The Welfare State

TYLER TOO

By Gus Tyler

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.

When The Great Depression hit the United States, there were those who said that America’s government had the duty to take steps to counter the disaster. They pointed to the preamble to the Constitution that empowered the government to “promote the general welfare.”

On the other hand, there were those opposed to any governmental intervention. They applied Darwin’s philosophy of the “survival of the fittest.” They called it “rugged individualism.” Its critics called it a system of “dog eat dog and the devil take the hindmost.”

The ancient Greeks believed that humans came together to form social systems because a collective effort could accomplish what the loner could not. They put it succinctly as “Anthropos zoe politika.” (Man is a social animal.)

One of the most striking applications of the same principle is the means whereby ancient Israel saw to it that those who have wealth were obliged to contribute for the support of those who did not have the wherewithal to survive on their own.

It all revolves around a Hebrew word called tzedakah. It means charity, and it also means “justice.” Here is how it worked. The government had a central agency to which people were obliged to contribute in accordance with their wealth. If the governing body concluded that a man of wealth had not really paid his share, they informed him that he was delinquent and should increase his contribution. If he refused, he was flogged. If he was a tough cookie he still might refuse. If so, his estate was confiscated and the proper payment was made.

So, many centuries before the United States established a progressive income tax where those who had more were taxed at a higher rate as their income rose, the State of Israel had foreshadowed such a system.

In passing, a truly righteous person was called a tsaddik.



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