Social Welfare Policy


One way of seeing how social welfare policy is created is to examine famous trials.


For example, let us briefly look at four cases:


1.      State of Illinois v. Leopold and Loeb

2.      Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes

3.      The Nuremberg Trial

4.      Tavoulareas v. The Washington Post


In the first two of the above trials the defendants had America's greatest trial lawyer defending them and both of these trials were the most famous of their time.  The lawyer was Clarence Darrow, the times were 1924 and 1925---after World War One and before the Depression. 


The Leopold and Loeb case dealt with capital punishment.  The basic message was that, no matter how horrible a crime is committed, a civilized society does not sink to the depths of the accused by killing them. Policy, especially when it comes to life and death decisions, should not be driven by passion, especially the passion for retribution. 


The Scopes trial dealt with religious fanaticism.  The basic message was that fanaticism kills logic, denies facts, and should not be allowed to determine public policy.


The Nuremberg Trial was where, after World War Two, the allies put Hitler's top henchmen on trial.  The basic message was: you are responsible for your actions, even if you were acting under orders.  If you carry out the policies of others, and those policies are evil, then you are evil and responsible for the results.


Tavoulareas was the president of Mobil oil, one of the world's largest and most powerful companies.  He sued the Washington Post for a series of articles that pointed out how he had used his influence to establish his son in a business that made the boy a multimillionaire overnight.  The basic message was: you can't sue for slander just because you don't like being caught behaving in ways that you hoped would remain secret.  The behavior of those who run our corporations should always be subject to the piercing light of full disclosure.  The policy issue is freedom of the press, the right of the public to information.


Of the first three cases, a number of movies have been made dramatizing the issues.  The Tavoulareas case has yet to be made into a movie, however, a number of movies have been made dealing with the behavior of corporations.




All of the four cases are most interesting if you have the opportunity to read the trial transcripts.  I urge you to do so.  The Leopold and Loeb transcript is Volume VIII, the Scopes transcript is Volume III, the Nuremberg transcript is Volume VII, and the Tavoulareas transcript is Volume IV or Irving Younger's Classics of the Courtroom.


What I am advocating is that we utilize movies and courtroom transcripts as powerful sources for teaching policy.  We need to bring policy alive and nothing does this more dramatically than movies.  Hollywood spends millions preparing lessons for our students.  We would be foolish not to utilize these opportunities for changing the way our students understand and emotionally connect with vital policy issues.  By assigning readings from the trail records, students are able to see things that the movies are not able to capture due to the limitations filmmakers labor under.


For example, the above four court cases, supplemented by movies, could help our students understand that Social Welfare Policy should be driven by these four principles:


1.      All of us should be treated with dignity and humane concern.  The only passion that should influence policy is love.

2.      Policy should be soundly built upon foundations of fact and logic.  We should not allow fanaticism to determine policy, even when the fanaticism contends that it supports positive values.  Ends can justify no means.

3.      No acceptable excuses, no scapegoats, we are all responsible for developing and implementing policies that will create a just society, policies that will end the endemic oppression that influences all aspects of our society.

4.      One of the most important ways we create effective policy is by having and encouraging policies that ensure an open information flow---no secrets, no games.  Whistle blowers, yes.  Manipulators of the truth, no.