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Do Social Programs Intrude on 'Moral Space'?

09/19/2012 Comments (36)

As I noted in a previous post, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity asserts that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (Catechism, 1883).

Fine. But what exactly does that mean in regard to our own social and economic situation?

Again, it means, first of all, that the state should not violate the “moral space” of its citizens, a space that is also economic. And that is what too many state social programs, in fact, do.

Morally, it is my duty to provide for my family in my community. Providing for my family isn’t something that is merely altruistic; it’s part of my moral perfection. If the state takes over that moral duty, it has violated the moral “space” wherein I can and must become good. It has taken over moral duties that my wife and my children rightly expect of me.

Violations of moral space, even with good intentions, always bring bad results. Whatever the good intended, the result of our social welfare programs has been the creation of generational welfare dependence, the displacement of husbands and fathers by the state.

Even worse, they have created the situation known as “moral hazard,” where it actually pays to do the wrong thing, and hurts to do what’s right.

Example 1: A single mother will lose state funds if she marries, and she will increase her funds if she has more children out of wedlock. Single-motherhood was the exception when welfare programs were put in place. Now it’s the “norm” because it’s both subsidized and entirely devoid of moral censure.

Example 2, and obviously related to 1: Welfare programs have created, as the “norm,” fathers who are not husbands. Fathers on welfare are strongly discouraged from getting married and providing for their own children because the state’s welfare benefits for them and/or their children are so generous: free dental care, medical care, eye care, orthodontics, food, subsidized shelter and utilities.

This is a fact that can be verified using government calculators provided on the Internet. Do this exercise: Imagine that you are a father on welfare, and thinking of your children’s best interests. Would you get a job? How likely is it that you could get a job that would replace the state’s benefits? How much would you have to make to “break even,” and make the jump from welfare to work “pay”?

I once figured that out for my own situation, using those government-provided calculators available on the Internet. I’d have to make somewhere between $45,000 to $65,000, depending on how one calculates it.

There’s another form of “moral hazard,” one that affects the Church itself. The notion that the state is the primary organ of social charity violates the “moral space” of the Church.

It is primarily the Church’s moral duty to care for the poor, not the state’s. Thinking it’s the state’s duty has led many well-intentioned Catholics to believe that their moral responsibility to the poor is fulfilled by lobbying for state social welfare programs.

That is a shifting of responsibility from themselves and the Church, to the state.

The moral harm done here is twofold. Charity is a theological-moral virtue, not an amoral system of providing entitlements. Like the moral demand upon fathers and mothers to care for their own children, the command to care for the poor is part of the Church’s moral and theological perfection. It is personal, not institutional.

We in the Church are commanded to care for the poor. We are made holy by caring for the poor. We are not made holy by demanding that someone else do it with someone else’s money. (Dare I say it also harms the poor. Indiscriminate state entitlements lead to the “entitlement mentality,” that one is owed charity. The personal care and sacrifice of another to care for me and my family in need leads to gratitude, a kind of virtue.)

The second harm follows upon the unlinking of charity from the demand for holiness. The state’s view of charity, of what social “welfare” means, can be, and often is, radically at odds with the Church’s.

The state’s social welfare programs now include funding for Planned Parenthood, and state supported “sex education.” And that’s moral harm done on top of — and feeding — the destruction of the family outlined above. Making social charity the primary responsibility of the Church again, means that charity will be governed by morality.

Note that I have not mentioned in all this the enormous, unsustainable financial burden of ballooning social welfare programs. That’s to make a point: Even if we could pay for them, even if we weren’t headed for financial collapse, they would be harmful.

But we can’t. Europe is collapsing under the unsustainable weight of its social welfare commitments. Such programs naturally expand, and that expansion cannot be sustained. As Europe all too clearly demonstrates, economic collapse causes grave harm to everybody, even and especially those who previously benefitted from state largesse.

For all these reasons, our social welfare programs need to be downsized, and this in two senses. First, what they try to provide should be, in large part, provided for by the family, local communities and, most emphatically, by the Church, thereby returning moral responsibility to the “moral space” where it belongs, and where it can be administered prudently rather than indiscriminately. Second, such programs, insofar as they exist, must be defined by the actual needs of the recipients, as well as governed by moral (rather than secular) aims.

Obviously, this critique is aimed at the Left. But the Right is also corrected by the principle of subsidiarity, as we’ll see in the next post.

Filed under subsidiarity

About Benjamin Wiker

Benjamin Wiker
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Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is a speaker and author of 10 books, his latest being Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion. His website is