Social Welfare Programs Should Liberate

Modern social welfare programs began under Bismarck’s conservative German government as a means of undercutting the growing socialist movement.  If workers saw that the state would help alleviate poverty and provide needed services, then the workers would not support Marxism.   Moreover, conservatives tend to view the state as a “organic entity,” a collective bound together as a community.   That means that it is in the interest of the state to make sure that people aren’t suffering or being exploited.

Other reasons for social welfare programs include ending poverty and suffering as an end in and of itself.  This was behind Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, most of which were actually implemented in the Nixon and Ford administrations.   In Europe, the left and right reached the great compromise, whereby the left would accept market capitalism in exchange for the right accepting that the state guarantee health care, pensions and a safety net.   This led to unprecedented peace and prosperity for Europe, settling past ideological battles between left and right.

However, as demographic change makes most of these systems unviable in the long run, and high debt forces reconsideration of how governments spend money, it is time to rethink the purpose behind social welfare spending.

Bismarck’s goal of stability remains.  Societies that see vast gaps between the rich and poor tends towards either authoritarianism (as the rich want to protect their share) or revolt (as the poor get angry about class difference).  The “great compromise” was a brilliant solution; putting that at risk would threaten the core stability of western civilization.

Goals of ending poverty or equalizing wealth are suspect, in part because they are too vaguely defined.   You could end poverty by simply transfering wealth to the poor, but what good does that actually do for the people themselves?   It gives them more money, and may help them feed their families, but the goal is at too high a level of analysis.   We should focus on social welfare programs for the sake of the people who are on them.

In the industrialized world people are generally responsible for their success in life.   It’s a lesson I try to teach my children and my students: don’t blame others for the world you create for yourself, take responsibility.   You can’t choose your circumstances, but you can take action and make choices to change them.   Whining about injustice only increases the total whine volume.   Claim your life!   It’s yours to make, if you’re in college you have every opportunity to succeed, take control!   That is a liberating experience, it’s freeing oneself from being confined by the shackles of low expectations and low self-esteem.

But what happens when we just give money to people?   I’m reminded of the scene in Syriana where the oil tycoon talks about the money he’s made and how it’ll “probably ruin my children.”    When you look at the children of the very wealthy, they have as many if not more problems than others, despite the wealth.  When young athletes or film stars suddenly get large amounts of money, it often creates more problems for them than solutions.   Some can handle it, many can’t.  The reason: money itself does not help a person understand to how to live life.

Many poor are stuck in a situation where they do not believe they can take control of their lives, they don’t see opportunities, they haven’t had the chance to handle the risks through which we build self-esteem.    If you just give them money, there is a real danger they’ll become addicts.  Not drug addicts, but rather addicted to ‘free money.’   That will feed into a sense of victimization and entitlement.   Rather than taking control of their lives, they’ll lose control of their lives and teach those lessons to their children who will start out psychologically unprepared for the demands of the real world.

So I would restate the goal of social welfare programs as being one of liberation.   I do not mean this in a Marxian sense of ending exploitation.   Rather, a person should be able to develop the confidence to grab opportunities and take control of his or her life.    It should liberate a person to rise out of their circumstances, to provide positive role models to their children and community, and ultimately create a sustainable growing economy in communities once suffering economic stagnation.

Unlike some on the right, who take the approach that “if you cut the money they’ll be forced to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I do not believe just ending social welfare programs can work, nor do I think private donations would adequately do the trick.   So I reject the dichotomy that says “either you give away money to the poor or you don’t.”   Rather, we have to figure out ways to design a system that creates opportunities, works with communities, and helps people empower themselves.

Education must be part of this (and I think access to affordable health care is necessary too).   People don’t automatically have confidence and self-esteem.  Self-esteem cannot be gained just by being praised — it comes from learning one has the capacity to overcome obstacles.    In fact, I’d say you can’t really gain self-esteem unless you risk failure and even have to overcome failure.    In that sense, education has to be combined with opportunity.

But this needs to be more than job training or even workfare.  To really function and become sustainable, opportunity has to connect with community.    In that sense one of the most important roles is that of a community organizer, someone who can come in and bring a community together around opportunities for growth.    Receiving any social welfare help should be linked to participation in some kind of community venture.

