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Walter E. Williams
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Moral or Immoral Government


Immorality in government lies at the heart of our nation's problems. Deficits, debt and runaway government are merely symptoms. What's moral and immoral conduct can be complicated, but needlessly so. I keep things simple and you tell me where I go wrong.

My initial assumption is that we each own ourselves. I am my private property and you are yours. If we accept the notion that people own themselves, then it's easy to discover what forms of conduct are moral and immoral. Immoral acts are those that violate self-ownership. Murder, rape, assault and slavery are immoral because those acts violate private property. So is theft, broadly defined as taking the rightful property of one person and giving it to another.

If it is your belief that people do not belong to themselves, they are in whole or in part the property of the U.S. Congress, or people are owned by God, who has placed the U.S. Congress in charge of managing them, then all of my observations are simply nonsense.

Let's look at some congressional actions in light of self-ownership. Do farmers and businessmen have a right to congressional handouts? Does a person have a right to congressional handouts for housing, food and medical care?

First, let's ask: Where does Congress get handout money? One thing for sure, it's not from the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus nor is it congressmen reaching into their own pockets. The only way for Congress to give one American one dollar is to first, through the tax code, take that dollar from some other American. It must forcibly use one American to serve another American. Forcibly using one person to serve another is one way to describe slavery. As such, it violates self-ownership.

Government immorality isn't restricted only to forcing one person to serve another. Some regulations such as forcing motorists to wear seatbelts violate self-ownership. If one owns himself, he has the right to take chances with his own life.

Some people argue that if you're not wearing a seatbelt, have an accident and become a vegetable, you'll become a burden on society. That's not a problem of liberty and self-ownership. It's a problem of socialism where through the tax code one person is forcibly used to care for another.

These examples are among thousands of government actions that violate the principles of self-ownership. Some might argue that Congress forcing us to help one another and forcing us to take care of ourselves are good ideas. But my question to you is: When congressmen and presidents take their oaths of office, is that oath to uphold and defend good ideas or the U.S. Constitution?

When the principles of self-ownership are taken into account, two-thirds to three-quarters of what Congress does violate those principles to one degree or another as well as the Constitution to which they've sworn to uphold and defend. In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees, James Madison, the father of our Constitution, stood on the floor of the House to object, saying, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." Did James Madison miss something in the Constitution?

You might answer, "He forgot the general welfare clause." No, he had that covered, saying, "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one."

If we accept the value of self-ownership, it is clear that most of what Congress does is clearly immoral. If this is bothersome, there are two ways around my argument. The first is to deny the implications of self-ownership. The second is to ask, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi did when asked about the constitutionality of Obamacare, "Are you serious? Are you serious?"

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



16 Comments | Post Comment
Williams, your piece is brilliant, well-thought-out, and easy-to-understand. But I do have one question - are you attempting to argue that all taxation is immoral, and therefore by extension all government spending which is funded by that taxation? You said, "The only way for Congress to give one American one dollar is to first, through the tax code, take that dollar from some other American. It must forcibly use one American to serve another American." Certainly you would concur that there can be legitimate taxation and that some functions of government are moral. Where, therefore, would you personally draw the line? Or were you only speaking of earmarks and other government action that might be termed "socialism?"
Comment: #1
Posted by: Matt
Mon Dec 6, 2010 11:07 PM
Dr. Williams,
In response to your request: " tell me where I go wrong."

"When the principles of self-ownership are taken into account, two-thirds to three-quarters of what Congress does violate those principles to one degree or another "

Sir, is not the honest conclusion that when "the principles of self-ownership are taken into account", it is actually 100% (not 66-75%) of "what Congress does [that] violate[s] those principles"? Is not monopoly government (aka the state) inherently incompatible with the principle of self-ownership? Is not Congress' very existence (and thus, by extension, 100% of what they do, qua a branch of the state) a violation of liberty (self-ownership)?

Can you coherently argue otherwise? Or are you content making arbitrary exceptions to the principle of self-ownership anytime you're doubtful that self-owning individuals will organize themselves in a manner you prefer? Do you honestly respect self-ownership as a fundamental principle? Or, when it comes to the provision of services like defense, property protection, arbitration (and whatever else you see as proper for the state to do; evidently 1/3-1/4 of what "Congress does"), self-ownership just won't cut it and the liberty of the individual must then be subjected to your personal idea of the "common good"?

It was surprising to me to see you invoke the principle of self-ownership (liberty) as the foundation of this article, since it does not appear your comments on government are consistent with that premise. But I too like to keep it simple, so please, tell me where I go wrong in my critique.

