The Modern State as an Occasion of Sin

Thursday, July 30, 1998

Let us begin by assuming, with Aristotle and Aquinas, that the state is a natural and necessary institution, one that is not evil in itself. I realize that this proposition is debatable, but let us take it as given for our present purposes.

Still, things, such as the state, that are not evil in themselves may nonetheless lead us into evil so frequently, and so consistently, that we have a positive moral duty to avoid them. This is what is meant by the traditional concept of an occasion of sin: something that is not evil in itself but that leads a person into sin so often that the person is morally required to avoid it. I argue that there are some activities of the modern state that can properly be called occasions of sin.

I have in mind mainly the activities of the welfare state, that is, redistribution toward the poor. But the argument is perfectly general and can be applied to many other forms of governmental redistribution. The key facts about these programs are that they are chosen through democratic political processes, financed through tax dollars, and administered through civil service bureaucracies.

Let us make the most altruistic assumption about the motives of those in the political process. Let us suppose that voters and other political decision makers are motivated by a genuine desire to help those who are in distress through no fault of their own. Such people would include those unable to work and also unable to accumulate assets on which to live during periods without work. The elderly poor, the disabled, the temporarily unemployed, and children without families might fall into this category.

In effect, then, we shall assume away the whole range of sordid and semisordid motives for which we economists have acquired the reputation of being unduly cynical. The thrust of my argument is that, even when it is animated by the best of motives, something about the modern welfare state will corrupt good motives and good people.

One form of this corruption involves the emergence of something we might call the entitlement mentality. That is, people come to take seriously the claim that all that matters is whether they meet the legally stated, explicit criteria of the program. If they are entitled to the benefit, why not claim it? Indeed, as more and more people take part in the program, the person on the margin of participating might argue to himself: “Everyone else is doing it. If I do not take the opportunity to use this program, I will feel like a sucker.”

This phenomenon has been captured in a parable known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Many social scientists and philosophers use this parable as a model for problematic cooperation. The prisoner’s dilemma analyzes situations in which it is collectively beneficial for people to cooperate with each other, even while it is in their individual and private interest to be uncooperative.

The prisoner’s dilemma takes its name from the following situation: Two people have jointly committed a crime and been arrested. The authorities do not have sufficient evidence to convict either prisoner. So they offer the following deal to each prisoner separately:

If neither you nor your accomplice confess, you will both go free, for we have insufficient evidence to convict you. If you confess, however, your accomplice will receive the full sentence, but we will give you a reduced sentence. If he confesses and you do not, you will receive the full sentence, while he gets the lighter sentence. And when a prisoner asks, “What if we both confess?” the reply is, “You both get the full sentence allowed by law, for we will have all the evidence we could possibly need.”

Both prisoners will confess under this scenario as long as they cannot communicate with each other or offer each other bribes or side payments. This is a dilemma because both would be better off if neither one confesses. But since neither one can be sure, both are unwilling to take the chance of being the only one to remain silent. They would be better off if they could cooperate with each other. But the prison guards do everything possible to prevent cooperation, both by preventing communication and by the structure of the deal they offer the prisoners. So both prisoners confess and receive the heaviest sentence.

Many social interactions have a structure of payoffs similar to that described by the prisoner’s dilemma. I would be better off if no one littered in the park. But I cannot stop others from littering. So why pay the cost of cleaning up after myself if no one else has done so or is likely to do so? I would be better off if no one ever brought a frivolous liability lawsuit. But since I am already bearing the social cost of many such frivolous lawsuits, why shouldn’t I “dial for dollars” with a liability suit of my own if a plausible occasion presents itself?

In the entitlement mentality, the prisoner’s dilemma problem emerges dramatically. Why should I restrain myself from opportunistic behavior when I know that other people are not restraining themselves? The momentum of the decision can build to such a point that people stop resisting the temptation to take advantage of the program. Instead, they resist being stuck with the “sucker’s payoff.”

