Benjamin Franklin on “Doing Good to the Poor”

The federal government lacks any legitimate constitutional authority to establish welfare programs for the poor. Not only that, the federal welfare system fails in its promise to “help the poor” out of poverty.

Supporters of the expansive federal welfare system argue the “general welfare clause” authorizes them. But the general welfare clause is not a blank check. It does not grant blanket authority for the federal government to do anything it decides in its infinite wisdom is for the “general welfare.” The clause is limited by the delegated powers that follow. James Madison explained this in Federalist # 41.

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.”

If you search through the enumerated powers in Article 1 Sec. 8, you will find nothing even hinting at congressional authority to establish programs for the poor. That means the power remains with the state governments and the people themselves.

But many will argue that the federal government should provide welfare payments despite the constitutional issues. We can’t let some abstract political philosophy stop us from helping people. And after all, government welfare is helping people.

But is it really?

In a 1766 essay titled “On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor,” Benjamin Franklin persuasively argued that welfare schemes do more harm than good.

If you argue against government welfare programs, people will automatically accuse you of not caring about poor people. Franklin takes this argument on directly, making it clear he’s not opposed to helping the poor. “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means,” he wrote.

“I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”

Government welfare programs effectively subsidize poverty and ultimately make things worse. Incentives matter. When you incentivize people not to work by providing generous benefits, they will be less inclined to work. Many poor people are incentivized into a cycle of poverty and government dependence.

Franklin traveled extensively and he observed this perverse incentivization in his travels. He wrote, “I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

He noted that there was no country in the world that provided as many provisions for the poor as England, including “a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor.” In Franklin’s view, it did nothing but make poverty worse.

“The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.”

Federal welfare fails on a constitutional basis. And as with virtually all government programs, federal welfare fails to deliver on its promises. After decades of federal spending, poverty rates remain virtually unchanged. Meanwhile, the government has created a permanent underclass dependent on government handouts.

Franklin wasn’t a prophet. He simply understood incentives and human nature.

By: Mike Maharrey