Franz Von Lenbach, Otto Von Bismarck
As Paul Ryan announced this week his coming retirement from Congress, I remember the creator of the modern welfare state, Otto Von Bismarck. The Iron Chancellor was not really interested in improving the lives of the poor and working class so much as he was in preserving the Prussian monarchy and forging a German empire. He decided to look after the welfare of the general population in order to head off the growing power of the German labor movement. "When the cottage is unhappy, the palace is in peril," said Disraeli. Bismarck thought it necessary to keep all the German cottages well if not quite happy in order to keep the Kaiser in the Stadtschloss.
It was only later after World War II that the welfare state became an article of faith with left and center-left parties in Europe. After the War, the nation states of Western Europe created welfare states to end the economic insecurity that drove the rise of totalitarian movements. Those movements that started the War came out of the misery and desperation created by boom and bust cycles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And now over 75 years later, Europe still enjoys the longest peace it has ever known. Its populations enjoy mass prosperity for the first time ever.
American Social Darwinists like Ryan consider welfare states to be moral failures, encouraging dependency and sapping people of their initiative. But when compared to the USA, the results of 75 years of the European welfare state speak for themselves. The German economy is the most powerful in Europe, and one of the most powerful in the world; and that was achieved with universal healthcare coverage, housing subsidies, and free public education from pre-K to post-doc. Populations in Germany, the Low Countries, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere are healthier and better educated than their American counterparts. All of these countries have paid family leave time with free or affordable pregnancy and early child care, along with very good free public education all the way to graduate school. In contrast, one in every five children in the USA is born into poverty. Life expectancy is shortening here. The USA has the highest infant mortality rate in the Developed World and also the highest maternal death rate. The quality of your education in this country depends on the zip code you live in; everything from the best in the world to practice for jail. In the USA, wealthy communities spend lavishly on the education of their own children, while those who live in poor communities with no real tax base make do with constant cutbacks in education spending; 4 day school weeks, out of date and ragged textbooks, crumbling school buildings, and unqualified teachers presiding over classes of 35 students or more. While the Dutch are closing prisons in their country, the USA still has the highest prison population in the world. While right wing social Darwinists dismiss France's generous healthcare system, ours is the most expensive in the world for the least results.
So many people in the Developed World enjoy liberal democracy that tries to provide work and a decent life for all citizens. The USA by contrast, is a plutocratic oligarchy with democratic pretensions that divides its people into "winners" and "losers;" that keeps people divided against themselves so that they don't notice those who really exploit them. The Land of the Free treats most of its citizens as a vast pool of cheap labor to be pacified with vague promises of scraps from the tables of their Betters ("trickle down").
What kind of a country do you want to live in? One that punishes you and your children for not being billionaires, that treats you like just so much expendable cheap labor and a tenant in your own country? Or one that treats you like the sovereign citizen that you are with rights, dignity, and a legitimate claim upon your country and its fortunes?
I know my Social Security account and future Medicare coverage are more secure with Paul Ryan gone from politics, even if only temporarily. As far as I'm concerned, he can spend the rest of his days marking his place in his copy of Atlas Shrugged with his rosary.
Margaret Bourke-White, Flood Victims Lined Up for Relief Supplies, Louisville, KY, 1937