his property. He may merit our disapproval; we may wish not to associate with him; but we must ever quell the urge to victimize him, for in the instant that we attempt to justify our sacking of his freedom we sow the seed which will devour our own liberty. If one man may be mulcted, all may be despoiled — the bars are down.

Remember one point well: coercion cannot right a wrong or correct an ill; it can only compound injustice. Voluntary action may cure all defects in society, at least those which can be aided by finite man. Voluntary action will feed the hungry, cloth the ragged, comfort the fatherless, and attend the sick — all without forceful intervention. No one contests the well-meaning goals of the welfarist, for all men of good will desire happiness and prosperity for their neighbors. But clarity requires intent — an intent to give and desire to receive. True charity cannot be coerced. Thus, while I may share the goals of the welfarist, be it fair employment, fair wages, good health, long life, or general happiness, I engage in no charity when I pass a law commanding each member of society to pay part of his property to those laudable ends. Only when I voluntarily give to a worthwhile cause do I engage in charity, for coercion destroys true charity.

Some proponents of welfare aver that recipients are demeaned by handouts, and that donees need dignity. All persons require dignity; few like to take unearned property from others. But a coercive mask cannot alter reality, and all the disguises in the world cannot change a handout into a right. Perhaps lessened dignity will induce more recipients to become productive again; certainly the “morality of force” amounts to no morality at all, and welfare cannot be considered a right by thinking men.



1 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged, G & C Merriam Company, Springfield, Mass, 1966) 2594.

2 Sisson, F. A., Sisson’s Synonyms (Parker Publishing Company, Inc., West Nyack, New York, 1966) 678.

3 Black’s Law Dictionary (4th edition, West Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minn., 1951) 1486-1488.

4 Declaration of Independence, United States of America.

5 Black’s op cit, p. 1359.



It Is More Blessed

Give a man a handout today — and tomorrow he’ll probably be back for another. Create a job for a man today — and tomorrow he will pay his own way, his family’s way, a part of the cost of his government, and may be able himself to help the needy.

A job calls forth initiative and bolsters self-respect. A handout diminishes both. The person who invests in an enterprise that provides jobs performs a humanitarian act. To the Biblical counsel that it is more blessed to give than to receive, therefore, might be added the advice that it is more blessed to invest than to give.


  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.