Issue #32, Spring 2014

The Voluntarism Fantasy

Conservatives dream of returning to a world where private charity fulfilled all public needs. But that world never existed—and we’re better for it.

Ideology is as much about understanding the past as shaping the future. And conservatives tell themselves a story, a fairy tale really, about the past, about the way the world was and can be again under Republican policies. This story is about the way people were able to insure themselves against the risks inherent in modern life. Back before the Great Society, before the New Deal, and even before the Progressive Era, things were better. Before government took on the role of providing social insurance, individuals and private charity did everything needed to insure people against the hardships of life; given the chance, they could do it again.

This vision has always been implicit in the conservative ascendancy. It existed in the 1980s, when President Reagan announced, “The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern,” and called for voluntarism to fill in the yawning gaps in the social safety net. It was made explicit in the 1990s, notably through Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, a treatise hailed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and William Bennett, which argued that a purely private nineteenth-century system of charitable and voluntary organizations did a better job providing for the common good than the twentieth-century welfare state. This idea is also the basis of Paul Ryan’s budget, which seeks to devolve and shrink the federal government at a rapid pace, lest the safety net turn “into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” It’s what Utah Senator Mike Lee references when he says that the “alternative to big government is not small government” but instead “a voluntary civil society.” As conservatives face the possibility of a permanent Democratic majority fueled by changing demographics, they understand that time is running out on their cherished project to dismantle the federal welfare state.

But this conservative vision of social insurance is wrong. It’s incorrect as a matter of history; it ignores the complex interaction between public and private social insurance that has always existed in the United States. It completely misses why the old system collapsed and why a new one was put in its place. It fails to understand how the Great Recession displayed the welfare state at its most necessary and that a voluntary system would have failed under the same circumstances. Most importantly, it points us in the wrong direction. The last 30 years have seen effort after effort to try and push the policy agenda away from the state’s capabilities and toward private mechanisms for mitigating the risks we face in the world. This effort is exhausted, and future endeavors will require a greater, not lesser, role for the public.

Beyond the need to deflate the imaginary landscape of the contemporary right, there’s also a need for liberals to reform their project. Liberals need to reclaim the public. Liberals need to be able to articulate that the welfare state succeeded in exactly the ways that the private insurance system failed in the Great Depression. Patchy and spotty as it is, today’s welfare state backstopped the economy during the Great Recession, and is still capable of providing broad security for the American people.

It also requires liberals to argue for their own definition of charity, based on the equality that can thrive when the public manages the risks we face, rather than the inequality that’s bred by a private form of dependency. As President Truman said in a 1946 radio address to kick off the annual fundraising campaign of the Community Chest, the predecessor to today’s United Way:

I like the campaign slogan this year: Everybody Gives, Everybody Benefits. It marks a significant change in our thinking about the word “charity.” Today our contributions to the Community Chest are not alms given by the wealthy few to the poor. This Government, through its public welfare program, has long since accepted its responsibility to see that no citizen need face hunger, unemployment, or a destitute old age. The word “charity” has regained its old, true meaning—that of good will toward one’s fellowman; of brotherhood, of mutual help, of love.

The state does many things, but this essay will focus specifically on its role in providing social insurance against the risks we face. Specifically, we’ll look at what the progressive economist and actuary I.M. Rubinow described in 1934 as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job. These are the four horsemen that ride roughshod over lives and fortunes of millions of wage workers of every modern industrial community.” These were the same evils that Truman singled out in his speech. And these are the ills that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food assistance, and our other public systems of social insurance set out to combat in the New Deal and Great Society.

Over the past 30 years the public role in social insurance has taken a backseat to the idea that private institutions will expand to cover these risks. Yet our current system of workplace private insurance is rapidly falling apart. In its wake, we’ll need to make a choice between an expanded role for the state or a fantasy of voluntary protection instead. We need to understand why this voluntary system didn’t work in the first place to make the case for the state’s role in fighting the Four Horsemen.

Social Insurance before the Great Depression

One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.

This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world.

The government’s footprint has always grown alongside the rest of society. The public post office helped unite the national civil society Alexis de Tocqueville found and celebrated in his travels throughout the United States. From tariff walls to the continental railroad system to the educated workforce coming out of land-grant schools, the budding industrial power of the United States was always joined with the growth of the government. The government played a major role throughout the nineteenth century in providing disaster relief in the aftermath of fires, floods, storms, droughts, famine, and more.

Business risk management through the law was crucial in building out this nineteenth-century capitalist economy. The limited liability corporation, for instance, allowed for a massive expansion of passive investments, which provided necessary working capital for business. Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard University, called this “the most effective legal invention for business purposes made in the nineteenth century.” Bankruptcy laws were introduced in the wake of nineteenth-century economic crises to allocate losses and help the economy move forward.

As for social insurance specifically, the historian Michael Katz has documented that there has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century. During this period, these issues were usually dealt with through questions of “settlement.” A community had a responsibility to provide relief to its own needy, native members, defined as those who had a settlement there. This became increasingly difficult with an industrialized society, as people moved to and fro looking for work and were forced out of communities when they couldn’t find any.

