Welfarism And Dependency

by Scott Morrice on 05/08/2012

I came across an interesting blog post the other day that underlined an issue that I am struggling with–and dealing with welfarism and dependency.

In his Helping the Poor is Now Apparently Anti-Bible post, Kevin Drum is taking a bit of run at Rick Warren — he of Saddleback megachurch and Purpose Driven Life fame.

Warren, in responding to an interviewer’s question about President Obama’s statement that God tells us to look after those that are less fortunate than ourselves, says that he accepts that although the Bible is exhorting us to look after the poor, he doesn’t think that this means wealth distribution. In fact, he feels that the position of the Bible on these matters must be examined in the light of “fairness”. For instance he says: Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money?

And he also goes on to say: When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity.

Against this Drum responds:

You know, there’s nothing really wrong with a Republican politician saying this. Or a Democratic politician, for that matter. My first preference for helping the poor is indeed to make sure they have decent jobs. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet met anyone who has a brilliant plan for making the economy boom on such a sustained basis that jobs are always available for everyone.


But I’m a blogger, not a minister. And while I might not be an expert on the Bible, I’ve read enough to know that Jesus sure didn’t seem to think that helping the poor robbed them of dignity. Can someone help me out here? What part of the gospels do you think Warren is referring to?

I personally think that the issue at hand is much more complex than what we can glean from the above exchange. And, to be fair, I am sure both of Warren and Drum would probably agree.

I definitely don’t think that this is a “fairness” issue. But even if fairness is part of the issue, I don’t think that fairness necessarily suggests equal wealth distribution, as Warren seems to worry.

In her The Fairness Campaign post Lynne McTaggart writes about fairness, but in a slightly different context. Nevertheless she makes some very valid points that I would argue are relevant to the issue here at hand.

She writes:

Fairness is a close relation of truth; life is fair when someone is given an equal chance, when a decision is evenhanded, when something is simply and wholly right.

And again:

What we mean by it is not sameness or redistribution – but an equal chance, an equal possibility, an equal say in areas that affect our society, a reward commensurate with contribution, a reward that does not come at someone else’s expense.

I agree with McTaggart, and I see Warren as completely off the mark when he argues that the Bible’s teachings with respect to looking after the poor must be examined in the light of what is fair.

But I am less sure about how I feel about Warren’s comment to the effect that when you subsidize people you create dependency. Again, I think this criticism, on its own, is quite simplistic, and fails to meaningfully define the greater issue. But I do wonder if there is a point to be made there.

In my Identity Politics Reconsidered post I wrote that I had recently came across an article about Dr. Rowan Williams, who recently resigned as Archbishop of Canterbury, written by John Bingham of the Daily Telegraph. The article quotes Dr. Rowan as saying:

Yet there is some substance to that suspicious use of welfarism. There is a problem about dependency, there is a problem about assuming somebody else resolves the problems and there is certainly a problem about centralized state provision as the solution to everything.

And those who have recently from both left and right pointed out that welfarism is not good news for those who want a mutually responsible active, creative community have not been wrong.

So it appears that I am in good company when I wonder where I am going to wind up on this issue. Having said, I am far from resolving it in my own mind —but I’m working on it!

I’ll keep you posted.

  • Lmmd

    The biblical position is clearly enough articulated in Christ’s parable pertaining to “The Good Samaritan”: each of us is his brother’s keeper. It is a message with which Rick Warren, Lynne McTaggart, Rowan Williams and, quite probably, Kevin Drum would be thoroughly familiar.

    As is so often the case, however, the devil is in the details and the details currently bedevil rioters in Greece, protesters “occupying Wall Street”, First Nations people throughout North America, college students in La Belle Province, etc. etc. etc. Relationships between the “haves” and the “have -nots”, between the individual and the community, between rights and responsibilities, between action (or, for that matter, inaction) and its consequences, these relationships defy a simple resolution.

    Perhaps the good will implied in the two McTaggart quotations cited in your blog come as close to a meaningful response as any.

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