This point is especially evident as we generalize from poverty programs toward the middle-class entitlements. We believe ourselves entitled to Social Security, student loans, mortgage interest tax deductions, National Science Foundation grants, and all the rest. After all, we have paid for these benefits already, haven’t we? Everybody else is getting his share, why should we restrain ourselves? The aversion to being a sucker crosses economic class lines and is familiar to everyone. And so we have the spectacle of Ross Perot receiving Social Security payments, with no hint of scandal.

We know that the prisoner’s dilemma will induce people to behave in opportunistic ways. But let us, for a moment, not hide behind this technical language, this sterile terminology from scientific economic analysis. Let us call the behavior sinful. People do through the public sector things they know would be wrong if done in the private sector to people they knew. People take advantage of the system, knowing full well that if everyone did what they are doing, the system would collapse.

This is the sense in which the redistributive activities of the modern state may be called an occasion of sin. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with transfers of money to the unfortunate or indeed to anyone for a great many reasons. But the existence of the taxing power of the state to collect monies means that the entire wealth of the nation, or at least a significant fraction of it, becomes a common pool for the process of redistribution through the political process. And this pool creates temptations for marginally unscrupulous behavior. And this marginally unscrupulous behavior can only escalate as the process progresses, as people come to justify their actions, both to themselves and to others.

But the welfare state involves a further corruption that affects not the people who receive benefits from the state but those who provide those benefits. For the welfare state does positive harm to donors.

When the novelist Flannery O’Connor was asked how one might come to know God, her response was, “Give alms.” Of course, this is quite a different response from “Fill out your tax forms” or “Vote for the candidate who sounds compassionate.” To consider the impact of the social assistance state on the donors, or net taxpayers, we must begin by discussing the benefits one receives from the act of giving. We must then consider whether those benefits truly are obtained by the taxpayers in a bureaucratic welfare state. Only then will we be in a position to evaluate the opportunity cost, broadly defined, of the social assistance state.

Perhaps the simplest way to understand O’Connor’s remark is to consider these famous words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 25: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” In this passage, Jesus does more than instruct us to practice the corporal works of mercy; he promises to be present in the transaction, as the recipient. In this way, we might see the face of God in the face of the poor.

This is at the heart of the Christian perspective on giving. The donor has the experience of participating, in some small way, in the endless mercy of God, from whom our very existence is a gift we can never repay or hope to deserve. The immediate recipient is only part of the point of the transaction. An equally important point is the impact of the act of unrequited generosity on the donor.

One of the more interesting contrasts between economic thinking and theological thinking has to do with their respective views of the human person. Economists tend to see the person as static. This is true especially of the person’s interior life. Economists act as if the person’s preferences, desires, and goals are unchanging. The problem for the person is to satisfy these static desires at the least cost.

Are our hearts softened toward the poor by our contributions to the welfare state? Who can deny that the exact opposite is the case?

Moral theology pays particular attention to the dynamics of the person’s interior life. Some moral theologians actually define a moral act (or an act with moral consequences) as one that creates a disposition for future acts. If a person acts in an immoral fashion, he will be more disposed to further similar immoral acts in the future. Similarly, if a person acts in a morally good way, he will find it easier to perform those moral acts in the future. An economist would say that there is a feedback loop from behavior to preferences. The person’s preferences are changed by his actions. A person becomes a different kind of person as a result of the decisions he makes and the actions he performs.

So, what is the impact of the act of giving on the donor? This, of course, depends at least as much on how the gift is made as on the amount of the gift. The admonition to “give to the least of my brethren” appears to be independent of how the gift is given. But surely the promise of Matthew 25 flows more directly and more powerfully the more personal the encounter between donor and recipient.

As we look at the person we are giving to, no matter how unworthy he may seem, we are invited, the theologians tell us, to see the face of God. This equation of God with the lowly is a part of the divine humility that is so much a part of the gospel. But at the same time, God’s humility humbles us as well, for it reminds us that we really do not know what is going on with that other person. The other person may appear for all the world to be nothing but a bum. But somehow, when we give to this person, we are giving to God himself. We are not supposed to worry about being a sucker. We are supposed to give, as God gives to us. And in the process, we soften ourselves, as we open our hearts to others. We allow ourselves to be changed.