The next major initiative was the construction of poorhouses by state governments, especially in the early nineteenth century. The central idea was that by forcing people in need of aid to live in poorhouses where living conditions were quite harsh, there would be fewer applicants. This ended up not being the case, as able-bodied people would still seek out these poorhouses, especially when work was slack and unemployment high. Worse, these institutions became the default support for orphans, the mentally ill, and the elderly without income or family to support them.

As the political scientist Theda Skocpol has documented, there were also multiple examples of state-issued social insurance programs before the New Deal. In the wake of the Civil War, Congress established an elaborate system of pensions for veterans. At its height in 1910, this de facto disability and old-age pension system delivered benefits to more than 25 percent of all American men over 65, accounting for a quarter of the federal government’s expenditures. Between 1911 and 1920, 40 states passed laws establishing “mothers’ pensions” for single women with children. These programs provided payments for needy widowed mothers in order to allow them to provide for their children.

But there did exist a system of voluntary social insurance during the turn of the century. In From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, historian David Beito writes that there were thousands of fraternal societies across America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These societies were organized by religion, ethnicity, and other similar affiliations. They were also the most common provider of insurance and relief before the New Deal. In general, they would cover funeral costs and provide some sick pay. These were particularly important for low-wage workers, and played a bigger role in insurance than charity or welfare institutions. Politically and socially fragmented, they played no part in calling for a public role in social insurance. These institutions continue to be a focus of celebration for conservatives.

But there were a few major problems with these societies. The first was that they were regionally segregated and isolated. These forms of insurance didn’t exist in places without dense cities, industry, or deep ethnic and immigrant communities. Even in states with large cities and thriving industries like California and New York, only 30 percent of workers had some sort of health-care coverage through fraternal methods. Moreover, the programs were fragmented and provided only partial insurance.

Also, these were programs designed for working men—for the most part, they did not cover women. Health insurance contracts, for example, were explicit in not providing for coverage of pregnancy, childbirth, or child care (seen as women’s responsibilities at the time). The doctors the lodges hired were often seen as providing substandard care. And most of these societies had age limits. Those over 45 were generally ruled out, and those that weren’t were charged higher rates. Those already in poor health were excluded through medical examinations. There were maximum and minimum limits on benefits, and as a result, long-term disability wasn’t covered. As late as 1930, old-age benefits represented just 2.3 percent of social benefits given out by fraternal organizations. Thus, though they were pervasive throughout this time period, they never provided more than a sliver of actual, robust social insurance. As the Russell Sage Foundation concluded at the time, private societies stand “as a tangible expression of a keenly felt need, a feeble instrument for performing a duty beyond its own powers.”

That need was partly what gave rise to the Progressive movement. Private charity simply didn’t have the breadth and depth necessary to truly respond to the Four Horsemen in this industrializing era, and Progressives saw a greater role for government to address these ills.

One reason Progressives looked to the state to provide social insurance was that it was seen as necessarily compulsory. By making it universal, low-wage workers could be included. Also, forcing employers to participate was fair because they would directly benefit from such coverage. As Rubinow argued, American workers “must learn to see they have a right to force at least part of the cost and waste of sickness back upon the industry and society at large, and they can do it only when they demand that the state use its power and authority to help them, indirectly at least, with as much vigor as it has come to the assistance of the business interests.” Because of all this, insurance had a direct public purpose, and should in turn be publicly provided.

Progressives’ original argument for social insurance also wasn’t a matter of simple redistribution. Instead they saw social insurance as having a public interest. Insurance to protect against poverty, disease, unemployment, and the other risks of life would benefit both individuals and the greater public. Progressives argued that all parties have a stake in the efficient provision of insurance.

The Progressive movement made some initial strides, including a system of workers’ compensation laws. But social insurance had trouble going beyond this point. Efforts to pass public health care failed at the state level, notably in New York, as they were opposed by some labor interests, business interests, and physicians. Historians debate what was responsible for the lack of movement on public insurance, arguing over what mixture of the individualistic ethic, the weakness of the labor movement, the power of corporate elites, the shortcomings of public bureaucracies, and hostility to patronage politics was to blame. Regardless of the reason, the United States would have to wait until the Great Depression for a full public role to evolve.

Social Insurance and the New Deal

If the Progressive movement helped shrink the elaborate system of voluntary fraternal societies, the Great Depression all but killed it. The Great Depression had a one-two-three punch that made it uniquely able to destroy this private infrastructure of support. The demand for income support skyrocketed at exactly the moment the Depression decreased the supply of private aid. And the usual way that workers dealt with bad times—to increase the amount of hours they worked—was not an option in a time of mass unemployment.

Informal networks of local support, from churches to ethnic affiliations, were all overrun in the Great Depression. Ethnic benefit societies, building and loan associations, fraternal insurance policies, bank accounts, and credit arrangements all had major failure rates. All of the fraternal insurance societies that had served as anchors of their communities in the 1920s either collapsed or had to pull back on their services due to high demand and dwindling resources. Beyond the fact that insurance wasn’t available, this had major implications for spending, as moneylending as well as benefits for sickness and injuries were reduced.

