NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 29, 1996

The Christian notion of charity is frequently confused with the redistribution of income and wealth that occurs in the modern welfare state. The latter, suggests Jennifer Roback Morse, is morally and spiritually corrupting not only to recipients, but to the rest of society by reducing compassion for the less fortunate.

Morse, an economist at the Center for the Study of Public Choice at George Mason University, believes the moral costs of the welfare state should receive more attention.

  • Although established with the best of intentions, the welfare state corrupts compassion toward those in distress through no fault of their own by creating an avoidable temptation -- what theologians call an "occasion of sin."
  • It tempts potential recipients to abuse the system, since in many cases poverty doesn't merely happen to a person, but is the result of personal choices.
  • Thus it creates incentives for rent-seeking -- an activity to earn a profit the government has made unusually high -- tempting some to make themselves eligible for welfare by sloth and to take actions to maintain eligibility.
  • Additionally, as coerced donors, taxpayers are cut off from the spiritual benefits of charity -- and are misled to believe they can satisfy the requirements of charity without inconvenience or having to see the faces of the poor.

The final temptation of the welfare state may be to regulate the personal choices of recipients, since these choices determine whether or not they become impoverished or stay in poverty. But whose morality is the state to impose? Private charity appears to be the way out of the moral dilemma of the welfare state.

Source: Jennifer Roback Morse, "The Modern State as an Occasion of Sin," Policy Study No. 71, February 29, 1996, Heartland Institute, 800 E. Northwest Highway, Suite 1080, Palatine, IL 60067, (847) 202-3060.


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