There are numerous reasons why forced redistribution of wealth by the state is both immoral and counterproductive. For the downside view of the government welfare state, seeWhat about the poor?

Understanding the problem, however, does not satisfy us; we want to know how the most urgent needs of the poor can be met without the state extorting money from everyone else. Doubtless, if the state stopped picking the taxpayers’ pockets for welfare monies, those pockets would be in better shape to help those in need. The elimination of regulations that prevent people from working will also decrease the need for assistance. See here and here.

Even so, we ask: Will charitable giving, by individuals, churches and other humanitarian organizations, be sufficient to handle every need without a state to carry the load? The answer may lie as much in the past as in the future.

Americans have always had to cope with sickness, disability, crop failures, and other misfortunes. Increasingly, a bloated state has stepped in to relieve such adversities, all at tremendous cost, waste and loss of independence and personal dignity. Our distant ancestors—for whom the coercive welfare state did not yet exist—dealt with such misfortune through voluntary associations.

In 1835, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about how Americans in the early 1800s—unlike Frenchmen—were able to accomplish things without government. Forgive the length of the quote, but Tocqueville really nails this:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” . . . .

“It is easy to foresee that the time is drawing near when man will be less and less able to produce, by himself alone, the commonest necessaries of life. The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other. Will the administration of the country ultimately assume the management of all the manufactures which no single citizen is able to carry on? And if a time at length arrives when, in consequence of the extreme subdivision of landed property, the soil is split into an infinite number of parcels, so that it can be cultivated only by companies of tillers will it be necessary that the head of the government should leave the helm of state to follow the plow? The morals and the intelligence of a democratic people would be as much endangered as its business and manufactures if the government ever wholly usurped the place of private companies.”

Mutual aid societies

Voluntary associations were the key to social progress in 19th-century America. American churches have always been enormous providers of aid to the poor, but other kinds of mutual benefit societies became even more important in providing economical means for protecting members and their families. In 1787, two former slaves founded The Free African Society in Philadelphia so that even the poorest people in America could come together . . .

for the benefit of each other, to advance one shilling in silver Pennsylvania currency a month; and after one year’s subscription from the date hereof, then to hand forth to the needy of this Society, if any should require, the sum of three shillings and nine pence per week of the said money: provided, this necessity is not brought on them by their own imprudence.

Many more such voluntary associations would follow. The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882 as a mutual benefit society of Catholic men with the purpose of rendering financial aid to members and their families. Mutual aid and assistance were provided to sick, disabled and needy members and their families. A year later, the Modern Woodmen of America began as a fraternal benefit society for the same purpose. These and other organizations were a common fixture in American life before government eventually—in Tocqueville’s words—“usurped the place” of private initiative.

We cannot say how people in a completely free society will provide for themselves, their families and their neighbors. Voluntary mutual benefit associations may once again flourish and find new ways to ensure the welfare of their members.

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