Archive | May 2021

Why Government Should Help Those in Need

The following is in response to a series of posts on Curmudgeons (my discussion group) questioning whether it is constitutional for government to collect taxes to give to support those in need. In the most recent the question of differences between Jefferson and Hamilton was raised. British Common Law was referred to. Here is the response I posted.

Yes, it is today’s world that should determine how government spending benefits the nation and society, not the world of Hamilton and Jefferson, much less English common law.  The idea of government taking on the basic needs of its people “from the cradle to the grave” was invented in the early 1870s.  What might be very interesting would be how and why von Bismarck’s government adopted such a program.Here is an article from that radical publication, The Smithsonian Magazine.  It puts the origin and early development of this idea into a broader context.  That context includes changes in business, technology, and so forth.  The Second Reich was a democracy and that should be remembered.  Bismarck was anti-socialist, which should also be remembered.

I think that this shows that in a newly created democracy in the most industrialized nation in Europe, the people chose social benefits from government.  It was not imposed by government, but a reponse to what the people of that nation wanted.  The paternalism of arguing that people become lazy or selfish because of government social benefits is evident.  This is the masculine equivalent of the nanny state idea.  I’ll add to that the idea that qualities associated with women – compassion, mercy, caring – are a weakness.  This is what I see in much conservative rhetoric.
The true roots of this idea go back much further.  In Biblical law the major tax-payers were producers and the two tithes (total 19%) were applied to agricultural produce, animal and plant.  Part of that was designated for sustenance for the poor.  In addition there was a half-shekel head tax imposed on every adult male (which also served the census function).  Then there were rules concerning gleanings and corners.  Farmers were to leave the corners of their fields and whatever laborers dropped for the poor and the stranger to glean.  There were no amounts associated with that.  This was replaced, in the Diaspora (the scattering after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed) by communal taxes and Tzedakah.  The latter is usually translated as “charity,” but that is not the right meaning of the word.  “Charity” is from the Greek word for heart and is what someone feels they should give.  Tzedakah is from the Hebrew word for what is right (sometimes translated as justice).  In the Abrahamic faiths, support for the needy is a religious obligation.
Of course, there are those who maintain that it is religious institutions that can and should meet the needs of the needy.  This was what was meant by George H W Bush’s “A Thousand Points of Light.”  The government program was called Faith-Based Initiative (the other FBI), but that really went nowhere.  Back in 1982 I represented the social action arm of Reform Judaism at a meeting in Washington DC.  The purpose of that meeting was to determine whether Reagan’s assertions about religion dealing with poverty were workable in practice.  His federal budget removed support from many NGOs doing work in this and other areas.  Charitable organizations were overwhelmed because the demands on their work had not decreased but federal aid on which they depended was largely withdrawn.  That meeting included faith leaders and administrators of major NGOs serving the needs of the poor.  One of the leading groups there running the program was Evangelicals for Social Justice (something that was once typical of Evangelicals).  Report after report revealed the same thing.  Their services were overwhelmed and could not keep up.  Hands Across America, which was supposed to raise funds for the homeless, raised enough to buy every homeless person in America a Coke.
The idea of government spending to ameliorate social evils like poverty really got its first strong advocate in William Jennings Bryant, an Evangelical Christian from the heartland.  What FDR was able to do had long before been proposed by Bryant.  
In our secular system of government, the traditional functions of religious organizations have been replaced by government assistance.  I’m the first to admit that some of these programs need improvement and reform.  Serving the needs of the poor has always been a function of society, either met or unmet.  There is nothing in this that violates democracy, nor is it a socialist thing.  Of course, promoting the dignity of labor and a sense of personal responsibility should go hand-in-hand with assistance programs.  The highest form of charity is to provide a way to meaningful work.  In Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam I know that even those living on assistance must give Tzedakah or Charity or Zakat.  
The question of whether the public treasury provides for social inequities should not be a question.  The question should be how to go about fulfilling a universal ethical obligation.