The Hoover Administration’s initial response to the Great Depression was to supplement private aid without creating the type of permanent public social insurance programs that would arise in the New Deal. Hoover’s goal was to maintain, in the words of the historian Ellis Hawley, a “nonstatist alternative to atomistic individualism, the romantic images of voluntarism as more truly democratic than any government action, and the optimistic assessments of the private sector’s capacity for beneficial governmental action.” As President Hoover said in 1931, much like conservatives do today, any response to the economic crisis must “maintain the spirit of charity and mutual self-help through voluntary giving” in order for him to support it.

Noble as that goal may be, it failed. The more Hoover leaned on private agencies, the more resistance he found. Private firms and industry did not want to play the role that the government assigned them, and even those that did found it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out those responsibilities. The Red Cross, for instance, did not want to move beyond providing disaster relief. Other groups, like the Association of Community Chests and Councils, had no interest in trying to coordinate funds at a national, rather than local, level. Hoover understood that private charity wasn’t getting to rural areas, yet private charities couldn’t be convinced to meet these needs.

He later backtracked, creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide emergency credit to hard-pressed relief agencies as well as banks and railroads. However, these loans were not made available until early 1933. Hoover, in Hawley’s words, allowed for the New Deal to emerge because of his “reluctance to recognize that the private sector was inherently incapable of meeting the demand for social services on its own.”

What’s most worth noting is that, in the end, both beneficiaries of fraternal societies and private charities themselves welcomed this transition. During the Great Depression, citizens, especially the range of white ethnic communities in the largest cities, watched as mass unemployment tore down institution after institution. From fraternal societies to banks to charities, the web of private institutions was no match for the Great Depression.

As documented in Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal, these white ethnic communities turned to the New Deal to provide the baseline of security that their voluntary societies were unable to offer during a deep recession. As a result of the implosion of the voluntary societies they depended upon, working-class families looked to the government and unions for protections against unstable banks and the risks of the Four Horsemen.

This transition is also seen in the private charities of the time. Take a 1934 treatise by Linton Swift, a leader of the Family Welfare Association of America (FWAA), an umbrella group for hundreds of voluntary social service agencies. The FWAA was also a vehicle for resisting public efforts to deal with poverty and relief before the Great Depression. The FWAA and other community groups opposed public relief for the poor out of worries that political patronage machines might be built out of it. They were also concerned they’d lose their ability to stigmatize—or to protect—various populations; by playing a role in determining who wasn’t deserving of assistance, they could shield those they felt worthy of their support. Public assistance, they worried, would stigmatize everyone.

But its outlook had changed dramatically by 1934. As Swift wrote in the beginning of his book, “there is now a general recognition of the primary responsibility of local, state, and national government for the relief of unemployment and similar types of need.” This isn’t a surprise. FWAA member institutions found that their caseloads jumped roughly 200 percent between January 1929 and January 1930. It wasn’t just Swift; as Josephine Brown, who was originally a social worker but later joined the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, wrote in 1939, “During the first two years, 1929-1931, the private family agencies made a valiant attempt to carry staggering loads and, under the greatest pressure, to justify the faith of their leaders in the superiority of their methods over those of the public ‘dole’ system… [but by 1931] it was so obvious that unemployment relief had to be public.”

Note that Swift’s statement wasn’t the same as saying that there was no longer a need for private charity. On the contrary, he argued that the voluntary private sector would “meet human needs not yet recognized by a majority of the public as vital or meriting community support.” Charities would now look to the welfare state to take care of absolute poverty and the broad conditions of social insurance, while charities could fill in targeted, narrow, yet important gaps in this broad baseline of coverage.

This is precisely what they did in the decades after the Great Depression. As the historian Andrew Morris describes in The Limits of Voluntarism, FWAA members began adding the term “service” to their titles, as well as “welfare,” both of which suggested character-building enterprises. There were also extensive moves into marriage counseling, and other ways to supplement civil life outside of providing bare necessities. Rather than simply crowding out private charity, the welfare state allowed it to evolve and become more targeted. There would be a new arrangement between the public and the private sector, with the public taking on the heavy weight that the private sector could no longer bear.

Why Public Insurance Is Better

With this history in hand, it’s worth teasing out a general theory of why the voluntary sector has limits in providing social insurance that the state does not. Economics as a field has theorized extensively about the concept of market failures, or moments when markets don’t allocate resources efficiently. It has also described government failures, particularly in the libertarian-influenced “public choice” theory. This focus on markets and governments leaves the study of the voluntary sector under-theorized. In turn, this lack of critical attention leads to assumptions that the voluntary sector can solve problems it cannot.

But the Great Recession offers the perfect case study in why the voluntary sector can’t solve these problems. If people like Mike Lee are correct, then the start of the Great Recession would have been precisely the moment when private charity would have stepped up. But in fact, private giving fell as the Great Recession started. Overall giving fell 7 percent in 2008, with another 6.2 percent drop in 2009. There was only a small uptick in 2010 and 2011, even though unemployment remained very high. Giving also fell as a percentage of GDP (even as GDP shrank), from 2.1 percent in 2008 to 2.0 percent in 2009 through 2011. (The high point was 2.3 percent in 2005.)

