Origins of the Welfare State in America
Standard theory views government as functional: a social need arises, and government, semi-automatically, springs up to fill that need. The analogy rests on the market economy: demand gives rise to supply (e.g., a demand for cream cheese will result in a supply of cream cheese on the market). But surely it is strained to say that, in the same way, a demand for postal services will spontaneously give rise to a government monopoly Post Office, outlawing its competition and giving us ever-poorer service for ever-higher prices.
Indeed, if the analogy fails when even a genuine service (e.g., mail delivery or road construction) is being provided, imagine how much worse the analogy is when government is not supplying a good or service at all, but is coercively redistributing income and wealth.
When the government, in short, takes money at gun point from A and gives it to B, who is demanding what? The cream cheese producer on the market is using his resources to supply a genuine demand for cream cheese; he is not engaged in coercive redistribution. But what about the government's taking from A and giving the money to B? Who are the demanders, and who are the suppliers? One can say that the subsidized, the "donees," are "demanding" this redistribution; surely, however, it would be straining credulity to claim that A, the fleeced, is also "demanding" this activity. A, in fact, is the reluctant supplier, the coerced donor; B is gaining at A's expense. But the really interesting role here is played by G, the government. For apart from the unlikely case where G is an unpaid altruist, performing this action as an uncompensated Robin Hood, G gets a rake-off, a handling charge, a finder's fee, so to speak, for this little transaction. G, the government, in other words, performs his act of "redistribution" by fleecing A for the benefit of B and of himself.
Once we focus on this aspect of the transaction, we begin to realize that G, the government, might not just be a passive recipient of B's felt need and economic demand, as standard theory would have it; instead, G himself might be an active demander and, as a full-time, paid Robin Hood, might even have stimulated B's demand in the first place, so as to be in on the deal. The felt need, then, might be on the part of the governmental Robin Hood himself.
Why The Welfare State?
Why has government increased greatly over this century?
Specifically, why has the welfare state appeared, grown, and become ever-larger and more powerful? What was the functional need felt here? One answer is that the development of poverty over the past century gave rise to welfare and redistribution. But this makes little sense, since it is evident that the average person's standard of living has grown considerably over the past century-and-a-half, and poverty has greatly diminished.
But perhaps inequality has been aggravated, and the masses, even though better off, are upset by the increased income gap between themselves and the wealthy? English translation: the masses may be smitten with envy and rankle furiously at a growing income disparity. But it should also be evident from one glance at the Third World that the disparity of income and wealth between the rich and the masses is far greater there than in Western capitalist countries. So what's the problem?
Another standard answer more plausibly asserts that industrialization and urbanization, by the late 19th century, deprived the masses, uprooted from the soil or the small town, of their sense of community, belonging, and mutual aid. Alienated and deracinated in the city and in the factory, the masses reached out for the welfare state to take the place of their old community.
Certainly it is true that the welfare state emerged during the same period as industrialization and urbanization, but coincidence does not establish causation.
One grave flaw in this urbanization theory is that it ignores the actual nature of the city, at least as it had been before it was effectively destroyed in the decades after World War II. The city was not a monolithic agglomeration but a series of local neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive character, network of clubs, fraternal associations, and street corner hangouts. Jane Jacobs's memorable depiction of the urban neighborhood in her Death and Life of Great American Cities was a charming and accurate portrayal of the unity in diversity of each neighborhood, of the benign role of the "street watcher" and the local storekeeper. Large city life in the United States by 1900 was almost exclusively Catholic and ethnic, and both the political and social life of Catholic males in each neighborhood revolved, and still, to an extent, revolves, around the neighborhood saloon. There the men of the neighborhood would repair each evening to the saloon, where they would drink a few beers, socialize, and discuss politics. Typically, they would receive political instruction from the local saloonkeeper, who was generally also the local Democratic ward heeler. Wives socialized separately, and at home. The beloved community was still alive and well in urban America.
On deeper historical inquiry, moreover, this seemingly plausible industrialism explanation falls apart, and not only on the familiar problem of American exceptionalism, the fact that the United States, despite industrializing more rapidly, lagged behind European countries in developing the welfare state. Detailed investigations of a number of industrialized countries, for example, find no correlation whatsoever between the degree of industrialization and the adoption of social insurance programs between the 1880s and the 1920s or the 1960s.
