Warnings from the wise about the welfare state

A Feb. 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.”

Sen. 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.

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. Just the opposite, in every case, no exception. The late economist Howard Kershner summed it 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 Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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