Ben Franklin on the Welfare State

Making Wisdom Popular

Benjamin Franklin (portrait).jpg

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prominent Americans of the colonial period.  As a young teenager, he had run away from his home in Boston to Philadelphia with barely a few coins in his pocket, and eventually became one of the wealthiest men in America.  He was a great scientist, an advocate of colonial unity, and a tireless defender of American rights against the encroachments of the British Parliament.  He was also an extraordinarily charitable person, believing that, as he said in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, one should “Proportion your Charity to the Strength of your Estate, or God will proportion your Estate to the Weakness of your Charity.”[1]

From 1757-1775, Franklin spent much of his time in London serving as the agent for several colonies in their attempt to convince Parliament to repeal the taxes it had imposed on the colonies.  During those years, Franklin was able to travel elsewhere in Europe, and his letters and other writings from the period are full of fascinating insights and observations.

Among the topics he spoke most forcefully about was how to properly provide for the poor.

For many centuries, England had had some sort of legal provision for the poor.  The laws Franklin was likely familiar with went back to 1601, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, with several amendments over the next century or so.[2]  However, there were several loopholes which allowed both local authorities, and the poor, to take advantage of the generosity of others.

These laws created what could be deemed England’s first “proto-welfare state.”  They were well-intended, but Franklin was not impressed with the results.

So in 1766, Franklin wrote an editorial on this attempt of the government to “help” the poor, entitled On the Price of Corn, and Management of the Poor.[3]  In it, Franklin articulated a principle he held throughout his life with respect to poverty and work:

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. 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. In my youth I traveled much, and 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 then put his attention on Great Britain in particular:

There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor.

He then pointed out some uncomfortable truths about the results (regardless of the intent):

Benjamin Franklin (lightning).jpg

Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavors to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burden? On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. 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.

Franklin believed that gratuitous welfare offered a powerful incentive to not work, and thus remain poor, rather than rise out of poverty.  Citing the book of Exodus, Franklin asserted the importance of work to virtue, and rising out of poverty:

Repeal that law, and you will soon see a change in their [the poor’s] manners. St. Monday, and St. Tuesday, will cease to be holidays. Six days shalt thou labor [Ex. 20:9; 34:21], though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase, and with it plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.

Benjamin Franklin (at desk).jpg

Franklin knew there were only “Two D’s” to choose between: Dignity, or dependence.  At the end of the day, hard work, and personal responsibility are the path to health, wealth, and happiness for most people.  For the few who are genuinely disabled or suffer from circumstances beyond their control, provision should be made—and as a private citizen, Franklin initiated, and gave generously to, many charitable efforts.

But thinking that charity, alone, without any expectation of work or self-improvement, can help the poor, is a fool’s errand. 

Few things in life corrupt as much as unearned wealth.  Dignity and dependence, for the able-bodied, are inversely proportional.  The more you have of one, the less you have of the other.  Franklin, as a man who worked his way from absolute poverty to comfortable wealth, knew this better than anyone.  He knew that work was ennobling, and that lowering the standard was nothing but “the bigotry of low expectations.”  Work provides a sense of self-accomplishment, which in turn encourages the individual to raise their aspirations.  Idleness transforms us into our own worst enemy; work into our own best friend.  Short-circuiting this process is not charitable, but does greater damage than the problem it intends to fix.

We would do well, in an age far more comfortable than Franklin’s, to remember his timeless wisdom.We should prioritize results over intentions; Dignity over dependence.


[1]Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard Improved (1757).

[2]Act for the Relief of the Poor (1601).

[3]Benjamin Franklin, On the Price of Corn, and Management of the Poor (November 29, 1766).