35 Responses to Catholic Social Teaching and the Welfare State

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    King Frederick William IV called Bismark in 1848 a “Red reactionary, smells of blood, only to be used when the bayonet rules.” Although I greatly appreciate Otto’s mordant sense of humor, I can assure you that he was never a conservative, at least in the American sense, but rather a complete statist.

  • Eric Brown says:

    I read something, somewhere in regard to the preferential option for the poor. It quoted St. Ambrose saying: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    A priest was once talking to a farmer about his fine crops. He kept saying what fine crops the farmer and God had produced. He went on in this fashion for some time when the farmer said, “With all due respect Father, you should have seen this patch of ground when the Lord was working it by himself!”

  • John Henry says:

    Nice post Joe! Welcome to AC.

    …public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor, if possible, in such quantities as may enable them to purchase a little farm, or, at any rate, make a beginning in trade or husbandry…Sadly, this idea — updated for the realities of the modern economy as we see in encyclicals such as Laborem Exercens — is wholly overlooked in modern political discourse.”

    Is this idea really wholly overlooked? My understanding is that many welfare programs require work to receive benefits. I thought this was one of the central features of welfare reform in the mid-90′s.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-07-17-welfare-reform-cover_x.htm

  • Joe says:

    John Henry,

    Thanks for the welcome!

    I do think the idea of distributism is overlooked, because in my view it would entail more government support of cooperative economic organizations, starting with a basic awareness campaign in the major cities (most American co-ops are rural-agrarian).

    Welfare as it currently exists is more akin to the “leaky cask” than the true Distributist ideal. It is benefits distributed to individuals and families, but it doesn’t really provide them with the means to help themselves. Its just temporary support. I think there are a lot of people who do need this, but I also think we have to begin to move beyond it. So that is when I turn to what I think are modern examples of Distributism, such as the Mondragon in Spain or even Gandhian economics.

  • Lara says:

    It isn’t the conservatives who want laissez-faire capitalism, it’s the libertarians. Please get your political groups straight.

    Secondly, there is also the economic theory to be considered. Keynesian economic policies, as the ones being promoted today by the Obama Administration, are based on the same economic theories of Hoover and Roosevelt. These benefit no one, except the individuals at the top in government and finance.

    Keynesian economics, followed by the financial rape of small businesses and workers by way of very high taxes and manufactured inflation leads to economic depression. Less government (notice that I did not say “no government”) intrusion means more money in the economy, and more people *able* to pay taxes. It means more money for government for necessary (and truly beneficial) poverty/social programs, and more money for the Church for her support and charitable causes.

    Conservatives want to see themselves and everyone else succeed and become persons who develop themselves according to their God given gifts and potential.

  • Elaine says:

    Bravo Joe! This sums up a lot of what I have been thinking all along: that there needs to be a BALANCE between too much government regulation (socialism/communism) and too little (unfettered free-market, every-man-or-woman-for-themselves capitalism), and that this balance should be adjusted periodically depending on the state of the economy and other factors.

    I have long felt as if my economic views really don’t fit into either the liberal or conservative category. I am no fan of an all-encompassing nanny state or of enforced redistribution of wealth. Those who argue that the early Christians (as recorded in Acts) practiced communism or socialism, or that many religious orders practice what is essentially communism, overlook the fact that they do so voluntarily, and are NOT forced to do so by the government.

    The “evangelical counsels” — the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience taken by Religious — represent the voluntary renunciation of three natural, God-given rights: 1. The right to earn one’s own living and own private property; 2. The right to marry and raise a family; 3. The right to live and work wherever and however one chooses (according to one’s means). The lifestyle of the early Christians and of religious communities bears about as much resemblance to communism as a happy marriage does to “white slavery.”

    At the same time, I’m not a big fan of the hard core economic conservative crowd who insist that all government is evil or incompetent, all taxation is theft, and all our problems would be solved if only certain classes of people (never, of course, including themselves) stopped living off “our” tax dollars. (As a government employee I represent one of those much-maligned groups.)

    I doubt very much that many of the economic conservatives who most loudly proclaim that the government should get out of the business of charity would be among the first rushing out there to pick up the slack if that actually happened. Particularly the influential Objectivist/Ayn Randian crowd who consider “selfishness” to be a virtue.

    With regard to Joe’s last paragraph, I believe C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity also said something to the effect that since we are fallen and corrupted by original sin, we always find something in Christ’s teaching that we would rather ignore — be it sexual morality, the command to forgive one’s enemies,
    the danger of riches, etc.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Lara & Elaine

    Lara,

    You wrote,

    “It isn’t the conservatives who want laissez-faire capitalism, it’s the libertarians. Please get your political groups straight.”

