You know them -- they are ubiquitous in political circles, as well as in our elite institutions. They are the purveyors of poverty who endlessly warn of the Dickensian dangers in a society without a government-run safety net.

And they have succeeded in constructing a modern welfare state so expansive that in this season of giving it's downright surprising every working American hasn't memorized the line "I gave at the office."

Nearly half of U.S. households now receive some form of government aid, with means-tested programs accounting for the largest share of recipients. Food-stamp enrollment has skyrocketed -- far faster than the rate of economic decline -- with 46 million Americans now getting benefits.

When you include subsidized housing, TANF cash grants, Medicare, Medicaid and all the rest, social welfare benefits make up one-third of private and public wages, according to TrimTabs Investment Research.

Even before the Obama era, says Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, total government spending on means-tested income transfer programs in 2008 amounted to $714 billion -- 13 times greater, after adjusting for inflation, than in 1964.

Despite this, Americans still donate roughly $300 billion every year. Makes you wonder what a private social safety net would look like if the taxman weren't quite so greedy.

Here's a clue: Prior to the entitlement era, mutual aid societies, insurance cooperatives, religious organizations and fraternal associations didn't just dot the landscape; they were a prominent fixture in every community.

Yaron Brooks and Don Watkins, writing in Forbes, note: "In 1910, in New York State ... 151 private benevolent groups provided care for children, and 216 provided care for adults or adults with children.

If you were homeless in Chicago in 1933, for example, you could find shelter at one of the city's 614 YMCAs, or one of its 89 Salvation Army barracks, or one of its 75 Goodwill Industries dormitories."

That's one reason (the other more important being economic growth) that poverty in post-World War II America actually fell faster before LBJ's Great Society than after.

I suppose one could argue that the welfare state has succeeded in its mission of subsidizing those in poverty, but it has hardly lifted them out of it. In fact, the need for state-run programs conveniently becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as government benefits crowd out real private philanthropy.

Yet for all the things we ask from our politicians, taking money from one individual and giving it to another remains atop the list. Former Georgia Republican Bob Barr said that both major parties have "bought into a system of running a charity called the United States of America."

True enough, but the Democratic left has turned it into an art form. And no doubt, especially at this time of year, the lectures about doing "good" come fast and furious.

But let us not confuse religion and politics. The former is all about man's relationship to God and his fellow man; the latter represents man's relationship to the state. They are distinct. That's certainly how the founders saw it, anyway.

James Madison, in the third Congress, declared, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."

It appears the framers clearly understood the false altruism of being compassionate with someone else's money. In fact, the very idea of forced charity represents the quintessential oxymoron.

No, the genius of the American political experiment was its defense of the pursuit of one's own sense of happiness. And the greatest glory God has bestowed upon us is the absence of force and the freedom to choose. In other words, to give or not to give.

In the final analysis, the political art of legal plunder -- even if done in the name of compassion -- is a much closer cousin to vice, not virtue. If only for the simple reason that true love, virtue and selflessness are never coerced.

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Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk-show host based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and is the author of "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights" from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard from 5 to 8 p.m. weekdays on NewsTalk Radio (1130 AM) or online at