The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Welfare & Government Assistance

Under a republican form of government, the people can make the government anything they please. They can provide whatever government services for themselves that they desire. Indeed, they can divest themselves of their birthright of freedom if they are so foolish as to do so.

They have that power, but it is incumbent upon them that they use it responsibly. The question thus becomes, What is the proper role of government in social services? Should the government of a free state provide welfare and government assistance for its citizens, and if so, under what circumstances and conditions?

As in so many other topics we consider from the Jeffersonian Perspective, we must acknowledge that times change, and that government must change with them. Jefferson emphasized this on numerous occasions, and was reluctant to establish rules intended for future generations.

But not every change is for the better. Our "inherent and unalienable rights" are immutable. We cannot permit those principles to change, or we will have lost what it means to be a free society.

If we create government institutions and programs that undermine our inalienable rights, then we will have changed the nature of our free society and allowed our principles to be corrupted. It is this kind of change that it is our duty to guard against. Therefore, because we now live in an age of industrialization and corporate capitalism, there is no doubt that our institutions of government must change in order to adapt to this new manner of living. But the fundamental principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not change and must not ever be allowed to change. Our government, including its new institutions, must be so organized as always to foster those principles, and we must resist all efforts of government to void them.

Our Constitution as created by the Founding Fathers fully recognized the need for change, and allowed for revisions. However, the Founders did not expect changes in the essential meaning of freedom. If we change the very foundation of this nation, it will no longer protect our liberties. If we permit those principles to be undermined, we will have lost the blessings that freedom brings.

These principles were derived from an understanding of the fundamentals of human existence. By keeping them intact, we guarantee to ourselves and our children the great heritage of freedom for which our predecessors have fought and died. Moreover, the dynamic success this nation has experienced has resulted from an adherence to those very principles. We risk throwing all this away if we permit the gradual erosion of our inalienable rights by the creeping influence of other theories of governance.

One of the dangers faced by a free society is that its people will lose control over the institutions of government. When the powers of government become independent of the people, when the people themselves fail adequately to restrain and control it, the character of the government is no longer that of a republic.

    "The further the departure from direct and constant control by the citizens, the less has the government the ingredient of republicanism." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1816.

In a government of the people, i.e., a government under the control of its citizens, such a government is not regulated or controlled by a theory or philosophy that takes precedence over citizen control. This means there is no humanitarian principle, no political theory by which the government is directed and controlled contrary to the will of the people themselves. Even the principles of republicanism are exercised through the people, not as some overriding theory which the people are powerless to affect. The Constitution itself embraces a republican form of government, and it was designed to be changed only with great difficulty to prevent republican principles from being easily swept away. But it is still capable of change. The people may on their own be influenced by various principles and theories, and they undoubtedly always are. But in the final analysis, the rightfulness, i.e. the legitimacy, of a government is determined by how well it conforms to the will of its people, not how well it conforms to a political theory.

    "It accords with our principles to acknowledge any government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the nation substantially declared." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Morris, 1792.

We who are republicans will argue that the republican is the best form of government. But that argument, in and of itself, cannot take precedence over the will of the people. It is necessary that the people as a whole support republican government, or it will fail. As a result, it can never be concluded that government has a required role, whether supported by the people or not, nor that citizens may by right have a claim on government, whether that claim is assented to by the people or not. Thus, the decision to provide government assistance of any kind is a matter of rational choice by the citizens collectively, and cannot be founded on some obligation which government is assumed, by its very nature, to have. The only obligation of government is that it serve its people. Therefore, whatever justification there may be for government assistance programs, it cannot be founded on a theoretical obligation of government. Such programs can only be established as a result of the will of the nation as expressed through its majority.

    "The fundamental principle of the government is that the will of the majority is to prevail." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Eustis, 1809.

And in order to do that in a free country, it must be justified to the people as something desirable and as something that does not violate their basic political philosophy. That means that the proposed program must not disregard the inherent and inalienable rights enjoyed by all and upon which the nation is founded, for it is the primary purpose of government to protect those rights.

    "It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to M. D'Ivernois, 1795.

Therefore, it cannot be said that there is a right to "a minimum standard of living," nor can there be in a free society. People are not born with that right. In fact, the proposition that every member of society is entitled to a minimum standard of living as an inherent right will rather tend to destroy the principles of a free society, because it requires a government that protects that right and that impliedly has the necessary powers to enforce that right. Such a government will make decisions for us; it will not be one that functions at our command. As soon as such a principle is admitted, the society is governed by who or what determines what is "a minimum standard," and government itself acquires a "right" to impose measures on the citizens in order to fulfil its obligation to meet the conditions necessary to furnish that minimum standard. It thus receives power to act over the lives of its citizens independently of their will. Not in every aspect of life at first, of course, but in every aspect embraced by that principle. And this becomes a growing list as government and bureaucracy gradually swallow up power unto itself, which is the natural tendency of all governments. Our duty as citizens is to prevent this seizure of power by government.

