“Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization” – Samuel Johnson
What does a “decent provision for the poor” look like?
Many people today would answer that question by describing government programs that are intended to ensure that nobody in our society falls below a minimum standard of living. Such programs would include unemployment insurance programs that provide people with income in the event that they lose their job, social security programs that provide people with income when they are too old to be employed fulltime, social assistance programs that are designed to ensure that low-income families have adequate shelter, clothing, and food, and government health insurance that ensures people have access to health care if they cannot afford to pay for it themselves. All of these programs and others like them, taken together, comprise what we call a social safety net.
Is this social safety net what Dr. Johnson had in mind when he made the remark I have placed in the epigraph of this essay? More importantly, is the social safety net the answer to the question of what “a decent provision for the poor” looks like?
Neither question can be answered with an unqualified yes or no. The social safety net did not exist in the form in which we are familiar with it today in the eighteenth century. A “decent provision for the poor” would seem to involve, at the very minimum, some way of ensuring that the basic necessities of life are available to all, and circumstances might sometimes dictate that this must take the form of government assistance. The problem is that that the social safety net as it exists today is virtually inseparable from the welfare state. While there is much that can be said, both positive and negative, about the social safety net, the welfare state is definitely not a “decent provision for the poor.”
We will consider the reasons why this is the case momentarily. First we need to define our terms so that we understand what exactly we are talking about. The welfare state is not just another name for government assistance for the needy. It is an idea about the nature and purpose of government, an idea which calls for a particular model of the social safety net. The concept of the welfare state is that government’s purpose is to ensure the well-being of the people it governs. This concept calls for a social safety net that is highly centralized, i.e., organized and controlled by a country’s central state. Even when regional and local authorities are involved in the practical administration of the programs of the welfare state it is understood that they take direction from and are the agents of the central government. The relief programs of the welfare state are not thought of as emergency measures to be undertaken when all else has failed but as active measures to eliminate the evil of poverty from society.
It is the elements just described which make the welfare state what it is and distinguish it from other forms of government social assistance. The criticism that is to follow pertains to the welfare state as described and viewed as a whole. It is not a criticism of particular social programs, such as assistance to widows with dependent children, nor is it a criticism of government assistance in general. Each government social program should be evaluated on its own particular merits and demerits, which evaluation is way beyond the scope of this essay. As for the general concept of government assistance we will take is as being granted, by all except the most cartoonish of stereotypes, that providing for those in genuine need is a good thing and that sometimes this might require the involvement of the government.
Why is the welfare state not a “decent provision for the poor”?
For the same reason that prescribing a treatment that does more injury to the patient than his actual disease would have is bad medicine. Primum non nocere is a Latin saying that expresses an ancient principle of medical ethics – first, do no harm. The welfare state is not “a decent provision for the poor” because it harms the people it is intended to help.
How does it do so?
One way in which the welfare state harms the people it is supposed to be helping is by undermining the family. Christopher Lasch called the family a “haven in a heartless world” (1). What Professor Lasch meant by this was that the family, in which there exists a union of love and authority, provides a shelter of psychological and emotional support, comfort and security that has become all the more necessary as other areas of human life have become more and more filled with conflict and stress. The family is all of that, and more. Everybody needs the support it provides but the people who need it the most have always been the poor and the needy.
What sort of effect would we expect the welfare state to have upon the family, a positive or a negative one?
Those who believe in the welfare state, unlike classical socialists (2), have long tried to sell their idea as one which will benefit families. It is difficult, however, to see how the welfare state could ever have had anything other than a deleterious effect upon the family. Throughout history the family has been not only the emotional haven that Prof. Lasch described but the primary means of economic support in times of hardship and need. If someone had a need that he could not meet himself, he looked to his relatives first and if for some reason they were unable to help, he then turned to the church and to his local community. Under the welfare state, however, the government takes over this role from the family. The architects of the welfare state may not have been consciously aware of this but it is the inevitable outcome of the concept of the welfare state.
The welfare state that we are familiar with today was built in the twentieth century, although it had forerunners in the social legislation of the late nineteenth century. It is very much a product of the age of centralization, of the concentration of power and authority within a country’s central government, and it bears the image of the age which begat it. The welfare state is the state that considers the wellbeing of those it governs to be its responsibility and reason for existence. When government takes a new responsibility upon itself it must take it from someone else and with the responsibility it assumes the power and authority that goes along with that responsibility. A large part of the process of modern centralization involved the central government taking upon itself the traditional responsibilities of regional and local authorities and so assuming much of their power and authority along with the responsibilities. In the case of the welfare state, by taking upon itself the responsibility for the wellbeing of the people it governments, it has taken upon itself a responsibility that has historically and traditionally been born by the family and in taking that responsibility, it has therefore assumed much of the family’s power and authority. The only effect we can reasonably assume that this would have upon the family is to weaken it.
