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What is our responsibility to the poor? Does the government have right to take my money?

November 1, 2010

The principles that Locke writes in his Second Treatise of Government had large influences on the Founding Fathers of the United States.  The Founding Fathers established a government that promoted and believed in:

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

But is this vision of freedom being deprived in contemporary American society? John Locke states in the Second Treatise of Government:

“For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” (chapter V)

This passage made me very curious because, who should judge if what is left is enough and as good, if there were an able judge of such things to what extent would the man be torn from his property and lastly is Locke right? Should an individual man be taken away from his property/earned labour. Does man not have a right to keep 100% of the benefits of his own work?

Today the US has an income tax and many welfare programs, both of which could be seen as conflicting ideas with John Locke’s Second Treatise of government.

It was not until 1913 that the US wrote the 16th Amendment granting Congress the power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes.” Locke believes that the end of government is to preserve an individuals property rights and that no man would choose to enter a commonwealth if he thought that his property could so easily be taken away (138).  Does the government have a right to take from men what they have earned from their own labour?

I think we all would agree, and so would Locke, that the government has been granted a right to do so when the government uses this money to protect us e.g. national defence and police. But does the government have a right to give it to other citizens?
A contemporary comparison for Locke’s idea would be with social security, a program established in 1935 for the elderly, but now encompasses many different welfare payments e.g. unemployment benefits. In Chapter XV Locke talks about the relationship between parents and their child, Locke writes that the child, “having received life and education from his parents, obliges him to respect… and support…to both his father and mother.” Locke believes that the responsibility for caring for the aged is already upon the child.  But do we as individual have a similar obligation to provide money for the elderly who aren’t our parents or relatives? And, even if this is true, should the government necessarily appropriate it for us?

The main question that stirs my curiosity is, how much of a responsibility do we have to our fellow man/the poor in society and if such a responsibility exists should it be enforced by the government?

I think it may be good to end with an opinion that is rarely heard, presented here by Milton Friedman. The first two minutes talks about the philosophical responsibility from then he talks about the economics of poverty, which I realize is not necessary for this blog post. (It is the first two minutes I wish to show you.)

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9 Comments
  1. Sara Mitchell permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:50 PM

    I would like to address the questions posed in this blog. I strongly believe that an individual man should not be taken away from his property/earned labor unless he does something which would result in him being penalized, for example, if he commits a crime. I agree with Locke in that it is in the government’s interest to preserve an individuals property rights, and if the government can protect property rights, it can easily take those rights away, but only with a just cause. The government cannot simply take away something a man earned on his own for no reason. If a student earns a government-given scholarship for college through his own efforts, but then gets arrested for vandalizing school property, the government has the right to take that scholarship away.
    I also agree with Locke in that the younger generations have an obligation to care for the aged. We as individuals do have responsibility to help the elderly who we are not related to because we aren’t just helping them personally, we are helping our country. The elderly make up a decent percentage of the population, and if they are struggling, large amounts of people are struggling. We need to help the elderly now so that when we reach that age, we will be helped as well. It is a continuous cycle and the government should appropriate it for us so that the whole country is contributing and being helped simultaneously. Not only are the elderly in need, but the poor are as well. If the poor received no help from the government, they would be even worse off. I believe we do have a responsibility to help the poor and the government should enforce it because many times people get caught up in their own lives and don’t realize how people less fortunate than them are living.
    In response to the video, Milton Friedman states that the responsibility lies within the people, and I do agree with that. However, if the people fail to act, it is the government’s responsibility to make sure the people act and give back to those who cannot help themselves.

  2. jptrue permalink
    November 2, 2010 11:17 AM

    Have you ever considered that the act of paying taxes is actual a means of upholding the social contract instead of violating one’s natural right to property? Taxes pay for important components of the government, such as the military. These forces in turn protect our property at home and abroad. Thus, I don’t think the matter is a simple as it might seem at first. The government is not forcibly taking property from the people. Instead, the people are giving money to the government due to a legitimate agreement that was made by the representatives of the people in the contract. Thus, I don’t think Locke would be against such an action, as long as it was ensuring property rights in some form.

  3. Andrew Babat permalink
    November 2, 2010 4:18 PM

    Taxes definitely do not violate one’s natural right to property. By purchasing land, you agree to a contract that you will pay property taxes. It is the government’s job to use the money to protect it’s citizens and run the country. In no way is the government using force and taking people’s property. Also, by paying property taxes, you are maintaining that the land is yours and nobody can take it. Therefore, Locke would have no problem with property taxes.

  4. Michael Munoz permalink
    November 2, 2010 6:18 PM

    From a technical perspective, a person’s compliance to taxation is an implicit gesture of agreeing to a social contract with the taxing government. The government provides services and resources to the general populace through tax revenue. When people choose to evade the Internal Revenue Service, they commit an act of war against the government, rejecting the precedent of paying taxes to assist the less fortunate (and yourself). In a way, you can examine the behavior of Socrates in Crito’s writing, where he chooses not to escape his captors after deluding Athens’ youth and worshipping other gods. As we all know, Socrates chose not to escape because this would be hypocritical. For so long, he chose to enjoy Athens’ education, resources, and culture and could not immediately reject all these great things and leave. The same principle applies here. Most of us do not want to pay taxes, even though, some way or another we have benefited from this government. (Right now even, as we are attending a Public University) It is only when the government fails to properly use these taxes, (i.e. corruption, ignorance, hoarding) that government enters a state of war with its citizenship and thus we can refuse.