    "Manfully maintain our good old principle of cherishing and fortifying the rights and authorities of the people in opposition to those who fear them, who wish to take all power from them and to transfer all to Washington." --Thomas Jefferson to N. Macon, 1826.

Decisions regarding the powers which are assumed to be inherent in government are then made by government itself through a central planning authority, which by its very nature takes power away from the people. To the extent it becomes authorized by the scope of its social programs, the nature of the government is then determined, not by the will of the people, but by the assessment of its own bureaucracy which establishes those "minimum standards." And to that extent, government by the people is at an end.

    "The functionaries of public power rarely strengthen in their dispositions to abridge it, and an unorganized call for timely amendment is not likely to prevail against an organized opposition to it." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1816.

It is important, therefore, to prevent any kinds of open-ended power from being lodged in government bureaucracies, to nip in the bud any political theories that would give to government powers over the people that are assumed to be inherent in government itself.

    The Need to Relieve Suffering

Every decent human being has compassion for his suffering fellow human beings. This sense of fellow-feeling is the foundation of morality.

    "I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality... Nature [has] implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses... The Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist had he intended man for a social animal without planting in him social dispositions. It is true they are not planted in every man, because there is no rule without exceptions; but it is false reasoning which converts exceptions into the general rule." --Thomas Jefferson to T. Law, 1814.

But if we focus the fundamental structure of government on relieving suffering, we are in danger of allowing our benevolent feelings to lead us into a form of government that deprives us of our liberty. Why? Because suffering knows no bounds, and if we empower government to relieve it, we give government boundless powers to intrude itself into our lives. And given those powers, it will most assuredly rise to the occasion and enlarge its powers until it intrudes itself into every aspect of our lives.

    "We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

It is necessary, therefore, to identify clearly the purpose and scope of government assistance programs and to see to it that government does not become the master of our welfare. Two types of programs can be identified that government can provide and that will not, if properly limited, tend to undermine our inalienable rights. (1) Out of humanitarian concern for our fellow man, we through our government can provide emergency assistance to a fellow citizen who falls into sudden desperate circumstances. (2) We can provide educational programs that would help our fellow citizens upgrade their skills so that they are better able to make a contribution to society and a decent life for themselves.

In the past, government has done this and done it well. The G.I. Bill, for example, was a terrific program that benefitted millions and made this nation stronger and greater. The problem with most help programs that failed has been that they attempted to provide on-going maintenance. They were not gauged for emergency assistance or for upgrading skills; rather they operated on a philosophy that says that our government has a responsibility to see to it that everyone in this country maintains a certain standard of living, and that government should provide whatever assistance for whatever period of time that will support that minimum standard of living. And it is also this philosophy that has turned welfare into a system of dependency in this country and that has destroyed lives by removing the incentives for independent functioning.

In determining those government programs that we should authorize, therefore, proper limitations on their scope and intent must accompany their authorization, and there must be a means of assuring that programs do indeed produce the results for which they were designed.

    "It is a duty certainly to give our sparings to those who want; but to see also that they are faithfully distributed and duly apportioned to the respective wants of those receivers." --Thomas Jefferson to Megear, 1823.

A general goal of relieving suffering can be seized as providing authority to furnish perpetual support and, as a consequence, encouraging dependence. On the other hand, helping in emergencies and facilitating advancement means individuals are given the capability and opportunity to pursue their own happiness, and are encouraged to be independent and self-supporting. The former is the path to government's consolidated control over our existence. The latter is the path to the better exercise of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by us all. One locks its victims into a life dependent on government handouts; the other assures independence and the happiness that comes from a productive life.

    "The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812.

Therefore, the key point of departure on government assistance that a free republican state has with other theories of government is the proposition that the state has a responsibility in securing minimum standards for its citizens. Whenever government does assume that responsibility, it not only places a burden on its productive citizens, but it also encourages its unproductive citizens to become even more unproductive and dependent on its largesse. The resulting programs enlarge the role of government and bureaucracy--something both are always inclined to do. Therefore we can say that it is not the role of government to provide a certain standard of living for its citizens. It is the role of government to assure that all its citizens are secure and free to provide for themselves.

    "I sincerely pray that all the members of the human family may, in the time prescribed by the Father of us all, find themselves securely established in the enjoyment of life, liberty and happiness." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1807.

In a government of the people, it is necessary to find a basis for whatever provisions a government makes in the power of the people themselves, not in the assumed responsibilities of the government. Government power must be given to it by the people, and this is the principle of limited government.

