Published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly email newsletter from the Acton Institute here.
By Anthony Bradley
The November congressional elections are not so much a referendum on the Obama administration as a check on whether President Barack Obama’s implementation of a Bismarckian vision of government will continue.
Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister/German chancellor from 1862 to 1890, is the father of the welfare state. He advanced the vision that government should serve as a social services institution by taking earned wealth from the rich and from businesses to deliver services to those who are not as advantaged. Bismarck’s Kulturkampf campaign intended both to keep radical socialists at bay and undermine the church’s role in meeting the needs of local citizens by positioning government to be the primary source of social services. He initiated the ideal of an ever-expanding, beneficent government, which was subsequently imported to the United States in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, expanded further with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and currently drives the policies of the Obama administration. Barack Obama is not a 19th-century socialist, but his agenda is unquestionably Bismarckian.
In 1891, William Dawson, in Bismarck and State Socialism, explained that Bismarck believed it was the duty of the state to promote the welfare of all its members. On November 22, 1888, in response to Germany’s 1873 economic crisis, Bismarck proclaimed, “I regard it as the duty of the State to endeavor to ameliorate existing economic evils.” In Bismarck-like fashion, commenting on America’s economic crisis, President Obama declared in January 2009 that, “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that are crippling our economy—where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending; where inability to lend and borrow stops growth and leads to even less credit.” In a Bismarckian world, “only” government can set the national economy right.
Regarding universal health insurance, on March 15th, 1884, Bismarck asked, “Is it the duty of the State, or is it not, to provide for its helpless citizens?” He answered, “I maintain that it is its duty.” It is the duty of the state to “the seek the cheapest form of insurance, and, not aiming at profit for itself, must keep primarily in view the benefit for the poor and needy.” Similarly, under the federal healthcare reform law, Congress forbids health insurance companies from raising insurance premiums until insurers submit to Obamacare officials “a justification for an unreasonable premium increase prior to the implementation of the increase.” In effect, government determines health insurance premiums.
On unemployment, Bismarck believed that government is ultimately responsible for finding jobs for those unemployed through no fault of their own, those lacking opportunity to work and thus prohibited from properly sustaining themselves. On March 15, 1884 Bismarck exclaimed, “If an establishment employing twenty thousand or more workpeople were to be ruined . . . we could not allow these men to hunger”—even if it means creating government jobs for national infrastructure improvements. “In such cases we build railways,” says Bismarck. “We carry out improvements which otherwise would be left to private initiative.” Likewise, in July, President Obama proclaimed, “I believe it’s critical we extend unemployment insurance for several more months, so that Americans who’ve been laid off through no fault of their own get the support they need to provide for their families and can maintain their health insurance until they’re rehired.” Then, in September, President Obama announced a six-year, $50 billion infrastructure proposal “to rebuild 150,000 miles of our roads,” “maintain 4,000 miles of our railways,” and “restore 150 miles of runways.” To keep America working, Obama is channeling Bismarck’s vision of government as creator of jobs.
By the 1890s, for several reasons, Germany was forced to abandon many of Bismarck’s specific reforms. However, Bismarck’s method of using of government as the ultimate provider of social services paid for by the earned wealth of others is the modus operandi of the Obama administration. The outcome of contests for congressional seats will determine whether the nation continues down the path chosen by Barack Obama, but blazed long ago by the visionary of the omnicompetent state, Otto von Bismarck.