As research by Robert Reich and Christopher Wimer showed, the decline occurred with all sources and hit almost all types of nonprofits. Individuals gave 8 percent less in 2008 than the previous year, and their giving dropped an additional 3.6 percent in 2009. Charitable bequests fell 21 percent overall between 2008 and 2010. Contributions by corporations fell in 2008, and only slowly increased afterwards. Foundations also gave less in the Great Recession even though they have legal payout and operating rules to follow that would presumably put a floor on this.

There were some bright spots—giving to food banks, for instance, increased. But as the economy went from free fall in 2008 to stagnation in 2010, private charity still remained depressed. Worse, as a wave of austerity hit state and local governments—with large retrenchment in spending and layoffs of public-sector workers—the state pushed harder on private charity to pick up the slack of social work.

Why didn’t this sting as badly as it could have? Because of the role the federal government played. “Automatic stabilizers,” a key policy innovation of the welfare state, were there to pick up the slack. Automatic stabilizers are policies such as unemployment insurance and food assistance that maintain an income floor and security for people, which allows for more spending when an economy goes into a recession. This ability to boost purchasing power automatically is a major, effective response to a recession. These stabilizers, in turn, also decline automatically as the economy starts to recover.

During 2009, while private charity collapsed, automatic stabilizers expanded rapidly, from 0.1 percent of GDP to 2.2 percent of GDP—or a number roughly akin to all charitable giving in the United States. This was directly targeted at areas that suffered from the most unemployment, and helped those most in need—efforts that, as we’ve seen, private charity does only partially. As Goldman Sachs economists concluded, this shift made a crucial difference, and, alongside the government’s efforts to prevent the collapse of the banking sector and the Federal Reserve’s expansion of monetary policy, was a core reason the Great Recession didn’t become a second Great Depression.

With this in mind, we can examine why voluntary efforts fail consistently. Despite the general under-theorizing of the voluntary sector, the scholar Lester Salamon in the 1980s did build a theory of “voluntary failures” to contrast with market and government failures. There are three parts to the theory that especially stand out in the wake of the Great Recession.

The first is what Salamon describes as philanthropic insufficiency. This occurs when the voluntary sector can’t generate enough resources to provide social insurance at a sufficient scale, which, as noted, is exactly what happened in 2008. There is also the problem here of geographic coverage. As Hoover discovered, charity will exist in some places more abundantly than in others; the government has the ability to provide a more universal baseline of coverage.

But it isn’t just about the business cycle. A second issue Salamon identified is philanthropic particularism. Private charity has a tendency to focus only on specific groups, particularly groups that are considered either “deserving” or similar in-groups. Indeed, in one telling, this is the entire point of private charity. The largest single category of charitable giving in the United States goes not to caring for the poor but for the sustenance of religious institutions (at 32 percent of donations). Using very generous assumptions, Indiana University’s Center for Philanthropy finds that only one-third of charitable giving actually goes to the poor. Almost by definition, there will be people who need access to social insurance who will be left out of such targeted giving.

The third element of voluntary failure relevant here is philanthropic paternalism. Instead of charity representing a purely spontaneous response by civil society, or a community of equals responding to issues in the commons, there is, in practice, a disproportionate amount of power that rests in the hands of those with the greatest resources. This narrow control of charitable resources, in turn, channels aid toward the interests and needs of those who already hold large amounts of power. Prime examples of this voluntary failure can be seen in the amount of charitable giving that goes to political advocacy, or to elite colleges in order to help secure admission for already privileged children, even as the needs of the truly desperate go unmet.

At a basic level, much of our elite charitable giving is about status signaling, especially in donations to elite cultural and educational institutions. And much of it is also about political mobilization to pursue objectives favorable to rich elites. As the judge Richard Posner once wrote, a charitable foundation “is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody” that closely resembles a hereditary monarchy. Why would we put our entire society’s ability to manage the deadly risks we face in the hands of such a creature?

Everybody Gives, Everybody Benefits

The United States’ social insurance system has always been a public-private hybrid. Over the last 30 years, there’s been a significant political movement dedicated to reducing the role of the public, hoping that a purely private world of social insurance would replace it.

But this private world of social insurance is cracking in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the changing economy. According to the Census, employer-based health-care coverage declined from 64 percent of the workforce in 1997 to 56 percent in 2010. Private savings vehicles don’t look capable of preventing poverty in old age, with the typical 401(k) holding under $13,000 in 2008. Instead, they seem more a way of showering tax benefits on the already well off, with 80 percent of the tax breaks for 401(k)s and IRAs going to the richest 20 percent of Americans, and only 7 percent going to the bottom 60 percent. And more immediately, private charitable giving failed to face the challenge of the Great Recession.

