Social Welfare Programs: A Response to Senator Harry Reid

In his recent BYU address, Harry Reid stated that social welfare programs have been very successful in the United States, and that Social Security " is the most successful social program in the history of the world." During his speech, and in the context of social programs, he quoted King Benjamin from The Book of Mormon of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Senator Reid and I share the feeling that it is important to reach out and lend a helping our to each other when we are in need. Our methods of providing this service, however, are diametric opposites.

During his BYU speech, Senator Reid said this:
But never forget the clarion call of King Benjamin: “When you are in the service of your fellow beings you are only in the service of your God.” ...

To what then, was King Benjamin referring?

...I suggest that King Benjamin would consider the Peace Corps, Teach for America, work in a non-profit to help the poor or the sick as commendable service. ...

I propose King Benjamin then was referring to public service, running for elective office, serving in an appointed government board or commission.
He said much more than I have included here, as you can tell by the series of ellipses, but this, in light of his comment about social security being a successful program, is that portion of his words that I want to focus on. I may be inferring too much, but what I think Senator Reid was implying is that King Benjamin was sanctioning government control of support for the needy. It his hard for me through my particular "life lens" to come to any other conclusion. And if I'm right about his inferrence, I strongly disagree with Senator Reid.

Just like I am "reading between the lines" of what Senator Reid said, I may also be reading between the lines of what is written about social welfare in the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that not only was King Benjamin NOT sanctioning government interference in the charitable aspects of social welfare, there is ample evidence in the Book of Mormon that it teaches exactly the opposite. Part of what King Benjamin said was this:
15 But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.

16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

--Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ--Mosiah 4:15-19
The implication here, I think, is that individuals are morally obligated to God to help their fellow men. When government usurps this responsibility, it snuffs out the instinct in humankind to be of service to their fellow men. Therefore, with the evidence of these developments, it is my opinion, contrary to Senator Reid's expressed feelings, that social security is one of the most unsuccessful social programs in the history of the world, because it has suggested (and largely effected) that government has relieved us of our responsibility to serve our neighbor.

A few years after King Benjamin lived, his Nephite society transformed itself from a monarchical society to one where "judges", or representatives and governors, were chosen by the voice of the people. The first "Chief Judge" was named Alma. Early in his first term of office, Alma encountered a situation wherein there was
great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.

--Book of Mormon--Alma 4:12
It is interesting what Alma, the head of the Nephite government, did about the situation. If he subscribed to the philosophies of Harry Reid, the next verse of scripture might read something like the following:
Therefore Alma, seeing a great need for economic equality in the land, established laws requiring the taxation of the people, in order that the poor would have wherewith to provide for their own subsistence.
But it doesn't say that. The governor of the land knew he had no such authority, so he used a different approach. He encouraged the people to be of service to their fellow men.

Instead of establishing new laws, he turned over, with the consent of the governed, his authority to another, who became chief judge. And Alma turned his efforts toward reminding the people--in his new capacity as a civilian--of their responsibility to God to care for the poor among them.
19 And this he did that he himself might go forth among his people, stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.

--Book of Mormon--Alma 4:19
I agree with Harry Reid on several things. But I do not agree with him about Social Security and other social welfare programs, which I think were a terrible mistake.

Government generally, and the US government in particular, has the authority to promote the general welfare. It does not have the authority to take from the people their responsibility to care for each other. What Social Security has done, besides taking over that authority, is to denigrate the institution of the family, whose primary function throughout the ages has been to take care of its own and then to reach outward to help its neighbors. That doesn't happen much anymore--because supposedly government can take care of the problem. Government can't. I'm not sure how Harry Reid thinks that King Benjamin thought it could.

It is interesting how two people could come to such diametrically opposite interpretations of scripture. What is your opinion?

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  1. King Benjamin himself answered the question: "And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day."

    In other words, he has worked hard to instill an ethic that we must help each other out, but not by taxing our neighbors to do it. That's the fundamental problem with social welfare programs: "love thy neighbor" has to be reconciled with "thou shalt not steal". No gospel principle is an island unto itself.

  2. Jesse,

    Thank you. As I was discussing the idea for this article with my wife, she suggested the same verse of scripture.

    It's frustrating to see that Harry Reid can come up with an opposite conclusion, but his upbringing (no religion in the home, and the closest thing to religion being a veneration of FDR) helps me to understand why he feels that way.

  3. Is anybody wondering why liberal professor Arthur C. Brooks has found that "religious conservatives donate far more money than secular liberals to all sorts of charitable activities, irrespective of income"? Part of the reason lies precisely in some of the attitudes that you have outlined here.

