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AEI Writer Invokes “Implicit Contract” and other Fantasies to Excuse Government Coercion

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) claims the motto of freedom, opportunity, and enterprise. But, by “freedom,” apparently, some at AEI now mean that government should be free to forcibly take your wealth and give it to others, at least within certain (undefined and undefinable) limits.

In a recent article for AEI, James Pethokoukis explicitly endorses the welfare state (which he calls a “safety net”). He also quotes Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, who claims, “The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society.” Pethokoukis seeks to justify the welfare state by asserting that it helps keep some people out of poverty—as though that aim could justify government imposing measures of involuntary servitude on some for the benefit of others, and as though a fully free, rights-respecting society would not eradicate poverty by enabling everyone to produce and trade in accordance with his own self-interested judgment and to charitably support anyone he wishes.

In a follow-up for AEI, Benjamin Zycher attempts to offer a different moral justification for the welfare state by rejecting the view that “a safety net is coercive in terms of its funding source—taxation—and thus inconsistent with individual freedom.” But his rejection of that view makes no sense. If you don’t send the government the money it requires you to hand over to the welfare state, and the government finds out about it, government agents will seize your wealth and property, possibly lock you in a metal cage, and, if you physically resist, possibly kill you. How is that not coercive? Zycher rationalizes:

The coercion view of government is far too narrow; it is better to think of government in the context of the “contract” theory of the state, in which citizens make choices about institutional constraints and the formalities of policymaking from behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is, not knowing how any given policy will affect them personally. In that kind of model of the relation between the citizenry and the state, it is easy to envision unanimous support for a safety net—that is, voluntary acceptance of “coercive” taxation—as a form of social insurance against the economic uncertainties of life.

To emphasize: voluntary acceptance of coercion is not coercive. It is when government violates the implicit contract—or the explicit one embodied in a constitution—that coercion becomes real. It is far from obvious that a safety net represents such a violation in principle.

Zycher’s claims are absurd on many levels. He offers no reason why policies are best established in a state of self-induced ignorance; no indication of why mass self-induced ignorance might yield unanimous support for anything, much less for forced wealth transfers; no explanation for why forced wealth transfers are needed to insure against “economic uncertainties”; and no reason why hypothetical “consent” given behind a mythical “veil of ignorance” justifies coercion in the real world, where actual consent has not been given. He offers no reasons for his position because there aren’t any.

Coercion is coercion; rights violations are rights violations; the welfare state relies on coercive, rights-violating confiscations of wealth; and conservatives’ fantasies and special pleadings to the contrary will not change these facts.

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