Policy Documents

No. 71 The Modern State as an Occasion of Sin

Jennifer Roback Morse –
February 1, 1996

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Jennifer Roback Morse is associate professor of economics at the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University. In January 1995, she addressed the topic "Public Choice, Public Goods, and Sin" at a meeting of the Allied Social Sciences in Washington, D.C. Her analysis draws a distinction between the Christian notion of charity and the redistribution that occurs in the modern welfare state. Morse's work offers important insights even for policy makers and taxpayers who do not share her religious convictions.


1. Although it may have been established with the best of intentions, the welfare state is corrupting by its very nature. It is reasonable to assume that the modern welfare state was established out of a genuine desire to help those who are in distress through no fault of their own: the elderly poor, the disabled, the temporarily unemployed, and children without families. But there is something about the welfare state that will corrupt these good motives and the good people who feel compassion for the poor. That is what is meant by the Catholic concept of an "occasion of sin": something that is not evil in itself, but which leads a person into sin so often that the person is morally required to avoid it.

2. The welfare state tempts potential recipients to abuse the system. By relying on a narrowly specified set of rules that must be applied to every case, the welfare state tempts potential recipients to take advantage of the system. In many cases, poverty does not merely "happen" to a person, but is the result of personal choices: A person can purposely make himself eligible for welfare by quitting a job or by engaging in other behaviors likely to lead to poverty.

The design of the welfare state also invites abuse by leading potential recipients to believe that they are entitled to receive welfare so long as they meet the legally stated, explicit criteria of the program. If "everyone else" is taking advantage of the opportunity to use the program, why shouldn't they? This entitlement mentality pervades not only welfare programs, but many other government programs that redistribute tax dollars.

3. The welfare state also hurts taxpayers: the "donors" to the system. By choosing an indirect method of helping the poor, the taxpayer/donors to welfare have cut themselves off from the spiritual benefits of charity. And it is probably fair to say that this is exactly what we want. We want the poor to be taken care of, without inconveniencing ourselves. We want to believe that we satisfy the moral requirements of charity, without ever leaving the comfort of our living rooms. We do not want to see the face of the poor.

The modern welfare state tempts us into believing that there are shortcuts, that we can have the results of charity without the personal reality of charity. But bureaucratized social programs are no substitute for the giving from one person to another that is the true meaning of charitas.

4. The welfare state tempts its administrators to abuse the system. So long as a potential welfare recipient meets the explicit eligibility criteria, the system's administrator has no choice but to declare him eligible . . . even if the person does not meet the implicit eligibility criteria: "in distress through no fault of his own." Administrators have no authority to distinguish the truly needy from the undeserving.

The welfare system could be re-designed to allow administrators to act on knowledge they might have about a potential recipient's specific situation and character. But doing so would merely shift the temptation for abuse. With increased personal discretion, even a marginally unscrupulous administrator would be tempted to make decisions for inappropriate reasons. This is true because welfare administrators do not have a personal stake in how the money is spent: They are merely distributing "other people's money."


Based on Heartland Policy Study #71, "The Modern State as an Occasion of Sin," by Jennifer Roback Morse. Printed copies are available from The Heartland Institute for $10.00 each. can also download the full text, free of charge, in Adobe's PDF format; click here.

Copyright 1996 The Heartland Institute. Nothing in this Executive Summary should be construed as reflecting the views of The Heartland Institute, nor as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation. Permission is hereby given to reprint or quote from this Executive Summary; please send tearsheets to The Heartland Institute, 19 South LaSalle Street, Suite 903, Chicago, Illinois 60603.

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