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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Warnings from the Wise about the Welfare State

A February 27, 2013, article in The New York Times on last month's Italian elections included this interesting paragraph:

“Increasingly, experts on both sides of the Atlantic are asking whether politicians in some advanced nations, faced with high debts, aging populations and slower growth, are capable of promoting plans that offer a way out of the malaise—or whether they could be elected if they did.”

So the “experts” are finally beginning to wonder if the welfare State is affordable and sustainable. I guess that's progress. But in my view, these Johnny-come-latelies aren't experts at all if they didn't see it coming.

The real experts—the ones who deserve our praise and appreciation—were the people who warned against the welfare State when it was in its infancy and were often pilloried as thoughtless, mean-spirited skinflints. Many names come to mind.

President Grover Cleveland vetoed many welfare-type bills in the 1880s. He wisely declared that “though the people may support the government, it is not the duty of the government to support the people.”

When a federal income tax was put forward more than a century ago to help finance future government growth, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field prophesied, “A small progressive tax will be but the stepping stone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political contests will become a war.” A war it has indeed become: of one class against another, of politicians against the people, of one generation against the next, of eternal truth against endless lies.

Senator Barry Goldwater counseled against the “Great Society” schemes of the 1960s, in part because he knew they would put the country on the path to bankruptcy: “It is a fact that Lyndon Johnson and his curious crew seem to believe that progress in this country is best served simply and directly through the ever-expanding gift power of the everlastingly growing Federal Government. . . . It's political Daddyism, and it's as old as demagogues and despotism.”

I also think of the people who bravely sounded the alarm about the boondoggles of the 1930s, the lonely voices who opposed the Bush prescription drug entitlement of 2004, and the farsighted ones who spoke against the bailouts of 2008–09. All of that baloney cost far more in both money and liberties than the proponents originally claimed. They established dangerous precedents and new dependent constituencies whose votes politicians could buy by offering still more. We're paying an awful price today for not listening to those wise folks then.

If you declare at a party, “Guzzle with glee, you'll feel great!” but fail to say a word about tomorrow's hangover, in what subject are you an “expert”? You're not even tuned in to the long-run consequences of your own advice.

Every expansion of the federal government—from food stamps to student loans, from the role of corporate subsidizer to that of global cop—was heralded as a great and noble development, at least for those on the receiving end.  Politicians from both parties rushed to take credit, perhaps knowing deep down that if anything went wrong, they'd be gone and not be blamed. The French have a phrase for this: “Après moi, le deluge”—After me, the flood.

All around us, every minute of every day, signs abound of bad and intractable consequences of the dreams of myopic schemers. Those consequences are no longer long-term. They're here, now.  Soaring, almost incomprehensible deficits and debt. Abandonment of personal responsibility by large swaths of the population who pursue destructive behaviors while expecting a handout. Demagogues corrupting elections with promises of other people's money. Program after program headed for fiscal insolvency. All of it was utterly predictable—and was indeed predicted by the wise who knew history, economics, human nature, and simple math.

No welfare State of the last 3,000 years improved a people's character, enhanced their liberties, or put their government's finances on a solid footing. The reality has been just the opposite, in every case, no exception. The late economist Howard Kershner summed it up well: “When a self-governing people confer upon their government the power to take from some and give to others, the process will not stop until the last bone of the last taxpayer is picked bare.”

Say what you want about the welfare State, but you can't say we weren't warned.

  • 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