By an ontology I mean a theory of what exists and what does not. Politics is replete with competing and mutually excluding ontologies. In fact, politics is needed in order to manage the daunting fact that we experience very different realities. We live in different worlds. I am a Martian and you are an earthling, and she is from yet another planet. Politics helps us to form, express, and reconcile the different views of reality that we have.
Today, I read an article, admittedly, with a certain frowning discomfort, as it challenged my view of the history and the nature of the welfare state. I think, it is an article well-worth reading, especially for those who have settled contrary views on the subject-matter. It made me wonder about my own political ontology of the welfare state.
How do I picture the reality of the welfare state, and how do people with views similar to mine conceive of the welfare state as it really is? Is it an expendable Ponzi scheme - and that is it? Is its relationship with freedom rather more complicated?
Conservatives and the Welfare State
I read the below article and, in the end, also asked myself what is the author's ontology like? And in particular, who does the author mean by conservatives? Those who vote for the Republican party? The conservatives supporting the Democratic party, of whom I imagine there used to be quite a number at the time when The New Deal was taking shape?
How strong and how far-reaching is the opposition of the author's conservatives to the welfare state?
What items does the conservative resistance particularly emphasise, and how absolute is the demand of conservatives to get rid of those features of the welfare state deemed by them unacceptable?
How was it possible that the American welfare state has developed over almost a hundred years to become a large and stable hallmark of American society, when presumably something like half of the population is conservative in the author's sense?
What exactly are these conservatives unhappy about regarding the welfare state? Do they truly wish it to be entirely replaced by private charity? Or are they concerned with rather specific aberrations? Is theirs a philosophy seeing nothing but an unmitigated evil in the public provision of security against "the Four Horsemen - accident, illness, old age, loss of a job?"
The Inevitability of the Welfare State?
Writes Mike Konczal in a not too long account of the origins of the modern welfare state in America:
Informal networks of local support, from churches to ethnic affiliations, were all overrun in the Great Depression. Ethnic benefit societies, building and loan associations, fraternal insurance policies, bank accounts, and credit arrangements all had major failure rates. All of the fraternal insurance societies that had served as anchors of their communities in the 1920s either collapsed or had to pull back on their services due to high demand and dwindling resources. Beyond the fact that insurance wasn’t available, this had major implications for spending, as moneylending as well as benefits for sickness and injuries were reduced.
The Hoover Administration’s initial response to the Great Depression was to supplement private aid without creating the type of permanent public social insurance programs that would arise in the New Deal. Hoover’s goal was to maintain, in the words of the historian Ellis Hawley, a “nonstatist alternative to atomistic individualism, the romantic images of voluntarism as more truly democratic than any government action, and the optimistic assessments of the private sector’s capacity for beneficial governmental action.” As President Hoover said in 1931, much like conservatives do today, any response to the economic crisis must “maintain the spirit of charity and mutual self-help through voluntary giving” in order for him to support it.
Noble as that goal may be, it failed. The more Hoover leaned on private agencies, the more resistance he found. Private firms and industry did not want to play the role that the government assigned them, and even those that did found it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out those responsibilities. The Red Cross, for instance, did not want to move beyond providing disaster relief. Other groups, like the Association of Community Chests and Councils, had no interest in trying to coordinate funds at a national, rather than local, level. Hoover understood that private charity wasn’t getting to rural areas, yet private charities couldn’t be convinced to meet these needs.
What’s most worth noting is that, in the end, both beneficiaries of fraternal societies and private charities themselves welcomed this transition. During the Great Depression, citizens, especially the range of white ethnic communities in the largest cities, watched as mass unemployment tore down institution after institution. From fraternal societies to banks to charities, the web of private institutions was no match for the Great Depression.
As documented in Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal, these white ethnic communities turned to the New Deal to provide the baseline of security that their voluntary societies were unable to offer during a deep recession. As a result of the implosion of the voluntary societies they depended upon, working-class families looked to the government and unions for protections against unstable banks and the risks of the Four Horsemen.