As many Western states are getting beggared by promiscuous social spending, their rhetoric on the subject becomes particularly emetic.
Rather than honestly describing the welfare state as the power mechanism it really is, they rely on claims shoplifted from Christendom and scoured of their original meaning. Granted, all new civilisations build on the foundations of the old ones even as they replace them.
Christendom in particular was an asset-stripping civilisation: it borrowed numerous aspects of philosophy, aesthetics, jurisprudence and statecraft from Greece and Rome, imbuing them with a new meaning. Yet widespread institutionalised charity was a uniquely Christian concept, based on the new understanding of the nature of man.
Every human being was to be cherished not because of any towering achievement or superior character but simply because he was indeed human. In fact, people short of achievement or incapable of it, like those frail boys routinely drowned by the Spartans or those unwanted baby girls left to die in the woods by the Romans, began to be seen as God’s creatures to be loved before all others.
Though some people may have been wicked, some weak and some moribund, none was useless. They all had redeeming qualities because they had all been redeemed.
Hence the institutions for the care of the old and infirm, widows and orphans, lepers and cripples that rapidly spread already during Constantine’s reign. In fact, the emperor Julian the Apostate (d. 363), who had switched from Arian Christianity back to his beloved paganism, reluctantly praised the “Galileans” for looking after the weak and needy, “not only theirs, but ours as well,” so much better than the pagans did.
“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,” taught Christ. His followers understood: charity, especially if offered anonymously, not only materially helped the recipient, but also spiritually elevated the donor.
In many countries individual charity was supplemented by local administrations. They carried some of the burden either of their own accord or because they were obligated to do so by the Crown.
In Tudor England, there existed an unequivocal law on that subject: “All Governors of Shires, Cities, Towns, Hundreds, Hamlets and Parishes, shall find and keep every aged, poor and impotent Person…”
In other words, people who are unable to support themselves must be supported by their neighbours because Christians don’t stand by and watch human beings starve to death out in the cold. However, “unable” was the key word in that edict.
The parameters of inability were precisely defined to communicate the valid distinction between ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’. The implication was that those capable of sustaining themselves weren’t entitled to any such assistance.
To avoid any misunderstanding of this point, in 1536 Henry VIII passed The Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars. “Sturdy” meant both physically sound and persistent mendicants, what we today would call ‘professional beggars’.
Though the letter of that law didn’t survive for long, its spirit defined institutionalised charity throughout the lifespan of Christendom in England. The ‘deserving poor’ needed help; the undeserving ones were supposed to help themselves.
When the modern state barged in, it gradually yet systematically eliminated that distinction. Charity was shifted into the domain of an increasingly centralised, faceless state, which eliminated at a stroke any spiritual payoff for the donor.
That wasn’t the only thing it eliminated. For unrestrained powerlust is the genetic imperative of the modern political state. If in the past the central state was kept in check by an intricate network of local government and voluntary associations, the modern state has slipped such annoying tethers by a long series of incremental steps.
Since power in modern democracies is acquired by putting blocs of voters together, modern politicians will stop at nothing to trick, scare, cajole or – more to the point in this context – bribe people into voting right. And what better way of doing so than offering whole swathes of the population something for nothing.
The modern state has nothing to lose and all to gain by creating a vast underclass of freeloaders beholden to the state as its chattels and dependents. Nothing to lose politically, that is. For economically, socially and morally the burgeoning welfare state is an unmitigated disaster.
Yet when modern politicians push through yet another welfare appropriation, they don’t care about the long-term social and moral damage they do. Their term in office is all they care about, and its years are usually measured in single digits, not decades.
Even the economic consequences may not rebound on modern politicians within the few years they can hope to stay in power, especially when trillions can be borrowed at negligible interest rates. Hence they toss billions after billions into the bottomless pit of the welfare state with nary a thought for even immediate future, never mind any deferred calamities.
However, when the economic cards fall differently, the situation changes. Soaring inflation and interest rates make runaway social spending unsustainable and, just as damaging, the economy begins to suffer from a suffocating shortage of labour.
Lack of jobs, that traditional malaise of struggling economies, has given way to a glut of jobs left untaken. At this point, the state discovers that the welfare merry-go-round is easier to jump on than off.
The lumpen underclass created to prop up political power won’t be budged. Yesterday’s faux charity has become today’s real entitlement. Unlike the deserving poor of the past who humbly and gratefully received help in the name of Christ or simple decency, today’s ‘sturdy vagabonds’ demand their unearned living as of right.
The links in the chain of causality clasp together to throttle the country. When several generations of the same family have lived off social handouts, each subsequent generation has no incentive to develop marketable skills.
As for jobs that require little education or specialised training, they don’t pay as well as the sum total of all welfare benefits – not just cash on the nail, but also such extras as housing, food stamps, single-mother benefit and whatnot.
Hence the welfare state has an effect diametrically opposite to that of Christian charity. Rather than elevating both the donor and the recipient, it corrupts them both. Exponentially and, one fears, irreversibly.
However, although the moral content of Western charity has bitten the dust, the language of sharing and caring perversely persists. And our sturdy vagabonds keep laughing all the way to the ‘social’, while the rest of us weep.
P.S. While we are on the subject of language, two recent bloopers have caught my eye.
The first one reinforces my belief that the use of long words must be licensed and restricted to those qualified. A World Cup commentator the other day praised a defender for a “vociferous tackle”, even though the chap hacked his opponent down silently. Full-blooded? Strong? Borderline criminal? Who knows. Words mean whatever today’s Humpty-Dumpties want them to mean.
Then I saw an ad for a “£5 claret”, which is a glaring oxymoron. Contrary to a popular misapprehension, a claret isn’t any old red wine but specifically a Bordeaux. And not any old Bordeaux either, but a top one. These, I’m afraid, tend to cost considerably more than five quid. Stick to lager, lads.