“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, they more they did for themselves, and became richer.
“There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them [Great Britain]. … 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.”
– Benjamin Franklin – for the London Chronicle, Nov. 29, 1766
In all likelihood, Benjamin Franklin, one of the most eminent Founding Fathers and also one of the least controversial, would probably not be elected in his own country today. Could you imagine if someone said this today, and the backlash he would get? This was, after all, not in a private letter, but a public editorial, akin to the New York Times op-ed page of today. With the Occupy Wall Street movement, the ever-increasing scope of the welfare state, the 99ers, the proliferation of more and more “rights” without a commensurate increase in responsibilities … it would be ugly.
Now, the accusations many on the left would likely make would go as follows (and we know this, because they make these accusations against those who are far more tepid in their language): “Benjamin Franklin is so mean! He’s anti-poor people! He’s an elitist 1-percenter who is trying to keep everyone else down!”
Accusation No. 1: Benjamin Franklin is so mean! Well, this would be a hard case to make against the man who created the first subscription library in America, the first public hospital, the American Philosophical Society so that information regarding new discoveries and inventions that could enable a higher quality of life would be communicated across the continent, was involved in numerous initiatives to educate indigent youth, was known for giving away some of his inventions if it would help someone else, who was a staunch abolitionist, and created a society to help educate and find jobs for free blacks in Philadelphia – among many other acts of goodness and charity. But how could it be otherwise from the man who believed the best way to love God was “doing good to his other children”?
Accusation No. 2: Benjamin Franklin is anti-poor people! Again, quite a hard case to make given how often Franklin was involved in causes meant to help the poor and less fortunate. He was after all the man that wrote (and lived) “Proportion your charity to the strength of your estate, or God will proportion your estate to the weakness of your charity.” Nor did he believe that simply talking of goodness was sufficient to “discharge our real obligations to each other, and much less those to our Creator,” but rather only doing goodness sufficed. As he noted to a friend, “To exhort people to be good, to be just, to be temperate, etc. without showing them how they shall become so seems like the ineffectual charity mentioned by the Apostle,”1 by which he was referring to the Apostle James, who exhorted true Christians to not be merely hearers of the word, but doers.
Accusation No. 3: Benjamin Franklin is just an elitist 1-percenter who’s trying to keep everyone else down! Once again, an exceedingly difficult charge to substantiate against a man who grew up in relative poverty, ran away from home with the equivalent of a few dollars in his pocket and rose to prominence over many decades of hard work and persistence, and throughout his life had a documented habit of being generous with his not always substantial means.
So, now that all the sanctimonious accusations have been blown away, we are left with one last option: Was Benjamin Franklin actually on to something?