Thank you for your consideration.

Brian Drake
Comment: #2
Posted by: Brian Drake
Tue Dec 7, 2010 1:18 AM
Re: Brian Drake

Keeping it simple does not mean that when facing dichotic arguments one throws in the towel. That is linear thinking. Williams concedes the need for limited government; can you coherently argue that he does not? You refer to "services like defense, property protection, arbitration" as a " personal idea of the "common good"?" Will you argue that these are not proper functions of limited government? What functions would you choose that would not be "personal ideas"?

Your critique goes wrong at step 1 because you don't believe in limited government. That's ok, but feigned respect for other arguments is disengenous. Conason will soon write an article more to your taste.

Comment: #3
Posted by: Tom
Tue Dec 7, 2010 4:41 AM
I am convinced that private charity can replace the roll of public handouts and do it more efficiently and for those actually in need. This will of course require a reduction in taxes which will free up enough funds to be donated to private charities.
And the general welfare cause is so often misused. The world general in the clause represents "American's in general." Providing for a public defense would fall under the general welfare. I think what supports "the general welfare" should be held with higher scrutiny. Certainly bailout money for GM and Chrysler does not support the general good, it hurt taxpayers, and hurt other American (and otherwise) automakers who made the right decisions. It did in fact help the interest of a few, but does that fall under "general welfare"?
Comment: #4
Posted by: JasonLevi
Tue Dec 7, 2010 9:30 AM


I find that Tom answered your question quite well and more simply than I could. I would only want to add to what he said by pointing out to you that whereas laws against murder and theft do limit our freedom to murder or rob others, those laws ultimately make each of us (from the richest to the poorest and from the most powerful to the least) more free. I contend that even the most blood thirsty killer would prefer to live in a country that enforces a law against murder. And even the poorest in The United States would find they would in the long run have even less themselves if there were no laws against theft. Whereas there is a lot of room for argument on how much we should spend on Defense and how and where we should spend it, if we had no Military I don't think even you would like it when we were taken over by the form of government and economic system your line of reasoning ultimately leads to. And if it really is anarchy you see as ideal I assure you that you wouldn't like that either. I find no perfect answers in government. But Walter Williams, Tom, and I understand that individualism rather than collectivism is the proper perspective from which to approach it. If you or anyone else in The United States is truly a collectivist (as opposed to just a proponent of collectivism) then let me point out that the fact that you apparently have a computer and the time to respond to this article by Walter Williams makes you one of the more wealthy people in the world. So to be fair to the collective by those standards you must give up most of what you own and start spending your time making life more equitable for the poor citizens of Bangladesh, Haiti, and the rest of The Third World. I'm not suggesting that you should either do that or not do that, but simply that you should be free to decide for yourself whether you wish to spend your wealth to help others. And those with more than you or I should be free to decide how much if anything they wish to give to us. I say all this as one who recognizes that he has gained much more from the freedom our republican form of government offers than I have put into it, and as one who owes virtually all I have to the Jeffersons, Franklins, and Madisons who established it as well as the scientists throughout history and those “greedy capitalist pigs” the collectivists love to hate. The cogent point here should be that none of what any of those people did was for me but for themselves, and I appreciate them for it.
Comment: #5
Posted by: wade mathias
Tue Dec 7, 2010 12:23 PM
"Williams concedes the need for limited government; can you coherently argue that he does not?"
I'm not attempting to argue that he does not; it seems clear that he does (though I'd appreciate a correction on this if I read more into his statements than he intends). My challenge to him is that his position (which appears to be for limited government) is inconsistent with the principle of self-ownership he claims as an initial assumption.
"Will you argue that these are not proper functions of limited government?"
Again, I'm not arguing that list is not a common list for those who see there being "proper functions" for a "limited government". What I am challenging is that establishing and maintaining a monopoly by force for the provision of those services (or any other services) is not compatible with the principle of self-ownership.
When I use the term "personal ideas", I'm referring to the fact that Professor Williams can only answer for himself. Regardless of how many other men agree with him, if he is advocating a coercive monopoly in those services, they are his "personal" ideas at that point. When the advocate of such a monopoly encounters disagreement ("no thank you, I'll provide/arrange for my defense in some other manner than your proposed monopoly") then it is the advocate's "personal ideas" vs. the "personal ideas" of the person who disagrees within that context. The principle of self-ownership implies that within the scoope of what each person owns (himself and external resources justly acquired), it is only the "personal ideas" of the individual owner that have final authority. The imposition of some people's "personal ideas" onto others is not consistent with self-ownership, regardless of how commonly accepted those ideas are.
"Your critique goes wrong at step 1 because you don't believe in limited government."
I don't see how a logical discussion must employ what one "believes in". Can you coherently argue how a "limited government" (or any state - monopoly government) is consistent with Professor William's claimed initial assumption of "we each own ourselves"? If not, then are you arguing that logic will only get you so far, but at some point, it is what we "believe in" that should determine our conclusions? Why bother with the logic then?
Professor Williams could have invoked the Constitution as his initial assumption and then gone on to critique the US Government in that light. He could have invoked the "proper functions" of a "limited government" and then demonstrated how the US Government has strayed from those specific boundaries. But instead, he chose to start with "self-ownership". My challenge to him is that starting with this premise, a consistent adherence to logic will not result in the conclusions he's reached.
From the article:
"But my question to you is: When congressmen and presidents take their oaths of office, is that oath to uphold and defend good ideas or the U.S. Constitution?"
My fundamental question to Professor Williams is: When you invoke the principle of self-ownership, is that invocation really just a nice way of framing what you percieve are good ideas (such as limited government), or are you serious about that principle of self-ownership?
Comment: #6
Posted by: Brian Drake
Tue Dec 7, 2010 12:25 PM