    I do have them straight. Modern conservatives often share many economic libertarian ideas – while usually rejecting the moral/social ideas. Granted they may not go to the extremes that Ron Paul does, but the mainstream GOP, the Rush Limbaugh types, get pretty close to the ideal. Certainly with respect to social programs and welfare spending, conservatives in the mainstream have always wanted to roll them back if not eliminate them entirely.

    Elaine,

    Thanks for the comment!

  • paul zummo says:

    Certainly with respect to social programs and welfare spending, conservatives in the mainstream have always wanted to roll them back if not eliminate them entirely.

    Not entirely true. (Funny enough, it’s the much bemoaned neo-cons are who more averse to drastic cutbacks in this sector). I’m gonna be late for work if I elaborate, but there’s a little more division here on this score, and I think few conservatives want to completely eliminate welfare spending.

  • Elaine says:

    Paul, there are of course degrees of conservatism among the conservatives, and some go farther than others.

    Another group of economic conservatives I don’t agree with are those who insist on opposing all taxes or tax increases of any kind, and demand that all political candidates make ironclad promises never to raise taxes. That, to me, is like insisting that a candidate promise never to declare war.

    War and tax hikes are, of course, things that should be done only as a last resort, and when done, carried out in a way that causes the least damage to innocent bystanders. However, there are times when they are necessary in order to live up to the obligations governments have incurred. Which is another reason why governments shouldn’t be too quick to incur obligations in the form of expensive social programs, pork projects, future pension benefits, etc. Again, as always, we should not go too far one direction or the other.

  • John Henry says:

    I do think the idea of distributism is overlooked, because in my view it would entail more government support of cooperative economic organizations, starting with a basic awareness campaign in the major cities (most American co-ops are rural-agrarian).

    As I understand it, then, your criticism of current welfare programs is the government needs to create structures or communities of employment (co-ops and such), rather than just encouraging/requiring individuals receiving welfare benefits to work. That’s a very interesting idea; the U.S. can provide tax subsidies or other subsidies to cooperatives. At the same time, Mondragon seems to have risen fairly organically – I am not sure government efforts to create that type of co-op would be successful and it seems to me that most industries have much higher barriers to entry than, for instance, Spain in the 19040′s. But it would be interesting to try on a small scale to see if it worked.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Paul and John,

    Paul,

    I just can’t see the word “few” as accurate here, not after the vitriolic campaign against Obama and the alleged coming of “socialism” (which is still going on). However, I do acknowledge that there is a growing group of social conservatives that want government to continue assistance to the poor – Pew in their political typology study calls them “Pro-Government Conservatives”. And I think at least one GOP candidate, Mike Huckabee, had a more open approach to social spending – because he was a minister and remains a devout Protestant Christian. I do think they are a minority of self-identified conservatives, though perhaps that will change one day.

    John,

    I’ve heard some people complain that the Mondragon exists on subsidies but I don’t think it is true. It did arise organically and I think it has enjoyed government support. I think the government could at least facilitate a) awareness campaigns and b) start ups. It’s just a simple law of physics, it seems to me, that a burden shared is a burden more easily borne. The early Christians knew it – I think the Apostles lived communally because it was most obviously the easiest way people could live simple lives in the service of God with the least amount of burden and toil. The less we struggle to merely live, the more we can struggle to truly serve. Just my opinion, anyway. A distributist community would be the modern equivalent.

  • paul zummo says:

    I just can’t see the word “few” as accurate here, not after the vitriolic campaign against Obama and the alleged coming of “socialism” (which is still going on).

    Joe, I don’t think that one expressing such a viewpoint need be an extreme libertarian. One can oppose massive government intervention in the economy, as the Obama administration is doing, without necessarily believing that the entire social welfare safety net be eradicated. I’d admit to personally being more libertarian in economic outlook, but even I wouldn’t advocate gutting the entire thing, nor really are most mainstream conservatives.

  • Joe,

    First off, welcome to the crew. I wish I’d had the chance to read and respond to your interesting piece sooner.

