Saturday, December 21, 2013

The welfare state as agent of calm

Using his latest column to justify the welfare state, Bruce Bartlett makes the following bizarre assertion:
Lastly, we all know that there are negative consequences to living in a society with many people who may be starving or freezing to death or living perilously close to it. Such people have nothing to lose by fomenting revolution, organizing into criminal gangs or engaging in sabotage of basic services such as the water and power supply that everyone depends upon. 
There are many countries like this. Even the moderately well to do must live behind walled communities and travel only with bodyguards, ever fearful of assassination and kidnapping. No American wants to live that way.
While Barlett is correct that no American would want to live that way, it is not apparent what any of this has to do with the welfare state. Show me a country where many people are living at the margins of existence and barely clinging to survival and I will show you one that is far from a libertarian paradise where freedom is prized as a central organizing principle. The idea that only a welfare state will head off such scenarios is unproven and unfounded. 

More to the point, there is also no obvious reason to think that the welfare state either calms the political waters to head off revolution or reduces crime, which Bartlett also warns against. The Founding Fathers who helped inspire the American Revolution were typically well-off (some, let us recall, were slave owners) and material privation has never been cited by historians as a leading cause of support for the revolution (although onerous government has). Despite the absence of a welfare state for most of American history there was also never any serious attempt to overthrow the US government (Civil War, which had nothing to do with poverty, possibly excepted), and it is perhaps worth noting that none of the attempted or actual assassinations of US presidents were carried out by people who were simply angry and poor.

With regard to crime, meanwhile, if one dates the establishment of the American welfare state to President Johnson's Great Society initiative began in 1965, here's a look at what happened to crime rates (both charts are for per 100,000 of population) in the subsequent years:

Now, while it very well may be the case that crime spiked for reasons other than the welfare state's establishment, it would seem very hard to make the case that the establishment of a social safety net helped reduce crime. When I pointed this out to Bartlett via Twitter, he responded that US crime rates are still above those of every social democracy. I then asked if that was not also the case pre-welfare state and pointed out this passage from wikipedia:
In the long term, violent crime in the United States has been in decline since colonial times. However, during the early 20th century, crime rates in the United States were higher compared to parts of Western Europe. For example, 198 homicides were recorded in the American city of Chicago in 1916, a city of slightly over 2 million at the time. This level of crime was not exceptional when compared to other American cities such as New York, but was much higher relative to European cities, such as London, which then had three times the population but recorded only 45 homicides in the same year.
In other words, elevated levels of American violence compared to countries which have adopted the social democratic model appears to predate the welfare state. 

Bartlett never responded. 

1 comment:

Australia Business News Online said...

It's weird how crime rate graph is same as the other graph.