All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1974

Welfare Fifty Years Hence

Dr. Shumiatcher is a prominent lawyer in Regina, Saskatchewan, well known as a lecturer, writer, defender of freedom.

Since Lord Beveridge drew his blueprint of the welfare state for Britain, it has become almost axiomatic in all western countries, including Canada, that governments will each year come to perform new functions that traditionally had been regarded as the responsibility of the individual.

As the state and other dominant institutions exercise their growing authority over the citizen, his own capacity to make future choices diminishes. Whilst the objects of institutional direction and control are undoubtedly initiated out of the most benign motives of creating a secure and egalitarian society, they ultimately succeed only to the extent that the citizen becomes “cabined, cribbed, confined.” The paradox is that the benevolent quest for security and egalitarianism leads to a custodial society of unrelieved monotony that must corral the creative, hobble the energetic and devour the dissentient if it is to achieve its ends.

A projection of present trends, therefore, will lead us not to a new society. Rather it will return us to a society in which the elements of status are of greater importance than the constitutents of freely negotiated relationships, particularly those of contract. The senior citizen, the pensioner, the deserted wife, the dependent mother, the injured workman, the university student, the daycare center charge, the treaty Indian, the “in-scope-employee”, the bilingual public service employee, the unilingual civil servant, the prisoner, the parolee — each must be accorded his special status in a structured society that has already grown as rigid as the hierarchies of the feudal system of the thirteenth century. Lords and nobles, knights and serfs each in his place, performed his duties to, and claimed his rights from the authority that stood immediately above him in the feudal pecking order. What each man did was not so important as the status he occupied in the hierarchy. And while no social security numbers were then issued by the Sovereign, the place of every citizen and what he was entitled to claim of the society of which he was a part, were matters as precisely defined in the feudal age as they are now under the Social Security Act, the Unemployment Insurance Act, the Canada Pension Plan and the federal and provincial welfare statutes. Under the feudal system, so long as he faithfully conformed, the individual was assured that his master would provide him with all of the necessities for life. He required no means by which to make choices on his own. He was paid no money-wages; he did not, and indeed, could not choose where he would work or where he would spend his earnings. Why should he? Did he not have complete security? So it may be expected that, present trends continuing, within fifty years the individual will return to a neo-feudal status of total security.

But it is my view that man’s growth and development do not proceed in straight or even curved one-dimensional lines. Neither do quantitative data of past events necessarily reveal the course of human conduct of the future. Graphs that may demonstrate the growth of population in the past fifty years do not necessarily chart the trend for the next fifty years. In the 1920′s, some population experts predicted that by 1970, Canada’s French-speaking population would constitute a majority since the birthrate of French-Canadian Roman Catholic families far exceeded that of all other groups in Canada. The emergence of French-speaking Roman Catholics as the predominant racial linguistic and religious group in Canada was bound to shape the culture and mores of Canada in the last quarter of the twentieth century. So ran the popular theory that came to be referred to as “the revenge of the cradle” for the Plains of Abraham. It was a prophecy buttressed with solid statistical graphs projected fifty years into the future. These lines went a long way to nurture the nationalistic aspirations of many who foresaw as inevitable, a French-speaking Canada. Obviously, the statistical experts of fifty years ago lacked both the facts and the imagination necessary to build into their projections the decline in influence of the church or the effects of the pill. These played a vital role in reversing the population trends that the statisticians thought to be inevitable. Smaller families among French-speaking Canadians, the post-war baby boom and immigration all had the effect of reducing the proportionate growth of French-speaking Canadians, and when these facts became apparent, many no longer were willing to rely on the cradle to intensify their influence and turned to other means.

The Pendulum Principle

Thus, in human affairs, the theory that if a trend be recognized, it is likely to continue, does not provide an accurate basis on which to forecast the future. It is the unexpected and the unforeseen that are likely to become the most significant factors for change. Surprise makes fools of statistics.

