Final Word

Welfare and the circus are still both in town


With the present crisis in government’s welfare system, we traced history the concept of state sponsored welfare and discovered it goes back a very long way.

The word welfare, itself, is not all that old, and arrived in the English vocabulary in the late 14th century, from Old English’s wel faran in the sense of “being or, doing well,” from well and faran, meaning “get along.”

It is related to the Old Norse word velferth and German’s wohlfahrt, which both literally means “travel well.”

In the modern-day sense of the word, defined as government providing for a minimal level of well-being and social support for citizens without sufficient means to provide for themselves, one could almost described it a system or programme to ensure even the poor and/or less privileged have a good life-journey.

In modern English, a slang word or synonym, dole, was coined during World War I, deriving from “doling out” (handing out) charitable gifts of food or money. This dates back to at least 1919, when it was recorded in The Daily Mail as short for “doleskum.”

However, the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica already carried an article on the word dole, for charitable distribution of food and money, claiming it derives from the Old English word dal, from which we also get the word deal.

Old political tool

As a political tool to keep the broad population content, however, the concept of welfare or the dole in Western society dates back at least to the Roman Empire’s first emperor Augustus, who reigned from the year 63 BC until 14 AD.

He provided the so-called  Cura Annonae ("care for the grain supply"), in honour of their goddess Annona. The grain dole was distributed from the Temple of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture.

But, it was not always just political. According to economist Robert Henry Nelson, "The medieval Roman Catholic Church operated a far-reaching and comprehensive welfare system for the poor.”

Neither was it restricted to Western civilisation or the Roman Catholic Church.

The Song dynasty government (c.1000AD in China) supported multiple programs in China, which could be classified as social welfare. It included the establishment of retirement homes, public clinics, and paupers' graveyards.

And, in the Islamic world, Zakat (charity tax), has been collected by the government since the 7th century to provide the needy, including the poor, elderly, orphans, widows, and the disabled.

Government welfare programmes have become, more or less, the norm in all modern states.

Circus tradition

While emperor Augustus is credited with starting the strategy of a dole to keep the broad, ordinary population out of a state of desperation, later emperors also introduced gladiator games and other forms of entertainment to keep them happy and calm.

From that we got the expression “Bread and circuses” (panem et circenses, in Latin), indicating meaningless attempts at appeasement.

Judged by the extent to which the social grant crisis in South Africa has become a public spectical, the circus- or gladiator games tradition is not quite dead yet.

But, as a final word, the South African gladiator games, has exactly the opposite result to that of appeasing the broad, ordinary population.

Also read: Can SA parliament fend off creeping autocracy?

                    State capture about to become complete?

by Piet Coetzer

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