This brings us back to President Truman’s vision of true charity. The public’s role in combating the Four Horsemen by providing for social insurance doesn’t kill private charity. It allows it to fully thrive. It enables private charity to respond with targeted and nimble aid for individuals and communities, rather than shouldering the huge, cumbersome burden of alleviating the income insecurities of a modern age. A public social insurance state gives every individual the security necessary to take risks, which enriches both our economy and our society. And it also establishes a baseline of equality and solidarity among all citizens, so that charity enhances the lives of the less fortunate instead of forcing them to rely on those with money and luck.

The policy will flow from these commitments. As private pensions become extinct, and 401(k)s and other saving vehicles show they aren’t up to the challenge of securing our retirement, expanding Social Security to fill this gap will be a necessary step. Because the federal government is better suited to meeting these needs than the states, federalizing both Medicaid and unemployment insurance should also be considered a plank in this policy platform. The federal government can control costs better with its leverage than can individual states; it would make for a more solid backstop in weak economic times; and it would free the states of one of their biggest (and fastest-rising) costs. If SNAP or unemployment benefits had been block-granted into entirely state-level programs, as conservatives wanted to do, there’s no way they could have managed the burden of the Great Recession.

But social insurance isn’t just a collection of programs. It’s a reflection of who we are and how we intend to navigate the risks of a modern age. Contrary to the idealized imaginings of conservatives, the Four Horsemen of accident, illness, old age, and joblessness won’t be—and have never been—fended off with purely private means. Only a vigorous public response, rooted in Truman’s vision of charity, can ensure our safe passage into a prosperous future.


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Issue #32, Spring 2014
Post a Comment


Excellent treatment of a complex topic. I'm sharing it with all my politically minded personal and social media friends.

While they may not admit it out loud, I believe I will never lose another argument with the no/small government believers.

Thanks Mike!

Mar 18, 2014, 10:19 AM

Fascinating article. Two quick points/questions though. First, has the ACA and the public-private model it enshrines changed (or will change) our nation's perceptions about social insurance? The ACA is the first social insurance scheme in the US that employs a public-private approach at the individual level and I wonder whether there will be a demand for other programs to follow this model. Second, I think it is important to note that the social insurance system planned during the New Deal remains incomplete. We all know about the trials and travails of the health insurance fight. But there were also plans to provide income support for persons who were injured or became sick off the job (temporary disability). Only five states have those programs now -- not coincidentally, that group of five states includes the only three states to have family leave insurance as well.

Mar 18, 2014, 2:00 PM
Chris Gay:

Excellent article, but you muffed the first reference to Mike Lee.

Mar 18, 2014, 9:20 PM
Richard J. Castro/San Diego:

Bravo! and Here! Here!
I agree with your observations and conclusions. Keep the Faith and best wishes.

Mar 19, 2014, 1:14 AM
Natasha Petrova:

"One reason Progressives looked to the state to provide social insurance was that it was seen as necessarily compulsory."

So you support the initation of force, violence, compulsion, and coercion against people who have not themselves used said methods aggressively? Lovely

Mar 19, 2014, 1:18 AM

zZZZzzzzzz...... Thunk!
I dozed off and fell off of my chair.

Mar 19, 2014, 1:47 AM
DB Cooper:

Um..ok. You used nothing but circular reasoning and appeals to "authority" as well as appeal to force, ie "we will get what we demand and use government violence and jails via the tax code to get it".

Nothing in this whine-fest changes my mind about the need to eliminate the government.

I'm only responsible for myself and my family, not you. Take care of your damn self. Nothing in your rhetoric "proves" that I am somehow responsible for anyone else.

In other words: piss off.

Mar 19, 2014, 11:35 AM
fuller schmidt:

OK DB - you either didn't read the essay or like Natasha didn't understand what you read. There was only an appeal to research not authority in it, and humorously, only you circled your own thoughts.

Mar 19, 2014, 1:01 PM

Wow, we have a lot of anarchists commenting today. You might want to try living in a failed state--there are a few--before calling for dissolution of the government.

Mar 19, 2014, 1:20 PM

The point about donations to churches is bizarre. What do you imagine churches actually do with much of their donated funds? Some churches are obviously better than others on this front, but to not even acknowledge the point is truly mystifying.

Mar 19, 2014, 1:24 PM

Shorter DB Cooper,,,I'm a selfish bastard

Mar 19, 2014, 1:36 PM
Jim Krollemski:

Dear Mike Konczal,

I very much enjoyed your article. It is a good argument as to why socializing basic charity is a logical and scientific solution to the problems of public needs that have never been privately met throughout history.

However (you saw this coming, right?), what you have done is describe how some people have historically fought against helping their fellow human beings, but you do not appear to address the actual motives behind their actions.
You do mention some justifications that have been used in the past, but you also appear to take them at face value.

Perhaps you did not intend to take it that far in arguing against what they are doing, and so I shouldn't complain because you didn't want to write a book about it.
If so, that's fine with me.
I'm just saying that taking other people at face value is a very naive thing to do if you have the leisure to do otherwise.