If some theory is to be applied in considering the state of the law pertaining to health, welfare and education fifty years hence, experience would seem to favor the pendulum principle that views human tastes and choices, institutions and standards of conduct as constantly changing and as periodically oscillating between extremes over periods of years or even centuries.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the changing fashions of physical adornment and personal morality. The contemporary cultivation of long hair and hirsute facial embellishment is a re-run of the preferences demonstrated by royalist cavaliers of the court of the Stuarts. Our moral permissiveness is in the tradition of a licentious England in the years of the Restoration when the pendulum swiftly swung against the bleak years dominated by Cromwell’s round-headed republicans. The libertarian society dominated by Edward VII was a moral and sartorial reaction against the strictures attempted by a widowed Victoria upon the ebullience of her vigorous people. The ethical self-reproach following World War I produced a pendulum like swing from a free-wheeling morality on the one hand, to so prolific a proclamation of blue laws on the other, as to spawn a whole generation accused of being moral malefactors. Literature, liquor and libido all had their lynchers. It was some forty years before the pendulum of public opinion swung. New standards of morality were so swiftly incorporated into the law in the 1960′s that some complained that society abandoned all but the barest elements of decency. Whatever one’s tastes, it is common ground that trends in sartorial and moral standards have always moved pendulum fashion. It is my view that man’s health, welfare and education, being as uniquely personal to him as his clothing and his morals, are likely to be subject to the same kind of swings. History is replete with evidence of the reversal of apparent trends. The concept of contract was the pivot upon which the feudal system’s most stable concept — that of status — was reversed. As a result of that reversal, there developed a relatively free and mobile society.

State Intervention

The trends of the past fifty years have repudiated the concept of the free market place. The production and marketing of all major agricultural commodities are regulated by the state; the flow of commerce across international boundaries is controlled by law; private land purchases in some jurisdictions must be approved by a cabinet; the direct sale of commodities, from encyclopedias to kitchen utensils, are subject to repudiation during a “cooling off period”; employment agreements are spelled out in statutes that accord special status to those who work; the practice of the learned professions is made subject to state controls; the press itself is regulated by government councils. The pendulum of such a society has indeed moved to an extreme position in its oscillations between freedom and servility, contract and status, independence and paternalism. And over the whole scene there floats, like some giant satellite, the theory that the state has eminent domain over all life and property. Upon that theory it claims and collects taxes at rates that would cause the most callous feudal lord to blush.

A reaction against this relationship between the state and the individual is inevitable.

The present position of Canada’s economic and social pendulum has reached the point of a status-structured society from which the common sense of citizens will retreat when the implications of their status are recognized and the tribute they pay is assessed.

The trends that have produced the total state will be arrested and reversed when it is recognized that governments, grown greedy for money and power, debilitate and destroy the industry that is the source of a nation’s wealth. Legislatures grown hyperactive produce citizens who are inactive and unproductive.

The major controls of the future, therefore, will not be imposed by public laws: they will become the restraints that individuals will exercise over their own desires and appetites, accepting the concept of Ortega y Gasset that:

Order is not a pressure imposed upon society from without, but an equilibrium which is set up from within.1

The society of the future will be one in which men themselves will fashion the relationships that are expected to satisfy their needs. The sanctions of the state will be resorted to only in the most exceptional cases.

Fifty years hence, men will agree that fewer laws be passed and that fewer sanctions be imposed by the state. Governments will be moved to disengage and leave the individual free to develop a higher degree of self-discipline. Parliamentarians will take pride not in the number of new statutes they will have passed in any year, but in the number of laws they have succeeded in repealing. They will come to embrace the view of the ancient philosopher Chuang-Tzu who said: 2

There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind. Letting alone springs from fear lest men’s natural disposition be perverted and their virtue laid aside. But if their natural dispositions be not perverted nor their virtue laid aside, what room is there left for government?

This insight will be widely accepted when the sanguine promises of politicians concerning the magic of the laws they propose will prove illusory. Individuals will then come to exercise their own capacities and energies to support themselves and discover their own destinies, and they will exercise their own judgment to restrain themselves and consider their neighbors.

Egalitarianism Rejected

The concept of egalitarianism will also be rejected. The ethnic and cultural differences that became recognizable during the latter part of the twentieth century arose as a counterpoise against the rising Canadian nationalism that was reflected not only in the country’s economic and cultural activities but in the declarations of almost all political personalities. So in the twenty-first century, individual differences which are the hallmark of the human personality, will be accentuated as a pendulum-like reaction against the collectivist social policies of the age. Equality of opportunity will remain a cornerstone of national policy. But the concept that all individuals are equal will be rejected as unrealistic and retrograde. Unrealistic, because in whatever he does each man is unique and his personality differs from that of every other man. Retrogressive, because equality repudiates the concept of excellence upon which a meaningful life and a good society both depend.

