In his second inaugural address, Barack Obama claimed that the massive federal “entitlement” programs pushing the nation into unprecedented levels of debt—and threatening worse problems down the road—actually “strengthen us” as Americans:
[W]e remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Contrary to Obama’s leftist fantasies, the forced wealth transfers launched in the 20th century did not make America great; the principle of individual rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence did. Freedom, not force, is what makes America great.
Consider the economic consequences of freedom in American history. Prior to federal “entitlement” programs—particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when America was freest in many respects—the U.S. economy expanded at a breathtaking pace.
And even as our economic freedom waned with the onslaught of government controls on businesses (beginning with the antitrust laws), our relative freedom continued to make America an economic powerhouse and a prime destination for immigrants seeking to improve their lives.
Obviously, modern American government is not unique in forcibly transferring wealth. The Roman empire initiated ruinous welfare spending; the Soviet Union spent money until it collapsed; and today Greece, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Venezuela, and the like are spending themselves into ruin. Even relatively prosperous countries such as Great Britain and Sweden strain under the weight of their welfare states, with relatively high unemployment and retarded economic growth.
In the United States today, to fund the “entitlement” programs of Social Security and Medicare, the federal government strips 15.3 percent from the paychecks of every working American, including the paychecks of the poorest workers. The payroll tax (cleverly split between employers and employees to obscure the net cost) severely damages a working American’s ability to pay off debts, or to save for emergencies or retirement, or to finance the education of his children.
That unexpected tragedies occasionally strike Americans neither requires nor justifies forced wealth transfers. Private insurance, voluntary aid, and charitable organizations—now substantially thwarted by bloated and ineffective federal programs—can amply meet such needs and should be freed to do so.
What made America great in the past, and what can make America even greater in the future, is a widespread cultural recognition and adoption of the principle of individual rights, including the right to dispose of the fruits of one’s labor as one sees fit. That requires a government committed to protecting and not violating individual rights.