The welfare state

Already the free market economy reflects a compromise between pure capitalism and pure socialism, although the free market preserves the benefits of capitalism and permits only necessary legislation to moderate the economy. Governments limit pollution of the air and land and water. They make sure that the products sold to consumers are safe. They also regulate work areas for the safety of the workers. Governments even place limits upon who can work—setting minimum working ages to keep children out of the work force—and they limit the number of hours per week required of workers and demand rest times and meal times for workers.

A further compromise between pure capitalism and pure socialism is called the welfare state. Although some kinds of government welfare can be detected in ancient times—the Roman government subsidized bread and circuses for the people—the real welfare state began in the late nineteenth century as a result of the conflict between the ideas of capitalism and socialism. Otto von Bismarck introduced the welfare state to the newly-formed country of Germany in the 1880s. Fifty years later, Franklin Roosevelt introduced aspects of the welfare state to the United States as part of his New Deal, an attempt to overcome the troubles of the Great Depression.

Behind the welfare state lies the concept that all people have rights and that governments exist to protect those rights. In the original definition of human rights (life, liberty, property), the work of the government was largely negative. The government was not to deprive people of their rights without due process (a declaration of war or a criminal trial, for example). The government was to protect the rights of some citizens from enemies and criminals that would violate those rights. But, at first, no one said that the government should guarantee life by positive efforts to support the lives of all citizens.

People have basic needs. We need food and drink, clothing and shelter, and other physical supplies. When John Locke and Thomas Jefferson wrote about a right to life, they did not intend for the government to feed and clothe and house all citizens. People who work are given money, and they use that money to purchase what they need. People who do not work receive care from their families—children, the elderly, and the ill generally expect their families to feed and clothe and shelter them. Churches, community groups, and other charitable organizations care for those who are lacking the support of a family and those whose needs surpass the capacity of their family to meet. The government, therefore, had no role in supporting and protecting the poor beyond its essential task to keep enemies and criminals from taking advantage of those who were poor.

God gave his Law to his chosen people, the Israelites. He said that poverty would not exist if his Law was obeyed, but God acknowledged the reality of sin when he said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Jesus calls his people to be loving and generous, caring for those in need. If every Christian obeyed those commands to their fullest extent, poverty would not exist. Today’s Christians must confess that we have not perfectly followed the commands of Jesus. The poor, the needy, the homeless, and the oppressed among us reveal our shortcomings, our sins, our need for forgiveness. Christians are forgiven. Jesus paid the debt of all sinners in full on the cross. Being forgiven, Christians are being transformed into the image of Christ, doing what Jesus would do. Because the transformation is not complete, the poor and needy and homeless and oppressed are still among us.

Socialists point to the poor and oppressed and blame capitalism for their plight. Rather than acknowledging the sinful nature of all people, they focus their accusations upon the wealthy, the business owners, the people who benefit most from capitalism. Bismarck and Roosevelt did not want to renounce capitalism and endorse socialism. Instead, they used the authority of the government to require more help for the needy from those who could afford to offer help. Businesses are required to give their workers health insurance, disability insurance, and retirement plans. Under Social Security (part of the New Deal), workers are taxed to provide the government money; that money pays other people—chiefly the elderly and the disabled—not to work.

Does its defense of the right to life require the government to guarantee food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care to every citizen? This question defines the debate between conservatives and liberals in Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world. The more services the government undertakes to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and provide medical care for the ill and injured, the more money it must collect from all its citizens. Government programs tend to be less efficient and more expensive than comparable programs under private ownership. Wealthy capitalists and their foundations often provide help for the poor that addresses their needs more specifically and more completely than government programs. On the other hand, when citizens begin trusting the government to solve the problems of the poor, those citizens often become detached from the problems of the poor, losing their compassion and their willingness to help their neighbors one person at a time.

Many Americans who say that they support socialism are actually longing for a more complete welfare state. They do not necessarily want their government to run all the factories, all the farms, all the hospitals and clinics, and all the means of production. They merely want a guarantee that all the hungry will be fed, all the homeless will be sheltered, and all the sick will receive the care they need. Calling for socialism, they blame the wealthy for creating and perpetuating the needs of their neighbors, and they accept no personal responsibility for causing or for solving those needs. The welfare state is not as bad an answer to human problems as is pure socialism; but it falls short of being the best answer available. J.

5 thoughts on “The welfare state

  1. Reblogged this on Citizen Tom and commented:
    Salvageable has an excellent post here. I would just like to add a few words which I hope will clarify the debate between Conservatives and Socialists.

    Government regulation which is designed to protect our rights to life. liberty and pursuit of happiness is not Socialism. To a large extent what constitutes Socialism is a matter of intent. Because we have to tax ourselves to pay for government, we can be ridiculous and define any sort of government as Socialist, and that is what the Socialists do. In the eyes of Socialists, the mere manifestation of government is Socialist. Therefore, the minute a Conservative says that a Socialist wants too much government Socialists proclaim that Conservatives hate government. In truth, Conservatives think Socialism is immoral.

    Let’s consider again some of Salvageable’s words.

    Many Americans who say that they support socialism are actually longing for a more complete welfare state. They do not necessarily want their government to run all the factories, all the farms, all the hospitals and clinics, and all the means of production. They merely want a guarantee that all the hungry will be fed, all the homeless will be sheltered, and all the sick will receive the care they need.

    Most of the people who support Socialism don’t actually know what they want. They want a solution, but they have not given much thought about the implementation of a solution and the consequences of that solution.

    What is the problem? I think part of the problem is the way we have defined the words. Capitalism is not simply an economic system. Capitalism is a system that recognizes we each have personal property rights. Socialism is not simply an economic system. Socialism is a system based upon the proposition that everyone owns everything, and the majority has the right to control the use of all property using the instrument of government.

    With these definitions am I redefining Capitalism and Socialism? I suppose so, but words do not have fixed definitions. Like it or not, when we use words we battle over their meanings. To communicate we each impose upon others what we think a word means. Hence, because that is the way they see it, Socialists are always trying to redefine Conservativism (and Capitalism too) as the hatred of government. Therefore, with these modified definitions I am trying to put the focus back where it belongs, how we each regard human rights.

    In order to to fix problems related to poverty, Socialists have decided to deprive the individuals of their property rights. They have decided the end, eliminating the problem of poverty, justifies the means. However, any system of government based upon stealing other people’s property leads to tyranny. When we become completely dependent upon the government, we become the slaves of the people who run the government.

    Are these proposed definitions of Capitalism and Socialism too extreme? Is there a happier middle ground? No. Consider that in order to implement Capitalism we must make a compromise. To protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must institute government taxation. That government, in order to have the funding it needs, must tax us. However, unless we restrict the power of taxation to that which is absolutely needed to protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that power of taxation will be used to endlessly grow the government. Is that not what we see happening?

    Liked by 1 person

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