We come to the same inevitable conclusion when we approach the matter from a different angle. The members of a family are related to each other by blood, marriage and adoption. Each relationship within the family comes with a set of mutual obligations. A father and mother, for example, are obligated to care for, provide for, and bring up the children they brought into the world, and those children are obligated to honour, respect, and obey their parents and, when their parents can no longer care and provide for themselves, to do so for them. The more the members of a family accept these obligations with a sense of duty that is fueled by love the stronger the family will be.
So what happens to that sense of duty when government takes over these obligations? What happens when the government takes over control of the schools from local school boards and parents and begins to incorporate more and more of the training that had traditionally been reserved to parents into the school system? What happens when the government so completely takes over the role of providing for the elderly, with its pensions, social security plans, and assisted living facilities that no responsibility is left to their adult children? Does the loss of this sense of duty make for a stronger or a weaker family?
The answer to those questions should be fairly obvious, but if perchance it happens to have eluded somebody, he need only open his eyes and look around him. The state in which we currently find the family is surely evidence enough that the effect of the welfare state on the family has been a deleterious one. (3) It is also evident that the poor and needy have been hurt the most by the weakened condition of the family.
A second reason why the welfare state is not a “decent provision for the poor” is that it separates obligation from relationship.
The obligation to help the needy was traditionally diffused throughout society. It was not distributed evenly but this did not mean that it was unfair. Obligation went hand in glove with relationship. The obligation to provide for the needs of a helpless infant fell upon his parents and if they were incapable of meeting that obligation for some reason or another it then fell upon their nearest relations. Obligations were not equal but were greater or smaller depending upon the closeness of the relationship. Within the Christian church, for example, a particular congregation would have obligations to help the needy throughout the church catholic, stronger obligations to the needy in its own diocese, and the strongest of all would be to the members of its own parish. People would have greater obligations to their friends and neighbors than to strangers and greater obligations to members of their own community than to members of a community miles removed from them.
The welfare state changed this. It took all of those obligations and concentrated them into one large collection and placed it upon the central government. The central government now administers and pays for programs to help the widow and orphan, the sick and elderly, and others in need. Since the government has no money to pay for those programs except what it receives in taxes the obligation does ultimately return to us but now it is separated from relationship. The taxes we pay are not assessed based upon the degree of our relationship to the needy recipients of welfare programs but upon our level of income.
Therefore under the welfare state we are as obliged to support someone who is completely unknown to us, who lives on the other side of the country, who we have never met and are never likely to meet as we are to support our own brother or sister who has the same need. This is more significant than it might appear at first. It is not just that obligations are easier to bear in the context of relationships and that obligations without relationships breed bitterness and resentment, although both of these things are true and important. What this means is that the welfare state is an instrument of social atomization.
Traditional society is organic in nature. It is not just a random group of individuals, its members are connected to each other through a number of different relationships each of which has its own unique set of mutual expectations, rights and obligations, out of which relationships the various groups, levels, and layers of society, beginning with the family, are formed. Social atomization is the process of breaking down traditional society by absorbing its duties and powers into the state and reducing its members to a collection of isolated individuals. The pulverization of society like the breakdown of the family affects everybody negatively but hurts the poor and the needy the most.
A third reason why the welfare state is not a “decent provision for the poor” and the last reason we will consider in this essay (4) is that the welfare state kills genuine compassion and charity.
The welfare state is portrayed by its advocates as the embodiment of compassion and charity. It is nothing of the sort. You can personally display compassion and charity towards someone by giving of yourself, your time, and your resources to help that person in a time of need. A group of people can display a collective form of compassion and charity by voluntarily pooling their resources to help people out who are in need. The welfare state does not and cannot fall into this latter category of collective compassion.
When you are called upon to personally display compassion towards another person it is in circumstances in which you have been personally confronted with his need. If you persuade several people you know to join you in helping another person to do so you ordinarily must acquaint them with the particular need. In both cases you are helping real people who you are aware of with their actual needs and problems.
The welfare state is the exact opposite of this. It is not particular real needs of particular real people that it is interested in. The welfare state deals with generalizations – poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, etc. – as abstract problems to be solved by finding the right formula. It does not have to persuade people to voluntarily give their resources to support its programs because they are funded by compulsory taxation.