  5. fvenzor permalink
    November 2, 2010 7:50 PM

    John Locke set up the stage for a government that was to secure the rights of the people that it was said to protect, these rights being that of life liberty and property. Now with the issue that you bring up it is important to note that there are two sides of the coin here. On one side you have certain programs that are supposed to ensure that you not only are protected from oppressions that may come from things like disabilities or unfortunate circumstances and on the other hand there are laws that will uphold the rights of the common people. I believe that Locke would argue that programs that take away from one group to give to the other without any compensation on the other side; they should not be permissible in a functioning society. So for example social security actually hurts the poorer side of society more than it does the wealthier part. It is a known fact here in the United States for example that the wealthier person will live longer than the poorer person by 2.8 years (Pear, Robert, Gap in Life Expectancy Widens for the Nation, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/23/us/23health.html). If this is true then the wealthier person will reap more benefits from the social security programs that people put money into. It is also known that after a certain wage limit then a person no longer has to pay the social security tax any longer, which once again favors the wealthier side of society.
    On the other hand programs set up like the 401k which are run by the government and are also beneficial to the public once they decide that it is their time to retire are good for a society. This specific program encourages the people to save money and put it into an account straight from their employer or their paycheck and allows them to save for the future and also in the present as it lowers their federal and state taxes.
    So basically what I am getting at is that Locke would argue that when it comes to certain programs as long as it is beneficial to you and to the rest of the general population then it is okay for them to take your money. But if this is more one sided, then it is not the responsibility of the government to take this on because as Locke said we are fine without them and we gave them power to rule over us if they were out for our common well-being.

  6. Mycki Kujacznski permalink
    November 3, 2010 1:08 AM

    It is the government’s job to create a safe environment for the citizens, but it is NOT the government’s job to take money from citizens through taxes or any other means and give it to other, less fortunate citizens. I believe that men have the right to keep 100% of the benefits of their own work, with a few exceptions. I agree with Locke that the government should be able to take from citizens is when the money is going towards something that will benefit every person from which money was taken, but I think that is the only time it is acceptable. For example, if the money is going towards the national defense or police, that would provide more protection for ALL of the citizens. However, it is not okay for the government to take money from citizens just to help out the ones that aren’t as well off.
    People that want to be successful work hard to do so – not to mention they have to spend a lot of money in the process on their education. Although they may be making more money than other citizens, they may have to use quite a bit to pay back student loans anyway. It is not fair for the government to take money from hard-working citizens to give to citizens who are poor for whatever reason. If people’s money could just be taken by the government and given to the poor, there would be no incentive for people to work hard and make good money. Citizens shouldn’t have to be responsible for the financial status and well-being of other citizens. However, if people want to help out citizens in need, they are more than welcome to do so. People can donate to charity, volunteer, etc. The key thing though, is that it should not be something that is enforced or handled through the government.
    As far as caring for the elderly goes, I agree with Locke that a child is obliged to respect and support his or her parents. However, nonparents and people who aren’t relatives are not people’s responsibility. If people do want to help out elders that aren’t related to them, then more power to them. It should be optional, just like it should be optional to help out any other struggling citizen.
    The bottom line is we have no responsibility to our fellow men or the poor in society. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t want to help those in need, but it should not be forced upon us by the government.

  7. adamarcher permalink
    November 3, 2010 11:07 AM

    I find it utterly facinating that there was no income tax until more than a decade into the 2oth century. It makes me wonder if the government could function today operating solely on its various other forms of income, (e.g. tariffs, sales tax, etc.) or if our leviathan has becomme too bloated to do so.
    In respoonse to the question, I think that the government has no right to infringe upon the personal property and therefore the income of individuals. Unless the government is directly incolved in soem otehr way, which sould not be the case in the case in the first place, since a smaller government would not have the funding for as much economic suport throught the form of wealth redistribution.
    I think that the governments sole purposes should be:

    1.) Millitary Protection – from other nations
    2.) Diplomatic Relations – with other nations
    3.) Police Protection – from other citizens
    4.) A Judiciary & Punitive system – for lawbreakers of the nation

    I think that the government should stay out of economics ececpt for what they need to levy on the citizens and companies to support the aforementioned fucntions.

  8. Chrisbbarnes permalink
    November 10, 2010 12:26 AM

    According to Locke, it is the governments primary role to ensure citizens ability to acquire property, even if that means destroying the property of some citizens in the process. Since re-distributive programs can spur economic activity and cause an increase in total property, a government is not necessarily stepping outside of Locke’s social contract with welfare.

    Personally, I find the idea of a natural right, especially that of property, to be silly.

  9. Glenn permalink
    March 6, 2011 2:43 PM

    I guess Milton Friedman never read the part of the Gettysburg address by President Linlcon stating “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. Not of, for and by the Corporations.

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