Benjamin Harrison: The Start of the Welfare State

Referring to politicians trying to create a "welfare state" are charged words these days and were in the late 1880's as well. The reason that these are controversial words today though have much less to do with why they were in Benjamin Harrison's time during the late 1800's.

Today, most Democrats and Republicans accept that free trade or something close to it should be an aspiration of public policy. That is why "welfare state" is code for one politician accusing another of not following the universal truth that free trade is gospel.

In reality, we don't have anything close to free trade due to millions and millions in lobbying money that flow to politicians pockets, misguided government incentives and the revolving door between corporate board rooms and government political positions, that's a post for another time.

In the late 1800's, the great debate on whether competition and international free trade were good or not was still being decided. Some politicians were in favor of tariffs to limit competition to America's young manufacturing industries, while others were against protectionist measures because they wanted to keep the prices of imported goods as low as possible.

The reason that the "welfare state" was something to be avoided had more to do with many of the founding fathers and the philosophers that inspired them preaching that a good citizen should be self sufficient and that dependency on government was just another form of tyranny. Socialism was not considered a pariah because of what it would do to people's wallets, but because dependency on government largesses would lead to a natural erosion of rights.

That is why it took over 100 years after the founding of the United States to start introducing many of the types of social programs we now consider commonplace. Grover Cleveland's opposition to Benjamin Harrison's support of pensions for Civil War Veterans might seem over the top now, but then played on people's deeply held fear of government dependency.

While free trade is almost a religious imperative in today's America, independence from the government dole was the religion of Harrison's day.

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