Early Corporate Welfare: “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen”
A friend pointed out a fascinating article on “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen“ which the author points to as a precedent for Congress mandating health coverage for citizens of the United States.
I don’t have any disagreement with his conclusion, that the Constitution in no way prevents the government from mandating . . . well anything really, but specifically the purchase of some consumer good or service. I’m most interested by the story behind his example which is already pretty illuminating, but becomes even more so when translated from its high-school civics format into a reality-based narrative (a process I humbly think of as conferring a Zinn-like quality to the tale).
But before we get to that, one last word on the Constitution and those who believe it constrains human behavior in any way: it doesn’t. Unless the goal of drafting the Constitution was to create the largest government apparatus in human history (and as I recall, the goal was supposedly the opposite–but opposite often accompanies violent solutions to problems), the piece of paper has missed its mark. A quick stroll through the Bill of Rights while simultaneously observing the interactions of the state with the citizenry should register an multitude of discrepancies across the spectrum.
On to the tale. We begin with “the founders” in 1798 . . .
During the early years of our union, the nation’s leaders realized that foreign trade would be essential to the young country’s ability to create a viable economy. To make it work, they relied on the nation’s private merchant ships – and the sailors that made them go – to be the instruments of this trade.
Zinnified: The rulers of the nascent United States were tightly tied to overseas shipping. Many of the revolutionaries had been smugglers or associated with organizations who opposed the British crown’s claim to a portion of the revenue from shipping in and out of major colonial harbors. Everyone in the political class of the time stood to benefit from increased shipping profitability, either directly as a merchant, or indirectly as one in control of the newly won power to levy taxes.
The problem was that a merchant mariner’s job was a difficult and dangerous undertaking in those days. Sailors were constantly hurting themselves, picking up weird tropical diseases, etc.
The troublesome reductions in manpower caused by back strains, twisted ankles and strange diseases often left a ship’s captain without enough sailors to get underway – a problem both bad for business and a strain on the nation’s economy.
Zinn’d: The problem is that physical laborers get hurt and decrease the workforce willing to work at a particular wage level. When the number of available workers doesn’t meet the supply required by business, business has to increase wages . . .
a political solution can be sought, which, when the beneficary is the ruling class, it always is. The government built a series of hospitals to treat “injured and ailing” sailors. And who paid for the hospital system that was so obviously benefiting the shipping industry?
This government provided healthcare service was to be paid for by a mandatory tax on the maritime sailors (a little more than 1% of a sailor’s wages), the same to be withheld from a sailor’s pay and turned over to the government by the ship’s owner.
Ah, no Zinn-lation needed here. Sailors preferred to spend money on pursuits that did not directly benefit their rulers and employers (not even %1, apparently). They could not be induced to contribute to this collective endeavor voluntarily, so the monopolist of violence was called on to compel the workers to subsidize the business interest.
Here we are 200+ years later and look how fantastically this system has worked out for our rulers. So many of the things that one might expect a profitable company to pay for: medical care, retirement, and insurance for the workers; and even infrastructure and dispute resolution (courts) that almost exclusively benefit the corporate class are all paid for by the workers themselves.
The workers produce for a the military that occupies foreign countries to ensure corporate control of resources and foreign labor, which helps drive down domestic wages. They even pay for the domestic security state which protects the property of the rulers from workers who have fallen on desperate times.
The children of the workers are collateral on loans taken out and handed to the corporate class and the meager savings, where they exist, have their value driven towards zero by the creation of additional dollars that are summoned from thin air and spent by the state, typically to buy products from favored corporations.
Sooooo, yeah. Nothing groundbreaking with this particular aspect of compulsory mandate. It’s interesting that anyone even noticed, really. For anyone who is concerned that our rulers will have their plans foiled by their own courts in this matter, put aside your fears. Any setback will be extremely temporary, and the corporate-political class will carry on draining the wealth and resources of the country until it’s time for them to board a plane and flee the wreckage that their rule has created.
-  It’s funny to note that the naming-things-the-opposite-of-what-they-do scheme, popularly identified by Orwell’s 1984, extends all the way back to this act. An act that forces seaman to pay for the suppression of their own wages named an act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen. Brilliant. ↩
-  That’s the narrative anyway. See RadGeek’s comment for the actual reasons for the creation of the Constitution, which are entirely correct ↩