An Irenic Question

A reader with the peaceful name of Irensist writes:

Mr. Wright, your classical liberalism is both honorable and well-known. As one of your co-religionists who is inclined toward “partial socialism” (if I may adopt your term) while at the same time concerned about how welfare does indeed promote illegitimacy and undermine subsidiarity, I haven’t the slightest illusion that with my paltry learning I could dissuade you from your economic views, nor do I wish to hazard the attempt. Instead, in hopes of drawing from you the courage to abandon my partial socialist position, I’d like to put to you a question, which I hope you’ll take as being asked in good faith.

When I picture a classical liberal or laissez faire regime, my mind leaps unbidden to Dickensian squalor–a reaction more of the sentiments than the reason, I admit. I find myself thinking that although I am grateful for the unparallelled growth in the prosperity of the poorest in these last few capitalist centuries (the extent of which was first brought home to my imagination by undergraduate reading of von Mises’ Liberalism, as it happens), I should like to see our citizenry vote to allocate some resources derived from taxation (about the legitimacy of which I won’t argue, for it is beside my point here) to provide a financial floor–perhaps some sort of basic income guarantee as advocated by Milton Friedman, rather than welfare as presently constituted–for the poorest, in order to fend off the deepest depths of squalor. Since I take you to be opposed to such in principle (being in the honorable tradition of opposition to the servile state, as Belloc called it) to such redistributive taxation, I imagine that, other than economic growth itself, you might proffer more vigorous private eleemosynary institutions (the insurance programs of the Knights of Columbus and Catholic hospitals and schools, e.g.) as a method for funding such a financial floor for the poorest in better accord with subsidiarity and fitter for a republic of free men. So, after all that, here is my question: were the present welfare state to be dismantled, what would be the most prudent way for statesmen to manage the transition from the servile state to the subsidiary civil society without having us fall back into Dickensian squalor before the private charities have waxed strong enough to pick up the slack? If you can convince me that private charity can indeed provide such a floor without the coercive apparatus of the state to force fallen men to pay their alms to the poor, I shall be much farther along on the road to abandoning my present partial socialism, and I shall count myself very much more in your debt than I already do as the author of such splendid novels.

My comment: This is a very telling question, and there is no flip or easy answer to it.

You see, before the state did all the work of providing welfare to the poor, it was done either by charitable community organizations, such as a Community Chest (which is remembered these days only as a card deck in the MONOPOLY game), or, in earlier days, through guilds or through the established Church.

Those charities have been crowded out of the public square since the New Deal, and the HHS Mandate, as well as pro-gay laws, are pushing Catholic charities one after another out of business.

So, having killed off its competition, is Caesar now indispensable as the distributor of public charity?

If it is, the faithful Catholic cannot deny his pinch of incense at the altar of Caesar, on the grounds that we are compelled by Christ’s direct command to care for the poor and needy, visit the prisoner, feed the hungry.

We cannot, in America, establish and Established Church because our Constitution forbids, and our culture would recoil. We are more likely to re-institute Negro chattel slavery than submit to an Established Church, on the grounds that the peculiar institution was at least for fourscore and seven years of the Republic a part of our history and culture, whereas the only thing Americans have ever done with an Established Church is to come to America as pilgrims to flee it.

Nonetheless, I say that even without an Established Church, there are any number of ways for a civilization to address the need to succor the poor aside from the creation of what amounts to a Mandarin system of tax-eating bureaucracies who encourage the very problem they are trying to avoid.

First, an abolition of any minimum wage or other regulation which discourages hiring unskilled workers.

Second, no payment to an able bodied man.

Third, the payments to bastard children must be less than to legitimate children; likewise payment to married couples greater than each would get separately on the dole.

Fourth, no payment to any man or woman unable to pass a drug test or a sobriety test.

Fifth, if the poor man saves the money rather than spends it, it is his to keep, as a reward for thrift.

Sixth, all stores and restaurants are required to donate any unusued food at the end of each day or week to a local soup kitchen or charity.

Seventh, all payment of welfare is in kind rather than in currency. The government hands out bread, not cash.

