Conservatism And Poverty

One of my continual questions about conservatism (as a conservative) is what exactly it is supposed to be conserving. For example, conservatives are often considered opponents of government provided support to the poor. Yet at least for religious conservatives, conservatism in North America in one way or another has been enormously influenced by the thought of John Calvin. And what was Calvin’s approach to this problem? Robert M. Kingdon, in his article “Social Welfare in Calvin’s Geneva,” (The American Historical Review 76, Feb. 1971, pp. 50-69) writes:

A study of social welfare in Calvin’s Geneva must focus on a single institution, the Hopital-Général, or General Hospital. It was much more than a “hospital” in the modern sense of the term. It was rather an all-purpose institution that provided “hospitality” to all sorts of people who were recognized to possess needs that they could not meet with their own resources. It maintained a large building in the center of Geneva that housed several dozen children-most of them orphans or foundlings-and a smaller number of older people whlo were too old, too sick, or too badly crippled to care for themselves. It distributed bread every week to poor households throughout the country and provided shelter and food every evening to visitors who had just arrived in Geneva and could not pay for their own accommodations. (52)

This was an institution partially funded and and fully overseen by the city, and approved of by Calvin. And this particular development, a change to pre-Reformation approaches to welfare (by means of laicization and rationalization), was indeed well-conserved:

The greater radicalism of the Genevan reforms may help to explain their greater permanence, for the Geneva General Hospital proved to be a remarkably durable institution. It continued in operation until the late nineteenth century with only one major interruption, which was caused by the French Revoluition. In 1869 it was reorganized and converted into a new institution called the Hospice-Général, with headquarters in the same neighborhood as the old General Hospital. The Hospice-Général is still standing and ministering to the problems of the poor in Geneva in ways that have not changed substantially since 1535. It would appear that there are times in history when radical reform, however painful it may seem at the time, proves to be more permanent than moderate reform. (69)