Please explain how you came to the conclusion (or even suspicion) that i am a "collectivist".

"on how much we should spend on Defense and how and where we should spend it, if we had no Military I don't think even you would like it when we were taken over"

You use "we" a lot in that sentence. Are you speaking on behalf on someone other than yourself? Making declarations for "we" is a very "collectivist" habit.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Brian Drake
Tue Dec 7, 2010 12:33 PM

I appreciate your quick response to my comments on your comments. I am now working on a response to you, but as I write slowly it will likely take me an hour or so.
Comment: #8
Posted by: wade mathias
Tue Dec 7, 2010 3:53 PM


My last comment addressed to Tom I really meant for you, but that is academic at this point. I certainly didn't draw the conclusion that you are a collectivist, but I suspected that you might be because collectivists tend to argue against the idea of limited government by claiming that if you are for any government at all then where you draw the line for what the government should provide is purely subjective. Actually, I didn't know what your point of view concerning an appropriate level of government was, and still don't. But from your comments to me I assume you don't see yourself as a collectivist. It appears to me at this point that you might consider yourself an anarchist or possibly a Libertarian. On the other hand you might just be playing devil's advocate. You stated “I don't see how a logical discussion must employ what one ‘believes in'. I agree with you that it doesn't. However, as the written language is not a perfect way to express our ideas it would help to know “where you are coming from” so to speak to understand exactly what point you are making here. Walter Williams made it clear that he believes those who believe in self-ownership should be for a limited government. You appear to be saying that those two ideas are incompatible with each other. This implies to me that you must be opposed to at least one of those two ideas. It furthermore appears that you are opposed to “limited government”, so my best guess at this point is that you are an anarchist. Again, as you indicated, the validity of your argument has nothing to do with what your personal views are. But as I mentioned before, it would help to understand exactly what your argument is here if one knew where you are coming from. At this point I'm not sure whether you are arguing against self-ownership, limited government, or just certain elements of limited government. But we might agree here on a fundamental point. I contend that an individual could claim that he owns himself and therefore refuses to comply with the dictates of any government, even a limited one. He could rob, steal, and eat babies and claim nobody owns him. However, I don't see how he could do these things and still honestly claim to believe that he believes in self-ownership as a principle. If he robs, steals, and eats babies does that not at least strongly imply that he has no regard for the rights of others to self-ownership. And if he has no regard for the rights of others can he rationally argue that others owe him his right to self-ownership? It's hard to come with perfect answers when it comes to exactly how much government should do, but in deciding how much, if any, government we should have as human beings we should first recognize two fundamental facts. The first is that each of us is an individual rather than just a part of a collective. The second is that we are by nature herd animals. Collectivists see these two concepts as conflicting with each other, but true individualists do not. A Grizzly Bear who eats his own male children is not a bad Grizzly Bear because he not only has no use for them, but they otherwise stand to grow up and compete with him for what he really wants and needs for survival. However, as herd animals the most valuable thing to each of us is other human beings. Whereas collectivists argue that we should value other people it is the individualists who really do. All this leads to the question of how much, if any, government would a rational person who believes in self-ownership want? It could be argued that anybody who wants total self-ownership should move to a remote location of the earth where there are no other people to interfere with him. But would that mean he would then be totally free to do whatever he wanted? What if he wanted to flip a switch to turn on the heat or air-conditioning? I contend that no person who has ever lived could build an electric heater or air-conditioner by himself. What if he wanted to be free to pursue medical help when he needed it to continue living? I could go on and on here of course, but you must get the picture. Other people, by looking out for their own self interest, provide us with many more freedoms than we can provide for ourselves. Therefore, I conclude that a rational person who believes in the principle of self-ownership will willingly