As communities arise, they will provide the opportunities and feedback for people to build confidence, have higher self- and other-expectations, and develop real self-esteem.   They will take pride in what they build, and ultimately that will lead to them taking control of their own individual lives and recognizing that they have the power to make choices that will make it much less likely they’ll need assistance.   In a recession no one is immune from some hard times, but ultimately the key not only to cutting social welfare spending but also regaining economic momentum and growth is to have people in society making good choices and wanting to be productive.

Community and opportunity based social welfare programs could succeed where bureaucratic programs fail.   A community organizer in the field working with people is far more likely to help than a welfare caseworker sitting in an office asking questions and making sure the proper forms are filled out.     And given the economic and budgetary crunch, now is the time to reassess our approach.

  1. #1 by Black Flag® on June 30, 2011 - 20:15


    Social Welfare Programs Should Liberate

    …and right out of the block, you posit a contradiction.

    Social Welfare Programs requires the State to steal money from someone – an act of evil – to give to another who did not earn the money.

    The argument that enslaving one to State should bring Liberty is …. so 1984!

    • #2 by Scott Erb on June 30, 2011 - 20:49

      No contradiction, you just hold a false premise – that taxes are theft. Most people who pay taxes would, without the state and the legal protections it provides, have a lot less money than they have with the state. Moreover, the money they have are federal reserve notes, created for the purpose of legal trade within the state. If they are using those notes, and participating in the earning money in the system, then they have given up any ability to claim that they should not be taxed.

      The idea people are enslaved to the state because they pay taxes is ridiculous. It certainly is a cheapening of the term ‘slavery,’ people who are the most free in the world and most prosperous are called slaves because they pay taxes to pay for the system that allows them to be so free and prosperous. And, of course, your only alternative is fantasy.

      • #3 by Black Flag® on June 30, 2011 - 22:43


        No, sir – it is you who holds a contradiction by redefining a word to exclude a party.

        “It’s theft if anyone else by a provider of violence does it”

        Most people who pay taxes would, without the state and the legal protections it provides, have a lot less money than they have with the state

        Baseless. You have no proof whatsoever.

        The fact: theft impoverishes the victim, regardless of who is the thief.

        The idea people are enslaved to the state because they pay taxes is ridiculous

        Forced servitude (by violence or threat of violence) is slavery.

        Again, you merely fallaciously exclude a party from a definition you’d apply anywhere else.

        Prosperity has nothing to do with being free or not. Indeed, it is an entrapment to slavery to be bought off by accumulating mere gadgets and things!

        “Gilded” cages are still cages.

        Many slaves throughout history were very wealthy and powerful, even militarily. (see “Mameluke”)

      • #4 by Black Flag® on June 30, 2011 - 22:45

        “It’s theft if anyone else BUT a provider of violence does it”

  2. #5 by Scott Erb on June 30, 2011 - 22:53

    You have a contradiction in that you say theft impoverishes the victim, even though the most taxes are paid by those with considerable wealth. Since they are obviously not impoverished, then theft cannot impoverish them. You call these wealthy people slaves when they are free to do what they want, and the means to do things others can’t. To call them slaves shows the inherent contradiction at the core of your ideology. This also demonstrates how you construct language games to create the appearance of contradictions in order to buttress an ideology which you cannot support or prove. The evidence that most people who pay taxes are better off than if they didn’t have a state offering stability and legal protection is that where no such state exists, people are virtually always much worse off, with organized criminal gangs controlling things and intense poverty. That is POWERFUL evidence for my claim. It is YOU who has no evidence to support the contrary. You have just an arbitrary, unsupported subjective belief which you refuse to critically assess.

  3. #6 by Black Flag® on July 1, 2011 - 01:06


    You have a contradiction in that you say theft impoverishes the victim, even though the most taxes are paid by those with considerable wealth.

    No matter where their wallet starts, at the end of taxes, they have less in it.

    Since they are obviously not impoverished, then theft cannot impoverish them.

    They may not be destitute – but is now your justification for theft based on how much they have left over after the act??

    The evidence that most people who pay taxes are better off than if they didn’t have a state offering stability and legal protection is that where no such state exists, people are virtually always much worse off, with organized criminal gangs controlling things and intense poverty.

    Total conjuncture as there is as much OR MORE evidence where government taxation approaches 100% is where the suffering is horrific (N. Korea comes to mind)

    That is POWERFUL evidence for my claim. It is YOU who has no evidence to support the contrary.

    The examples abound – where taxation is minimized shows the greatest increases in wealth – where taxation is maximized it is less.

