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Solidarity and the Welfare State?

10/23/2012 Comments (13)

In the last post, we discussed why the Catholic principle of solidarity does not equal socialism. In this post, we’ll be looking at solidarity and the welfare state.

To many Catholics, the call to solidarity boils down to a call for concern for the poor. If welfare is concerned with the poor, then it would seem solidarity means that Catholics should unambiguously affirm the welfare state. In this view, the welfare state is the incarnation of solidarity, a governmental system that takes care of the poor.

But that identity is questionable. Hence the question in the title of this post: “Solidarity and the Welfare State?”

Let me be very clear that by putting it in question I am not saying that the social safety net should be scrapped. Rather, it needs to be reformed, and the beginning of that reform must be a great shift in responsibility, from the state to us, because that’s where solidarity begins.

Why? First and foremost, as we’ve seen in the previous post, solidarity is a virtue, not a system. It’s something we need in us, an essential part of the formation of our moral character needed for our moral perfection, not an impersonal political, economic or bureaucratic system.

To repeat Pope John Paul II’s words from his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (For the 20th Anniversary of Populorum Progressio), one develops the virtue of solidarity by creating “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (38).

The responsibility is personal.

It is personal in the way that playing the piano is personal. You don’t get good at it without practice. No one can do it for you.

And just as vague warm feelings about playing the piano do not, without practice, make one a good piano player, so also vague feelings about the common good will not give one the virtue of solidarity, and therefore will not have the effect of real solidarity — bringing about the actual common good.

Lobbying the government to act for the common good is certainly good but it cannot take the place of  our personal responsibility to work for the common good. Acting for the common good is, first of all, our personal responsibility, something we must do, not something we must demand of someone or something else while we do little or nothing ourselves.

That’s a hard thing for us to understand these days, almost a foreign thing. Why?

For a host of complex reasons, we moderns are in the habit of transferring what used to be understood as personal virtues to impersonal systems that are supposed to do the work of virtue without any effort on our part. Impersonal systems thereby take the place of personal responsibility.

Rather than demanding personal virtue of those serving in government, we believe that an intricate and ingenious system of checks and balances where ambition is made to counteract ambition can take the place of virtue.

Then we’re surprised when those entrenched in the government adroitly use the system to satisfy their personal ambitions.

Rather than demanding personal virtue in our economic dealings, we believe that each individual eagerly satisfying his self-interest will magically result in mimicking the effects of a just economic order.

Then we’re surprised when the invisible hands in mega-banks grasp the invisible hands in Congress, and the rest of us are caught paying the very visible tab for their self-interested soiree.  

In the same way, instead of personally shouldering the moral responsibility for the common good — especially for the poor — as the virtue of solidarity demands, we have shrugged our shoulders, and given that responsibility to the state, the welfare state. 

Then we’re surprised when welfare programs end up destroying families by encouraging single motherhood and taking away the moral responsibility of fathers for providing for their children; when the generosity of welfare benefits make staying on welfare a far better deal than finding a job; when government defines taking care of the poor in terms of the provision of contraception and abortion; when welfare ends up becoming a multi-generation way of life rather than a temporary help for those in need in difficult times; when welfare creates an entitlement mentality in its recipients, rather than gratitude and a desire to make it on their own as soon as possible.

While governmental programs certainly could promote virtue, and should therefore be supported if they do, they can also promote vice and social destruction. The welfare system as it currently exists certainly does not promote virtue amongst individuals in the general population or amongst the poor themselves.

The immoral effects of the system are, in large part, the result of removing the proper moral cause — morally good individuals trying to have morally good effects in very particular circumstances — and replacing it with an indiscriminate entitlement system (i.e., a system that does not discriminate between morally good and evil effects in its recipients, but simply hands out benefits).

But just as harmful as any of these ill effects, is the notion that it is primarily, even solely, the state’s job to care for the common good, especially the poor. The harm is moral harm — to us.

Deep moral harm.

If Jesus says to us on Judgment Day, “I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me,” we won’t make much headway in replying, “But Lord, I paid my taxes, and the state did all this for me” or “But Lord I voted for all the candidates that supported increasing welfare benefits.”

And let me repeat: All that doesn’t mean that a social safety net is, as such, a bad thing. We aren’t faced with two stark choices: either a welfare state or let the poor fend for themselves. The goal is to shift the burden of moral responsibility back on us as the primary locus of solidarity, and allow the state to supplement our efforts, rather than supplant them.

That way, we become better people, and our charitable efforts will be much more likely to do good than harm because we are looking over them ourselves in our own local communities.

And that accords with the very important Catholic principle of subsidiarity, that “a community of a higher order,” i.e., the state, “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).

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About Guest Blogger/Benjamin Wiker

Benjamin Wiker
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Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., is visiting associate professor of theology 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 benjaminwiker.com