How The Welfare State Stole Christmas
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How The Welfare State Stole Christmas

by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins | December 23, 2012 | Forbes.com

We Could End Homelessness with the Money Americans Spend on Christmas Decorations,” announces a headline from ThinkProgress blogger Adam Peck.

So far as we can tell, Americans haven’t exactly been taking to the streets demanding that people trade Christmas ornaments for welfare programs, but Peck’s article is interesting for what it reveals about those who are fighting to expand America’s welfare state.

According to Peck, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says it could end “homelessness” if only its annual budget to fight the problem ballooned from $1.9 billion to $20 billion. That’s dubious — financial reasons seldom account for why a person ends up living on the street or under a bridge. But set that aside. Peck goes on to acknowledge: “By any measure $20 billion is a lot of money, but the figure is far less daunting when placed in context.” What’s the relevant context in his view? The nearly $40 billion Americans spend on Christmas decorations and flowers.

That, of course, is just an aggregate. What actually happens is that you set aside, say $75 of your own income for Christmas decorations and flowers.

Now pause for a second on what that money buys you. For many of us, that $75 buys us a lifetime of joyful memories. Aren’t some of your happiest recollections decorating the Christmas tree with your family? Yeah, ours too.

With that in mind, let’s restate Peck’s proposition: Let’s have the government seize $75 of the income you worked for and would use to create lasting memories for you and your family, and transfer it (minus transaction costs) to people you don’t know, and might not approve of if you knew.

Here’s a question: If that was so clearly an enticing proposition, then why should Peck and his friends in government need to force it on you? Why not just persuade you to spend more of your income on helping people? Precisely because Peck knows that, absent forcing his priorities on you, you’ll very likely go right ahead pursuing your own priorities and your own individual happiness.

For a welfare statist, though, your happiness is not a morally legitimate goal. What is? Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus, in the course of praising Peck’s column, hands us a clue: “[T]he guy whose birthday we’re supposedly celebrating built his ministry out of helping the downtrodden and less fortunate. So it’s perhaps fair to ask the old question: What would Jesus do? I’m guessing he’d go easy on the tinsel and focus more on the good deeds.”

And why is that Lazarus’s guess? Because a basic moral principle inculcated by Christianity is that you are your brother’s keeper. Your moral duty is to serve and sacrifice for the poor and the meek, and if you are so selfish as to value your Christmas fun and lifelong memories over “helping the homeless,” well, you should be ashamed of yourself.

This is the same moral perspective that is at the root of every other welfare state program. Whether it’s Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid or public housing or public schooling or farm subsidies, the moral justification is always the same: You don’t get to spend your money on your priorities, you have to spend it to serve the needs of others. Their need matters. Your happiness? Not so much.

So should we all be Scrooges, indifferent to people suffering hardships? Of course not. But the first political priority should be securing everyone’s freedom to pursue his own happiness, which includes his right to spend his income on his own happiness. That’s what free markets do, and it’s free markets that are the best way of making sure individuals can prosper. Then, if you want to, you can help anyone you choose in any way you choose—not as a guilty duty, but as a voluntary action aimed at your own personal happiness.

But helping others through hardship is a side issue. The purpose of your life is not to help the Tiny Tims of the world. It is to do everything in your power to create a life filled with joyous memories.

That, by the way, is why we urge you to celebrate Christmas. We don’t believe Christmas is essentially a religious holiday or that it should be about serving the downtrodden. It’s about celebrating earthly prosperity and happiness.

So have a Merry, guilt-free Christmas.

About The Authors

Yaron Brook

Chairman of the Board, Ayn Rand Institute

Don Watkins

Former Fellow (2006-2017), Ayn Rand Institute