Lanterns: George Washington’s Welfare State – and Ours


George Washington’s Welfare State – and Ours

If one takes a sufficiently broad, inclusive view of welfare, one discovers two startling truths: (1) the nation’s founding principles did not fully survive the founding era and (2) the origins of the American welfare state can be traced to the second bill signed into law by America’s first president.

Americans most commonly associate welfare with the entitlement programs designed to keep the old, the young, the sick and feeble from falling through the economic cracks (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Disability insurance, food and housing assistance, and the like). More recently, we have taken to calling out the many varieties of corporate welfare (aka crony capitalism). Three leading contenders for the presidency all pointed to the corruption that is politics as usual in Washington. Trump spoke of the Establishment, Cruz of the “Washington Cartel,” and Sanders of the “millionaires and billionaires” who rig the system in their favor.

Both variations form a single nefarious phenomenon. It occurs whenever Congress confers special benefits on any organized set of special interests. Whenever and however it is practiced, it constitutes a repudiation of the Founders’ deepest principles. For when Congress confers special benefits on SOME, it simultaneously and unavoidably denies “equal protection under the law” to ALL.

That is precisely what George Washington did by signing The Tariff Act of 1789 into law. Yes, it was designed to raise revenue for the unavoidable expenses of government. And, yes, the Constitution specifically authorizes Congress to enact tariffs, imposts, etc. for that purpose. But that Tariff Act also authorized Congress “to encourage domestic manufactures.” No sooner did Congress meet in the spring of 1789, then it was besieged with memorials mostly from Northern manufacturers pleading for “protection” from foreign competition.

Once adopted, the long list of tariffs certainly benefited domestic manufacturers. They could boost their prices and profits behind those salutary import barriers. But Southern planters, Western farmers, and consumers, generally, were thereby obliged to pay artificially higher prices for the tools, weapons, and household utensils they purchased. Seaport merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere too often found their ships not engaged in transatlantic trade, but idle at their wharfs. And countless merchant mariners were left adrift on land.

What’s worth noting is that government’s practice of benefiting some at another’s expense violates not only the principle of “equal protection under the law,” it discards the idea of Laissez Faire, free market capitalism, as well. At the height of the Great Depression, one Samuel Pettengill wisely wrote, “When it is said that free enterprise has failed, I answer we have never permitted it to work.”  It’s a lesson well worth pondering.

How did we get from that day to this?

It’s not complicated. Once a nation decides that some of its citizens have a right, not to go out and get, but to lobby Congress and be given, it finds itself torn by two irrepressible questions: Who else should be given? And how much should they all get? There’s only one answer: POLITICS. It can be said that the Establishment came to town during the Republic’s opening moments. And it never left.

So what is welfare? Pork, Bacon, Earmarks, Member Items, Constituent Services, Farm Subsidies, Protective Tariffs, Bank Bailouts, Pay-to-Play, Too-Big-to-Fail and all those “Entitlements.”

Jerome Huyler is a former assistant professor at Seton Hall University. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from the New School University in 1992 and his bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, where he majored in philosophy. Dr. Huyler’s doctoral dissertation was edited for publication as Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era (University Press of Kansas, 1995, 2001).  He also authored Everything You Have: The Case Against Welfare (1980).  Click on the links below to get your copies today.


Written by Jerome Huyler

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