04/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How It Was: Auctioning Off the Poor in Old America

The din of fat cats yodeling in the square about the evils of big government will follow us into 12 percent unemployment and beyond. It won't stop, will never stop, but we do need to take measure of what this game is all about. It's not about socialism versus capitalism, or even about social Darwinism versus social altruism. What it's about is simply greed versus caring. Perspective improves with a look at history.

America in the year 1825 did not know social Darwinism or Charles Darwin (he was only sixteen years old), collectivism or Karl Marx (he was only seven years old), but America did know pockets of poverty, especially in rural areas of the North. In northern farming communities, whole families could be thrown into abject poverty by a sudden family death, a failed crop, an accumulation of too much debt, or any of the human foibles that can lead to financial ruin. In those days there were no food stamps, welfare, workfare, unemployment insurance, or whatever, neither federal nor state assistance for the poor. Paupers were the concern of the local community, communities had only little public money, and the community solution was simple if cruel: the poor were auctioned off in a public spectacle.

They called it "bidding off", and it bears a look because it tells us something about the way people can suffer in the absence of appropriate government attention--and why in hard times appropriate government attention is especially important.

The bidding-off auction was peculiar in that bidders bid down and not up. The lowest bidder received one or more paupers into his care (often whole families were in the dock as a package), and also received his low bid in cash from the local community (usually so much per week and for one year). Since "receiving into care" was understood to mean putting people to work in the fields or as house servants, the objective of the bidder was to obtain pauper labor at a profit--get more out of one or more paupers than feeding and housing costs plus the community payment.

Community payments did not amount to much. You could get a child as a house servant or field laborer plus 10 cents a week as payment by the town if you could manage the child's upkeep. The contract prohibited undue abuse, but enforcement of that provision was essentially nonexistent. The auction process was merely a means to get the poor off the backs of the town in exchange for their labor. Families were easily split up, the wife bid off to one place, the husband to another place, and so on.

In a typical scene, the event would occur at the annual town meeting, usually at the local tavern after some days of posted advertisement of the "sale" in advance. A horde of prosperous potential bidders and not-so-properous onlookers would crowd into the tavern, and after the other town business was finished, a town official would mount the rostrum and act as the auctioneer with all eyes now focused on the auction block.

Many years ago, historian Albert Deutsch gave us the following description:

"Huddled on the auction block is a ragged unkempt group--paupers on sale. Men, women, and children are there, ranging through all ages. Among them may be seen one or two insane persons. The town idiot is in all likelihood present, standing side by side, perhaps, with an epileptic. In front of the block stand the prospective bidders. They survey the unhappy group of humanity with shrewdly appraising eyes, calculating the potential labor value of the human chattels about to be auctioned. For it is clearly understood that the successful bidder is entitled to as much work from his charges as he might extract from them. ... The insane and the feebleminded are often more eagerly sought after, for strong backs and weak minds make good farm laborers."

In America in 1825, we had auctions North and South. In the southern states they had their slaves; everywhere else they had their paupers.

We in America are one nation, diverse in our origins, varied in our interests, rich and poor, smart and not so smart. Like all human societies, we came together because as a group there are some things we can do for each other that we cannot do alone. It's been that way for all humans since the dawn of human history, and if there's anything good about the human condition it's that we make progress and these days most of us do have the capacity to care about each other. It's because of that progress and capacity that we no longer auction slaves and paupers.

In a big country, in order to exercise the capacity to care about each other, you do need a big government. Small government in a country of 300 million people is a useless joke of benefit only to people who imagine they don't need their community or country, or at least don't need them for anything except defense against loss of what they have. Such people are potentially a great danger to everyone else because they don't care about anyone else.

The point of my rant is simple: When we hear the fat cats yodeling in the square about the evils of big government, we need to remember how it was with hardly any government at all.