- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Does the welfare state square with the rule of law?

Not much, suggested mid-l9th-century French economist and legislator Frederic Bastiat, quoted in Sheldon Richman's "Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State." Wrote Bastiat, "The (welfare) state is that great fiction in which everybody seeks to live at the expense of everybody else."

Mr. Richman - whose works include "Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax" and articles in The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and USA Today - is editor of the Foundation for Economic Education's monthly journal "Ideas on Liberty," and a champion of the moral, philosophical and economic case for liberty under law.

Here, Mr. Richman eyes the West's welfare state, a colossus stretching from Japan to Australia, from the European Union to North America, embracing (if that's the word) perhaps a billion people. The embrace goes on despite the collapse of Euro-communism from East Germany to Red Russia in 1989-1991, and it is a warning sign regarding the caprice, politics and rise of the welfare state in a century marked by two World Wars, a Great Depression, a Cold War and the rise of Big Government.

For its part, the welfare state was and is unfazed. Indeed, Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-President Bill Clinton put forth the strategems that the welfare state is but the Third Way, that it is the state at its most benevolent, a collection of "social safety nets." And while "the era of big government is over," in the incongruous words of Mr. Clinton, we shall not return to the days when people "fended for themselves." Or, bye-bye rule of law.

For his part, Mr. Richman sees the welfare state as coercive, unstable, repressive of individual rights, a tyranny of the statist quo. He is one with Nobel economics laureate James Buchanan of George Mason University, who said about the death of Euro-communism and the persistent, insistent, life of the welfare state: "Socialism dies, Leviathan lives." Mr. Richman wonders how Leviathan escaped the graveyard of virtually every form of political and economic collectivism as it itself carries the trappings of collectivism while dampening entire nations in its maw.

Well, Mr. Richman reminds us, this state is not just directed to the poor. If that were the case, it would not have stood the test of time. He notes the middle and upper classes, who pay most of the taxes, would have grown weary of giving without getting. The welfare state also sees to it that the middle class gets freebies like "free" public schooling, low-interest college loans and grants, FHA mortgages with low down payments for home ownership, subsidized day care, medical care, unemployment compensation, workmen's compensation, agricultural aid to farm families, and more.

Mr. Richman sees the welfare state constitutionality getting a free ride from liberal judges on the Supreme Court with lawyers like Cato's Roger Pilon and economists like George Mason's Walter Williams claiming that up to 75 percent of the federal budget or roughly that supporting the welfare state - is unconstitutional. Indeed, Mr. Richman quotes James Madison, recognized architect of the Constitution, to answer those who argue that the presence of the term"general welfare" in the preamble and Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives plenary paternalistic power to the federal government. Said Madison:

"With respect to the words 'general welfare' I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character not contemplated by its creators." Mr. Richman notes that the welfare state antedates the New Deal. Its origin reaches back to the last decades of the l9th century when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, supported by Kaiser William II, sponsored national health insurance, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the like, all to head off a rising German Social Democratic Party. The idea spread through Western Europe. It was during the Great Depression that the United States under FDR entered the welfare state era with the Social Security Act of 1935.

Technically both Social Security and Medicare are bankrupt as some 80 million boomers beginning in 2011 latch on; bankrupt in terms of literally tens of trillions of dollars in escalating unfunded liabilities. Mr. Richman holds that scores of rule of law-defying agencies like the Food and Drug Administartion (FDA) could be replaced by private groups like Underwriters Laboratories, that government has nothing to give save what it first takes away, that bad safety nets drive out good safety nets. He concludes that we can take better care of ourselves, untethered. Abolish the welfare state, he says "and watch man soar."


William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar with the Heritage Foundation.


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