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Social Conservatives, Liberals Get Each Other Wrong on Welfare

Opposition to the welfare state is not about animus towards the poor. It is about implementing a reasonable and effective program.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

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August 12, 2009 - 12:00 am
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Social conservatives argue that this is a Christian nation and that it is both appropriate and reasonable for the Christian majority to make laws that reflect its moral code. As social conservatives became more successful in gaining office and influence a few years back, liberals began to argue that if this was a Christian nation, didn’t Jesus call us to help the downtrodden and suffering?

Who’s right? They both are, but it seems that many liberals and social conservatives are missing some important history. They are also misunderstanding who stands for what.

Government assistance to the poor isn’t new; FDR didn’t invent the welfare state. Our tradition of local government providing for the poor traces back to the Poor Law passed in 1601, during the reign of Elizabeth I. This law became necessary because Elizabeth’s divorce-happy father dissolved the great monasteries that had cared for those who would otherwise have starved. The American colonies carried over this practice, with each town responsible for looking after its poor and mentally ill.

William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, the most popular law book in the American colonies when the Revolution started, listed the rights that every Englishman enjoyed because they were a gift from God — including the right to life. And this even applied to “an infant, even before his birth.” This included not simply protection from criminal attack, but also:

The law … furnishes him with every thing necessary for their support. For there is no man so indigent or wretched, but he may demand a supply sufficient for all the necessities of life, from the more opulent part of the community, by means of the several statutes enacted for the relief of the poor.

The government’s obligation to care for the poor isn’t a modern innovation (unless you think of ruffed collars as dangerous liberalism).

Where liberals get it wrong is to assume that all opposition to the welfare state is opposition in principle. Yes, there are libertarians who believe that the government should provide no assistance to the poor — that this is properly the function of private charity. (Private charity to help the poor is an enviable goal, but as David Steinberg points out, the left is generally less prepared to make charitable contributions than the right.) But much of the conservative position is not opposition to the principle of governmental assistance, but to particular bad implementations.

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