    The understanding is easy – men who spend unearned money have no restraint on how it is spent – they didn’t earn it, so its “free”!

    Men who do not earn the money rarely understand how money is earned.

    It is conceit to argue that those that do not earn know better how to spend other people’s money better than those that earn it!

    • #7 by Scott Erb on July 1, 2011 - 01:44

      It is not true that where taxation is minimized there is greater wealth. The industrialized world has seen wealth increase with increased taxation. North Korea’s problem is not just high taxes but totalitarianism. The quality of life is highest in countries with relatively high taxation.

      Also, very wealthy people rarely have truly “earned” that money. Also, I disagree that after taxes people will have less money — I don’t think people would have anything near what they have if not for a system sustained by taxes. You seem to have backed off the claim taxation impoverishes to one of asserting people have less money. Relative to before paying taxes they have less of the currency the state provides to make exchange easier and markets function. Relative to what the case would be if there was no taxation or state, they almost certainly have much more — and more freedom and security. Again, places with governments that don’t function and no real state, poverty and insecurity is the norm.

  4. #8 by Black Flag® on July 1, 2011 - 01:10


    with organized criminal gangs controlling things and intense poverty

    Instead you advocate for a beast that controls continents, tosses into poverty entire nations and slaughters in the numbers counted in hundreds of millions!

    Capone is jealous!

    Smedley Butler:

    I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for [mercantilism].

    I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.

    Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

    • #9 by Scott Erb on July 1, 2011 - 01:50

      Yes, I tell students government is a very dangerous human creation that can start wars and do immense harm. The difference is I recognize that at this point in human development we have no alternative. Given human nature and our culture at this time, if you got rid of government markets would cease to function, insecurity would mount and we’d fall back into a more primitive condition. The only way to work towards being able to have no government is to recognize that humanity is in the early stages of its pre-history, we’re still grappling with trying to rise out of cultures defined by slavery, oppression and greed. We’re still working to focus on the higher attributes of human nature. Governments are poeple, everything governments do people have chosen to do. You can’t expect that absent government people wouldn’t find some othe rway to do the same thing. They would. They’d create governments again. You can’t rid yourself of government, that’s our stage of development right now. What we can do is, recognizing that human history progresses slowly , work for small improvements. We’ll not see an ideal in this life time because we’re not at that future moment in history when pure voluntarism may become possible. To get “there from here” requires short steps, accepting reality and working with it, not pushing against it in a futile effort to try to get something unobtainable.

      Your motives are good, but I think you’re being unrealistic in assessing the nature of social reality at this point in history.

  5. #10 by Lee on July 1, 2011 - 10:26

    I really liked this post because although I clearly see that just handing out money does not work. I also clearly see that just removing it does not either. I work in subsidized housing and I see that the present “welfare to work” guidelines in our state are not helping people build better lives. What appears to happen is that they learn just enough to get a minimum wage job. They lose their cash assistance. They are not skilled in budgeting (which should be part of the education). They are typically a population who are lacking in social supports so things like day care when their child is ill becomes a issue and in short time the job is at risk. If the whole deal somehow had a componenet to teach money management, to teach healthy cooking on the cheap, and to offer some help with the obstacles that come with entering the job force I think we would have less lost jobs in this segment of the population. I know some will say that this too is not governments job and maybe it isn’t, but I would liek to believe that it is our jobs as fellow humans to try and make sure that people at least have a better chance at success.

  6. #11 by pino on July 5, 2011 - 14:11

    So I would restate the goal of social welfare programs as being one of liberation.

    Whoever is building and running these programs; the State, the Church, a local charity or perhaps a Lodge, should understand that the goal should NOT be to keep these folks on the roles. The goal should be to give them the ability to make a life for themselves.

    My largest problem with the state run programs is that there is no explicit statement that life is hard. These programs are not teaching the same lessons that we teach our kids. For example, I don’t teach my children not to fall. I teach ’em how to get up. I teach them hard work and responsibility by forcing them to do homework, to make their beds, to pick up trash in the lawn. I teach them compassion and respect by forcing them to donate to charity and do work for the benefit of someone not themselves.

    These are not the things that these programs teach. What they teach, by habit only perhaps, is that if you want something, someone else will give it to you.

    Sending my kids to bed hungry is hard as hell, it’s a bitch. But it’s a valuable lesson.

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