    The Left has long held outright disdain for individualized charitable giving because it is unevenly distributed. However, there is no evidence that politically based "fair" distribution produces superior results.

    Also, as a matter of theology, particularly LDS theology, the matter of choice is paramount. We can only aspire to become more Christ-like when we choose to do so of our own free will. Implementing a government program that removes that freedom to choose also necessarily removes the opportunity to become in our hearts and souls what would otherwise be possible. This results in the seeming paradox that selfishness increases with socialization.

    I am also left to ponder what Sen. Reid thinks about the repeated cautions that men whom members of the LDS Church have sustained as mouthpieces of the Lord have uttered for the better part of a century regarding the evils of the public dole. He seems to think that the public dole is the best thing that ever happened to our nation.

    Brother Reid might be a fine HP group leader. I have local priesthood leaders whom I follow joyfully, but with whom I disagree on political matters. Despite Bro. Reid's qualities, I will take the words of the living prophets over his religio-political ruminations any day.

  4. In my opinion he seems to think of the repeated cautions of church leaders that you refer to as the misguided ruminations of Ezra Taft Benson and the right-wingers (whom he referred to in his press conference after the speech).

  5. Great thoughts, all. I like when King Benjamin says that ye yourselves need to succor others. Not the government, not an agent on your behalf, after siphoning your money from you for a "social welfare" purpose, but ye yourselves--individuals. The proper role of government completely excludes any notion of individual, specific welfare.

  6. Brother Reid must take exception with a lot of the brethren other than President Benson. Brigham Young was famous for opposing the philosophies of Marx and Engels in the context of General Conference. Heber J. Grant went so far as to endorse the 1936 opponent of FDR despite being a Democrat. President McKay openly called socialism what it was. Even our current prophet, President Hinckley, has personally lamented the over-reaching government regular in our lives in his book, Standing for Something.

    There might not be an official doctrinal stance on the issue of public assistance, but it seems the personal opinion of many of the presidents of the church leans heavily against it. That's something very important that every LDS should consider.

  7. Frank, you have a faith in human nature that is not borne out by the evidence.

  8. I have evidence that much of human nature was destroyed by the policies of Mao, Lenin, and FDR. You do, too.

  9. Take a good look at what President Heber J. Grant had to say concerning Roosevelt’s Social Security plan. When ever you think of giving up or becoming a part of the Social Security or Federal Income tax lie read this again. He says that such plans are in violation of the revelations of Jesus Christ. Choose you this day who you will serve!

    “We have on, at the present time, a great political campaign (1936), and I want to say to the Saints that I hope they will not allow their political affiliations, their regard for political affairs, to cause feelings of ill-will towards one another. I have had some of the most insulting letters that ever came to me, condemning me for not being in favor of the Townsend Plan, and that I must be ignorant of the plan. I am not ignorant of the plan. I have not read every word of it, but I have asked one of my secretaries to read every word of the plan and to give me the important points, and to my mind it is in direct opposition to everything I have quoted from Brigham Young and from the revelations of the Lord. The idea of allowing every man and woman who has reached the age of sixty years and wishes to retire from working to get two hundred dollars a month from the government! There is nothing truer than Brigham Young's statement, that we should give nothing to people, unless they are not able to work, without requiring them to do something for it….
    “Let every Latter-day Saint who has a farm, farm it, and not try to borrow money to be paid back by the government. Let every man feel that he is the architect and builder of his own life, and that he proposes to make a success of it by working. "Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work," and rest on the seventh. Do not be willing to labor four or five days and then only half labor. Let every Latter-day Saint give value received for everything he gets, whether it be in work, or whatever he does.”—General Conference, October, 1936: 13. President Heber J. Grant

    To become a beneficiary of the Social Security System is A VIOLATION OF Christ’s law and if you do it you embrace the plans of Gadianton just as the “more part of the righteous” had done in Hel. 6:38

    38 And it came to pass on the other hand, that the Nephites did build them up and support them, beginning at the more wicked part of them, until they had overspread all the land of the Nephites, and had seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils, and to join with them in their secret murders and combinations.

    We have been commanded to eschew Socialism. Social Security is Socialism. Anyone that participate is not eschewing socialism.

    Hi Jesse

  10. But Heber J Grant was just one of those right-wingers, wasn't he?


    But seriously, thank you for a very important perspective on the whole issue, a perspective that I don't think Harry Reid has respect for.


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