Welfare Drug Test Calls the Moral Hand of Wyoming Legislators

The welfare state is not just a project for economic engineering. It is also an ethical engineering endeavor, where our elected officials impose their moral views on the rest of us. They redistribute money and resources between private citizens based on moral notions of “equality”, they subsidize certain behavior, such as having babies without working, while punishing other behavior, such as hard work leading to high income.

But our welfare-state friendly lawmakers also make ethical statements in other ways. They have a penchant for taxing addictive behavior, e.g., alcohol consumption, gambling and smoking tobacco and marijuana. The idea behind these addiction taxes is not to discourage behavior, but to create a permanent stream of revenue for the government. As a result, the welfare state is making itself dependent on immoral behavior.

We should keep this in mind when we address another ethically charged issue relating to the welfare state, namely that of drug tests for people on welfare. A bill introduced in the Wyoming state legislature proposes just that:

Hundreds of state welfare recipients would have to pass drug tests in order to get benefits, according to a bill introduced into the state House on Thursday. … House Bill 82 would require residents who get state aid through the Personal Opportunities with Employment Responsibilities program to pay for and take drug tests when they apply for the money. The proposed law would make residents ineligible for the state aid for one year if they test positive for illegal drugs. That time could be cut to six months for those who fail the test but get substance abuse treatment. Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, who sponsored the bill, acknowledged that it is controversial. But he said it makes sense to apply the restrictions because the residents are getting public money.

There is nothing wrong with this argument per se. Anyone who is getting taxpayers’ money should do everything they can to minimize their dependency on that same money. However, while the legislators in Wyoming are keen to detach welfare recipients from drugs, they are not so keen to separate Wyoming taxpayers from drugs. On the contrary, Wyoming has a $0.60 per-pack cigarette tax and a beer tax. Tobacco is highly addictive, and it is not exactly a secret that alcohol consumption can lead to addiction.

In other words, when government wants more money, legislators make no moral statements as to addictive substances. On the contrary, they will in fact expect people to use harmful products like cigarettes. Otherwise, government will lose a lot  of revenue.

By demanding drug tests for welfare recipients while relying on drug consumption for state revenues, our legislators are trying to walk on one leg. The same ethical principles should apply on both sides of the state’s budget: in entitlement programs as well as in the pursuit of tax revenue. That is obviously not the case here, since the state legislators obviously have no problem trawling for tax revenues in the morally muddy waters of people’s addictions.

To make matters worse, the state legislators who advocate the welfare drug tests de facto verify that they are indifferent to the ethics of this issue. To them, it is a simple matter of keeping tabs on state spending:

[Representative Miller] added that the proposal is especially important now because the state expects to have less money to spend in the coming years due to low natural-gas prices. “It should get time in committee, given our decreasing revenue situation, in order to give us time to think about this,” he said. “We should not be rewarding people that are not behaving responsibly.”

In short: a large number of Wyoming’s state legislators are willing to pay a steep price to protect the state budget. But their ethical one-leggedness raises a number of questions regarding the moral standards that our legislators hold themselves to. If (or, more aptly, when) the state budget hits another rock, will they follow the examples of their colleagues in a couple of other jurisdictions – the city of Denver being one of them – and legalize marijuana for tax purposes?

It would make sense for the legislature to discuss the drug-test bill in the context of the state’s reliance on, e.g., taxpayers’ tobacco addiction for its revenue. That would hopefully lead to the establishment of consistent ethical standards across the state’s vast budget. That, in turn, could lead our legislators to the realization that there are higher goals in life than to maintain and expand the state government.