Ben Franklin on Welfare, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Making Wisdom Popular 

A blog on a similar topic, “Ben Franklin on the Welfare State,” can be found here.

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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 government.  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]

But Franklin was very clear about the type of charity he believed in—charity for the worthy.  This may sound harsh, but it’s common sense if we dare to reflect honestly.  Human beings really like two things: avoiding pain, and living off the dime of others.  And sometimes, to avoid pain, many began demanding the dimes of others.  But pain, Franklin believed, was a mechanism put in place by “the Deity” to alert us to problems, and encourage us to prepare for them—or, in the alternative, live in such a way that we are far less likely to experience them.  In other words, pain and consequences were the ways Providence encouraged us to live virtuously.

For example, drinking too much alcohol induces drunkenness and bad health.  Knowing this in advance helps us to avoid drinking too much.  But if we don’t avoid it, experiencing it warns us not to engage in it again.  Living a lifestyle that is more luxurious than we can afford can lead to poverty, or bankruptcy—consequences which should encourage us to not live beyond our means.  The same basic process applies to a multitude of behaviors.  Pain, discomfort, displeasure, etc. are oftentimes indicators that we are doing something wrong.

Applying this principle to charity in the context of what we may today call “welfare,” Franklin wrote as follows:

To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity, ’tis Godlike, but if we provide encouragements for Laziness, and supports for Folly, may it not be found fighting against the order of God and Nature, which perhaps has appointed Want and Misery as the proper Punishments for, and Cautions against as well as necessary consequences of Idleness and Extravagancy.[2]

He continued:

[C]are and industry seem absolutely necessary to our wellbeing; they should therefore have every Encouragement we can invent, and not one Motive to diligence be subtracted, and the support of the Poor should not be by maintaining them in Idleness, but by employing them in some kind of labor suited to their Abilities of body, etc. as I am informed of late begins to be the practice in many parts of England, where work houses are erected for that purpose. If these were general I should think the Poor would be more careful and work voluntarily and lay up something for themselves against a rainy day, rather than run the risk of being obliged to work at the pleasure of others for a bare subsistence and that too under confinement.[3]

In other words, Franklin affirmed that “helping” people sometimes hurts them, because it short-circuits the feedback mechanism God has established for us to learn from our mistakes: consequences.  Short-circuiting this process under the auspices of “charity” could in fact lead to unintended consequences itself.  He provided an example of this “law of unintended consequences”:

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Whenever we attempt to mend the scheme of Providence and to interfere in the Government of the World, we had need be very circumspect lest we do more harm than Good. In New England they once thought Black-birds useless and mischievous to their corn, they made [Laws] to destroy them, the consequence was, the Black-birds were diminished but a kind of Worms which devoured their Grass, and which the Black-birds had been used to feed on increased prodigiously; Then finding their Loss in Grass much greater than their saving in corn they wished again for their Black-birds.[4]

If intent is not proportioned to results, Franklin believed, then the results will make a mockery of the intent.

Franklin’s main point is one well worth considering in our own time: short-circuiting consequences can sometimes be charitable—it can also be foolish.  When we experience the consequence of our actions, we are experiencing the feedback mechanism that the “Deity,” “Providence,” or “Nature” has put in place to alert us to the presence of a problem. 

Does this mean we never help those who are in a bad situation as a result of their own poor decisions?  Absolutely not.  But it does mean that simply throwing money at such people and situations can sometimes be the worst way to address the problem. 

Any and all solutions must therefore address the underlying issue—the decision-making process that led to the problem in the first place.Otherwise, our “charity” and our “welfare” will only encourage further unintended consequences, and end up doing more harm than good.


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

[2]Benjamin Franklin, To Peter Collinson (May 9, 1753).