The “Practical Christianity” of the Welfare State

Via First Things, The Acton Institute’s PowerBlog discusses the Christian origins of the welfare state:

The church helped to bring about the welfare state in two ways. First, the Church embodied the idea of loving self-sacrifice in service of others. “The Word which the Church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare,” write DeKoster and Berghoef. “The Church is the parent of the welfare community.”

But this “welfare community” became secularized when the Church “did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to her own ideals. Not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless given shelter, not all of the oppressed and exploited relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state. The government undertakes to do what the Church demands and then fails to achieve by herself.”

This all sounds pretty plausible, but it’s worth noting a much more direct link between social welfare and Christianity. Determining the origins of the welfare state is a dodgy business, but I think the first recognizably modern social welfare programs (as distinct from, say, the occasional free grain dole) began in Germany following unification under Otto von Bismarck. Political considerations undoubtedly played a role in the creation of national health insurance and a pension system for retirees, but recall that Bismarck famously described these programs as “practical Christianity,” which ought to give you some idea of how such a notoriously conservative statesman could reconcile himself (and the country) to an expansive social safety net.

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13 thoughts on “The “Practical Christianity” of the Welfare State

  1. So evidence for a direct link between welfare and Christianity are the words of a politician trying to sell the program to the people? By that logic the invasion of Iraq was an extension of the values of our founding fathers.

    The insurmountable difference between religious charity and government wealth redistribution is freely-given consent.

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  2. I’ve always wondered if the fiscal conservatism of religious conservatives would be substantially eroded if government or its boosters could make the link between social welfare programs and improvement in the lot of the poor clearer and more explicit.

    Though I think that’s a job for boosters of government action rather than the government itself. In the wake of absurd amount of money spent on signs telling us what is being funded by the stimulus, i’d prefer government money help people rather then tell us they’re helping people.

    Maybe people are making these cases but all I ever hear are cries for social justice, class warfare, and the apparently limitless debt owed to one another, which let’s face it is far less compelling than that Sarah McLachlan animal cruelty commercial.

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    • I’ve always wondered if the fiscal conservatism of religious conservatives would be substantially eroded if government or its boosters could make the link between social welfare programs and improvement in the lot of the poor clearer and more explicit.

      I sometimes think I live in a parallel universe.

      That aside, I will offer an alternative hypothesis: people’s resistance to social democratic measures might be diminished if those measures were undertaken with the minima of administrative costs, free from perverse incentives, and constructed in a way that incorporated the assumption that the behavior and dispositions of the client population were and ought to be similar to that of an ordinary wage-earning household. Ordinary wage earning households:

      1. Conduct their daily business without being superintended or ‘assisted’ by social workers;

      2. Make rent, pay for groceries, and pay their utility bills out of their earned income;

      3. Have at least one person working full-time (or living through a brief interregnum between jobs), unless all the adults in the home are old or crippled.

      4. Are anxious about being blindsided.

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        • One’s propensity to consume food, housing, and the issue of public utilities is fairly regular and predictable and governed to a great extent by considerations of amenity. (The services of hospitals, nursing homes, and the criminal defense bar cannot be described in this way). If you are concerned about the condition of the more impecunious portion of the population, you can take steps to improve their disposable income by restructuring the tax code.

          Milton Friedman’s proposal for a negative income tax was published in 1962. Visible progress toward that goal in the intervening half century: nil. Employees of the your local city housing authority and county welfare department vote, and they’re in the union now, so up yours.

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  3. I think the welfare state started because some politicans thought it might be better to feed the poor instead of the poor using pitchforks on the rich. And as for having a welfare state in America, how much did the banks rake in last year so they could keep the money and not loan to small businesses?

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    • The last time I checked, delinquent loans accounted for about 7% of the value of commercial bank loan portfolios. An additional increment (~0.5%) are not delinquent because the borrower has been declared in default during the quarter in question. That the banks have been stockpiling reserves does not strike this layman as surprising or deplorable, but perhaps there is something I do not understand.

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