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The founders of our country were all successful individuals who believed in the rights of an individual to succeed or fail on his own. Their experience with the British government convinced them that the less involvement by the government in economic affairs the better. These beliefs were central to the idea of liberal capitalism: that in a capitalist society, in order for everyone to enjoy economic opportunity, it was necessary for the government not to meddle in the nation's economy.
As Americans we cling to a belief that if we just work a little harder, that if we sacrifice a little today, then tomorrow we will reap the benefits of our labors. Of course, history tells us that when big business and special interest groups dominate an economy by political influence, individual effort may not always equate to equal opportunity. There may be times when government intervention is necessary - but how much intervention by the government is necessary has always posed a problem.
As American business became increasingly industrialized, living conditions for workers became worse and eventually a consensus developed under the "progressives," an umbrella term for different groups who saw the application of efficient business practices as a way to cure societal problems. Key to this belief was the idea that only government had the recourses to accomplish this. This steadily growing belief throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s would finally be put to the test 1929.
After World War I, government non-intervention in the economy led to rampant speculation and borrowing. Many people borrowed money to invest in a stock market that only seemed to know how to go up. Unbeknownst to most Americans, bad economic decisions were being made by both businesses and the government's own economists. Decisions that would have terrible consequences on October 29, 1929, when the stock markets collapsed.
President Herbert Hoover, a staunch believer in the Liberal conservative principle of non-government interference refused to intervene. Like most business-oriented people of the time, he believed that economies went through cycles of expansion and recession. He felt that this period of recession should be allowed to take its course Norton 473).
As the economy continued to worsen, Americans elected into office a new President who offered to use the power of the government to do something about the economy. As the Progressives believed earlier, Franklin Roosevelt felt that only the federal government had the ability to marshal resources on a national level to stimulate the economy.
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Through programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, the government tried to "jump start" the economy. Building hiking trails, post offices, dams, bridges, even monuments, the goal was to put people back to work in order t get business back on its feet - the "pump priming" principle. The idea was that once the government's contract for goods and services had finished, consumers with money from working on the projects would continue to demand the same goods and services. Private employers would then hire those same workers to meet the demand for services.
Roosevelt's policies were not completely successful, were not universally welcomed. Even Roosevelt worried about people becoming dependent on government largesse, instead of trying to achieve economic success through their own efforts, as the founding fathers had envisioned. He was concerned that people might become to see the federal government's relief policies as the source of their economic success. This belief would prove to be more prophetic than Roosevelt might have guessed.
As government responsibilities became greater, people began to come in contact with it more and more often. People came to see the power of the federal government as the way to circumvent local and state polices that discriminated against individual opportunity. In the South, where local and state governments had disenfranchised blacks from their rights, the federal government became a way to force change.
World War II taught an entire generation of Americans what sacrifice for a common goal meant. Many Americans, white and black, felt that racism in America was no different than the policies of the Nazis that they had just defeated. If we felt it was necessary to fight for the rights of others to choice, how could we not do the same thing here in America?
Coupled with growing black political power in northern states, blacks expected the federal government to intervene in southern politics in order to secure individual opportunity for southern blacks. While blacks in northern states still had severe restrictions on their opportunity for economic success, it was much better than blacks in the southern states. Long relegated to menial jobs and subsistence living, blacks working in factories during WW II realized that the denial of their civil rights was also denying them the opportunity for economic success that other Americans enjoyed.
Martin Luther King advocated a policy of "non-violent" resistance. He strove to make blacks and whites understand that all black people wanted were the opportunities for individual success our founding fathers had believed in. Government restrictions, in the form of state and local race laws, were keeping blacks from achieving the success of "the American Dream" that all Americans believed in - blacks as well as whites.
When non-violence did not achieve results, the strategy was changed to one of confrontation, forcing federal intervention. The beatings of college age whites riding buses by other whites, fire hoses and police dogs used against crowds of blacks by white authorities, the beatings of peaceful protestors by white police officers, and all on national television, eventually forced the President and the federal government to act.
By 1965, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had both been passed. While guaranteeing to blacks their right to vote, neither act did anything about the loss of economic opportunity that many blacks had experienced during this time. For many, the opportunity for economic success didn't exist because they were trapped in poverty regardless of the color of their skin.
After World War II, a generation of Americans had come to believe that the federal government was the answer to many of the country's problems. Looking at the apparent success of the "New Deal" policies in getting America's economy back on its feet, many Americans, like turn of the century Progressives, saw the government as the instrument to cure all of society's ills. And one of the greatest ills was that of poverty. Refining the liberal capitalist ideal, these new "liberals" believed that race blind economic opportunities would guarantee economic opportunity for all Americans (Sievens Lecture Notes).
In 1962, nearly one of every four Americans lived in poverty. After becoming President, Lyndon Johnson declared a "war" on poverty and created federal programs that were designed to guarantee a certain standard of living for all Americans. If you couldn't afford medical care, then Medicare or Medicaid would pay for it. If you needed job skills, then the Job Corps would train you. VISTA, head start, school lunches, food stamps, the federal government's programs would take care of you from cradle to grave.
These program were highly successful, and with the "notable exception" of rural poverty and families headed by women, were highly successful at reducing the numbers of Americans living below the poverty line. There was however a dark side to the silver lining. Just as Roosevelt had feared when he created the New Deal programs during the Great Depression, people came to rely on the government's relief programs as a substitute for hard work and economic success. "Relief" became an "end" in and of itself instead of as a "means" to a better life as the founding fathers had envisioned.
In a simpler time, without big business and special interest groups all trying to influence a government involved in day to day decisions affecting the nation's economy, the answer to the question, "how much help does the government owe someone down on their luck?" may have been "None, let them find work." In an industrialized society, where a lifetime of acquired skill in a trade may force someone out of the ranks of productive employment overnight because of a business decision, that answer is not acceptable.
No one questions the government's obligation to help those that can't help themselves. No one questions the government's role to secure for individuals the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution. What we have a hard time understanding is the government's role in securing economic opportunities for individuals. The problem, as always, confronting the liberal capitalist ideal is exactly how much should the government do for someone before they are required to do something for themselves?