One hundred and thirty six years ago this week, Winston Churchill—arguably the leading statesman of the twentieth century—was born. The son of a British father and an American mother, Churchill is often remembered for his formidable oratory skills and his love of fine cigars. Yet Churchill was also a great friend to America whose warnings about the empty promises of the nascent welfare state have come to fruition.
A great admirer of America, Churchill especially praised our founding document: “The Declaration is not only an American document. It follows on the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking peoples are founded.” Though Britain and America were two separate nations with different forms of governments, they were united in principle: “I believe that our differences are more apparent than real, and are the result of geographical and other physical conditions rather than any true division of principle.” As Justin Lyons explains in “Winston Churchill’s Constitutionalism: A Critique of Socialism in America,” Churchill’s ideas about individual liberty, constitutionalism, and limited government “stemmed from his explicit agreement with the crucial statements of these principles by the American Founders.”
When Churchill saw America’s principles of liberty, constitutionalism, and limited government, threatened with the rise of the welfare state, he admonished America to resist this soft despotism. In “Roosevelt from Afar,” Churchill admits that the American economy was suffering when FDR took office, but FDR used this crisis as an opportunity to centralize his political authority rather than to bolster the free market through decentralized alternatives. Churchill commends Roosevelt’s desire to improve the economic well-being for poorer Americans, but he critiques Roosevelt’s policies toward trade unionism and attacks on wealthy Americans as harmful to the free enterprise system. Drawing on Britain’s experience with trade unions, Churchill understood that unions can cripple an economy: “when one sees an attempt made within the space of a few months to lift American trade unionism by great heaves and bounds [to equal that of Great Britain],” one worries that result could be “a general crippling of that enterprise and flexibility upon which not only the wealth, but the happiness of modern communities depends.” Similarly, redistribution of wealth through penalties on the rich harms the economy: “far from depriving ordinary people of their earnings, [the millionaire] launches enterprise and carries it through, raises values, and he expands that credit without which on a vast scale no fuller economic life can be opened to the millions. To hunt wealth is not to capture commonwealth.” Ultimately, attacks on the wealthy only serve as a distraction from other economic issues.
We can readily recall Churchill’s foresight in foreign affairs—his warnings about appeasing Hitler and the rise of the Soviet Union—but we forget his warnings about America’s welfare state. Unlike the progressives in America and abroad, Churchill recognized that tyranny is still possible—even with a well-intentioned welfare state. Political change does not necessarily mean change for the better. Throughout the nineteenth century, political progress was assumed to be boundless and perpetual. After “terrible wars shattering great empires, laying nations low, sweeping away old institutions and ideas with a scourge of molten steel,” it became evident that the twentieth century would not live up to the nineteenth century’s promise of progress. Democratic regimes—even in America—would not be immune from destruction and degradation.
Years later, Churchill’s warnings about trade unionism and redistribution have proven accurate. Though our current economic situation seems bleak, we must also remember (as Churchill reminds us) that politics is not a mere victim of history. Just as progress is not inevitable in politics, neither is decline. Isn’t it time we looked to our old friend Winston Churchill?
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