The Morality of Coercive Welfare

A very good opinion piece appears in the Wall Street Journal. Groups ranging from the “religious left” to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have advocated for government programs meant to help the needy. There are two problems with that approach.

The secondary and minor problem is whether those programs are effective in producing the desired result. Too often, we get more, not less, of what we subsidize. Welfare programs become traps, where people who find work lose more in benefits than they obtain from employment. It’s debatable whether a particular program is effective, and if it’s not, what adjustments might make it better.

But the primary and greater problem is whether government intervention in the economy is morally right. The bishops and the religious left generally think it is. I disagree, and the authors make a good case for my position:

Wealth and poverty are catalysts for bringing the rich and the poor together in community, and community is the hallmark of the church’s mission on Earth. Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.

The state is a powerful tool, and in a crisis, we may use it because there is no better tool at hand. But we should always do so reluctantly and temporarily. The clerics of the middle ages surely were as concerned about heresy as today’s bishops of are about poverty. And while the welfare state can’t be equated with the Inquisition, the difference is more one of degree than of kind.