Mar 19, 2014, 1:45 PM
Fred Fnord:

Natasha: private property is force. If I walk on your lawn, that's not aggression against your person. If you shoot me for walking on your lawn, that is. Thus, you can't justify defense of private property, and yet object to taxation. Well, you can if you're a libertarian: it just requires putting up with constant punishing cognitive dissonance.

Cooper: Fortunately for you, society can absorb a small number of sociopaths such as yourself without being destroyed by them. You function as parasites, though, and the more of you there are, the more society is damaged. The end game is either Russia (where you are beaten into line) or Somalia (where you've won, congrats! Hope you enjoy the life expectancy.)

Mar 19, 2014, 2:15 PM

The following forms the foundation of this argument:

"It fails to understand how the Great Recession displayed the welfare state at its most necessary and that a voluntary system would have failed under the same circumstances. "

There are so many Disney-like assumptions made in this one sentence narrative (and those assumption weren't proved in this article in any way).

Mar 19, 2014, 8:22 PM
The Tragically Flip:


"So you support the initation of force, violence, compulsion, and coercion against people who have not themselves used said methods aggressively? Lovely"

Denying society its due by shirking on taxes is theft. Enforcement of laws against thieves is entirely appropriate.

Mar 19, 2014, 10:01 PM

@Douglas--you have to actually read past the third paragraph to find all that proof you insist isn't in the article.

Mar 20, 2014, 12:51 PM
Natasha Petrova:

The Tragically Flip,

From whence does this organicst collectivist rendering of society as a social super organism derive its due? It's not theft, because you have no duty or obligationt or render it. You did not take anything that legitimately belongs to someone else.

Mar 20, 2014, 3:39 PM
Natasha Petrova:

"K DB - you either didn't read the essay or like Natasha didn't understand what you read. There was only an appeal to research not authority in it, and humorously, only you circled your own thoughts."

I perfectly understand what compulsory means.

"Wow, we have a lot of anarchists commenting today. You might want to try living in a failed state--there are a few--before calling for dissolution of the government. "

A failed state is not of necessity an anarchy. Not all anarchies are desirable and neither are all governments. That doesn't mean a desirable anarchy is not possible. Somalia has also done better on certain indicators in its post-state phase than during its state phase. See this study:

"Natasha: private property is force. If I walk on your lawn, that's not aggression against your person. If you shoot me for walking on your lawn, that is. Thus, you can't justify defense of private property, and yet object to taxation. Well, you can if you're a libertarian: it just requires putting up with constant punishing cognitive dissonance."

I don't know of any libertarian who thinks you can use force against someone who merely walks on your lawn. I am not opposed to all force. I said aggressive force was my concern.

Mar 20, 2014, 4:21 PM

Enlightened anarchy is a mere fantasy. In reality, when organized government collapses, the power vacuum is filled by the worst possible elements: violent religious fanatics, organized crime, or whichever gang has the most guns. Over time, if this structure survives, it too will become a government... but it will take a long time for any civil liberties to return.

You make an interesting point about positive indicators in Somalia, but what really matters is the big picture: no one wants to live there.

In the end, I believe that most people who express anti-government opinions are ultimately voicing their dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of representative government. And it's true, our democracy has a lot of flaws. But that doesn't mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Mar 20, 2014, 8:12 PM
Richard Harrington:

That straw man is pretty easy to knock over...

The article confuses anarchists with a very narrow definition of conservative thought.

It is the equivalent saying, "All liberals are fascists".

Mar 20, 2014, 8:27 PM
Phil H:


"I don't know of any libertarian who thinks you can use force against someone who merely walks on your lawn."
That's just naive. Many libertarians get very hot under the collar about their supposed right to protect their "property." Maybe you are a particularly enlightened libertarian, but you have to accept that many are not.

"Not all anarchies are desirable and neither are all governments. That doesn't mean a desirable anarchy is not possible."
Granted, but by what means would you steer a society towards a desirable state rather than an undesirable one? Any effort to do so is likely to end up being called "government," isn't it?

Mar 20, 2014, 10:28 PM
Donald Sherer:

The biggest problem with "everybody gives,everybody benefits" is that everybody does not give and everybody does not benefit.The authors use of "progressive" as a substitute for "socialist" or "communist" is great word play. He is correct however that Republicans don't have a clue about what is going on.

Mar 21, 2014, 11:17 AM

So sorry Mike Konczal. I know that you really want to have your cake and eat it too...but you really can't have it both ways. If you agree with Samuelson that people want a free lunch...then you can't trust their superficial signals when it comes to public goods. If you disagree with Samuelson that people want a free lunch...then you must agree that taxes should be voluntary.

Mar 21, 2014, 3:25 PM

People (especially rich people) are too evil and selfish and want to keep their own money for themselves. Enlightened Progressives need to take their money by force and hand it out to our pets, "the poor", who are too feckless to look after themselves. Shame on the Republican anarchists and their justification for selfishness. Remember: the public IS the state. though it might not look that way! Keep the faith, brothers.

Mar 21, 2014, 5:10 PM
allen sanford:

The solution to the socioeconomic problems in this country can be found at...

