Advocates of placing more and more of our incomes and lives under the control of government sometimes say that those of us who favor cutting down the size and burden of government are selfish. By contrast, proposing a significant role for government is a sign of altruism and charity.

In this Christmas season, it’s important to remember just what “charity” is.

Charity is when you see somebody in need–let’s call him Doug–and you, on your own volition, give him cash, groceries, a trip to the doctor’s office, a shoveled-out driveway, or what have you.

That’s charity. Now let’s move to the world of politics.
Paul the politician levies taxes on Amy and hires Brenda to make sure that Amy pays her taxes. Paul also hires Charlie as a government employee (with lifetime tenure). After Charlie takes his cut for salary, pension benefits and cushy office furniture, spends money from Amy  and many other people in a way that provides some modest benefit to Doug.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s union gives fat campaign contributions to Doug. It also distributes campaign literature, makes phone calls, and does other work to make sure that Paul gets re-elected. If for some reason Paul loses his election, Paul benefits from a cushy pension that he himself designed.

So where’s the charity in all that? Where’s the altruism? Nowhere to be seen. Everything that happened resulted from self-interest.

The self-interest of the bureaucrat and the politician is no more virtuous than the self-interest of the taxpayer. Unfortunately, each time the bureaucrat and the politician levy a dollar of taxes–cheered on by activist groups–the rest of us lose an opportunity to offer charity to those we see in need.