All Commentary
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Presidents and Precedents

America’s 44th president has embarked on a massive expansion of the federal establishment that, if accomplished, will dwarf all previous welfare states in its spending and debt. Americans will largely depend on politicians and their underlings for a significant portion of their heavily mortgaged livelihoods. It’s a path to national suicide that would horrify most of this President’s predecessors.

Consider this cogent observation from a source that may surprise you: “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America.”

Those were not the words of a nineteenth-century president. They came from the lips of our 32nd chief executive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his state of the union address on January 4, 1935. A moment later he declared, “The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.”

We all know that it didn’t. Indeed, thirty years later Lyndon Johnson would take “this business of relief” to new and expensive heights in an official “War on Poverty.” Another 30 years and more than $5 trillion in federal welfare later, a Democratic president in 1996 would sign a bill into law that ended the federal entitlement to welfare. As Ronald Reagan observed long before it dawned on Bill Clinton, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

What Reagan instinctively knew, Bill Clinton finally admitted, FDR preached but didn’t practice, and Barack Obama seems unwilling to learn is that government checks come with some nasty strings attached. They encourage idleness and irresponsibility, blunt personal initiative, break up families, produce intergenerational dependency and hopelessness, cost taxpayers a fortune, and yield harmful cultural pathologies that may take generations to cure.

The failure of the dole was so complete that one journalist more than a decade ago posed a question to which just about everybody knows the answer and the lesson it implies. “Ask yourself,” wrote John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, “If you had a financial windfall and wanted to help the poor, would you even think about giving time or a check to the government?”

The Anti-Poverty Nonprogram

Welfare statists dismiss the men who held the presidency during the nineteenth century as heartless and uncaring. Even during the depressions of the 1830s and the 1890s, Presidents Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland never proposed that Washington, D.C., extend its reach to the relief of private distress broadly speaking, and they opposed even the smallest suggestions of that kind. Now our compassionate government in Washington dispenses trillions of dollars not just to individuals but to companies as well (especially large, politically well-connected ones).

Let me underscore that when I speak of government “welfare” and its awful consequences, I do not mean only the checks for Grandma. I mean checks for Goldman Sachs and General Motors too.

For the most part, the presidents of the 1800s did mount a war on poverty—the most comprehensive and effective ever mounted by any central government in world history. It just didn’t have a gimmicky name like “Great Society,” nor did it have a public-relations office and elitist poverty conferences at expensive seaside resorts. It wasn’t offered in the form of subsidies to business and sold as a “stimulus” for us all. If you could have pressed them for a name, most if not all of those early chief executives might well have said their anti-poverty program was, in a word, liberty. This word meant things like self-reliance, hard work, entrepreneurship, the institutions of civil society, a strong and free economy, and government confined to its constitutional role as protector of liberty.

And what a poverty program liberty proved to be! In spite of a horrendous civil war, half a dozen economic downturns, and wave after wave of impoverished immigrants, America progressed from near-universal poverty at the start of the nineteenth century to within reach of the world’s highest per capita income a hundred years later. The poverty that remained stood out like the proverbial sore thumb because it was now the exception instead of the rule. In the absence of stultifying government welfare programs, our free and self-reliant citizenry spawned so many private, distress-relieving initiatives that American generosity became one of the marvels of the world.

Most Americans once understood these essential verities: Government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody (that includes health care), and a government big enough to give the people everything they want is big enough to take away everything they’ve got.

In his first inaugural address Jefferson gave us a splendid summation of what government should do.  It did not describe welfare programs but rather, “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

A similar view was held by James Madison, a key figure in the construction of the Constitution, a prime defender of it in the Federalist Papers, and our fourth president. “Charity,” said Madison, “is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”

Jefferson, Madison, and almost all of the succeeding twenty presidents of the nineteenth century were constrained by this view of the federal government, and most of them were happy to comply with it. When doing so, they were faithful to their charge. They were true poverty fighters, because they knew that if liberty were not preserved, poverty would be the least of our troubles.

Meanwhile, the poor of virtually every other nation on the planet were poor because of what governments were doing to them, often in the name of doing something for them: taxing and regulating them into penury, seizing their property and businesses, persecuting them for their faith, torturing and killing them because they held views different from those in power, and squandering their resources on official luxury, mindless warfare, and wasteful boondoggles. America was about government not doing such things to people—and that one fact was, all by itself, a powerfully effective anti-poverty, pro-prosperity program.

So here we are in the year 2010 burdened with an administration eager to toss time-tested wisdom and experience to the wind. It asks Americans to flee from their heritage and sign up for a nanny state drowning in red ink and broken promises.

We have a lot of work to do (or, more appropriately, to undo).

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is