Mar 21, 2014, 7:08 PM

While an interesting bit of history, its also a bit of a straw man:

1.) Nobody today is arguing for ZERO government involvement. Nobody. It's questionable if anyone actually ever did. The question isn't "whether or not to have Social Insurance", but how to make it actually work, and sustainable.

2.) Saying that local municipalities and states provided charity as proof of national social welfare programs being superior really doesn't understand the case others make. They argue for subsidarity, which doesn't say government has no role, just that local governments (from the family, to social instutitons, to finally local and regional legislative government) have a role to play in charity, and those local roles should be respected.

Now you can say that people don't follow the philosophy they advocate perfectly, but nobody does, whether socialists like Mr. Konzcal, just as no libertarian calls for utter and total liberty for his newborn infant. In short, you fire up the already convinced.

Far better to show why increased localized control of social insurance is a bad idea, since there are actually people out there talking about that.

Mar 21, 2014, 8:29 PM

"Nobody today is arguing for ZERO government involvement. Nobody. It's questionable if anyone actually ever did."

What? Unless I'm missing something, basically every Libertarian I know and read is calling for exactly zero government involvement.

I mean, word for word from the Libertarian Party website:
"We should eliminate the entire social welfare system. This includes eliminating food stamps, subsidized housing, and all the rest. Individuals who are unable to fully support themselves and their families through the job market must, once again, learn to rely on supportive family, church, community, or private charity to bridge the gap."

Which is exactly what this article is about.

Fire up the already convinced? Doesn't every political article do that? Doesn't it also fire up the unconvinced?

Mar 22, 2014, 1:03 AM
Don Watkins:

Since I've been a vocal proponent of the idea that the voluntary system before the welfare state worked, I decided to write an in-depth reply to this article. Part 1 is now available:

Mar 24, 2014, 1:29 PM
Billy Beck:

It doesn't matter what your problem is: you have no moral warrant to force me or anyone else to help you solve it.

You're going to find that to be true, sooner or later.

I will not help you.

Now; do your worst.

Mar 24, 2014, 3:54 PM
Joseph J Dunn:

This article has some fact errors. Red Cross was heavily involved in unemployment relief, as reported in its 1932 Annual Report. Also, donations to Community Chests and local unemployment relief funds grew dramatically 1930-33. The problem was the downward spiral in unemployment rate to 25% in 1933, which overcame the fraternal societies and private relief efforts. As to 2008-2009, when donations did fall, let's remeber, as Konczal notes, the government and not private charity were expected to deal with unemployment relief--a legacy of the New Deal. Donations to food drives did increase, and I suspect other efforts focused on aid to the poor did also. Total donations fell off in 2008-09, but as Konczal notes, much of modern charity is to the arts, colleges, etc., not to poor relief and certainly not to unemployment relief. So one cannot build a case from any of this that private chgarity falls apart when most needed to combat unemployment.

Mar 29, 2014, 3:06 PM

Very informative essay. I like how you address the either/or fallacy in the conclusion. Private charity and public social programs don't have to be at odds. We can do both!

Mar 31, 2014, 1:10 PM

Well as Franklin note - we must all hang together or we will surely all hang separately ...

Apr 3, 2014, 12:28 PM
Jinm Senbter:

Reply to Mr. Dunn

No one said that private coluntary efforts did not exist. Yes. the Red Cross, the Community Chest did everything they could. The point is, then as now, private charities simply could not keep up with the demand for services. The need outstripped private efforts to address it. The organizational and financial powers of the government were required to meet the challenge.

Apr 9, 2014, 9:01 AM
Diane H. Fabian:

A couple of less-addressed points:The general public is less informed about these issues today than in the past. Welfare was repealed, not reformed. The poor with barriers to employment, and those without minor children, were simply dumped. Existing services (serving as a temp help agency) are for the most employable. Years of anti-poor propaganda (via media) was used to turn public opinion against the poor, ensuring that there would be no private charity for those who were dumped. The US has spent years cutting benefits and phasing out services, deeply damaging the welfare system's ability to address poverty, then declared that welfare was a "failed system." We shipped out a massive portion of our working class jobs since the 1980s, creating a "surplus population." Nevertheless, Bill Clinton declared that "there is NO excuse" for long-term joblessness (something that many on UI today appear to dispute). By this time, the public had effectively been trained to believe that everyone is able to work, and there are jobs available to all who need one, emphasizing the superiority of our corporate culture. Because it was a Democrat who decimated the Great Society (and began similarly "reforming" the New Deal), lib media embraced Clinton's neo-liberal social agenda. The impact of Clinton's policies have trickled up, serving well to suppress unionizing efforts, pull down wages, and deeply divide the "left." Poverty has grown, but as a direct result of specific "reforms" implemented by Clinton, it is not tracked. The longer we ignore poverty, the wider and deeper it grows; we lack statistics/research concerning the consequences of the neo-liberal agenda.

