For the first 150 years of American history, government at all levels played little role in social welfare. In a 1995 Heritage Foundation document titled "America's Failed $5.4 Trillion War on Poverty," Robert Rector and William Lauber point out, "As late as 1929, before the onset of the Great Depression, federal, state, and local welfare expenditures were only $90 million." In inflation-adjusted dollars, that would be under $1 billion today. By 1939, welfare spending was almost 50 times that amount, but at least the politicians of the day thought of it as a temporary bridge for its recipients. Welfare spending then fell and wouldn't return to the 1939 levels until Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" in the mid-1960s.
And now we know, after $5.4 trillion and a series of catastrophic fiscal and social consequences, those old-fashioned virtues and principles generally embraced by America's 19th century presidents were right on the mark.
More than 100 years ago, the great intellectual and crusader for liberty Auberon Herbert offered a cogent observation from his native Britain. His remarks neatly summarize the views of the men I've discussed here:
"No amount of state education will make a really intelligent nation; no amount of Poor Laws will place a nation above want; no amount of Factory Acts will make us better parents. ... To have our wants supplied from without by a huge state machinery, to be regulated and inspected by great armies of officials, who are themselves slaves of the system which they administer, will in the long run teach us nothing, (and) will profit us nothing."
In March 2005, an international commission called on wealthy countries like the United States to dramatically increase their foreign aid. Many of the governments of Europe are in full support.
But what would American presidents of the 19th century have had to say about that? I can imagine Cleveland, Johnson, Pierce, Van Buren, Jackson, Madison or Jefferson reacting in disbelief at the very suggestion. Cleveland might have said, "Aid to foreign countries? We don't even dispense aid to Americans." And he would have had a century of unprecedented progress against poverty to point to as his example.
For the benefit of welfare statists here and abroad, I think Cleveland and the others I've spoken of today would be very comfortable echoing the sentiments of the 19th century French economist and statesman Frederic Bastiat:
"And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works."
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education, one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States. He is also president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. This essay was given as a speech by Mr. Reed at the inaugural conference of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in April 2005.