Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Brief History of Welfare

I had a minor epiphany over the weekend. Checking back to The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, I recalled important information about welfare in the year 1000 in England.

The deal was that if you were starving you went to your lord and placed your head in his hands. He would then hand you a bill-hook, as a symbol of your servitude as his bondsman. It was called "head for food." You gave up your freedom for food and work.

So let's take a look at welfare down the ages, and let's start with the Roman Empire. In The Sources of Social Power, Michael Mann talks about the gradual decline of the peasants. The deal was that everyone was supposed to serve in the legions, but the problem was that as the demand for military service increased the peasant couldn't work his own land and serve in the military and provide his own weapons at the same time. So gradually the Romans started paying their soldiers for long service and supplying arms and armor.

Later on, the lower orders got hit by the slaves. The abundance of slaves meant that free men couldn't get work at decent wages. Also there was the little cultural problem common to both Greeks and Romans that free men didn't work for free men. No free man would work for another.

So that's why the Romans went for bread and circuses and the "anona" welfare system. The sturdy peasants were being slowly squeezed out of their landholdings and became concentrated into the cities where they were kept quiet with food and entertainment. Sound familiar?

Notice the difference with the feudal welfare system, where the lord accepted the risk proposition for the lives of his bondsmen. He took their work and fed them. Whether he made a profit on the deal was something else.

That something else was the agricultural revolution, which extended over several centuries in the middle of the last millennium. The agricultural revolution changed everything on the land. It resulted in Marx's famous declaration:
A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.” ...
The process of forcible expropriation of the people received in the 16th century a new and frightful impulse from the Reformation, and from the consequent colossal spoliation of the church property. The Catholic church was, at the time of the Reformation, feudal proprietor of a great part of the English land. The suppression of the monasteries, &c., hurled their inmates into the proletariat. The estates of the church were to a large extent given away to rapacious royal favourites, or sold at a nominal price to speculating farmers and citizens, who drove out, en masse, the hereditary sub-tenants and threw their holdings into one. The legally guaranteed property of the poorer folk in a part of the church’s tithes was tacitly confiscated.
 So we can see that the unfortunates "hurled" on the labor market were either useless "feudal retainers," the bondsmen and others that had placed their heads in the lands of the lords, or they were succored by the Church and its monasteries. The formal and informal arrangements that integrated the poor into feudal society were broken up. The agricultural revolution did for the retainers and Henry VIII did for the rest.

By the end of the 16th century things were getting pretty grim out in the countryside, so the politicians decided to "do something." What they "did" was the Elizabethan Poor Law. The Poor Law was cunning. It put the responsibility for relieving the poor on each parish. But since each parish was stuck with the bill, you can imagine that each parish was eager to move its poor on to the next parish.

Later, as Foucault relates in Madness and Civilization, we get the great confinement: in hospitals, schools, prisons, etc. And of course in the British workhouse. The point, I suspect, is that the wealth unleashed by the agricultural revolution provided the means to confine people that society didn't know what to do with: the poor and sick, the criminal, the young. And really, what is easier? Just lock 'em up if you can't figure out what else to do with them.

Ever since, welfare has shuttled between "outdoor relief," which is money for nothing, and "indoor relief" which means incarceration in the French hôpital, the British workhouse, the government child custodial facility, the prison, or penitentiary or reformatory or custodial facility. In all cases society is paying the poor and the feckless to go away and not bother us.

Now in the years of the Poor Law before the industrial revolution the poor were kept away from the cities and on the land. This was enforced by things like the guild system which prevented the poor from finding employment in the city. And it kept the poor out in the country where they could never achieve strategic concentration. So the ruling class and its supporters were on one side, and the poor on the other.

The industrial revolution changed this situation, because the industrial revolution brought the poor into the cities where they achieved strategic concentration. And the politics changed too. Instead of the poor being outside the system, a mere expense to the ruling class, they entered the political system and became a power player, or at least a source of votes for ambitious politicians. This meant that welfare was not longer an annoying expense for the ruling class; now welfare payments became a reward to the poor for supporting the ruling class.

My little epiphany last weekend was to realize the profound difference between welfare in the feudal age and welfare today. Then as now the ruling class obtained the loyalty of the poor by giving them food and free stuff. But in those days the ruling political class was also the ruling economic class. They gave food to the poor out of their own pockets, but they also got the poor to work -- although Marx's comment about "useless" retainers suggests that they weren't doing much useful work.

Our age is different. In our age the political class buys the support of the poor with an abundance of "free stuff." But the poor don't have to work for their relief. As Charles Murray shows in Coming Apart the bottom 30 percent of white adult males aren't too interested in work. About 30 percent of them are effectively out of the labor force. The difference between now and then is that now, the political class takes the money for the support of the poor by force from the economic sector. And it doesn't extract anything from the poor except their votes at election time.

Various reporters have noted that lack of employment is a killer in our society. It may be because humans need to be challenged by work in the world. It may also be that, as Eric Hoffer writes, our age is an age of work. It used to be that work was "viewed as a curse, a mark of bondage." But today work is the sign of worth and responsibility. No wonder that the unemployed are demoralized.

So maybe we have a possible solution to the 500 year Poor Law problem.

It is notable that in our society the people with limited appetite for risk find employment is large hierarchical bureaucratic institutions. In return for loyalty and a modicum of work, these big-company, big-government employees get security and pensions.

Why do we not apply the same logic to the poor? Put them to work in big corporations, with modest wages and modest work requirements. And the security that they crave.

And let's take the relief of the poor out of the political sector where the poor just become the pawns of the politicians as the politicians use them in their contemptible power games.

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