How the Welfare State Supplanted Christmas Cheer

Commentary, David Seymour, Poverty, Uncategorized

Christmas is now behind us, along with another seasonal wave of feel-good stories featuring voluntary charity. We’ve all read the stories: One community raised money for an ill mother requiring an operation; Churches across the country prepared meals to help the needy afford Christmas cheer; generous companies trumpeted their donations of presents to children who would have otherwise gone without. The federal government, meanwhile, was content to issue press statements claiming Canadian citizenship for Santa Claus.

Now is the time to reflect on some of the lessons we can learn from this outpouring of goodwill. Is there any reason the “Spirit of Christmas” cannot replace, or at least complement, sterile and banal public policy debates in the search for solutions to some of our intractable problems? Why should the normal run of things be banal public policy debates in the first place?

In 1860, Great Britain faced the same challenges Canada faces today, albeit in a much poorer and more prudish society. Differences in wealth and earning power were pitted against a humanitarian desire that all people have at least some basic level of dignity. Unemployment and illness brutally befell some but not others, for reasons that could not be anticipated. The conviction grew that Britain’s continuing ascent to superpower status was dependent on widespread literacy and numeracy, along with the belief that the education of millions of children would require a massive injection of resources.

Jonathan Bartholomew, in his book The Welfare State We’re In, relates how Victorians faced these challenges in a way contemporary Canadians glimpse only at Christmas time – that is, welfare without the welfare state.

Friendly Societies and Unions effectively acted as voluntary insurance collectives, doling out contributions from members made in good times during bad times. While schools were almost entirely private, in 1861 it was estimated that 95.5% of children attended, and this was probably an underestimation. As well, by 1865 99% of British Navy recruits were literate.

The friendly societies often employed doctors directly answerable to their patients who, as society members, were also their employers. Charitably-funded hospitals were making advances in research that would form the basis of modern healthcare. The average household contributed 10% of its income to charitable causes. In their voluntary and charitable approach to social welfare at least, the Victorians felt the Christmas Spirit every week.

It is good to remember, as well, that, compared to us, Victorians were unimaginably poor. Workers midway through the industrial revolution produced about as much wealth in a year as modern Canadians do in a fortnight. Imagine if someone from the Victorian era could be revived today: what would she think of a world where people are 30 times wealthier, yet contribute only 1% of their income to charity, rather than the 10% she is used to, where 0.5% truancy rates seem an impossible goal, and ordinary citizens feel that the fight against poverty is someone else’s responsibility? What happened, she would ask?

The welfare state happened. Following the lead of other countries (yes, Canada has been a late adopter of the welfare state), Canadian governments have taxed its citizens out of the means and the moral obligation to help others, imposing their own programs instead.

For example, the Northwest Territories Act of 1875 established a ruling Council that, despite initial reluctance, gradually warmed to the government’s role in funding and managing Prairie education. Today non-government education is a luxury only the rich can enjoy. In 1962 Saskatchewan adopted a state monopoly health system based on the British National Health Service of 1944, completely expunging healthcare of any community involvement. Nowadays every anomaly in income statistics is seen as a niche for some sort of program. After our southern neighbours declared a war on poverty, we followed. As one not-too-cynical pundit lamented, we declared war and poverty won.

Despite hundreds of billions spent on government programs, poverty has endured during the most prosperous era in human history. Disgruntled citizens castigate all three levels of government for their health, education and income security programs which are not serving their needs, needs which a one-week-a-year rediscovery of community spirit effectively alleviates. But lobby groups continue to express the opinion that just a little bit more government power and spending will solve the problem.

Times such as Christmas can reveal that there are other answers to our problems. At Christmas we glimpse welfare without the welfare state. By comparing the welfare state as a cold interloper against a much warmer order that once worked, a much more imaginative welfare and poverty debate becomes possible.