Certainly, we can debate ad nauseam the degree to which citizens should feel ashamed for taking handouts. But what should be beyond discussion, surely, is that when a significant number of people feel so comfortable taking what others provide that they elect not only to rip the system off but to encourage others to do the same, we have a serious moral issue on our hands.
Acknowledging this does not make one Ayn Rand. There is a reason that even the most fervent socialists have adopted the Biblical aphorism that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”: This principle was even codified into the 1936 Soviet Constitution. “The labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers,” instructed John Smith at Jamestown in 1609, setting a precedent that would obtain in America for three and a half centuries. In a modern industrial economy, one can construct a case in favor of loosening this principle in order to feed the truly indigent. But there is no such case to be made in favor of allowing wards of the state to steal the excess.
That the amorphous “government” was on the hook, as opposed to a local church or benevolent association, does not change anything; nor does it matter that the welfare in this case was distributed via an impersonal electronic card rather than by someone with a face. Would it have been more moral, for example, if the shoppers had taken advantage of a lack of security and stolen the food from Walmart directly, rather than from their fellow citizens? And if not, why not? There is, after all, nothing magically different about money that is stolen from the federal treasury. One suspects that many in the United States are in need of a refresher course of the sort that Mrs. Thatcher gave a sybaritic British public in 1982, when she reminded them of that “one unchallengeable truth,” that “the government has no money of its own. All that it has it takes in taxes or borrows at interest. It’s all of you — everyone here — that pays.”
Presumably, the people most annoyed at this behavior will be progressives who do not consider this latest incident to be symptomatic of a wider ill. In addition to sticking their fingers into the eyes of taxpayers, what shoppers who spent beyond their allowances did in Louisiana was take aid away from other users who did not. Conservatives who suggest that the food-stamp budget has ranged wildly out of control and needs trimming back are immediately accused by their ideological foes of “stealing food from the mouths of children,” to borrow a favorite phrase of Nancy Pelosi’s. What, then, are individual citizens doing who diminish the available food-stamp budget? What responsibility do they carry?
Conservatives are fond of repeating the old line that the republic “can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.” In Louisiana this weekend, many citizens got the opportunity to do this without even having to bother to vote — and they took it. Whatever legitimate disagreements there are about the role of democracy in a free society, there should be none here. This was theft, pure and simple, and its perpetrators should be treated as any other thief would be.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.