Does our participation in the welfare state effect this kind of transformation in those of us who are net payers? Are our hearts softened toward the poor by our contributions to the welfare state? Who can deny that the exact opposite is the case? We avoid seeing the reality of the persons who receive the benefits. And when we do see them, we feel a kind of bitterness toward them. After all, we have already done our share, largely against our will. Who are these people accosting me on the subway or on the street? We have hardened our hearts against them.

Now, it happens that the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church issued its call for the renewal of moral theology at roughly the same time as the Great Society programs were established in the United States. Are the two compatible? Superficially, it might seem so because the Great Society appears to be an increased social commitment to the care of the poor. But, at a deeper level, the Great Society substitutes a legalistic, minimalist approach to the Christian precept of charity. For what could be a more minimalistic contribution to the poor than pulling the voting lever for a candidate whose speechwriter sounds compassionate? What could be more legalistic than filling out a tax return and believing we have satisfied the biblical injunction to charity.

At this point we might want to take a look once again at the assumptions about the motives of voters with which I started at the outset. I assumed that people voluntarily take on the tax burden of supporting the poor because they were genuinely concerned for them. But, by choosing an indirect method of helping them, we cut ourselves off from the spiritual benefits of almsgiving. Perhaps this is what we, as voters, want.

We want the poor to be taken care of without inconveniencing ourselves. We want to believe that we satisfy the biblical requirements of charity without ever leaving the comfort of our living rooms. We do not want to see the face of the poor. We resist being transformed.

Why did Mother Teresa give to the poor? We might say that she had a private motive or that she received a personal benefit from providing this public service. She was doing it for the love of God and to save her own soul. But her private, spiritual incentives led her to do a public service, rather than to line her own pocket at public expense.

The modern state that leads us to believe that there are shortcuts, that we can have the results of charity without the personal reality of charity—this modern state deceives us.

And so as we consider the shape of the state in the future—in particular, whether nongovernmental charity is really a practical option—we might keep this in mind. The spiritual incentives contain less moral hazard, less conflict of public and private interests, than in any governmental program we could devise. And so we might become more appreciative of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Teaching Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Benedictines, the Franciscans, and all the rest. Far from being impractical dreamers, these are the most practical people around. They have a better chance of providing for others without corrupting themselves. Their personal interest in saving their own souls through a lifetime of charity gives them a better chance of being of genuine service to others than any employee of Health and Human Services will ever have.

My readers might wonder how I can speak about such matters with any authority. Those who know me know full well that I am not any kind of saint. So let me close by telling you about my own experience.

I have had the opportunity to participate in an ongoing, personal act of charity. Mind you, I did not intend to do any such thing. As a matter of fact, I entered into it without very good motives. I was a barren yuppie, fast approaching middle age and desperate for motherhood.

And so my husband and I adopted a two-and-a-half-year-old Romanian boy from an orphanage. He was described as healthy, but the adoption agency admitted it did not know anything about him except his name and his birth date. And so we plunged in.

If we had known what we were getting into, we would have been afraid to try it. For, as it turned out, he was developmentally delayed and emotionally disturbed. But there was no turning back. And I can honestly say that, despite all the difficulties, our son and the experience of parenting him have changed us for the better.

It occurred to me, very early in parenting him, that no social program could substitute for what we were doing for him. Children have to be raised one at a time. There are no shortcuts that can be mass produced by the state. He went from being a statistic, and a social problem, to being our son.

This is why I have come to believe that bureaucratized social programs are no substitute for the giving from one person to another that is the true meaning of charity. And the modern state that leads us to believe that there are shortcuts, that we can have the results of charity without the personal reality of charity, deceives us. Or perhaps I should say that we use the instruments of the modern state to deceive ourselves. For these reasons, among others, I believe it is fair to describe the modern state as an occasion of sin.