    A few thoughts in no particular order:

    While it’s true that in rhetoric (especially election year rhetoric) conservatives can often be heard attacking progressives (such as Obama) as “socialist” for their redistributive agenda, I’d have to concur with Paul that it’s not really accurate to characterize conservatives as wanting to do away with welfare largely or wholly in one fell swoop. Certainly, one has seen very little action in that direction out of actual conservative politicians while in office. And to the extent that conservatives have kept some Burkianism about them (and most of the literate ones have) you generally won’t find conservatives advocating sudden large scale social change — even of the kind that they think they’d like in the long term. Part of this is based on conservative principles of preserving rather than rushing into the great unknown, and of course some is just the pragmatic approach of those who have power and don’t want to be seen to slip and do more harm than good.

    On charitable giving, I recall that several studies have shown that conservatives are rather more prone to give to charity than progressives, even when one normalizes for religion. (Interestingly, it is “moderates” who give the very least.) So there may be some basis for the claim that when people advocate government solutions to social problems, they often then assume that they have done their part and don’t bother to give themselves. I would tend to think that the way to improve on this is to focus more on organizations of solidarity than “charity” in the traditional sense. For instance, I’ve always been very impressed with how the Knights of Columbus started off as a fraternal organization in which members all paid dues into a central pot which was then used to take care of the widows and orphans of any members who died. If done on a local level, this provides an incentive to make benefits fair (one may end up the recipient oneself) and also provides people with a social impetus not to cheat the system (we’re generally more reluctant to take advantage of those we know than “the government”.)

    A couple things that have always bothered me about distributism as a solution to social inequalities:

    - Might it not turn out to be the case that a lot of people are actually not very good at being self employed artisans, and thus that they are in some ways better off under “wage slavery” than left to try to shift for themselves. I don’t really like this idea, but it may be true (at least given a culture in which many people have not received much of an education or work ethic.)

    - While I see how the basic principles of distributism might be followed as a guiding principle in deciding how to structure institutions, I’m not sure how you could actually _set up_ a distributist system in any wide sense without running into the sort of top down lack of information problems that Hayak talks about.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Darwin and Paul,

    I guess we may have to agree to disagree about the quantity and the intensity of the demands. I see a pretty determined, long-term GOP project going back to Reagan to take down the entire structure of the New Deal and the Great Society. It may have its ebbs and flows but I think the general thrust of the conservative movement has been towards eliminating social programs. I don’t think the massive “defense” budget is usually what they have in mind when they call for spending cuts. I’ll be open to being shown I am wrong on this. In any case I do agree that there is a conservative bloc that does support populist/welfare economics.

    It may be true that conservatives are more prone to give to charity, but I think a lot of charity actually faces the same problem as a lot of welfare – Aristotle’s “water into a leaky cask” problem. That one comes from a private and the other a public source really doesn’t make a difference. Liberals and leftists don’t give as much to charity because they are more prone to believe in “structures of sin” (if they are Christians), meaning there is a root problem that needs to be addressed – and until it is, charity is like treating the symptom and not the disease. Not saying I wholly agree with that perspective either.

    As for your last two points DarwinCatholic, people often think that distributism means a return to the old guild system or handicraft; I think places like the Mondragon show how it can be updated to meet the demands of modern production. What we are really talking about here is tying work and ownership together in more meaningful ways, and within the context of community. As for the Hayekian problem, distributism doesn’t really necessitate a planned economy – only a regulated one.

  • John Henry says:

    distributism doesn’t really necessitate a planned economy – only a regulated one.

    I am not sure, in the end, that this distinction makes much difference. And I am deeply skeptical of most financial regulation. Both because Congressmen are generally very ignorant/incompetent about financial matters (see,e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley), and because when large amounts of money are involved in regulation/planning, those with the largest Congressional donations or influence tend to benefit disproportionately from the proceedings (e.g. GM).

  • blackadderiv says:

    I think places like the Mondragon show how it can be updated to meet the demands of modern production.

    I have no problem with things like the Mondragon Cooperative, but even Mondragon only accounts for around 4% of the GDP in the Basque region. If it is such a great system one has to wonder why it hasn’t caught on more widely.

  • John Henry says:

    I see a pretty determined, long-term GOP project going back to Reagan to take down the entire structure of the New Deal and the Great Society. It may have its ebbs and flows but I think the general thrust of the conservative movement has been towards eliminating social programs.