The welfare state will not succeed in changing the basic nature and motivation of mankind. Men will remain self-interested though not necessarily self-centered. They will continue to be competitive whenever they are free to exercise their will to succeed and to excel. The pious policies of planners, who will design a state in which there are no losers and only winners, will fail. To believe that fifty years hence, some national pater familias will produce a condition of security and egalitarianism in which there will be defused man’s instinct to strive to distinguish himself above his fellows, whether in the laboratory or in the boxing ring, in the concert hall or on the ice, in the market place or in the court room — is as unrealistic as a painted picture on a stage backdrop.

It May Get Worse

Of course, it may be that the pendulum has not yet swung to the extreme, and there will be more laws controlling the lives of Canadians before there are less.

By the end of the twentieth century, the costs of the welfare system will have grown so overwhelmingly that Canada will be faced with the alternative of abandoning it or of entering an era of national impoverishment. There will be no question of distinguishing then between the rich and the poor. Poverty will be the lot of all. The reasons will be apparent to our progeny. First, the national guaranteed annual income will, in effect, become the national universal income, and it will be the sum and total received by almost all Canadians. By definition it will continue to be regarded as a poverty income. Most Canadians will receive no less than this fixed sum though they be wholly nonproductive and content to do nothing to earn it. By that same token, most Canadians will receive no more than this fixed income even though they toil from dawn to dusk and accept onerous responsibilities. The desire to work, the capacity to work and the productivity of work actually done will be irrelevant to the income received by the individual. His needs, as determined by the Economic and Social Councils of Canada alone will govern.

Secondly, the increasing proportion of a man’s wealth that the state will take, will render it impossible for him to become wealthy either by his earnings or by investment. For most, there will be a hand-to-mouth existence, and for those who are able to save, there will be no worthwhile return on investment. Saving will be regarded as an antisocial act.

Thirdly, egalitarianism will elevate the welfare recipient to the status of model citizen. The right to be supported will become the national ethic, and the duty to work and to produce will be viewed as an aberration from the norm. Under these circumstances, the nation’s plant and equipment will grow obsolete; capital will disappear; production will decline and there will be achieved a society in which each citizen will share equally in the poverty of all.

Then Change Must Come

It will be then that the pendulum will swing. The concept of rights and obligations will be examined afresh, and it will be recognized that no citizen can properly claim of his fellow citizens, through the state or otherwise, an annual guaranteed income for life, as a matter of right. It will be found that while it is a simple matter for an individual to contend that he has certain inalienable rights, no right can be enjoyed by him unless some other individual is able and willing to deliver it; that rights and obligations are simply opposite sides of the same coin, and that there is no right to be had, unless there be an equal and corresponding obligation assumed by someone.

When this equation is accepted as a fact of life, the curtain will be lifted between the majestically impersonal tax-collecting machinery of governments on the one side, and the anonymous bureaucratic welfare-dispensing agencies on the other. The citizen receiving his guaranteed stipend from the state will finally become conscious of the fact that although he may not have worked for what he has received, some other citizen has; and that his right to claim sustenance is meaningful only because some other citizen has been willing to assume the burden of giving effect to his claim. He will become aware of the simple fact that his claim to the right to be supported is as empty as a cry in the wilderness except when the conscience of another human being recognizes a duty to respond to his plaint; that there really exist no rights but only obligations, and that the first obligation of every man is to care for and maintain himself and those directly dependent upon him, on the simple premise: “If I am not for myself, who will be?” It is then that the concept of welfare will undergo the kind of change that will assign it an appropriate place in the Canadian society: it will reassume its original purpose as an aid for the weak, the disabled and the infirm so long only as they cannot care for themselves.

