Liberalism, socialism, and the welfare state

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Monday, November 30, 2009
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Ideological clashes of any sort are heated, especially when people misunderstand the tenets of the other person’s beliefs.

A lot of misinformation floats along the radio and television airwaves, particularly about the confusion between liberalism and socialism.

I often hear people denounce President Barack Obama’s agenda as socialist or communist. While I do dismiss these remarks some of the time, it seems there is a fundamental misunderstanding between ideologies.

The blurriest line to the majority of Americans is the difference between liberalism and socialism. Those on the left champion the welfare state and “big government” and, as a result of government intervention, many people compare this to a light version of socialism. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Understanding the history of the welfare state is important. The modern welfare state was not the brainchild of a liberal or socialist leader but rather quite the opposite. It was the creation of German leader Otto von Bismarck, who was a conservative ruler.

This system of public assistance was actually developed to keep socialists at bay. During the rule of the “Iron Chancellor,” as Bismarck was called, socialism rose in popularity; Bismarck devised a plan to keep the growing discontent at bay. The result was the welfare state.

The idea of social programs was a savvy move politically; the discontent in the German socialist movement stemmed from the reality of job loss in a capitalist society. The welfare programs provided citizens with benefits and assurance they would not become victims of a ruthless economy.

Confusion over labels develops when we examine who strongly advocated the welfare state. While a conservative created it, an influential liberal was perhaps its strongest promoter.

T.H. Green, a professor at Oxford University in the 1800s, decided government did not have to be a necessary evil; rather it could be a positive force in citizen’s lives. The role of government previously was to protect the Lockean rights, a citizen’s life, liberty, and property. By protecting these freedoms, individuals were largely able to pursue their own interests and contribute to the betterment of society.

However, by the 1800s, this mission had been accomplished in countries like the United States.

Green felt removing poverty, illiteracy, and sickness from a person’s life was the next step the state should take to ensure everyone had the opportunity to be contributing members of society.

If someone lives in desolate situations their entire life with little access to employment, schools, or doctors, taking part in the active democratic process will be the least of their worries. With assistance though, these people can become incredibly productive members of society who have a lot to offer.

Leaving someone to fend for themselves in such dire conditions is not only inhumane, but also counterproductive to our development as a nation.

Those who support the welfare state do not want to dismantle capitalism and our current economy, merely improve it so everyone can be presented with an equal opportunity. With assistance of the state, the economic playing field is leveled; each individual is largely able to pursue his or her own interests.

On the other hand, socialists want to replace capitalism with a system of publicly owned property with federal, state or local government control, which is a revolutionary idea to some. Welfare programs are anything but a revolution. Although this is all history and theory, there is practical application.

How are the Iron Chancellor, a 19th century Oxford professor, and the welfare state relevant to our present day situation? Well, without these men and their ideas, this economic crisis would hold us in its vices much longer.

At the beginning of this month the Senate, which normally has a sharp partisan divide, voted unanimously to extend unemployment insurance benefits and an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers. The House also passed this measure, which Obama signed into law. This political move reflects the stake this country has in the welfare state.

People often frown upon others who utilize the welfare state in America; as a result, welfare recipients are often ashamed. This yields a counter-productive atmosphere.

According to The New York Times, 36 million Americans are on food stamps and food stamps feed one child out of eight. With our current perception of the welfare state, we will look down on 36 million of our neighbors and every eighth child.

America, we are better than our current situation.

The diagnosis is simply this, people believe social programs run against the American dream and the ideals this country was built on. Our nation possesses a proud history of self-made men, individuals who “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” pioneers who threw caution to the wind as they went west to farm or mine for gold.

But times change and we must change with them. In tough times, we should be thankful for the safety net, not condemn it. Our perception of the welfare state does not reflect this.

We have all experienced social programs and federal assistance in some shape or form, including attendance at this world-class University. Financial aid and certain scholarships are also drawn from federal funds; the state is paying for my education and I am not ashamed to admit it.

This sentiment does not seem to prevail though; many Sun Devils joke they decided to attend ASU because “everyone gets in” or “they have a pulse.” These people often lament about not getting into a private institution and scorn this University’s dwindling resources.

Because this is a public institution, some feel it is lesser than a private school. This notion directly reflects the attitudes about social programs in our country.

The line between liberalism and socialism is blurry due to common misperceptions about their ideology and the welfare state. We can only progress as a nation after we clear the air and begin to respect social programs and the benefits they provide.

Reach Andrew at andrew.hedlund@asu.edu