    Spending on social security, medicare, and health care increased 84% under Reagan, from $174 billion in 1980 to $319 billion in 1987. Welfare spending increased 44% over the same period. Now, granted, that was with a Democratic Congress, but I think the idea that Reagan rolled back the New Deal, or even attempted it, is largely a myth.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=YllgA5HTsCIC&pg=PA178&lpg=PA178&dq=welfare+spending+under+Reagan&source=bl&ots=fKzCVUGqNQ&sig=wnr-HB3yhOE4SO24nE_JugSdQiQ&hl=en&ei=-3zJSY-1J4jMM83EreoD&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA178,M1

    As I said above, I think the Mondragon Cooperative may be a sui generis phenomenon. But since this is Joe’s first post, and I’m sure he’ll say more in the future, I’ll hold off on further constructive comments.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Blackadd,

    That is a question I continue to ask myself. The truth is that the cooperative model is more widespread than we realize in Europe, the US and the developing world. The problem is that a lot of the time it is rural-agrarian, and it is limited to one business. The Mondragon is unique in that it is a cluster of many cooperatives, complete with its own educational complex. Why THAT idea hasn’t caught on more in the US, I think, has to do with both ignorance and cultural blinders. I think the model promises objective benefits, or at least possibilities, that a lot of Americans aren’t really aware of.

    John,

    If it is a myth, it is one that the Republicans wanted people to believe about them. Even so those are very interesting facts about Reagan that one doesn’t usually hear.

    Why does the public “face” of the conservative movement – the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, the Glenn Becks, et. al. ignore this?

  • John Henry says:

    Joe,

    That’s a complicated subject. Reagan’s name is often used in vain. As I understand it, his approach was to try and ‘starve-the-beast’ gradually. He ran up large deficits and cut taxes in the hope that this would curb long-term government spending. This strategy was largely unsuccessful, and I think it was aimed more at reducing further government expansion, than rolling back the New Deal.

    http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/03/the_pursuit_of_social_democrac.php

    More generally, I’d recommend Grand New Party by Ross Douthat & Reihan Salaam. The first half of the book gives a quick and accessible history of the New Deal and its aftermath through to the present. It explores the myth of Reagan v. the conservative and liberal understanding of him pretty well. The second half of the book has a lot of policy prescriptions and ideas aimed at broadening the safety net in ways; many of which, I expect, would be less favorably received by BA and Darwin.

    http://www.amazon.com/Grand-New-Party-Republicans-American/dp/0385519435/ref

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Joe, a fine thoughtful post. I have never thought much of distributism but you make interesting points. I look forward to reading your next contribution to the blog.

  • John Henry says:

    Donald’s comment reminds me. I said it in my first comment, but I’ll say it again. This is a very good post. I’ve been focusing (perhaps too much) on the 5% that I am either unclear on or disagree with, but that’s just because it seems like that’s where I have the most to learn, and the conversations are more interesting.

  • I think John Henry’s analysis on re Reagan and welfare is pretty much on point. Plus, there’s the element that it’s much easier to rally voters (and to sound elitist here for a moment: especially voters who don’t spend lots of hobby time thinking about policy and economics) around an absolutist statement than an incremental one. At the same time, it’s easiest for your opponents to keep the absolutist label in place as well, so because it makes you scarier to their voters. So both the GOP and the Democrats have an interest in maintaining “lets abolish welfare” rhetoric in relation to conservatism, even though conservatives have at most tried to either slow the growth of social services or else make them more heavily means tested and work dependent.

    From my own point of view, which is probably more Burkian than your average talk-show host, there’s also a lot to be said for not changing anything quickly, unless it’s such a massive injustice that haste has to be used. (Abortion, slavery, segregation, etc.) So in that sense, while I am very suspicious about expanding social safety net programs without a lot of care not to create the wrong kind of incentives, I would not advocate getting rid of what we have quickly, though I would support changes which would try to make sure they only go to the right people and encourage them to get back on their feat as soon as possible.

    Or taking a separate issue — I’m not crazy about the idea of government run schools, but at most I’d advocate continuously expanding voucher programs and charter schools until we got to a point where so many kids were in non-centralized school systems that one could look at privatizing the remaining schools, or eliminate the problems that result from the current system. Gradualism in everything.

    (Which is, on a side note, why I’d tend to see a Ron Paul type figure as profoundly unconservative in his approach — assuming he’s serious about all his suggestions.)

    But I hope all this doesn’t come off as pummeling your article. I’m very much looking forward to having another writer on board who’s interested in economics and political theory.

  • blackadderiv says:

    The Mondragon is unique in that it is a cluster of many cooperatives, complete with its own educational complex. Why THAT idea hasn’t caught on more in the US, I think, has to do with both ignorance and cultural blinders.

    That the idea hasn’t caught on more in the U.S. is perhaps understandable. That it hasn’t caught on more in Basque Country is harder to get around.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Well I’m glad to see that my little article generated discussion. I do plan on saying more about distributism in the future. To me what is important is that we strive to ground our political and social views in what Scripture and Tradition have shown us to be true, to try and remain as free as possible from the taint of modern ideology, though I suppose we can’t ignore it altogether.