Eighth, turn all public schools over to the Catholic Church or a Protestant sect for the inculcation of the Christian religion in the young. It is a fact that Christians give more to charity than agnostics, atheists, Leftists, socialists. Socialism encourages greed and division. It must be stamped out utterly if we are to care for the poor.

Ninth, no Leftist will ever be allowed to complain about racism again, or call anyone racist, on the penalty of having his tongue slit by the Lord High Executioner. The black poor in America acted the same as the Irish poor in America, even spoke the same lingo and beat their women and fornicated and showed up drunk to work.

The middle class morality of the shop-owners and factory owner and hellfire preachers squeezed and beat those bad habits out of the undeserving poor Irish, and made them into the deserving poor, and the deserving poor worked their way out of poverty by the honest sweat of their brow and a goodfearing chastity, thrift and temperance, and a sharp decline in the number of bastard children. Bastards, in case no one has noticed, raised without fathers tend to be hypermasculine, ruthless, barbaric, violent and cold. That is why their name became a by-word for cold and cruel behavior.

But, unfortunately, the middle class morality of the shop-owners and factory owner and hellfire preachers started the process of squeezing the rural blacks into urban civility and civilization, just at a time when the Democrat party in America, and the socialist abroad, rather cynically decided to stop supporting Jim Crow laws and take credit for the Civil Rights movement, which (as far as I can tell) was mostly Richard Nixon and the Republicans, or Black Christian preachermen, or white Republicans from the National Rifle Association arming and training blacks to fend off the Democrat Party’s military arm, the KKK. Hoover of the FBI also was trying to break the back of the KKK, and the Dems have never, ever forgiven him for that.

Instead of getting the poor to depart from the self destructive vices of the poor, the Dems decided it would be more flattering to their self esteem to pretend the blacks were helpless children, and spoil them rotten, and train them to riot by telling them all their ills were the fault of the White Man (which, irony of ironies, now included Irishmen). The intellectuals joined the fray by preaching and teaching that middle class morals were an abomination.

So the normal process by which the poor become the middle class was slowed and hindered by the socialists of the Democrat Party, because the politics of race hatred was weaponized. If you want to decrease poverty, find Democrat politicians and impeach them.

Finally, pass a law that says any man or corporation who gives one tenth of his income to charity need pay no tax on income nor on dividends nor on capital gains.

Whether such ideas work or fail, the idea is to provide for the poor without incentivizing poverty. The idea is to keep control of the cash as close to the local level as possible, so that the deserving poor are helped and the undeserving are not.

The basic argument in favor of socialism or welfare state policies is that no institution aside from the government is large enough or well funded enough to care for the poor. This is an argument that appeals to the sentiment and not the reason. In a wealthy nation like America, the amount we give to charity is enormous. If our tax burden were lower, and our money were sound, that is, were gold, the charitable giving would be even higher, not lower. The public outcry over the government not taking care of the poor would stimulate private giving.

Also, I am less enamored of libertarian and laissez faire ideas than once I was. Where they disagree with Catholic social teaching, sorry, I will trust the Pope over Murry Rothbard or Robert Nosick.

But I am not one iota less enamored of Federalist ideas, which seem parallel to Catholic teaching on subsidiarity and solidarity.

Let each township and county have a welfare department to compel those who will not tithe to contribute to the poor. Use a system where the taxpayer may select which charity to give to, but he must give, and it must be a legitimate charity that helps some real person in his neighborhood. Counties and townships whose community chest rules got our of hand, or ate too many taxes, would provoke voters to flee to easier locations.

But the idea of socialism is the idea of a secular version of the Church Militant. It is the idea of regimenting society, putting everyone in uniform, and running the entire economy like a vast workhouse and quartermaster’s department.

The size and strength and unity a government can impose appears before the imagination like a gleaming army of solemn nursemaids all goosestepping in unison, while tanks and planes loaded with relief supplies shake the earth and darken the sun with their wings and thunders. The imagination pictures the coffers of the public to be like the bank vault of Scrooge Mc Duck, generous enough to allow the poor to bathe in coins of gold.

