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.
The welfare reform passed when Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995 was not driven not by a hatred of the poor or a concern about direct costs (which are pretty minor compared to programs that subsidize the middle and upper classes). The concern was that AFDC had unintentionally encouraged the creation of a subculture of dependency, illegitimacy, drug abuse, and violence. College educated people with middle-class values had designed a system in the 1960s that would have worked well for college educated, middle-class welfare recipients. For a population of high school dropouts coming from a present-oriented culture? Not so well.
In the early 1970s I saw a quite memorable segment on 60 Minutes about what happened when the Great Society’s attempts to help the poor collided with small town Pennsylvania. This little village’s welfare caseload was a single mother trying to raise two kids. The town provided her with financial assistance and a part-time job. There was no bureaucracy; it was handled rather informally. It was sufficient to take care of her needs, and she was reasonably happy with the situation.
After the new rules from D.C. arrived, the little village hired one full-time employee and one part-time employee to run a welfare department — and this single mother no longer had a part-time job. Needless to say, the village’s costs rose dramatically — without improving the condition of this single mother. It might have been cheaper if they had hired this woman full-time to administer the new welfare department, but I’m sure that she wouldn’t have been qualified to run the department issuing her own checks.
Libertarians who want the government to not be in the business of caring for the poor are free to promote their beautiful theories all they want. But I would prefer if they emphasized that their position is not necessarily a conservative position. In spite of the best efforts of the ACLU, this is still predominantly a Christian nation. Yes, there are lazy people who take advantage of the welfare state (although it isn’t as easy as it used to be, since the 1995 reforms). But there are an awful lot of people who are dependent on the government because they have no choice in the matter. There are a fair number of single mothers out there trying to raise kids on their own because the father ran off, is sitting in prison, or is otherwise not being responsible.
And yes, some of these single mothers made really bad choices that put them in these situations. This is why whatever system we come up with to help those in need must not incentivize bad behavior. Inevitably, we need a system that has enough discretion to punish destructive behavior and reward improvements in behavior. And yes, this is judgmental; if you want the majority taxed to help the poor, our moral opinions come with the check.
For the majority of Americans who believe that the government has an obligation to help the poor, let’s start to see what we have in common.