The American founding fathers had a vision of a roughly equal society. At least for white people—others didn’t count in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Equality was to be based on the economic asset that mattered most in those pre-industrial days—land. Even the poor would have a small patch with which to sow and reap. If you owned a farm and managed a homestead you would secure your economic standing, your place in society, and cultivate the habits of citizenship.
According to George Washington, “America … will be the most favourable country of any in the world for persons of industry and frugality [and] it will not be less advantageous to the happiness of the lowest class of people because of the equal distribution of property.”
Land would always be available, to disgruntled citizens or newcomers, on the western frontier. One of the reasons for the American Revolution was the British Royal Proclamation of 1763 which forbade settlement west of the Appalachians. The Americans rejected the constraint—they would not be denied the right to expand their empire.
The equality of small landowners would provide for yeoman citizens, roughly equal and public spirited. The founders distrusted corporations and the accumulation of great wealth generally as corrupting to this agrarian utopia.
But eventually the country ran out of new land and eventually it industrialized. The result was largely what the founders had feared, concentrated wealth on one hand and wage labour on the other. The egalitarian society had become a class society.
Initially capital monopolized power but eventually the working class gained leverage and a say in their fate through collective action—organizing unions and invoking the power of the democratic state to mitigate capitalism’s excesses.
But in more recent times, union membership has collapsed in the U.S., now at its lowest in 80 years. And legislation has not kept up to the rapidly changing workforce sufficiently to protect millions of working people. Precariat jobs run rampant.
Wealth, on the other hand, has become increasingly concentrated and increasingly powerful. The founding fathers would see contemporary American society as a nightmare, a perversion of their vision.
What then could restore America to its founders’ vision of all Americans sharing in sufficient part of the economy to give each a proprietary sense about their country? One answer is a comprehensive welfare state.
When every citizen receives good health care, can gain an education to meet their skills and aspirations, can be employed in gainful labour, and will be cared for if disadvantaged or old, then every citizen will be more likely to feel an appreciated part of their society and will take an interest in its governance and welfare.
Canada has a much more developed welfare state than the U.S. and, despite often absorbing its bad habits, much less division. The nations best known for their welfare states are the world’s most stable. Social mobility is now higher in Scandinavian countries (and Canada) than it is in the U.S. As one wag suggested, “If you want to experience the American dream, go to Sweden.”
The U.S. has a welfare state, of course, but it is a shabby affair compared to other modern countries. Thirty million Americans, despite Obamacare, still lack health insurance. Yet no country needs economic security more as a salve for deeply polarizing culture wars.
The insecurity and alienation rampant in the U.S. was an opportunity for Trumpian fascism, and could yet cost Americans their democracy. Perhaps the best insurance against that tragedy, and of restoring the dream of the founding fathers, would be for the Americans to build a much more robust welfare state.
As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie put it, “Social insurance and the welfare state are more than a ballast against the winds of capitalism; they are part of the foundation of self-government and the cornerstone of democratic citizenship … where individuals are as free as possible from the arbitrary domination and authority of others.”