The notion that the public largess has rational limits is met with howls of outrage and screams of greed by our enlightened moral superiors, who, despite their superiority, cannot tell us how to get something from nothing.

Socialists just think Caesar, like God, has infinite wealth. Caesar can print money, can’t he?

And the other emotional image presented is that of Oliver Twist–the poor orphan whom that army of nursemaids is rushing to save from starvation.

Well, no one is starving in America. Even my Lesbian Witch neighbor and her chainsmoking boyfriend (don’t ask) who I had to put up in my basement (for months!) when she was booted out of her apartment after the court took her kids away was overweight. And she was pretty darned poor. The other girl we took in at the same time, who had been booted out of her house by her parents, she was thin, but then again, she was not poor. But she was not starving.

Let us correct the mental picture: the thing that actually saved the lives of real Oliver Twists, those not fortunate enough to be landed in luxury by a Dickensian coincidence, was laissez faire capitalism, and factory work. The work on a farm was just as dangerous, or more so, and the hours were just as long, or more so, and the reason why women and children were working in the factories in those days, the days before women wore hats or boys wore shoes, the men were needed for farm labor.

What the factory did was allow those poor boys to make cheap shoes and hats and other goods for poor men like themselves, and end the grinding starvation-brink poverty which has existed since the dawn of time, and usher in the type of poverty we know in the West, where the poor have television sets and enough money to get stoned every night.

In sum, Capitalism saved Oliver Twist, who would have otherwise died on the farm or in the mines, or died with the shepherds and country folk during the periodic famines and plagues all preindustrial culture suffer.

Socialism is an attempt to return to preindustrialization, it is not an attempt to restrain the excesses and cruelties of capitalism, no more than the Green Movement is an attempt to conserve wilderness for the use by future generations. They are ideologies, which means, ersatz substitutes for Christianity, cults which are part of the culture of death, and which exist to give vent to the dark, vile impulses of man by masking those impulses in legitimate-sounding ideals. Socialism is about greed and envy and sadism, the desire to inflict the gulag and the guillotine on those we envy; Environmentalism is envy and sadism without the greed, the desire to damage civilization in the name of thrifty custodianship of our natural resources.


  1. Comment by Darrell:

    Mr. Wright

    As you are probably already aware (and so my comment is really one to provide clarity to other readers) one of the first acts of immigrants to America was to set up state churches and these churches were not, by design, made illegal by the US Constitution which originally disallowed a federal church. The states themselves were permitted to continue state sponsored churches. It is because of, in my opinion, poor legal reasoning and a culture that relatively quickly pulled away from such churches that they do not exist today.

  2. Comment by Stephen J.:

    “Whether such ideas work or fail, the idea is to provide for the poor without incentivizing poverty.”

    I have always thought this was the fundamental paradox at the heart of welfare: how to create a safety net strong enough to catch those who fall, but not strong enough to be a comfortable hammock for those disinclined to get up.

    Scripture says both that those who do not work will not eat and that those who cannot work must be fed; the key, as ever, lies in being able to tell the difference. But what has become so poisonous in modern secular charity is the attitude that even to ask that question, much less use prudential judgement to evaluate any one claimed answer, is an outrage and an injustice.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “But what has become so poisonous in modern secular charity is the attitude that even to ask that question, much less use prudential judgement to evaluate any one claimed answer, is an outrage and an injustice.”

      Exactly so. We live in Dark Ages. Did you think that because our technology level is higher than it was during the Victorian Age, it is not a Dark Age? The technology level in Europe in AD 1000 was higher than in AD 500, with improvements in sail, stirrup, mill, and so on. Technology does not make nor alleviate darkness.

      Darkness is a thing of the mind. If enough people voluntarily stop thinking, stop wanting to live, and start wanting to “self-medicate” their despair by means of porn, booze, cocaine, distractions, loud noises called music — in a word, if enough people become drunk on the pleasure of eternal screaming outrage, why then the burden of thought, the curse of being rational animals, is for them for a season evaded.

