Welfare is nothing new, and has been an essential element of effective government for centuries
The conservatives of today often argue that government welfare programs are an invention of modern government, and are therefore the result of some systematic, liberal plot to reduce the foundations of western civilization to a pile of smoking rubble.
The truth is that while modern forms of welfare, which only came into existence once the system reached a point where it could sustain them, are creations of the modern state-economy dichotomy which manifested itself after the transformation of the western world during the industrial revolution, history shows that the extent to which welfare is represented is a good indicator of the success of any government institution, and that some governments, like the state structure established by Maoist revolutionaries in China, should not be considered as representative of the true spirit of welfare.
Historical examples from the Roman Period (also, in fact, stretching far back to the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians) demonstrate quite clearly how the societal foundations for the modern government-economy dichotomy had been built. Many of the hot topic issues of today were also problems for the Roman government.
Inflation was a major issue. Roman officials over the years (at many different points) had debased the currency (sound familiar?) by literally removing chunks of precious metal and re-smelting the coins. This led to massive levels of price inflation in the marketplace. Well-meaning government bureaucrats sought to control this by instituting price ceilings. These obviously only acted to create black markets for the exact same goods.
Government support for the poor in times of high inflation or when food became scarce was almost always present during the Roman period. Bread would be handed out on street corners to those who were hungry. Many have argued that this was also simply a way for Roman emperors to temporarily buy the allegiance of the poor with a full stomach.
Confucianism, a core piece of Chinese thought, stresses the central role of the state in civilized human life. Throughout the history of China there have been competing ideologies such as Buddhism and Taoism, however the core values of Confucianism can still be seen as quite prolific in China today.
The Chinese state throughout history has been traditionally very centered around the wellfare of its citizens. In times of famine the custom had been for over a thousand years to open government grain stores. Charity was generally accorded to the poorest individuals as it reflected badly on a monarch when homeless lined the streets.
This began to change when European powers started to meddle in Chinese affairs. British involvement in the opium trade, which primarily came out of India, got the Chinese economy “hooked” on opium. Slowly but surely the government began to lose control to British corporate entities which demanded the right to sell their product (even though opium was made illegal in Britain). After a series of skirmishes known as the Opium Wars, in which the British army did not face much of a fight, the Chinese monarchy became effectively powerless.
The rise of the Maoist government during and after the Second World War brought a radical re-organization of the old Chinese feudal system. Land was re-distributed to the peasants who worked on it and for a time there was much plenty. It seemed as if the Communists would really hold up to their end of the bargain.
Things changed, however, when, after 3 years, the Maoists seized farm property and organized it into collectives, effectively negating much of the work that had been done in the years past.
The government then dictated that all individuals must work for the rice that they consume. If one was not recorded as having done the appropriate work, then one would go hungry for the night.
Maoist China represents nearly the opposite of a welfare state. The most obvious indication lies in the fact that when massive starvation struck once again, the “Communists” (closer to totalitarians) refused to open the massive grain stores maintained by the government while men, women, and children starved just outside in the street.
Enlightenment Europe found itself controlled (nearly in its entirety) by “absolute” rulers. The state became something that had a body (the current corporations vs. people debate seems relevant). The Ruler, in this case the “divinely-ordained” monarch assumed within himself the body of the state. Because of this the crime of treason and the crime of a direct attempt on the life of the king became equated.
Welfare came in many forms. As the monarch was seen as the holy embodiment of the state, building projects like canals, roads, hospitals, universities, and general infrastructure brought prestige to him or her. What became clear with the French Revolution, however, was the extent to which some social movements can monopolize on dire economic crises and create complete chaos. The revolution itself was seen ideally as a resistance against the old feudal power of European history. In reality it stemmed much more deeply from huge problems within the expansive French bureaucracy which needed change.
The modern world was forged in the depths of the industrial revolution. The First World War can easily be seen as the flash point for this. The “welfare” state structures in Britain, France, Germany (Prussia), and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had all been built up through past, successive decades in competition with one another. The 19th century as a whole, after the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, at least in Western Europe, remained fairly peaceful, with only a few exceptions.
States did not, at least initially, want to maintain massive standing armies at all times (as this is extremely expensive). As the power balance in western Europe became more and more ingrained, so too did the necessity for larger and more effective forces. The relative peace on the continent in these years did little more than to forestall the inevitable continental war that would break out (just as it had multiple times in the previous century).
As the massive corporate organization of European states evolved to cope with the military machine it was destined to build, it brought with it many things which people today take for granted. The early model for America’s public school system can be shown to have evolved out of this corporate state structure in Prussia (northern Germany) in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Prussian state introduced compulsory public schooling for all children. The curriculum was structured to ensure that when education was complete, students would be able to perform tasks either as a worker or a soldier. This can be easily seen in the mundane, repetitive nature of modern public school, where the student, much like a lab rat, is made to respond immediately and routinely to the sound of a bell between classes.
Uniform systems of taxation also made their real appearance on a large scale during this period. The necessity for a consistent tax base was recognized increasingly as one of the single largest influences on the strength of any nation as a whole.
It is also true that governments across Europe (the United States seemed a bit slow to catch up) saw the benefits of keeping a relatively healthy, happy, and “educated” population with respect to maintaining consistent tax revenue.
After the First and Second World Wars the necessity for the maintenance of expansive social programs became quite obvious. It has also been demonstrated in countless ways how these programs greatly benefit society as a whole. While problems will inevitably still exist it is clear that just because “welfare” programs are mostly (in their current form) products of the modern era, that does not mean that they are not essential.
During the 1930s and the following decades the United States underwent many legislative changes related to government participation in the welfare of the general public. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid serve to aid those who may otherwise not have the means to aid themselves.
The mark of a successful polity is the state of its poorest citizens. Welfare will continue to expand its presence as the system changes. This is simply a byproduct of the direction that the system is moving as it evolves. In the effort to effectively mould this evolution it is necessary to recognize the absolutely essential place that governmental care for the common good represents.