More strikingly, the same findings hold true within the United States, where American exceptionalism can play no role. The earliest massive social welfare program in the United States was the dispensing of post-Civil War pensions to aging veterans of the Union Army and their dependents. Yet, these post-Civil War pensions were more likely to aid farmers and small townsmen than residents of large industrial cities. County level post-Civil War pension studies in Ohio in the late 1880s, the peak years for these pension payments, demonstrate a negative correlation between the degree of urbanism, or percentage of people living in homes rather than on farms, and the rates of receipt of pensions. The author of the study concluded that "generally, pensions were distributed to predominantly rural, Anglo-Saxon areas," while the major city of Cleveland had the lowest per capita rate of receipt of pensions. Furthermore, pioneers in unemployment insurance and other social legislation were often the less-industrialized and more rural states, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Washington state.
Another standard view, the left-liberal or "social democratic model," as its practitioners call it, holds that the welfare state came about not through the semi-automatic functioning of industrialization, but rather through conscious mass movements from below, movements generated by the demands of the presumptive beneficiaries of the welfare state themselves: the poor, the masses, or the oppressed working class. This thesis has been summed up boldly by one of its adherents.
Everywhere, he says, the welfare state has been the product of a highly centralized trade union movement with a class-wide membership base, operating in close coordination with a unified reformist-socialist party which, primarily on the basis of massive working class support, is able to achieve hegemonic status in the party system.
Certainly, much of this thesis is overdrawn even for Europe, where much of the welfare state was brought about by conservative and liberal bureaucrats and political parties, rather than by unions or socialist parties. But setting that aside and concentrating on the United States, there has been, for one thing, no massively supported socialist party, let along one which has managed to achieve "hegemonic status."
We are left, then, with labor unions as the only possible support for the social-democratic model for the United States. But here, historians, almost uniformly starry-eyed supporters of labor unions, have wildly exaggerated the importance of unions in American history. When we get past romantic stories of strikes and industrial conflicts (in which the union role is inevitably whitewashed if not glorified), even the best economic historians don't bother informing the reader of the meager quantitative role or importance of unions in the American economy. Indeed, until the New Deal, and with the exception of brief periods when unionization was coercively imposed by the federal government (during World War I, and in the railroads during the 1920s), the percentage of union members in the labor force typically ranged from a minuscule 1 to 2 percent during recessions, up to 5 or 6 percent during inflationary booms, and then down to the negligible figure in the next recession.
Furthermore, in boom or bust, labor unions, in the free-market environment, were only able to take hold in specific occupations and areas of the economy. Specifically, unions could only flourish as skilled-craft unions (a) which could control the supply of labor in the occupation because of the small number of workers involved; (b) where this limited number constituted a small fraction of the employer's payroll; and (c) where, because of technological factors, the industry in question was not very actively competitive across geographical regions. One way to sum up these factors is to say, in economists' jargon, that the employers' demand schedule for this type of labor is inelastic, that is, that a small restriction in the supply of such labor could give rise to a large wage increase for the remaining workers. Labor unions could flourish, moreover, in such geographically uncompetitive industries as anthracite coal, which is found in only a small area of northeastern Pennsylvania; and the various building trades (carpenters, masons, electricians, joiners, etc.), since building construction in, say, New York City, is only remotely competitive with similar construction in Chicago or Duluth. In contrast, despite determined efforts, it was impossible for unions to prosper in such industries as bituminous coal, which is found in large areas of the United States, or clothing manufacture, where factories can move readily to another, non-unionized area.
It was a shrewd understanding of these principles that enabled Samuel Gompers and the craft unions in his American Federation of Labor to flourish, while other, more radical and socialistic unions, such as The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, collapsed quickly and faded from the scene.
It should be obvious, then, that the advent and growth of the welfare state in the United States had little or nothing to do with the growth of the labor movement. On the contrary, the growth of labor unionism in America — during World War I and during the 1930s, its two great spurts of activity — were brought about by governmental coercion from above. Labor unions, then, were an effect rather than a cause of the welfare state, at least in the United States.