The Beginnings of “Welfare”

The Roman Legion provided … what?

The Lady RowynRowyn comments, on this post about the meaning of “welfare” in the Missouri State Motto which they translate from Latin as “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.”

I don’t think ‘safety’ is the correct word. The well-being of the people is what the estate exists to promote and ensure.

Perhaps. But the quote is from Cicero, who was explicitly writing about the duties of military leaders, and that politicians should not outrank them because the [something] of the people is the highest law. I like “well-being” better — particularly as it does not have the weird distortion of “welfare” these days — but it doesn’t seem to convey the flavor of Cicero’s original writing the motto is taken from.

It seems to me that the Roman military forces were not going to provide “well-being” to the people in any other form but physical safety … if that.

Resistance to the “welfare state”

All terminology is subject to misuse, but the term “welfare” has been bastardized over the past century or so, which is why this caught my eye. What would a phrase like “he’s been on welfare for the past year” mean to someone of Cicero’s time — or even to the founders who wrote our Constitution?

A bit over a century ago, Grover Cleveland pointed out that as pleasant-seeming as it would be to give government money to people who needed it, it was absolutely unconstitutional and would set up the government in conflict with charities (there were already thousands in the 1880s) who did this job much better. As he put it in 1887:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation [giving money to farmers whose crops had failed due to drought] in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

(emphasis added) Back then, that argument prevailed, though Congress was busily trying to vote itself new power and create new agencies to dole out money to potential voters. The above writing is from a veto of such a bill, which planned to put most of the money into the hands of local politicians to give to constituents they liked.

Drowning in debt

Congress, of course, did not give up. Once the very first one made it through, the trickle became a flood: it was now a precedent. A century later, you’ve grown up with it. You’d have a hard time imagining a world in which the US government was not the benefactor of billions of dollars to people in want.

Now the US is going into debt it may never repay, and taking positions it may never recover from, to accomplish a mission it should never have undertaken. We are stuck with it as a “modern” thing, leaving US charities to devote hundreds of millions of dollars per year on less-worthy efforts such as promoting communism.

A note on Social Security

Social Security, to me, is not quite in this class. Had it been structured properly, the concept of giving your own money back to you is not an unreasonable one, and it is not the same as a “tax” to be distributed to others. But the government is involved, and as a result the program is unsustainable.1 Were a law passed that said that it much be privatized tomorrow — that the US government must hand over assets to a separate entity to run this program — we could not afford to do it.

That’s another unfortunate aspect of using the government to accomplish something with money. It makes no sense, it is executed badly, but Congress can make laws so that you have no choice.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

[1] Disclosure: The Social Security Administration was a client of mine for a long time; I spent a week there every month. I trained their programmers on my development platform and helped them create a large software system. Their approach to it was horrific, of course, but it ultimately got done. It was there that I first encountered this sign, in their team leader’s office:

If at first you don’t succeed, get a government job. Then you don’t have to try anymore.

He exemplified this attitude, as did his 27,000 co-workers in the building.