The welfare state actually kills charity and compassion. When the government tells people that it has taken responsibility for the well-being of all members of society and that it has created programs to solve problems like poverty this puts a damper on people’s sense of “other people are suffering, I should do something to help” and generates the idea “it’s the government’s problem now, not mine”. This is especially true when they find their taxes have skyrocketed to pay for the enormous expense of the welfare state.
As with the decline of the family and the atomization of society, the loss of genuine generosity, compassion, charity, and benevolence in society, hurts the poor and the needy more than anyone else.
The welfare state is not what a “decent provision for the poor” looks like.
(1) Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 1995). When this book was first published in hardback (Basic Books, 1977) Lasch, who was Professor of History at the University of Rochester, had the reputation of being a conventional radical or leftist. The book received laudatory reviews from conservatives like Nathan Glazer and George Gilder and condemnation from leftists like Mark Poster and Edward Shorter, prompting Lasch to write a preface for the 1978 paperback edition, explaining how both sides had misunderstood his book as being reactionary in nature. By the time Lasch died in 1994, however, he had well earned a reputation as the “social conservative of the left”. This book is a scholarly look at the recent history of the family, its interaction with its social environment, and its impact upon the psychological health of its members, and a largely negative critique of the theories of social scientists who diagnosed the family as causing psychological illness, and offered their “expert” advice as to how to correct this.. Lasch’s sympathies were with rather than against socialism, and he sees the “capitalist” as standing behind the social scientist, using him as a means of extending his control over the private lives of workers, but his concept of the family as a shelter from the conflicts which rage in other aspects of life, is nevertheless a valuable one. “As business, politics, and diplomacy grow more savage and warlike, men seek a haven in private life, in personal relations, above all in the family—the last refuge of love and decency.” (p. xix)
(2) By “classical socialists” I mean nineteenth century socialists, who believed that farms, mines, factories and other “means of production” should be owned collectively by society. Today, the word “socialist” is more often used to refer to a supporter of the welfare state than someone who believes in collective ownership. Nineteenth century socialists were not a homogenous group. While they all believed the private ownership of property was the source of all evil and that its elimination would bring some sort of Paradise on earth, many believed in violent revolution whereas others believed in using the legitimate political process. Some, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, believed in the family, while most, like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels regarded it as a source of oppression to be abolished in the socialist revolution, an idea which survived into the 20th Century and influenced both the sexual liberation and the feminist movements.
(3) This is not to say that the welfare state is the sole cause of the decline of the health of the family in Western countries. Industrialization brought about the era of mass production in the late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. With the era of mass production came rapid population growth and migration from rural areas to urban centres. Prior to the era of mass production, Western economies were centred around agriculture, and the production of other goods was largely in the hands of craftsmen, who worked out of their homes, who had learned their skills by working with their fathers, and who passed their skills on to their own sons in the same way. This kind of economy was good for the health of the family because it allowed them to put down deep roots in local communities. The shift to mass production changed this. Production of non-agricultural goods was removed from the home to the factory, a large part of the population was uprooted, and the planting of roots was discouraged by factory owners who preferred a mobile and atomized work force. All of this played a major part in the collapse of the stability and security of the family. That industrialized mass production and the welfare state are both major contributing factors to the decline of the family is a fact that may not seem to make sense at first. This is due to the confusing terminology of the twentieth century. In the twentieth century socialism came to be identified with the welfare state and capitalism came to be identified with the free market of economic liberalism and these combinations, socialism/welfare state and capitalism/free market were regarded as the polar opposites of each other. The reality is far more complex than this simplistic dualism would indicate. Socialism began in the nineteenth century as a left-wing (progressive, revolutionary) response to industrial mass production. The term “capitalism” was first used as a derogatory label for industrial mass production by the socialists. Economic liberals eventually claimed the term as a label for the free market of their theories, but industrial mass production had not been the product of the free market or of a government policy of laissez faire. The process of concentrating power and authority into central governments was already a couple of centuries old and these central governments played an active role in the transformation of their countries from rural/agrarian economies to urban/industrial economies. The same central governments later developed into welfare states. Industrial mass production (capitalism) and the welfare state (socialism) are therefore best regarded, not as the opposite poles of an ideological spectrum but as two stages of the modern, highly centralized, state. Both stages introduced changes which threatened, weakened, and undermined the family.
(4) There are many other reasons, of course. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980 (Basic Books: New York, 1984) is a study of the American welfare state that shows how many American welfare programs in that era not only failed to solve the problems they were supposed to solve but in fact made them worse and contributed to many other social ills as well.
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