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.

Ethics, government, and the economy

Should a human government follow the ethical principles described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? The answer, in a word, is, no.

Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek and to go the extra mile, to forgive those who sin against them and do good to those who persecute them. But the government is established by God to protect its citizens, to punish those who do wrong, to uphold the law. Instead of forgiving the sinner, the government must punish the wrongdoer, “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” rendering justice on behalf of all its people.

During the Baroque Era (or Enlightenment), European philosophers described human rights and said that governments exist to protect those rights. John Locke wrote about rights to life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, writing the Declaration of Independence, would fudge the third right to “pursuit of happiness.”) Governments protect the rights of their citizens—they take life only from enemies who attack the country or from the worst of criminals who threaten the lives of others. Governments protect the liberty of their citizens, only depriving criminals of freedom, and then only for a term that fits the crime. Governments protect the property of their citizens. They may claim some property as fines for misdemeanors, other property as fees for services, other property as taxes, and still other property to provide services such as roads. In general, though, governments take no more than they must take from their citizens. When they become overbearing, when they stop respecting the rights of their citizens, the citizens are entitled to change their government, to find new leaders who will respect and protect their rights.

Philosophers spoke of a social contract between citizens and their government. Citizens agree among themselves what they want the government to do, and they use their property and their energy to help the government accomplish these goals. If citizens want public schools, they agree to pay taxes to support those schools, and they agree to send their children to those schools. For protection from foreign enemies and domestic criminals, citizens are willing to limit some of their own freedoms and property. For other services from the government, some citizens are willing to accept further limits. Among any group of citizens, a range of opinions will be found: some want the government to do more, and they are willing to pay more for those government services; others want to cede less to the government, and in return they are happy to receive fewer government services.

To some Americans (including Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton), some problems are so big that only the government can address them. To other Americans (including Ronald Reagan), the government is the biggest problem and life improves when government is reduced and limited. Pure capitalism demands that the government not involve itself in the economy—capitalists say laissez-faire, leave it alone. Even Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations acknowledged that some government regulation is necessary for the good of all citizens. Under socialism, the government controls more aspects of its citizens’ lives; in return, it demands more property and restricts more freedom of those citizens. In a free market economy, the government regulates what must be regulated but leaves more freedom and more property in the hands of its citizens.

The question remains: which economic system is better for all the citizens of a nation: socialism, or a free market economy? J.