    I also suppose there is more I have yet to learn about conservatism. I do recall studying Burke as a political theory student, but I can’t say I have met or known too many Burkeians. I liked Mike Huckabee during the GOP primaries, though I’m not sure if he qualifies.

    Anyway, thanks for all the positive comments. It’s a nice change of scenery than what I am used to on some other websites.

  • Elaine says:

    Actually, it was Democratic President Clinton who abolished “welfare as we know it,” or sort of did. It was under his Welfare Reform Act that welfare in its classic form, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, became known instead as “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families” or TANF, and a five-year limit was placed on how long one could receive it. There are, however, numerous ways to stop the five year “clock” on benefits running out (for example, if one is enrolled in postsecondary school or a vocational training program) so long-term welfare recipients do still exist, though not as many as did 15 or 20 years ago.

    On a related topic, I am aware that surveys show social conservatives, particularly those who are religious, are actually more generous to charitable endeavors than their liberal or “moderate” counterparts.

    However, you would not know it from reading virtually any newspaper’s online blog comments concerning stories on the homeless or the poor. Those inevitably become cluttered with rants about people using Link cards in the grocery store and driving away in SUVs, welfare queens allegedly having babies just to get the extra check, lazy state workers who are assumed to have gotten their jobs purely through political connections, etc. and how they are all supposedly living a contented, responsibility-free life at the expense of the virtuous, hardworking middle class. From this, plus the more publicized anti-welfare-state rants of the prominent conservative/liberatarian pundits, I conclude that many of those screaming the loudest for government to get out of the business of charity wouldn’t be too quick to pony up themselves if that happened.

  • Elaine says:

    Not to mention pundits like Michael Savage branding autistic children as nothing more than spoiled brats whose parents aren’t disciplining them enough.

  • paul zummo says:

    ut I can’t say I have met or known too many Burkeians. I liked Mike Huckabee during the GOP primaries, though I’m not sure if he qualifies.

    No, not even close, but that would be a fine discussion to have.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    John,

    Very interesting indeed. But I think as Catholics we have to find a way to manage this problem:

    “The most successful co-ops, however, are those least shackled by ideology.”

    One could (and many do) replace the word “ideology” with religion — especially in the case of the Mondragon, which was founded by a Catholic priest. In my latest submission here I quoted Pope Benedict’s 1985 article dealing with the market and ethics, where he points out the problem of business leaders who keep their Christianity separate from their conduct in the market.

    I would rather fail doing the right thing, than succeed doing the wrong thing. What does God require of us?

  • John Henry says:

    In my latest submission here I quoted Pope Benedict’s 1985 article dealing with the market and ethics, where he points out the problem of business leaders who keep their Christianity separate from their conduct in the market.

    Pope Benedict is right to point out this problem; it has serious implications for anyone trying to be a faithful Catholic in the U.S. And we may not do evil that good may come of it.

    But the issue under discussion is what means best promote the common good. It isn’t clear to me that there is a definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer regarding executive pay, as discussed vis-a-vis ‘ideology’ in the article.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Maybe there is, or maybe there isn’t, a “right answer” but at the very least we should be on guard against those who would dismiss answers because they are “ideological”.

    Recall that Pres. Obama overturned Bush’s bans on stem cell research with a declaration that “ideology” will no longer trump science. This same logic is used by others to basically argue that the Church has nothing relevant to say about the economy. Economic “science” has supposedly decided that x works better than y, and this ought to settle the matter.

    What I know is that practically every group has had their turn at the wheel – Keyensians, neo-Kenesyians, Monetarists, Socialists, the Chicago Boys in Chile – and none of them have been able to create a lasting prosperity that wasn’t based on the hideous exploitation of either their own people, or people in other countries. And each blames their failures not on their own ideology of course, but the obstacles inherited by the regime that they replaced.

    What we need is a Christian economy that begins with us.

  • John Henry says:

    Joe,

    I’m less concerned about the use and abuse of the word ‘ideological’ myself. It’s a common rhetorical strategy used by people on both sides of nearly every issue. The writer is always empirically grounded; his opponent is always an ideologue. A cynic might say the definition of an ideology is an opinion the writer does not share. Even were the word ‘ideology’ retired, the same strategy would still be used.

    As to exploitation, I agree that it is a problem which recurs in nearly every society in recorded history. I have little hope that a new political/economic program will solve it.

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