      To understand the modern age, one must understand the psychology and the paradox of socialists advocating and performing abominable evils, while at the same time maintain a constant mental state of fury, of scorn, of sneering hatred, of smug superiority, and gross condescension toward their hardworking, honest, decent, and law-abiding neighbors, most of who are as smart if not much smarter than they, and all of whom are morally superior by any measure.

      Outrage acts as a ‘get-out-of-thought-free’ card. If you are indignant, you do not need to argue, or reason, or offer explanation. You are the victim and the other guy is a savage, an oppressor, an idiot, an evil moron and a moronic evildoer.

      That illusion must be maintained at all times and for all topics. Any philosophy, such as Marxism, which helps maintain the illusion is popular, and will be adopted by souls giving into this temptation.

      The temptation is one easy for a humble man to resist, or so I here. I would not know, myself, unfortunately.

    • Comment by Nate Winchester:

      Scripture says both that those who do not work will not eat and that those who cannot work must be fed; the key, as ever, lies in being able to tell the difference. But what has become so poisonous in modern secular charity is the attitude that even to ask that question, much less use prudential judgement to evaluate any one claimed answer, is an outrage and an injustice.

      This is why I favor keeping welfare as small and local as possible. Because how can you tell the difference? By getting to know someone, thus why charity should always rely upon the neighbors. The bureaucracy will never be able to tell the difference.

      Also, I have known a few “poor” people who were quite content with their life. The other problem with bureaucracy is that it can’t tell when someone doesn’t want to be helped.

  3. Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

    It should probably be pointed out that Dickensian lack of charity was connected strongly to the decline of piety in the Church of England, and the repression of other Christian denominations, in the Enlightenment period. Running the parish poorhouse, orphanage, etc. was left to hirelings who were neither interested nor closely watched and supervised. Because nobody cared about religion. And the government mostly didn’t care about charity, either; it wasn’t so much laissez-faire toward the poor as laissez-morire. (If that’s good French, which I doubt.)

    A few decades later, Victorian charity was an enormous enterprise in England, both due to Dickens and other muckrakers, and due to the revitalization of piety in the Church of England (spearheaded by the Oxford Movement and other groups), as well as huge increases in religious freedom for other denominations in England and their charitable enterprises. Nuns and modern nurses both came into England at this time, and both for the love of God and neighbor.

  4. Comment by Irenist:

    Mr. Wright, you have given me a great deal to think about. Before I offer any substantive thoughts, I shall have to take the time to mull over what you’ve written, instead of cluttering up your combox with ill-reasoned off-the-cuff responses. In the meantime, though, please allow me to take this opportunity to thank you at once for having taken the time to answer my question at such length and with such thoughtfulness. I appreciate the kindness.

  5. Comment by momofthree:

    But what about a situation where you have a large, perpetual underclass, much as the US did in the 20’s and 30’s, where large numbers of the rural poor could be classified as struggling sharecroppers or tenant farmers, most of whom had terrible diets and no observable possibility of educating their children. Some of the New Deal efforts ameliorated their destitution. Likewise with the horrible poverty of the rural and urban elderly prior to Social Security.

    If I had time I would summarize this piece, but it is fairly straigforward. How accurate is it?

    • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

      First, that was the condition for most of Mankind for most of History. It’s true that the benefits of the Industrial Revolution did not spread as quickly as we would like, but you can make a very solid argument that the New Deal hurt the people in question a great deal more, by making the transition period far longer then it should have been.

      Second, It would seem that the Victorians were able to deal with those problems, with a crippling, enormous alcohol problem on top of it, using private charity and education.

      Third, the sharecroppers were at least working, with the self worth that comes with honest work, with people from squalid backgrounds, like Abe Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas able to become quite observable educated in far worse circumstances then you speak of. They seem to have done far better then the current generation, raised on “benefits”………

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Some of the New Deal efforts ameliorated their destitution.

      I rather doubt that this is the case. Social mobility was the greatest in American history, and in world history, the century prior, roughly 1830-1930. With the triumph of Progressivism, progress slowed precipitously.

      If you are curious enough to take long, hard look at the New Deal and the permanent disaster it wrought on the American economy, let me recommend a book THE FORGOTTEN MAN:

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