Individual responsibility and the welfare state
NationalPost.com – fullcomment/canada
January 22, 2011. Conrad Black
The phrase “personal responsibility” has been bandied about commonly in recent decades. In past eras, when one was personally responsible for more or less everything in life, the phrase would have carried little meaning.
Up until the late 19th century, with rare partial exceptions, the state took almost no responsibility for citizens; and indigence was considered morally indistinguishable from law-breaking. Poor houses operated by local governments, and alms houses operated by churches, provided elemental care only on a random basis, and certainly not as a matter of right nor in such quantities as to assure that no one starved. At times of acute economic hardship, there were very large numbers of beggars, thieves, or down-and-out exemplars of what Thomas Gray called the “short and simple annals of the poor.” Ireland lost half its population in the great famine of the 1840s, mainly to emigration, but largely also to starvation. “Ye shall always have the poor with ye,” was the Biblical wisdom, and Mr. Micawber’s home-economics aphorism that happiness and misery were determined by whether income or expenses prevailed by a farthing, was believed.
The great pathfinder was the German Imperial chancellor Bismarck, who in the 1880’s promoted health and accident insurance, and workers’ pensions, all in the name of increasing productivity and luring the working class away from the enticements of the socialists. (However, he was careful to avoid unemployment insurance, legislatively improved working conditions, or anything that would promote conflict in the workplace or alienate the conservatives, upon whom he depended.) The British chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George, fending off the rising Labour Party, produced the People’s Budget of 1909 and sequels, which copied and surpassed Bismarck’s insurance and pension initiatives. Later, Britain added universal medical care under the Attlee government after 1945.
In Canada and the United States — naturally rich countries largely peopled by immigrants fleeing the repression and hardship of Europe, who considered the existence of opportunity the only welfare system they needed — the redefinition of individual responsibility to provide for themselves and their dependents progressed more slowly. There were labour agitations from the latter 19th century in North America, and a few gestures of truth in packaging and assured standards of retail food in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration (1901-1909). But the onset of the Great Depression was required to bring forward comprehensive reforms in which the state declared and shouldered a responsibility to care for everyone.
In the United States, though exact figures were not kept and are still disputed, unemployment approached 33% in the winter of 1933. When FDR was inaugurated in March of that year, machine-gun emplacements were established at the corners of the great federal buildings of Washington for the first time since the Civil War. Working weeks were reduced, child labour rolled back, factory conditions were legislatively improved, and both cartels to raise prices and collective bargaining to raise wages were encouraged. Bank deposits were guaranteed, residential mortgages refinanced, the banking and stock and commodity exchange systems, which had collapsed, were reestablished on firmer foundations. Farm production was rolled back and farm prices were raised to levels that would sustain the rural population. Most of the unemployed were put to work in infrastructure and conservation projects, and unemployment insurance and contributory old age pensions were instituted .
Economic conditions gradually improved, but Roosevelt cut back on out-lays in the warmest months (“No one starves in this country in the summer”). He also refused to allow cabinet officials to refer to the program participants as “clients” because he did not want any thought of permanence. Only if they could not find employment, even in the workfare programs, were there direct cash payments to the unemployed. The administration was not prepared to pay people for idleness. Even John Maynard Keynes offered the famous example of paying the unemployed to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up, rather than to do nothing.
In Canada, the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett, elected in 1930 on the first wave of the stock market crash, dabbled for several years in the usual remedies of exhortation, low interest rates, and some public works. As election day approached, Bennett sprang for a comprehensive package of social reforms that were ridiculed as imitative of the United States, were eventually deemed unconstitutional, and did not spare the government defeat at the polls. Almost all the ingredients of the Bennett program were enacted by the returning King government, after appropriate consultation with the provinces. By this time, there was a general recognition that in extraordinary times of economic devastation, the average blameless person had to be relieved of complete responsibility for making ends meet, and assisted.
Benefits to veterans, especially in the United States (university tuition and loans to buy farms or found small businesses), virtually transformed the working class into a middle class after World War II. In war-ravaged Europe, and American-governed Japan, iron corset welfare systems and hammock-level social safety nets were put in place as the countries rebuilt from the rubble, with huge American (and Canadian) assistance, in fear, for notorious reasons, of discontented masses of workers and small farmers.
In Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, when social programs became a defining feature of national identity, as well as a weapon against Quebec separatism, there was much discussion, even in the Progressive Conservative Party, of guaranteed annual incomes, effectively paying salaries to citizens whether they are employed or productive or not. In the United States, more arithmetically sober heads prevailed, but Europe now faces the problem, with aging and problems attracting assimilable immigration, of only 30-some percent of the population working while everyone else draws benefits of some kind. The system collapsed in Greece last year, and is wobbling badly in much of the rest of Europe.
One of the less successful federal party leadership campaigns of my time was Professor Jim Gillies’ run for the Conservative leadership in 1976. But his speech contained, I thought, except for a few of Claude Wagner’s and John Diefenbaker’s comments, the most memorable words of any of the convention’s endless parade of speakers: “I have nothing but admiration for all who work; nothing but sympathy for those who can’t work; and nothing but contempt for those who won’t work.”
That appears to be as much responsibility as society has to require from individuals, with as much latitude as it can afford to allow.
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