Paine and Condorcet: the origins of the welfare state
Source Autoplectic
Date 05/07/03/00:11

A history of ending poverty

Tom Paine's ideas are still ahead of today's campaigners

Gareth Stedman Jones
Saturday July 2, 2005

The idea of "making poverty history" did not begin with Bob Geldof,
Bono or the commitment of rich countries to disburse 0.7% of national
income in development aid. It goes back to the time of the French and
American revolutions towards the end of 18th century and to a
transformation in outlook as momentous as that produced by the
revolutions themselves. A small group of visionaries, the followers of
Tom Paine in England and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet in France,
ceased to regard poverty as a divine imposition on sinful humanity. It
was seen as remediable in principle, since it was man-made in

What this political pamphleteer and aristocratic administrator
depicted for the first time was a planned world in which the
predictable misfortunes of life no longer plunged people into chronic
poverty. This plan was not a utopia. It was a template for a future
reality; in the 20th century it came to be known as the welfare state.

For centuries before the two revolutions, Christian polities had
followed Christ's teaching as reported in St Matthew's Gospel. When a
woman came to Christ in the house of Simon the Leper and poured a
precious ointment over his head, the disciples objected to "this
waste". But Christ responded: "Why trouble ye the woman for she hath
wrought a good work upon me? For ye have the poor always with you; but
me ye have not always." The presence of the poor was inescapable. For
the good Christian, poverty was not a condition to be remedied, but
the spur to the exercise of charity. As for the poor themselves, they
should accept their allotted rank with humility.

But in the 18th century, opinions began to change. Large parts of
Europe experienced prolonged internal peace and a quickening of trade
and industry. For the first time observers could see an under lying
pattern to economic life. The afflictions of the lives of wage earners
were clearly visible. For the first time, these afflictions were seen
to form part of a pattern pre-existing the temperament or behaviour of
particular individuals.

Changes in the conditions of life not only generated a new confidence
in progress, but also the growth of institutions designed to deal with
the practicalities of managing the future. Life insurance developed,
as did the provision for families of "the middling sort" against death
or bankruptcy. All this depended in turn on mathematical progress,
notably calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz, which allowed for
actuarial calculations.

These innovations were crucial in shaping the proposals of Condorcet
and Paine for universal pensions and schooling, death duties and
tax-based systems of social insurance. But it is doubtful whether the
idea of a comprehensive system of social security would have been
imagined but for the political needs and opportunities opened up by
revolution. In the 1790s, almost everyone was poor. If critics mutter
about the naive impracticality of making poverty history today, how
much more fantastic would the idea have seemed then?

But politics dictated otherwise. After the French king deserted the
revolution in 1791, leading revolutionaries argued that France must
become a republic like the fledgling US. Yet sceptics argued that a
large modern republic was not possible in Europe, with its
overpowerful feudal nobilities and its hordes of miserable poor. It
was, therefore, to support the idea that an American-style republic
was possible in Europe that Paine spelled out his proposals for
abolishing want in The Rights of Man of 1792, and Condorcet jotted
down his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human
Mind while hiding from the forces of revolutionary terror in 1793.

Against those who maintained that the gulf between rich and poor was
an inescapable part of "civilisation", Condorcet argued that
inequality was largely to be ascribed to "the present imperfections of
the social art". "The final end of the social art" would be "the
abolition of inequality between nations" and "the progress of equality
within each nation". Slavery would be abolished, colonies would become
independent and there would be worldwide free trade. Asia and Africa
would break free from "our trade monopolies, our treachery, our
murderous contempt for men of another colour or creed, the insolence
of our usurpations". Through a universal scheme of social insurance,
such inequality could be "in great part eradicated". It was the
application of such a scheme to England, in the shape of a detailed
set of proposals to replace the poor rate by a tax-based system of
universal insurance, that was set out in The Rights of Man.

In two respects, the thoughts of the 1790s revolutionaries still seem
ahead of the "make poverty history" campaigners of today. First, they
were committed not so much to aid as to the equalisation of the
opportunities of rich and poor, nationally and internationally.
Second, they were far more critical of the role of charity - or, in
today's world, the place of NGOs. Appeals to relieve debt, alleviate
famine and provide start-up resources reproduce on an international
scale the approach of 19th-century Poor Law administrators and charity
organisers at a national level. In terms of the abolition of poverty,
the debate is stuck in a pre-1914 time warp.

The Rights of Man was one of the bestsellers of the century; 250,000
copies were sold by 1793. The authorities took fright. In the winter
of 1792-3, Paine was burnt in effigy in 300 or so towns and villages
in England and Wales. Particularly alarming was the spread of the
notion that the poor should no longer be the grateful recipients of
charity - that they had a right to social security. In France, where
Condorcet's ambition to eliminate poverty by education and a network
of social provision was shared by many of France's new revolutionary
legislators, legislative proposals remained stillborn, either pushed
aside by the needs of war or made worthless by the headlong
devaluation of the currency. By 1800 all thought of implementing such
a scheme had been abandoned.

And so it was that the idea of a welfare state as the means to
extinguish extreme poverty and economic insecurity was first adopted
not by revolutionaries, but by Bismarck in Germany as part of an
effort to keep a working-class movement at bay. Only as a result of
two world wars and the need to promise a real end to the old world of
the Poor Law did Britain at last adopt a set of proposals for the
welfare state, outlined in the Beveridge report of 1942, finally
building upon the arguments of Paine and Condorcet.

In large parts of the industrial world, the vision of the
revolutionaries has become a consensual reality; and even in the US,
the Bush administration is finding it hard to dislodge the
social-security system instituted by the New Deal. But in relation to
the poorer countries of the world, Africa above all, thinking has
barely yet accepted the ideas of Condorcet and Paine. It is to such a
programme, transforming the recipients of charity and aid into
empowered citizens, that the visionaries of today should be looking.
For only a politics combined with justice - in other words, the
building of a global social-democratic programme - can make poverty

Gareth Stedman Jones is the author of An End to Poverty? - A Historical Debate

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