give up that part of his freedom he gains from living alone for what he gains by living in society. I likewise contend that a rational person who believes in the principle of self-ownership would choose to live in a society which enforces laws against theft and murder and maintains a military to defend itself against other societies who might collectively want to kill us or subjugate us to their kind of government. I don't pretend that I have made all this crystal clear or even that I have it all crystal clear in my own mind. However, whereas you might make a legitimate argument that a person who claims self-ownership recognizes the authority of no government and is therefore free to kill whoever he wants, I contend that those of us who appreciate the principle of self-ownership are then free to arrest, try, convict, and execute that individual. Then as he stands on the gallows waiting for the hangman to pull the lever I find that his claim to owning himself would be in vain.
Comment: #9
Posted by: wade mathias
Tue Dec 7, 2010 7:28 PM
I am a Democrat, a female, and a person who is more of a humanist than a feminist. I love Larry Elder, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell and all who speak with a voice of reason. A Centurist I am!!!!!
Comment: #10
Posted by: Natalie Holmes
Wed Dec 8, 2010 8:25 AM
Hurray for Walter Williams and the voice of reason. He puts fundamental principles into the clearest terms. Self-ownership is not a license to deprive others of the same; that's what equal and unalienable rights means. It is to preserve everyone's rights that the citizens hire a government. Government has, regrettably, got away with mission creep and become, not our protector, but a vampiric exploiter/predator of the people. It's time for a pruning.
Comment: #11
Posted by: Kate Jones
Wed Dec 8, 2010 7:13 PM
At the risk of being off topic, I'd just like to say this.
I've read a lot of blogs, websites, and newspaper 'comment' sections in my day. But this one is top shelf. All I'm seeing is what appears to be rational people discussing ideas and positions. Not one name caller amongst them.
What a breath of fresh air.
I'm a conservative, and to Natalie Holmes I say 'dittos.' Those men are among my favorite thinkers, philosophers, writers, persons too.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Ross Calloway
Wed Dec 8, 2010 10:42 PM
Dr. Williams, Once again your simple straightforward presentation nails the gist of the entire matter. I would only add that it is not simply a general immorality driving the circumstances, but specifically greed and the need for power and control. Plus there are those that believe they are being altruistic and moral, but like a modern day Robin Hood, see "good" in taking money from others and giving it to those they deem 'really' need it. These people run on emotions and good intentions with no regard for the constitution and rules, unless they work in their favor. Finally, I would comment on statements by others... tax in itself is not immoral or anti-constitutional... as long as that tax is freely given. The battle cry was "no taxation without representation", not "no tax". It is when taxation is deemed illegitimate by the people, and when government takes without regard to those people, that the tax is immoral and tyrannical. Tax can be freely given and moral. Extreme tax rarely falls in that category.
Comment: #13
Posted by: ojcorbitt
Thu Dec 9, 2010 8:13 AM
Re: ojcorbitt

"tax in itself is not immoral or anti-constitutional... as long as that tax is freely given"

There is no such thing as a freely given tax. Taxes are by their very nature taken under threat of compulsion. Charitable donations are freely given. Payments for voluntarily contracted goods and services are freely given. Taxes are not freely given. You may agree with a tax, and perceive that you are therefore paying it voluntarily. But the fact that violence is threated to be used against you (first in fines, then property seizure, then imprisonment; and if you utilize self-defense at any step along the way, you will be injured or killed with no criminal repercussions to your assailants) if you refuse the tax means it is not a voluntary payment or "freely given".

The man who says "your wallet or your life" is not absolved if he then takes the contents of your wallet and uses some (or even all of it) to pay for services that you perceive as benefiting you and may have paid for anyway. If you value those services, you can pay voluntarily like you do any other good. The threat of violence (which is behind all "laws" - commands from politicians - including taxation) removes your decision from the realm of voluntary to that of coerced. It is well established in law and reason that contracts made under coercion are invalid. It is no different with your "agreement" to pay taxes. Take the violence out of the equation and any contribution you make to the government is no longer a "tax", but a donation/payment for voluntarily contracted goods (if you choose to do so).

