Paving the Road to Hell

by Don Boudreaux on May 23, 2011

in History, Other People's Money

Dear Ms. __________:

Thanks for your e-mailed response to my blog-post in which I claim that compassion compelled by government isn’t true compassion.  Alleging that I “illegitimately privilege private morals over public morals,” you assert that a “private code of ethics gives incomplete guidance” for determining the contents and methods of sound public policy.

Omigosh, I couldn’t disagree more.

Where do the “public morals” that you so admire come from?  Isn’t it true that the very reason you support the welfare state is that your own private moral code tells you that helping needy people is the right thing to do?  I don’t see how you can casually cast aside one “private moral” (namely, that it’s wrong to take other people’s stuff just because you fancy that you’ve found better uses for it) in order to clear your way to justify the state acting to satisfy another of your private morals (namely, that it’s right for those of us who ‘have’ to give to people who ‘have not’).

I urge you to reflect on the following observation from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England, where he explains how John Dalrymple could in good conscience advise King William III to massacre Scottish highlanders who were believed to support insurrection against William:

The most probable conjecture is that he was actuated by an inordinate, an unscrupulous, a remorseless zeal for what seemed to him to be the interest of the state.  This explanation may startle those who have not considered how large a proportion of the blackest crimes recorded in history is to be ascribed to ill regulated public spirit.  We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or to avenge themselves.  At a temptation directly addressed to our private cupidity or to our private animosity, whatever virtue we have takes the alarm.  But virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is in his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church, on a commonwealth, on mankind.  He silences the remonstrances of conscience, and hardens his heart against the most touching spectacles of misery, by repeating to himself that his interventions are pure, that his objects are noble, that he is doing a little evil for the sake of a great good.  By degrees he comes altogether to forget the turpitude of the means in the excellence of the end, and at length perpetrates without one internal twinge acts which would shock a buccaneer.*

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

* Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England (1848-61), abridged edition, Hugh Trevor-Roper, editor (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 418.

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