Apr 11, 2014, 9:32 AM
Bart D.:

Don Watkins

I noticed on your site that you have no comment section thereby removing the possibility that someone could correct your assertions, or at least debate the subject. Very disingenuous if you are a serious blogger and truly care about the dissemination of truth. Or are we simply expected to take your view as fact? I am inclined to think your position could be threatened were debate allowed.

Apr 30, 2014, 2:33 AM

Excellent article!!!! Thank you for putting this together.

For years I've listened to the "return to private charity" message and felt it wasn't really workable. But I only had a vague feeling that it wouldn't be adequate nor as equitable as the public solution.

It was great to read the detailed review of specific reasons the public solution is absolutely necessary. And I found myself nodding at each point - I agree completely.

Thank you so very much!!!
(P.S. ignore the rantings from the reality challenged folks - I did. Some people - WHOA!)

May 18, 2014, 7:15 PM

response to kt: "Far better to show why increased localized control of social insurance is a bad idea, since there are actually people out there talking about that."

As a resident of Arizona, I can answer your question of why local control is also inferior to federal control. The reason is that local governments often follow very partisan trends that unwisely gut social programs during boom times. Arizona legislators felt giddy during the late 90's and early 00's and felt they could provide massive tax breaks and gut social programs and run the state out of any financial reserves in the process.

May 19, 2014, 11:28 AM
Lloyd Johnson:

Mike cannot escape the truly fundamental fact that forced taxation is morally wrong and must be ended. If people feel strongly that social welfare is needed, then it will be funded to the extent that people agree. Granting the state this scary power over peoples lives is what killed 250 million innocents during the 20th century.

Jul 17, 2014, 8:47 PM

Shh Lloyd. That's a sensitive area for the statists. We all know it was only the "bad" governments that killed their own people and that the author of this article and those that agree with it absolutely know the best form of government. They know the proper way to spend our money.

Oct 2, 2014, 12:22 AM

The less we spend of our precious war fund on the least of these dregs in society the more we'll have to spend on our precious war fund. Thanks Mike
P.S. any way of adding a reply selection for comments?

Oct 11, 2014, 8:28 AM

If charity worked, we would not have churches in poor neighborhoods handing out food boxes of hydrogenated meals and junk food donated by government food banks 1 day a week w churches in wealthy neighborhoods doing just fine yet seemingly unaware of the needs literally, just down the street? Does this really seem ethically and/or morally believable or just a way for the haves to feel like they can carryon w failed beliefs? People need a hand up not just a once or twice a week hand out of crap so the church can continue voting to carryon w what Reagan started closing mental heath institutions and sending our jobs and unions a packing?
Thanks Con servatives, you're doing the work of the Lord? God Bless You and the wealthy thank you?

Oct 11, 2014, 8:42 AM

Hate, fear, anger, resentment, envy, jealousy and greed. As social animals, we will continue slide into oblivion until we outgrow these self-destructive emotions.

Oct 17, 2014, 7:08 PM
Tom Van Dyke:

I don't think Mr. Konczal made his case. Conservatives agree with helping out "accident, illness, old age" and yes, even the loss of a job.

But that's nowhere near the end of it. Mr. Konczal ignores all the rest of the blizzard of entitlement state's machinations, like, um, free contraception?


Nothing wrong with lifeboat rules in 1934 and the Great Depression. It's when lifeboat rules become the norm that we never get out of the lifeboat.

Oct 24, 2014, 6:19 PM

Thanks for the article.

AlterNet/Mr. Knoczal completely misrepresents the voluntarist/Libertarian critique and approach. For information on what Libertarians worldwide are actually doing, see OPERATION DIGNITY at the Libertarian International via

The Libertarians propose voluntary taxation and no coerced monopolies in common services. In addition, public voluntary organizations are forbidden to accumulate the capital to provide free services as e.g. universal healthcare.

Previous to and during the US Depression, voluntary mutual--including unions-- and others were doing an excellent job as pro-libertarian scholars have documented, despite being temporarily overwhelmed by the US Depression. Many were, however destroyed by coercive regulation, and much is sadly worsened by recent legislation.

Mr. Knoczal is in effect ignoring the old trick of legislation making common-sense voluntary or private action impossible, then declaring it has failed and more intervention in needed.

Dec 13, 2014, 4:24 PM

I think we might have reached the point where it's too late to change anything. America looked at the programs and policies that took the US to its height of wealth and productivity, from FDR to Reagan, and chose to do just the opposite, reversing those policies, ending those programs. The inevitable happened.The poor and middle cass, workers and the jobless, have been deeply divided, pitted against each other. We have a poverty crisis. Democrats and the "left" welcome the poor to "stand in solidarity" to protect the advantages of the better-off, those who are able to work and still have jobs -- but don't expect a crumb to trickle down. Many of us who are still doing OK don't support that, but we don't have the public microphone. All we can do is withhold our votes from those Democrats who preach the Middle Class Only agenda while continuing to target the elderly poor, disabled and working poor.

Jan 9, 2015, 9:47 AM
Aaron B. Pryor:

This is so good I want to slice it up and eat it. Mandatory reading. Thank you.

Jan 28, 2015, 9:45 PM

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