January 09, 2009

Welfare, Religion and Immigration

One of the major problems of modernity is the difficulties related to concentrations of wealth, immigration and the demands of the poor for welfare. Poor immigrants migrate to richer regions in pursuit of higher wages and thus face universal welfare states with the challenge of how to treat them until they too grow richer. That problem is visible in the United States, Western Europe and even Eastern China: it will probably become a problem in India soon and underlies some of the issues in Israel and Palestine. It is a very interesting and difficult issue for policy makers- and yet it is assumed that it is a new problem, it is not- and I think it is interesting to look at an older treatment of the same issues in the 17th Century Netherlands- not because the alternative is neccessarily better but because it is an alternative way of thinking about the issues that we all face today.

The Netherlands in the 17th Century was an incredibly rich economy- it retained its dominance of the poor trades I noted below- and extended that dominance into luxury goods, like imports from the Americas and Indies. The effect on wages within the Netherlands was dramatic- whereas after 1590 in Western Europe the general trend was for living standards to fall- in the Netherlands wages continued to rise. In 1585 wages in the north were similar to those in the south, by 1609 Willem Usselincx warned that wages were making Dutch industry uncompetitive. Wages in Leiden for example were more than 50% higher than those in Ghent or Bruges for the same jobs. At Antwerp, a high wage city in the south, a bricklayer might earn between 12 to 14 stuivers a day, in Leiden, Delft or Alkmaar such a labourer earned 22 to 24 stuivers a day. The Southern Netherlands had higher wages than Germany, France or England at this point- and despite higher taxes and rentals, it is true to argue that the Northern Netherlands was in general wealthier than the south or any other area within Europe.

What this caused was massive immigration to the north across the century. Recalling that most cities in the early modern period saw no natural increases and increased generally due to immigration, the figures for increases in Dutch cities are incredible across the period we are discussing. Amsterdam's population went from 30,000 in 1570 to 140,000 in 1647- the space of a lifetime. Leiden's population quadrupled in the same period. The Hague's population went from 5,000 to 18,000 people. Haarlem, Rotterdam and Middleburg's population tripled. Enkhuizen, Doordrecht and Hoorn doubled in size. It is quite incredible to think in that case of the repeated plagues that destroyed the Dutch urban population in this time- in 1602 it is estimated that 15% of the population of Amsterdam died whilst epidemics afflicted Leiden about once every ten years. Main sources of immigrants included of course the rural Netherlands, but also the southern Netherlands, Lutheran Germany and England. Within the Republic you ended up with two economies though- one based on the maritime West which thrived and the other on the rural East which declined relatively in the early 17th Century.

We have therefore wage disparity and we have massive immigration- the problem that the Dutch government faced from this was a pretty interesting one and its a familiar one, how do you create out of the immigrants that come in a citizen body. The Dutch had at least one answer that ressembles thinking at the moment: they generally based their distribution on historical lists- stopping payments from going to new immigrants. New Immigrants could not expect any money- they were expected to find jobs as they arrived. One thing that the Dutch had which modern societies do not neccessarily have was that the pull to the Netherlands was in part an ideological pull- towards a republican Calvinism that attracted migrants from the southern Netherlands and the rest of the Protestant Northern European landmass. But what they also used was welfare. Welfare in the Netherlands was, as Sir William Temple argued, far in advance of anything else seen in Europe. One English observer compared the Dutch mental hospitals to the houses of noblemen in England, Cosimo de Medici, son of the Duke of Tuscany, was astounded, reporting on the cleanliness and good order in which inmates were kept, Sir Dudley Carleton compared the Dutch system to that of a well run house. In a sense there was a simple economic rationale behind this- in a system that had an excess of employment and sucked up immigrants like a hoover, orphans could be put to use spinning twine, the poor could be turned into prosperous workers. Definitely that was part of the ideology of these programs- the deserving poor received money to return to work.

There is something else going on here though of interest and that is that welfare was tied within the Netherlands to identity. Firstly it was a privilege granted to religious establishments to cater for their own people- Jews, Lutherans, Calvinists and others had extensive facilities and lists of the deserving poor: significantly those like the Catholics perceived as dangers to the state were not included within this social compact. Secondly these programs were seen as a way to strengthen civic identity, in Middleberg in 1602 orphans were clothed in uniforms with the emblem of the city on their right sleeve. In Haarlem likewise uniforms denoted the status of being poor- but also the pride of the city in caring for its own. Regents, leading town officials, took an important interest in all the functionings of the Dutch welfare system- at Goes for example three regents presided over the town hospital. Civic identity here maintained something as important- an ideal of the Netherlands as a godly society- as Israel says welfare measures were tied as well to laws penalising drunkenness, licentiousness and rowdiness. These laws were the other side of the coin of sustaining a virtuous citizendry.

We should understand the aspirations of the governors of the Netherlands as being to create a citizen- as well as a state. The godly citizen, soberly going about his business, was a political creation- a political creation to both inculcate reason within the general population and to stimulate economic growth but also to fortify the polity. It is not advisable to draw lines between centuries- but in a sense I think we can see the Netherlands facing a real modern problem- that of immigration and republicanism, of geographical wage inequality. Whether the mixture of religion and welfare that they crafted to meet the problem was right is another matter- but it is interesting to see that it was in the Netherlands, possibly the most dynamic, cosmopolitan and tolerant society of 17th Century Europe, that you see the development of this type of welfare state- flowing out of civic and religious pride and ultimately towards the ends of the Republic itself. In a sense, the institutions of welfare in the Netherlands demonstrated that the country was, in Machiavelli's words, a republic designed for increase.