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The misplaced morality of public officials

In Wichita some public officials, particularly mayor Carlos Mayans, are seeking to eliminate adult businesses and stores selling pornography. This focus on private morality lies in sharp contrast with government’s large-scale acts of public immorality.

If government allows people to gamble, look at nude dancers, or buy pornography and sex toys, it is not government that is “sinning” or acting immorally. Government is not requiring that we do these things. Government is merely allowing those who wish to do so to engage in these activities.

But when government — say the Wichita City Council — takes the property of one person and gives it to another person to whom it does not belong, government is actively and purposefully committing an immoral act.

How do we know that it is immoral when government takes money from one person and gives it to someone else? We can learn from the insight of Frederic Bastiat (1801 – 1850), writing in his short book The Law:

But how is this legal plunder [theft] to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

It doesn’t matter to whom the money is given: poor people, homeless people, airlines, farmers, banks, artists, downtown developers, problem gamblers, nonprofit organizations, students, schools, civic groups, museums, sick people, children, public amenities, or businesses under the guise of economic development. It doesn’t matter how much they need it, or how deserving they may be. It’s simply wrong for a private person or government to take money from one person and give it to another. The economist Walter E. Williams also makes this case succinctly:

Can a moral case be made for taking the rightful property of one American and giving it to another to whom it does not belong? I think not. That’s why socialism is evil. It uses evil means (coercion) to achieve what are seen as good ends (helping people). We might also note that an act that is inherently evil does not become moral simply because there’s a majority consensus.

This is not to say that we should not support some of the people or groups mentioned earlier. We should do so voluntarily, however. To help someone through an act of charity is noble. There is nothing good or moral happening when governments tax one person and give the proceeds to someone else.

So when government officials want to control private morality, remember government’s large-scale acts of public immorality.

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