Hear Ye! Since 1998.
Please note: This post is at least 3 years old. Links may be broken, information may be out of date, and the views expressed in the post may no longer be held.
Jan 05

Questioning a Government’s Right to Give Foreign Aid

A research associate at the Ayn Rand Institute makes an argument in his article “US should not help tsunami victims” that, regardless of the moral altruism and propriety (albeit, supposedly superficial propriety) of giving foreign aid, the US has no right to give such money. His argument is simple. The government gets its money from taxation which is “extorted from American taxpayers”. He raises the hue and cry of “By what right do they take our hard-earned money and give it away?” It is not the State’s money to give. That is not what the American public pays taxes for. He goes on to write, “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.”

I suppose you could attempt to give the author the benefit of the doubt and try to interpret his argument as asserting that foreign aid should come entirely from the private sector, but this is still missing the point. I’m sure it is immediately apparently to most of you the flaws in the article’s argument.

The government has the authority to spend taxpayers’ money in the way they see fit. The reason for this is that the democratic process has given them a mandate to do such things. When a politician strays too far from the mandate given to them by the public, the democratic safeguard of an election kicks in. That’s the way the system works. Allocation of funds (ie, handling the budget) is the government’s prerogative. Just as creating taxation legislation, handling international trade relations and UN involvement all are the responsibility of the government. I mean, the US Constitution gives Congress the right to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations”. Presumably, that includes the unilateral transfer of monetary or other aid.

The article assumes that people are discontent that the government is spending the money on foreign aid. Or, at least, assumes that people are blind – that the “morality of altruism” makes people pliable enough to allow their hard earned money to be spent in this way without much contestation. That’s a pretty cynical view.

Law aside, it’s also a very selfish argument. The US is a member of the United Nations. The preamble of the UN Charter, signed in San Francisco, pledges that member States are determined to “employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples”. In other words, there is a strong underlying theme of developed States helping developing States because it’s recognised it is the human thing to do. Foreign aid is just one aspect of this “international machinery”.

After branding altruism as “vicious morality” and saying it “demands that we sacrifice our values instead of holding on to them”, it really begs the questions: what exactly then are these values that America supposedly holds dear?