A few weeks ago, I wrote about the statist temptation to use government power to achieve social goals, used by both liberals and conservatives. Bruce Alderman provides a partial defense:
First, the role of the state. The United States Constitution outlines the role of the national government and specifies its duties, one of which is "to promote the general welfare." Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to collect taxes for this purpose (among others).
Bruce is quoting the Constitution out of context that distorts the meaning of this phrase. The phrase "to promote the general welfare" is not a duty of the national government. Read the entire preamble:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Emphasis added. The preamble is a statement of intention, not authority. The national government provided under the Constitution has no blanket authority "to promote the general welfare" however it sees fit. The subject of this sentence is not the national government, but "we the people". The people are taking the action of establishing this Constitution to promote the general welfare (among other reasons).
So it would seem there should be no controversy there: If giving aid to people living in poverty promotes the general welfare (and I think it does), then the federal government has not just the right, but the duty to collect taxes for welfare programs.
Bruce's argument hinges upon a general authority of the national government to promote the general welfare, which it does not have. Hence his argument breaks down at this point.
Furthermore, through tax revenues the government has access to more resources than any individual or group could ever hope to collect. While most private charities do the best they can with the resources they have, the need is just too great. If we were to rely solely on voluntary charitable giving, a lot more people would fall into poverty.
Again, Bruce is presenting the Robin Hood perspective: thievery is acceptable when people are poor. Perhaps one could create such a moral argument (Bruce does not), but remember: a government that has been given the authority to steal may not limit itself to your political opponents. A government that steals from Peter to pay Paul can always count on the loyalty and support of Paul, but it is just as likely to steal from Paul. Is it not far better to forbid the government to steal from either?
The second issue here is the mandate Jesus gave to Christians to take care of those in need. Our salvation depends on it, according to Matthew 25:31-46.
And yet at no point did Jesus advocate government programs to accomplish this task. None.
At this point, Bruce presents the opposite side, and I find myself in agreement with him. I am not, however, as trusting as he is to state power.