Taxation is theft, plain and simple. To claim belief in "self-ownership" and support ANY taxation is to hold contradictory ideas. That's called cognitive dissonance and should cause mental unease. Instead, it apparently gains you adulation along the lines of: "brilliant, well-thought-out, and easy-to-understand"
Comment: #14
Posted by: Brian Drake
Thu Dec 9, 2010 2:43 PM
Re: Brian Drake
I respectfully disagree that all taxes are "taken under threat of compulsion". Self-ownership is not limited to an individual. A larger SELF can represent a family, a community, a state, etc. especially when an individual makes the economic choices that necessarily expand beyond his physical body. Most notably a SELF is a family, where the adult selfs make decisions for the younger selfs. When the larger SELF needs something the individual "self" cant obtain he necessarily looks to others with a similar need. Defense, infrastructure and "justice" are the best examples of specialization. This of course begs the question "Why would we exchange a level of self-ownership (in this case individual self-ownership) for something benefiting SELF ownership?" and of course the answer is that we have a perceived net-benefit of what we receive. We gave up some individual self-ownership for the larger SELF-benefit and therefore voluntarily gave up something - taxes - to fund these beneficial activities. I am by no means a liberal or socialist - far from it - but I dont see that taxes are necessarily immoral. I see them as a way to collectively gain something that an individual may not otherwise accomplish - i.e. providing for the SELF instead of the self. Taxes are an indispensible tool in our evolution, similar to corporations (in the collective achievement sense) and without them who knows what might have happened. Of course It sounds far better in theory than in practice unfortunately. The problem with this of course is "where is the line drawn in defining SELF" and "how much is enough" of that social good. There is an opportunity cost and a subjective application of diminishing returns.
Comment: #15
Posted by: Chris Rumin
Fri Dec 10, 2010 3:24 PM
Re: Chris Rumin
Self (from my Mac's dictionary widget): a person's essential being that distinguishes them from others.

Your use of "SELF" is nothing but a collectivist sleight of hand. What is this entity you speak of? Who defines it? Who determines its will (which evidently, in your view, trumps the will of the individuals that supposedly comprise it)? You? When you tell me what "we" want, it's simply a fancied up way of telling me what YOU want. When stripped of euphemism, that doesn't sound so impartial.

Do you deny that taxes are collected under threat of violent reprisal as I outlined above? There's a really easy way to put my assertion to the test. Don't surrender your taxes and see what happens. When people wearing costumes come with guns to take you away (should you refuse the fines and liens that result), try using force to repel them, as you would be justified in doing to any other invader of your person or property.

I have never contracted with the US Government and voluntarily accepted an economic arrangement that holds me liable to pay charges for services they render. Nor has anyone alive that I'm aware of. Even if contracts were presented, the fact remains that in established tradition of law and reason, contracts signed under coercion are invalid.

Unless you think that the US Government (or perhaps this mythical "SELF") OWNS me (thus demonstrating you do not agree with the concept of self-ownership at all), they have no authority to unilaterally claim me a "customer" and use threats of violence against me to extract payment. Thus any threats of violence against me (and you - where is your contract? When did you sign it? With whom did you sign it in agreement with? Did this process resemble the contract required for EVERY other agreement of import, even things as small as cell-phone service or gym membership?) to extract money is theft, pure and simple. Taxation is theft. Make believing in "SELF" does not change this.

You, and others on these comments, use the word "we" a lot. Who are you speaking for? Who authorized you to do so? How is it you presume to speak on the behalf of others? Do you know me? Do you know what I perceive to be a net-benefit? Can you accurately and honestly say that you know what ANYONE other than yourself perceives to be in their net-benefit without them explicitly telling you?

I can tell you with absolute certainty what others perceive to be to their net-benefit: Those actions they engage in VOLUNTARILY. The need for threats of violence is prima facie evidence that the compelled actions were not perceived as net-benefits to the recipient of the threat.

"I dont see that taxes are necessarily immoral"

So what? Some people might not see that murder, rape, torture, assault, or fraud are "necessarily immoral". That doesn't change the fact that these are all violations of self-ownership (as is taxation). Your collectivist fantasies are impotent arguments to the contrary.
Comment: #16
Posted by: Brian Drake
Fri Dec 10, 2010 4:55 PM
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