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Bismarck’s Reichstag Speech on the Law for Workers’ Compensation (March 15, 1884)

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Parliament should be capable of preventing evil; it should be able to set its veto against the dangers that can be associated with a monarchist government and with every government marked by wastefulness, bureaucratic narrowness, plans based on unrealistic ideas, and political corruption. [ . . . ] It should be able to prevent bad laws from being passed, it should be capable of hindering the squandering of the nation’s money; but rule, gentlemen, that it cannot do. I do not wish to enter into particulars over this; there will be another opportunity to give a lecture on fundamental conceptions with respect to this matter.

I also do not know what one would set in the place of the parliament in order to guard against the dangers that would surround a nonparliamentary government, which would have no openness, no freedom of the press. I mean that in complete seriousness.

[ . . . ]

[The real question] is whether the state – by state I always mean the empire – whether the state has the right to abandon to chance the performance of a responsibility of the state, namely, to protect the worker from accidents and need when he is injured or becomes old, so that private companies form that charge premiums from the workers and the employers at whatever rates the market will bear. . . . As soon as the state concerns itself with these matters at all, however – and I believe that it is the state’s duty to concern itself – it must strive for the least expensive form and must take no advantage from it, and above all not lose sight of the benefit for the poor and the needy. Otherwise one could indeed relinquish the fulfillment of certain state duties, such as among other things the care of the poor, in the widest sense of the word, as well as schools and national defense [ . . . ] to private stock companies. [ . . . ] In the same way one can continue to believe that the whole of the state’s responsibility must in the end be left to the voluntary formation of private stock companies. The whole problem is rooted in the question: does the state have the responsibility to care for its helpless fellow citizens, or does it not? I maintain that it does have this duty, and to be sure, not simply the Christian state, as I once permitted myself to allude to with the words “practical Christianity,” but rather every state by its very nature. It would be madness for a corporate body or a collectivity to take charge of those objectives that the individual can accomplish; those goals that the community can fulfill with justice and profit should be relinquished to the community. There are objectives that only the state in its totality can fulfill. [ . . . ] Among the last mentioned objectives [of the state] belong national defense [and] the general system of transportation. [ . . . ] To these belong also the help of persons in distress and the prevention of such justified complaints as in fact provide excellent material for exploitation by the Social Democrats. That is the responsibility of the state from which the state will not be able to withdraw in the long run.

If one argues against my position that this is socialism, then I do not fear that at all. The question is, where do the justifiable limits of state socialism lie? Without such a boundary we could not manage our affairs. Each law for poor relief is socialism. There are states that distance themselves so far from socialism that poor laws do not exist at all. I remind you of France. From these conditions in France the theories of the remarkable social politician, Léon Say,* whom Herr Bamberger referred to, are quite naturally accounted for. This man expresses the French view that every French citizen has the right to starve and that the state has no responsibility to hinder him in the exercise of his right.

(Hear, hear! On the right).

* Jean-Baptiste-Léon Say (1826–96), French Liberal; finance minister in four cabinets between 1872 and 1882.–ED.

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