Two Cheers for the Welfare State

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By David T. Koyzis

The welfare state consists of a network of public, financial benefits originally established to even out the boom and bust extremes of the business cycle. In the United States, the welfare state got its start with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and continued with President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

Although the welfare state's existence is not especially controversial outside of libertarian circles, a number of related issues merit reflection. First, does the state possess the normative competence to provide a diverse array of services beyond its core functions of making and executing the law, as well as judging under the law? Second, does the state bear a legitimate responsibility for resolving social issues such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness and disease?

I would cautiously affirm that government's divine mandate to do public justice calls it to assume some, but certainly not the whole, responsibility for addressing social ills. This is something that the Center for Public Justice has long recognized in its own Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.  Normatively speaking, government's authority extends to coordinating justly the various authoritative agents—both communal and individual—within its territorial jurisdiction. Given its intrinsic limits, government cannot claim to control the activities of these agents in totalistic fashion. Rather, government properly allows each of them to live out its task according to its own unique calling.

At the same time, the state's public character means that it must necessarily concern itself with those phenomena affecting the public realm in which these agents live out their callings. During the 19th century, it was not uncommon for large urban centers in the western world to experience epidemics of cholera. By the 20th century, when the causes of cholera were better understood, governments built water and sewage treatment facilities to ensure that drinking water would not be contaminated by human and other wastes.

One could make a similar argument with respect to poverty and unemployment, whose causes are not always reducible to personal indolence or private vice. Instead, these problems may be rooted in systemic defects in the ordinary economic interactions among people in the marketplace. Government's role can be justified by the reality that widespread poverty will likely prevent authoritative agents from adequately fulfilling their callings. Poverty is not simply a private matter to be addressed on an individual basis. When people are hungry and are scrambling to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads, they will not take the interest in public affairs needed in a constitutional democracy. They will have neither the time nor the energy to organize the variety of associational groups needed for a flourishing civil society.

A society with an impoverished majority will not prosper economically, politically, aesthetically, socially or in myriad other ways, as vertical ties between patron and client prevent the development of the horizontal ties of solidarity necessary for such prosperity. Among the various authoritative agents in society, government is uniquely positioned to coordinate efforts to assist those in need.

Nevertheless, this amounts to only two cheers for the welfare state, rather than the usual three. Libertarians are not altogether wrong to point out that governments are as fully capable of aggravating poverty as of ameliorating it. As Sir Bernard Crick put it, “No state has the capacity to ensure that men are happy; but all states have the capacity to ensure that men are unhappy.” This is not to say that governments should do nothing; however, they do need to recognize that they cannot do everything. In an ordinary society characterized by a pluriformity of authoritative agents, each of these agents has a role to play in addressing such social ills as poverty and unemployment.

Government efforts to combat unemployment must acknowledge that most jobs will always come from the private sector. Something like President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps may be called for in the short term, but it can only be a temporary measure that must be permitted to expire when the private sector is able once more to accommodate those workers seeking permanent employment. For the most part, governments should be prepared to support – financially if necessary – independent initiatives in the fields of poverty reduction, childcare, education and healthcare. However, they must do so equitably and without unduly privileging their own efforts in these areas.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has just completed another book on authority, office and the image of God.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.