No Guaranteed Life

The concept that the world owes everyone a living, so popular in the latter years of the twentieth century, will gradually fall into disrepute in the twenty-first. Observant and thoughtful people will come to regard mankind as only one of a vast variety of an infinite number of living things that inhabit the earth; that like the trees and the stars, human beings are children of the universe and to that extent they have a right to be here.3 But since no inhabitant of the earth, save man, has ever claimed the right to be supported by all others, the welfare ethic will be rejected. In its place, there will return to prominence, and eventually, to popularity, the work ethic which, in the middle of the twentieth century, had been so denigrated.

Only by accepting and applying the desirability of work will it be possible to rebuild the Canadian economy, so seriously will it have declined in the age of the guaranteed life income. It will be many decades before Canada will find her place again among the nations whose people, in the middle of the twentieth century, led the world in industrial productivity and inventiveness.

Philosophers, historians and political scientists will wonder why it was that, after a period of fifty years of welfarism and rejection of the work ethic, the Canadian pendulum should have swung so decisively away from the lethargic, nonobjective way of life pursued by Canadians for half a century. A leading historian will say that the reason lay simply in the oscillations of the value-system. An outstanding economist will point to the paradox of the sheer poverty in the midst of vast potential wealth that finally moved Canadians to change their stance on the welfare issue and resume the serious development of their land. A distinguished philosopher will say that man, as a rational creature, could not long maintain the irrationalities of a welfare state and revolted against its strictures. A lawyer will venture the view that the change from welfare to work was simply a matter of finding a way out of boredom when the fun and games of the entertainment and travel industries were no longer amusing, and people decided to use their lives seriously and to play for keeps.

Duties vs. Rights

When the measure of man is taken by the duties he assumes rather than by the rights he demands, assistance to the needy will become personalized. One of the justifiable criticisms of the welfare system throughout the latter half of the twentieth century was based upon its impersonality and hence its inhumanity. It treated all claimants according to fixed formulae that failed to take account of individual differences and idiosyncrasies. The computer determined eligibility, and the machine proceeded with its calculations as to quantum. So gargantuan had the system grown, even those who had benefited from it most came to believe that it was time to revise its procedures and, ultimately, to rethink its philosophy.

To humanize the process of assisting those in need, the welfare system will cease to be a function of government. The problems of determining who genuinely are entitled to aid will become a function of those groups and associations who have most consistently concerned themselves with humane and charitable works. The churches, synagogues and temples of the world have occupied this role for centuries, recognizing that:

… the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying, thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother… 4

During the twentieth century, most of these religious organizations were more concerned with charitable works in distant lands than with the needs of their parishioners and neighbors close at hand. The reasons for this curious phenomenon were twofold: first, since governments appeared to be assuming the burden of welfare at home, the charitable role of religious organizations became superfluous. And secondly, it was then, as always, simpler to love and help neighbors who lived ten thousand miles away in foreign lands than those who shared a common language and a common bathroom.

Reform Begins at Home

In the twenty-first century, men will begin to recognize that if the world’s affairs are to be set right, it is necessary to first set matters right at home. When religious organizations at last renounce their political ambitions and put away their international pretensions, they will regain the confidence of their parishioners who will once more make the temple and the church their house. That house in turn will be able to bestow material and spiritual comfort upon those in need. When this miraculous change appears, the same religious organizations will also win the confidence of governments, who will be grateful at last to discover a simpler, less expensive and more satisfactory way of providing funds for those who genuinely require assistance. It will be found that the parish priest knows more about the needs of the people who come to him for help, acts more wisely, wastes less and achieves a happier result than all of the clerks of all of the government welfare offices that did business in the twentieth century. He will view a man in need as a whole person and not as a mere social security number. And to the new relationship that will thus come into being, there will be brought a fresh dimension of love and understanding and faith that no Parliament had ever succeeded in legislating, and no government had ever found a way of administering.


1 Mirabeau o el politico in Obras cornpletas (1947), Vol. III, p. 603.

2 James Legge (trans.), The Writings of Kwang-zze, The Great Learning, in The Chinese Classics, vol. I (2nd ed., 1893), pp. 355-381.

3 From Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) whose statement acquired great popularity in the latter part of the century.

4 Deuteronomy, 15:11.

This article is reprinted by permission as part of a longer one of the same title in the March 1973 issue of The Canadian Bar Review.