What everyone misses about the “welfare state”


The 24-hour news channels tell us that Americans can have one of two opinions about federal and state aid to the poor:

“A society is judged by how it treats its most unfortunate members, so┬áit only makes sense that our government is compassionate enough to provide for its citizens, and that liberal politicians are compassionate enough to propose extending these kinds of programs further.”


“The welfare state is a misguided attempt to help the poor at the expense if society’s more productive members. It drives up tax rates and makes people permanently dependent on the government, so it should be abolished or restricted.”

The interesting thing is that these arguments are founded on the same assumption. They start from the idea that the welfare state is about compassion and niceness and bleeding hearts bleeding everywhere, and the controversy concerns whether or not the system works. This is why conservatives propose private charity as an alternative to the welfare state: they think that food stamps represent the bureaucratization of the charitable impulse.

This is wrong.

Food stamps weren’t invented because letting millions of people go hungry is immoral – they were invented because letting millions of people go hungry is dangerous. The welfare state is an apparatus the government uses to protect itself and the interests of its most powerful citizens. Wal-Mart employees who qualify for food stamps and medicaid are not going to strike. Unemployed people who receive unemployment are not going to roar into the streets for 1848-style bread riots.

It may surprise you that Otto von Bismarck was the first statesman to try universal healthcare. Otto von Bismarck was such a warm ‘n’ fuzzy progressive, said no one ever. In truth, the Iron Chancellor was a relentless pragmatist who knew that throwing Germany’s lower classes the occasional bone was the key to keeping the power for himself, his kaiser, and the bourgeoisie. This would later resurface as the logic of the Marshall Plan, where the United States sent boatloads of money to European countries after WWII to keep them from going communist.

I anticipate the objections: “But how would welfare prevent communism? Bill O’Reilly says welfare is communism!” Except it’s not. If you want to know what is and isn’t communism, you go to the experts. Let’s see what Karl Marx has to say about liberal reformers:

“A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society…To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems…The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat…This Socialism sought to depreciate every revolutionary movement in the eyes of the working class by showing that no mere political reform, but only a change in the material conditions of existence, in economical relations, could be of any advantage to them…Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech.” – The Communist Manifesto

Not a ringing endorsement. Of course Marx dislikes the welfare state – the welfare state prevents history from taking the course actual communists want it to take.

Hunger is the handmaiden of revolution. Kill hunger and the revolution will die. The welfare state was dreamed up in the 19th century because rich people saw what happened to Marie Antoinette. It keeps rich people alive just as surely as it keeps those poor little ghetto babies alive, so rich people need to pay their taxes and shut up.