As the death toll mounts in the areas hit by Sunday’s tsunami in southern Asia, private organizations and individuals are scrambling to send out money and goods to help the victims. Such help may be entirely proper, especially considering that most of those affected by this tragedy are suffering through no fault of their own.

The United States government, however, should not give any money to help the tsunami victims. Why? Because the money is not the government’s to give.

Every cent the government spends comes from taxation. Every dollar the government hands out as foreign aid has to be extorted from an American taxpayer first. Year after year, for decades, the government has forced American taxpayers to provide foreign aid to every type of natural or man-made disaster on the face of the earth: from the Marshall Plan to reconstruct a war-ravaged Europe to the $15 billion recently promised to fight AIDS in Africa to the countless amounts spent to help the victims of earthquakes, fires and floods–from South America to Asia. Even the enemies of the United States were given money extorted from American taxpayers: from the billions given away by Clinton to help the starving North Koreans to the billions given away by Bush to help the blood-thirsty Palestinians under Arafat’s murderous regime.

The question no one asks about our politicians’ “generosity” towards the world’s needy is: By what right? By what right do they take our hard-earned money and give it away?

The reason politicians can get away with doling out money that they have no right to and that does not belong to them is that they have the morality of altruism on their side. According to altruism–the morality that most Americans accept and that politicians exploit for all it’s worth–those who have more have the moral obligation to help those who have less. This is why Americans–the wealthiest people on earth–are expected to sacrifice (voluntarily or by force) the wealth they have earned to provide for the needs of those who did not earn it. It is Americans’ acceptance of altruism that renders them morally impotent to protest against the confiscation and distribution of their wealth. It is past time to question–and to reject–such a vicious morality that demands that we sacrifice our values instead of holding on to them.

Next time a politician gives away money taken from you to show what a good, compassionate altruist he is, ask yourself: By what right?

Clarification of ARI’s Position on Government Help to Tsunami Victims
Friday January 7, 2005

On December 30, 2004, the Ayn Rand Institute released as a letter to the editor and as an op-ed a piece that condemned the U.S. government’s use of taxpayers’ money to help victims of the recent tsunami (“U.S. Should Not Help Tsunami Victims”). That piece was inappropriate and did not accurately convey the Institute’s position. We would like to clarify our position.

Obviously, the tsunami, with the thousands of innocent victims left in its wake, is a horrible disaster. The first concern of survivors and of those trying to help them is to provide basic necessities and then to begin rebuilding. The American public’s predictably generous response to assist these efforts is motivated by goodwill toward their fellow man. In the face of the enormous and undeserved suffering, American individuals and corporations have donated millions of dollars in aid; they have done so by and large not out of some sense of altruistic duty but in the name of the potential value that another human being represents. This benevolence, which we share, is not the same thing as altruism.

The ugly hand of altruism–the moral view that need entitles a person to the values of others, whose corresponding duty is to sacrifice their values for that person’s sake–did show itself in the petulant demands of U.N. and other officials that “stingy” countries must give more. On their view, the U.S. has no right to the wealth it has produced, because it has produced it; the helpless victims of the tsunami have a right to that wealth, because they desperately need it. This perverse view is not an expression of goodwill toward man. In generously providing aid, the U.S. government should repudiate all such altruistic demands and refuse to associate with the organizations that make them.

In a fully free, fully capitalist society–a society toward which ARI works–the government would not have the power to tax citizens and redistribute their wealth for the purpose of charity, domestic or foreign. The government would be restricted to one fundamental function: to protect the citizens’ individual rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. To accomplish this, the government would need only a police force and a military to protect citizens from aggressors, and a legal system to adjudicate disputes among citizens who allege that their rights have been infringed. Charity would be left to private individuals and organizations, as it was successfully left in 19th century America (in even a semi-capitalist system, there is no shortage of wealth or of benevolence, as the public’s response to the tsunami illustrates).

But of all the ways in which our government today fails to uphold individual rights, providing (through compulsory taxation) short-term, emergency relief to foreign victims of a natural disaster is among the most innocuous. It was therefore inappropriate to single out for condemnation the government’s offer of assistance. True, it would be preferable to use the aid money for a legitimate function of government, such as to purchase needed military equipment and armor for our soldiers in Iraq, who are being asked to risk their lives to defend our freedom. It is likely, moreover, that the increase in aid offered by our government in the days after the disaster stemmed not from benevolence but from surrender to the altruists’ corrupt demand that the U.S. had not sacrificed enough. Nevertheless, thousands of the government’s actions are more damaging to our rights. Far worse, for instance, would have been to pour the aid money into government programs and agencies whose very purpose is to violate individual rights, such as into the antitrust division of the Justice Department, which persecutes successful businesses for out-competing other companies on a free market. If one wants to fight the government’s growing encroachment on individual rights, such are the areas on which to focus, not emergency relief.

The crucial issue in the battle for a free society is to restrict the government to its only legitimate purpose: the protection of individual rights. (The issue of compulsory taxation, the focus of the original piece, is a derivative; it pertains to the appropriate means by which a proper government would finance its activities, and is the last issue to address in establishing a free society. For elaboration, see Ayn Rand’s article “Government Financing in a Free Society” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)

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David Holcberg

David Holcberg, a former civil engineer and businessman, is now a writer living in Southern California. He is a former writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

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