It’s one thing in my view to suggest there are serious problems with what social programs today have become, a suggestion to which I’d nod my head in agreement more times than I wouldn’t. The ineptness, the corruption, the dependencies created are all reasons for reform but should social programs go away entirely? Are they in fact, sinful?
The Church has been skeptical of the growth of the welfare state over time. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II criticized the welfare state on the grounds that it usurped what is properly reserved to individuals, families, and local communities. This criticism is often invoked not only as a sort of final word for Catholics on welfare, but also as an endorsement of a laissez-faire approach to social and economic issues.
But John Paul II goes on to make two things quite clear: first, that the modern welfare state that he’s criticizing does not constitute a blanket condemnation of all welfare policies, especially of the sort initially promoted by Bismarck or even the American liberals of the 1930s. Second, in keeping with Pius XI, he argues that individualism is not the antidote to excessive statism but is in fact another force as hostile to the notion of solidarity and charity as the welfare state is to the principle of subsidiarity.
As he writes:The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of State administration. People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve.
Given all of this, I sometimes wonder about the blanket conservative rejection of the welfare state. If charity is superior to welfare, why is it not more widely practiced to the point where welfare would be entirely superfluous? Is it because people assume that there is a welfare state to take care of problems they would love to take care of themselves through their own charitable donations, but see no need to? Or is it because the atomization of society through the operations of an amoral marketplace has created a society that, to use John Paul II’s term, has become “personalized”? If charity is not forthcoming from a society of individualistic consumers, how else are the poor and desperate to find the relief they need?
I am not an ardent supporter of the welfare state, insofar as it treads upon those areas of social life that would violate the principle of subsidiary. At the same time, however, there are certain needs and rights that would not be met even in the minimum if all state assistance were to dry up tomorrow. It often appears to those of us who support at least some welfare provisions that those who oppose them in an angry, categoricalsense are simply concerned about their own bank accounts, forgetting entirely the Christian teaching (in both Scripture and Tradition) about the nature and purpose of wealth. It was summarized by Pius XI:[A] person’s superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.
One may legitimately ask whether the government should play any role in seeing that a person uses his extra income as it ought to be used. The idea of “forced charity” is a contradiction in terms. However, how can we ever ensure that charity is actually performed without admonishing the sinner? Far from admonishing, there are many who lavish endless praise on the excessively wealthy and appear more concerned with safeguarding their money than with the condition of the poor or the integrity of society. What the wealthy do with their money is often of far less concern to them than whether or not a poor person harbors an envious thought towards them. These priorities are skewed.
Distributism in the Aristotelian and Catholic tradition is the answer to the twin evils of consumerist selfishness and isolation, as well as over-dependence on a powerful government. It is the key to regenerating the community and its economy, strengthening the position of the family, creating a local infrastructure to support a Culture of Life, and better managing the wild swings of the global marketplace.
When it leads to dependence, laziness, and the usurpation of the legitimate role of local institutions, welfare is indeed both harmful and sinful. But if through wise policies it can be made to strengthen those institutions and make them more competent in their tasks, then complaints about redistribution of excessive wealth — clearly understood as wealth beyond what one needs to maintain a dignified life — ring hollow. Such policies in truth ask so little and promise so much that it would be irrational not to try them.
In the end there is no difference between the conservative who wants total freedom with respect to wealth and the liberal who wants the same with respect to sexuality. Both argue that society shouldn’t use coercion to ensure a moral result in the area of life where they would like freedom to sin. Both are sure that while God would insist that one be regulated by the secular authorities, the other is left to personal conscience. While abortion is a more grave matter than clinging to personal wealth, the same flawed argument is used to defend it: It’s my body, it’s my wealth, it’s my property. But all things belong to God, be they children or wealth, and are merely entrusted to us to be used for the common good.
Hargrave’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, particularly for the faithful Catholic, the serious Christian, the committed believer. It’s an interesting and much needed perspective, one that should become part of any debate focused on government social programs and the need for welfare, particularly as the Presidential race heats up.
Crossposted at Brutally Honest.