    "All power is inherent in the people." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cartwright, 1824.

In the final analysis, the happiness of all the citizens will be founded in the enjoyment of their fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    "I conscientiously believe that governments founded in republican principles are more friendly to the happiness of the people at large, and especially of a people so capable of self-government as ours." --Thomas Jefferson to D. Howell, 1810.

If government is founded in any other principle or theory, then it does not derive from the essence of what this country is as described in the Declaration of Independence. The question for us to decide is, Are our inalienable rights the foundation of our government, or shall government be founded on a theory of benevolence? We must remember also: a foundation on rights has an immutable source, whereas a foundation on any kind of humanitarian theory has only an abstract, speculative, intellectual source. One is a rock, the other is shifting sand. One is based in observed reality, the other is based in the speculations of man.

    New Definitions of Freedom

But what if a person is hungry or homeless? Can it be said that such a person free? Hasn't our concept of freedom changed? Doesn't it now include freedom from want?

The essentials of our freedom are not our circumstances, but our inherent and inalienable rights. If we start by asking if a person is really free if he does not possess certain material accoutrements, we drift into a world of arbitrary assessments. Is a person really free if he does not have a million dollars? Is a person free if he has no legs or arms? To be without something can be a matter of choice or a matter of accident. It may be undesirable and may make for a miserable existence, but it has no necessary connection with political freedom, much less spiritual freedom. To live is to want, and if government is to supply all our wants, it will be our master and we its slaves.

So the answer is, YES! A person can be hungry and homeless and still be free. A person can have materials wants and frustrations and still enjoy political freedom. Creating a government that meets all our needs comes at a great cost. The question is, finally, shall we trade our freedom for bread? Shall we create a more "benevolent" society, a society free of want in terms of somebody's definition of benevolence and want, in exchange for a free one? That, finally, is the choice we face.

    Specific Programs

In our modern corporate society, living conditions have indeed changed, and individuals are much more interdependent than in previous times when most of our citizens lived on farms that were self-sufficient to a high degree. The social relationships that compensated for adversity in those times are not present nor are they able to provide similar alternatives to fall back on in our age. We cannot turn aside from this need to meet the challenges of new economic relationships and the special kinds of disasters to which we are now prone. Genuine self-sufficiency hardly exists in this society. All our fortunes are intermingled in ways that were inconceivable two centuries ago. It would be short-sighted of us if we did not take these matters into consideration.

    "The excellence of every government is its adaptation to the state of those to be governed by it." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

The need for things like unemployment insurance, and job training programs are a necessity without which our nation and its economy will founder. This is not mere charity; it is a matter of national survival. It is not making people slaves, but it is making them more potent forces in the national economy. The best of those programs can be justified in a free society, not as a matter of right, but as a matter of rational choice for the good of the society as a whole. There was a time when we had NONE of those things. Were we therefore not a free society? Of course not! Times changed and we changed with them. The role of government is based first on securing our inalienable rights, and then on providing rational services which are necessary for our mutual survival and development. These programs are the choices rational, forward-looking citizens make to provide for themselves and one another.

In all these new demands and necessities brought to us by our advanced civilization, and in all the new services created to meet these necessities, we must still adhere to our principles, however. It can all be done without violating the inalienable rights of the people, and that must be our first object.

    Desperate Situations

The same principles apply in other distressful situations. The forms of family and community support which were available two hundred years ago are just not with us today. Enterprise functions on massive scales today, whereas it functioned as millions of separate farms, shop-keepers and independent craftsmen in past eras. This new corporate society requires greater interaction and response, not less. Change has produced different relationships between individuals that impact upon them especially when disaster strikes.

Should we leave these problems to private charity as we did centuries ago? We don't use the same commercial regulations we did centuries ago, why should we adhere to other social means that were common then? Shall we embrace those aspects of our new society that put money in our pockets, but reject those that require us to give aid to our fellow man? Does this come from a generosity of spirit or a desire to take all that we can without contributing to the very system that enables us to prosper?

Battered women, neglected and abandoned children, the mentally disturbed, and other social problems should be dealt with by modern techniques in a modern age. We cannot turn our back on these things and say that in these particulars, we should return to the primitive methods of our ancestors. In all these real problem situations, we must collectively decide whether we want to provide these services or not. This has nothing to do with "guaranteeing of a minimum standard of living." These are decisions that the citizens collectively through their representatives make. The moral obligations that we have as individuals to help one another in distress still operate on us when we bind ourselves together as a nation. But there is no simple, one size fits all answer. It is a decision to be made by the people regarding themselves. If it is not made by them, it is no longer a free society and a government of the people. It will then be governed by whoever decides those thing, and will be inefficient and unproductive.

    "If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy." --Thomas Jefferson to T. Cooper, 1802.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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