Friday, February 24, 2012

Does the Welfare State Reduce Morality?

Under Rachel Held Evans’ post, Ask a Christian Progressive, Arni Zachariassen makes the following thought-provoking comment:

“I live in one of the Nordic countries where the welfare state is arguably the most highly developed in the world. Our health care is universal, unemployment and disability benefits are high, most all schools are public, higher education is publicly funded too, etc. It works pretty well and people are happy (Norway actually IS the happiest country in the world, for example, and the other countries aren’t far behind).

“My question, or the thing I’d love to hear your thoughts about, is this: Something I’ve noticed is the when the state gets as big as it gets here and it does all these social services, it seems to have negative effects on the public moral imagination. If there’s a problem in society, people first of all get angry at the state for failing to take care of it. What they don’t tend to do is take personal initiative to love their neighbour who is in need. It really seems to me that the large state has more or less direct an adverse effect on the moral imagination.

“When I look to the States, I do agree with a lot of what progressives say: That all people aren’t guaranteed health care is a scandal, for example. But I do admire how charitable you guys are. And I suspect that that charitability to a significant degree comes from the state being relatively small and leaving, as it were, room for regular folk to love their neighbours. And I worry a little about the progressive agenda, if successful, eroding that neighbour love.

“(As a side note, I suspect that the size of the state has a similar effect on church attend[a]nce as it does on the public moral imagination. The public role of the church is so small because of the state’s role is so big and as a result, church makes a lot less sense to people. Which is why America is such a religious nation, as opposed to us here.)

“Does this make any sense? What are your thoughts on this? Is this something American progressives worry about or should worry about, do you think?”

That’s something to think about, and I hope that the Christian progressive wrestles with Arni’s question in his post. Personally, I’d say that things such as poverty, malnutrition, deaths due to health care being too expensive, etc. are more serious problems than people not being individually charitable enough. At the same time, I’d agree that the latter is a problem. Is there a way to have one’s cake and eat it, too?


  1. Here is some comparative data on charitable giving by country posted in Sept. 2010 in the Guardian. Although Norway is bit of a way down the list, there are other European nations with strong social welfare systems that are much closer to the US (at 55%), & the difference between Norway & the US is still only 13 points. If this data set is any guide, I'm not sure the commenter's position holds.

  2. Thanks for those statistics, GLW! He was probably speaking anecdotally, but it's important to look at the numbers.

  3. Where is the person with guts to say, "Does the laissez-faire version of capitalism reduce morality???" No we find those who believe it is God's way of economics and anyone to question that is a godless socialist. The United States is fast becoming like Latin America where there is no middle class but there is only extreme rich and extreme poor. Where is the morality in that? None! It is pure greed and it is incompatible with Christianity.

  4. I think that an area in which the welfare state encourages morality is that it gives people a sense of "we".

  5. In response to the questions asked in the post, statistics show that those who have a conservative view and believe in a smaller government tend to donate more money, time, and blood than those with the opposite view.

  6. I respect those who actually help the poor themselves if they think they're the ones who should be doing so, not the government. That doesn't mean I think conservatism is good for the country, though.


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