These are old notes by a great friend Larry Reed, former President of the Mackinac Center in Michigan, then President of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in New York. He surveyed the policies of past US Presidents on non-welfarism. These are chapters in his book, "Government, Poverty and Self-Reliance: Wisdom of 19th Century Presidents."
Enjoy. Meanwhile, I like this meme from freedomworks.org
April 8, 2005 | By
Lawrence W. Reed
… "The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence
immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief
induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the
national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a
subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound
policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America."
Those were not the words of a 19th century president.
They came from the lips of our 32nd chief executive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 4, 1935. A moment later, he declared,
"The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief."
We all know that it didn't. Indeed, 30 years later Lyndon
Johnson would take "this business of relief" to new and expensive
heights in an official "War on Poverty." Another 30 years and more
than $5 trillion in federal welfare later, a Democratic president in 1996 would
sign a bill into law that ended the federal entitlement to welfare. As Ronald
Reagan, a far wiser man, observed long before it dawned on Bill Clinton,
"We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won."
What Reagan instinctively knew, Bill Clinton finally
admitted and FDR preached but didn't practice was that government poverty
programs are themselves poverty-stricken. We have paid an awful price in lives
and treasure to learn some things that the vast majority of Americans of the 19th
century — and the chief executives they elected — could have plainly told us:
Government welfare or "relief" programs encouraged idleness, broke up
families, produced intergenerational dependency and hopelessness, cost
taxpayers a fortune and yielded harmful cultural pathologies that may take
generations to cure.
The failure of the dole was so complete that one
journalist a decade ago posed a question to which just about everybody knows
the answer and the lesson it implies. "Ask yourself," wrote John Fund
of The Wall Street Journal, "If you had a financial windfall and wanted to
help the poor, would you even think about giving time or a check to the
The pre-eminent beneficiaries of the whole 20th century
experiment in federal poverty-fighting were not those whom the programs
ostensibly were intended to help. Rather, those beneficiaries were primarily
two other groups:
Politicians who got elected and re-elected as champions
of the needy and downtrodden. Some were sincere and well-meaning. Others were
cynical, ill-informed, short-sighted and opportunistic. All were deluded into
traveling paths down which not a single administration of the 19th century ever
ventured — the use of the public treasury for widespread handouts to the needy.
The problem was neatly summarized once again by Tom
Anderson, whose vignette on recent presidents I cited earlier. Anderson said
the "welfare state" got its name because, "The politicians get
well, while everybody else pays the fare."
The bureaucracy — the armies of professional poverty
fighters whose jobs and empires always seemed secure regardless of the actual
effects of the programs they administered. Economist Walter Williams put it
well when he described this as "feeding the sparrows through the horses."
Williams also famously observed, "A lot of people went to Washington
(D.C.) to do good, and apparently have done very well."
Liberty: The Real
War on Poverty
April 8, 2005 | By Lawrence W. Reed
An unabashed, unrepentant welfare statist would probably
survey the men who held the highest office in the land during the 19th century
and dismiss them as heartless, uncaring and hopelessly medieval. Even during
the severe depressions of the 1830s and the 1890s, Presidents Martin Van Buren
and Grover Cleveland never proposed that Washington, D.C., extend its reach to
the relief of private distress broadly speaking, and they opposed even the
smallest suggestions of that kind.
Welfare statists make a crucial error, however, when they
imply that it was left to presidents of a more enlightened 20th century to
finally care enough to help the poor. The fact is, our leaders in the 1800s did
mount a war on poverty — the most comprehensive and effective ever mounted by
any central government in world history. It just didn't have a gimmicky name
like "Great Society," nor did it have a public relations office and
elitist poverty conferences at expensive seaside resorts. If you could have
pressed them then for a name for it, most if not all of those early chief
executives might well have said their anti-poverty program was, in a word,
liberty. This word meant things like self-reliance, hard work,
entrepreneurship, the institutions of civil society, a strong and free economy,
and government confined to its constitutional role as protector of liberty by
keeping the peace.
In hindsight, it's a little amazing that the last great
president of the 19th century, Grover Cleveland, was just about as faithful to
that legacy of liberty as the first great one of that century, Thomas
Jefferson. When Cleveland left office in March 1897, the federal government was
still many years away from any sort of national program for public payments to
To be sure, the Washington, D.C., establishment was
bigger than Jefferson had left it in many other respects — alarmingly so, in
most cases. But it was not yet even remotely a welfare state. Regardless of
political party, the presidents of that period did not read into the
Constitution any of the modern-day welfare-state assumptions. They understood
these essential verities: Government has nothing to give anybody except what it
first takes from somebody, and a government big enough to give the people
everything they want is big enough to take away everything they've got. These
chief executives had other things going for them, too — notably, a humbling
faith in Divine Providence, and a healthy confidence in what a free and
compassionate people could do without federal help.
And what a poverty program liberty proved to be! In spite
of a horrendous civil war, half a dozen economic downturns and wave after wave
of impoverished immigrants, America progressed from near-universal poverty at
the start of the century to within reach of the world's highest per-capita
income at the end of the century. The poverty that remained stood out like the
proverbial sore thumb because it was now the exception, no longer the rule. In
the absence of stultifying government welfare programs, our free and
self-reliant citizenry spawned so many private, distress-relieving initiatives
that American generosity became one of the marvels of the world. This
essentially spontaneous, non-centrally-planned "war on poverty"
stands in stark contrast to Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" because
it actually worked.
My assistant in preparing this paper, a Grove City
College senior named Christopher Haberman, expressed in an e-mail to me a
little frustration at what he was not finding as he researched the papers of
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He wrote: "I was disappointed to find
that there were not many direct references to poverty. It seems that (they)
were more concerned with Barbary pirates. They had no concept of (direct)
government aid to the impoverished."
Haberman was right. Consider Jefferson — the author of
the Declaration of Independence, America's third president, and someone who
exerted enormous intellectual influence during this country's formative years.
His were the first two presidential terms of America's first full century as a
nation. His election in 1800 marked a turning point from 12 years of Federalist
Party rule and set the tone for decades to follow. In his first Inaugural
Address in 1801, Jefferson gave us a splendid summation of what government
should do. It did not describe welfare programs, but rather, "A wise and
frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall
leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and
improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has
earned. This is the sum of good government."
A similar view was held by James Madison, a key figure in
the construction of the Constitution, a prime defender of it in "The
Federalist Papers" and our fourth president. Madison vetoed bills for
so-called "internal improvements," such as roads, at federal expense,
so it would have been inconceivable to Madison that it was constitutional to
use the power of government to take from some people and give to others because
the others were poor and needed it. While there might be a reasonable, even
constitutional, case for certain federal road-building projects for national
defense purposes (or at least the benefit of everyone), for Madison and
Jefferson there was no constitutional case to be made for assistance to
individuals in poverty.
In a speech in the U.S. House of Representatives years
before he became president, Madison declared: "The government of the
United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is
not like state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part
of the legislative duty of the government."
Welfarism 31: More CCT and Subsidy Programs Won't Solve Self-inflicted Poverty, February 12, 2016
Welfarism 32, On forcing restaurants to give their excess food to charities, July 27, 2016
Welfarism 33, Janitor turned lawyer, self-reliance vs welfare-dependence, May 05, 2017