Commentary

How Washington Turns Virtue into Vice

By Edward L. Hudgins
January 10, 2001
Only in the morally sick society of Washington would the charitable actions of Linda Chavez, George Bush’s nominee for labor secretary, be condemned as political vices rather than celebrated as civic virtues. Her withdrawal of her candidacy unveils the perverse policies that the new administration should target for elimination.

First, some facts. Mrs. Chavez took in Marta Mercado, a Guatemalan immigrant who had no money, no home, and few prospects for success without some initial assistance. Chavez could have handed her some money and said, “Good luck.” Instead, she invited Mercado to stay in her home and gave her some spending money. (How many of us would have done that?) Apparently this was not the first time Chavez practiced such acts as charity.

Did Mercado offer to do some chores around the house? Of course she did. Even politicos cannot be so corrupt as to expect that someone with no job, no material means, and unable to speak English, who is taken in by a stranger, would not show some gratitude. But perhaps the best way that Mercado showed her gratitude was by taking English classes and taking part-time work in the neighborhood—that is, by trying to better herself and to become self-sufficient so she would not need to rely on the kindness of strangers. And all of this was done without taxpayers’ dollars. What a wonderful story!

So how did Washington turn virtues into vices and prevent Chavez from serving as Labor secretary? Through really bad laws that need to be abolished.

For instance, some critics said Chavez should have investigated Mercado more carefully to find out if she were in America illegally. But laws that deputize employers to police their workers for illegal immigrants merit repeal. The employer’s job is to hire people to produce goods and services, not act as spies for the federal government. Ironically, diligent employers who suspect that every job applicant with a Spanish surname is an illegal—racial profiling?—and who shy away from hiring brown-skinned individuals whose English is not so good, might not run afoul of labor laws. But they do open themselves to federal charges of discrimination based on ethnic origin. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Chavez is accused of harboring an illegal immigrant. You want to end illegal immigration? Simple: Repeal our immigration laws and open the borders to anyone who wants to come to America to live free and prosper.

America was built by immigrants. Immigrants are people who want the best out of life. They’re not satisfied with the poverty, oppression, and lack of opportunity in their own countries. Immigrants are entrepreneurs. They take the initiative to move to a strange new land and to use their minds and their wits to work their way to prosperity. And immigrants are risk-takers who know that there are no assurances of success, but that if they do not try, there is no hope for the future.

So shouldn’t Chavez have at least avoided the appearance of inappropriate employment by paying the Social Security and Medicare taxes on Mercado’s “wages?” The answer is that the terms of employment between employer and employee should be none of the government’s business. This tax burden increases the cost of employing workers, thereby killing jobs. Further, the Social Security system is an outrageous rip-off. It is unconscionable to force workers to turn over wages to a government that gives them a measly 1.5 percent annual return on investment. All could do better in a savings account or CD.

It is a sad commentary when those who value government power and control pillory people like Chavez over private acts of virtue.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.