A Modest Proposal for an Ideal Social Order

A Modest Proposal for an Ideal Social Order December 10, 2012

A Modest Proposal for an Ideal Social Order

What a subject! And such a task! The enormity of it is overwhelming, so all I intend to do here is give a bare bones, that is skeletal, outline of what I regard as the ideal social order. It draws on what I understand to be the social principles of the Kingdom of God tempered by present realities. Thus, this vision assumes an “already but not yet” idea of the Kingdom. For example, I assume that in the Kingdom to come people will not need external incentives to invent, create and work for the common good. Here, under the conditions of sin, we do. However, I do not assume that everyone is totally depraved so that there is no altruism alive in people. And I assume the reality of common grace ameliorating the depravity of humanity and making some measure of civil righteousness possible in the secular order.

I assume that representative democracy is the best form of government with the state being accountable to the people through elected representatives and kept from absolute power by a set of checks and balances. I also assume that the ideal social order is constitutionally based with strong protections of civil rights such as we have in the Bill of Rights. I DON’T assume that our American form of government is necessarily the best possible. I think representative democracy can take several structural forms such as our three branches of government with one person, the chief executive, as head of government and head of state, or a parliamentary system with two separate persons as heads of state and government. A constitutional monarchy can also be an example of representative democracy. The Swiss Federation, the Republic of Switzerland, has a government that looks very little like that of the United States but is nevertheless a true democracy.

Where my vision of an ideal social order will probably become controversial, especially with many conservatives in the United States, is my belief in basic human rights beyond those explicitly stated in our Bill of Rights.

What is the basis of my vision of the ideal social order? Twofold: my understanding of the Kingdom of God (what life in it will look like because of Jesus Christ as its head) and the social contract theory of philosopher John Rawls.

Now, I know some folks will get off board immediately when I mention Rawls—especially some Christians who abhor his secular liberalism. I say we can plunder the Egyptians. That is, just because Rawls was a secular humanist (so far as I know) does not invalidate everything he said. In fact, I find some of his ideas (not his secular humanism or overall liberalism) to be something like what missiologist Don Richardson called “created analogies for the gospel” in cultures yet untouched by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Another way of putting it is Justin Martyr’s idea of the logos spermatikos—the “seed of the logos” in everyone. Yet another way of putting it is Clement of Alexandria’s maxim “all truth is God’s truth.”

Rawls (in A Theory of Justice) argued that justice is fairness and fairness is what most people would decide (as social policy) under the “veil of ignorance.” He asked readers to imagine an “original condition” (like a social convention prior to any actual social order) in which people have opportunity (and necessity, I assume) to decide on the rules under which they will live. In this original condition all the participants decide under the veil of ignorance. That is, they do not know what their actual “place” in society will be once the veil is lifted and the social order commences. They do not know, for example, whether they will be advantaged or disadvantaged. All they know is that there will be inequalities.

The question is: What would people decide about an ideal social order under the veil of ignorance? Well, who can know for sure? I don’t read Rawls as claiming he knows with certainty. But he put forth suggestions and argued for them. I happen to agree with him. He argues that most people under the veil of ignorance, not knowing their vested interests, would opt for an ideal society ruled by the “maximin principle.” (As a liberal Rawls also argues they would establish maximum individual freedom balanced by the maximin principle.) What is the maximin principles? It is the maximizing of the minimum.

First, Rawls assumes, and I agree, that people generally need incentives to invent, create and produce. Short of the Kingdom, people will not be at their most productive without the promise of the possibility of financial reward. Rawls also assumes, and I agree, that wealth (in the broadest sense, not just money) can be created. Without financial incentives, most people will not contribute to the creation of wealth which is important for the common good.

Second, however, Rawls assumes and I agree, that under the veil of ignorance people will want to protect themselves from destitution in case it turns out they are disadvantaged such that they are not in a position to reap the rewards of productivity.

So, third, Rawls argues, and I agree, under the veil of ignorance people will structure their ideal social order so that there are genuine possibilities for financial gain but combined with structures that will automatically raise the standard of living of the disadvantaged as the advantaged produce and prosper. Rawls rejected the idea that a rising tide automatically raises all the boats. And I agree. “Trickle down economics has not worked.” Since the “Reagan revolution” the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer (in America).

Rawls was clearly seeking to justify redistribution of wealth and I agree that it is necessary. We cannot tolerate a social order in which the rich simply continue to become richer and the poor continue to get poorer and the middle class thins out.

However, what does “redistribution of wealth” mean? In my experience, too many people react to the term in knee jerk fashion assuming it means monetary hand outs to the undeserving poor (those who simply refuse to work for a living).  That is not what I mean by it and I do not think that is what Rawls or most social liberals want.

I’m going to leave Rawls’ specific proposals behind now and offer my own proposals. I think what most people under the veil of ignorance would want for their ideal social order (out of self-interest if nothing else) is not a “welfare state” where people are rewarded for not working. What they would want, and create, is a social order in which everyone has opportunity to improve their standards of living, a social order in which work and credit are guaranteed, but not without qualifications.

The right to meaningful employment resulting in a living wage was part of the President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” (1944). It is also part of modern Catholic social teaching. Some call it socialism. I won’t be deterred by labels. The right to meaningful employment with a living wage is, I believe, as much a basic human right as the right to free speech. It’s the next step in a truly enlightened progressive social order.

Redistribution of wealth, then, would not be “taking from the rich to give to the poor.” It would be taking from the advantaged to give opportunity to the disadvantaged, opportunity to participate in the economic life of the society (per the U.S. Catholic Bishops). Such is for the common good. Without it, eventually, a chronically underemployed class will develop which will result in revolution, violent or otherwise.

So how does this fit with the need for incentives? The jobs offered by the government would be minimal in terms of salaries or wages. People in those jobs would not be as prosperous as they would be working in the private sector. But neither would they be homeless or destitute. Part of their job situation would be training for work in the private sector and/or the offer of low interest loans to start their own businesses and get out of government employment.

This would totally replace “welfare” in any traditional sense. In other words, in this ideal social order, everyone capable of working would be required to work, if nothing else by picking up trash along roadways. If they have children not yet in school, the government would provide child care during the hours they work. They would be required to be seeking employment in the private sector. Anyone who simply refused to work would have their children taken away and put in foster care or humane institutions (with visitation rights). There would be no cash outlays other than temporary emergency assistance (in the form of vouchers) and disability income for the truly disabled.

The only way to make this work would be to have a sufficiently high minimum wage for the private sector to make employment there attractive.

So what about those median situations where persons are in the “working poor” category and need partial assistance such as food stamps? In my ideal social order that would be available but able bodied people receiving food stamps or any other form of government assistance would be required to do some kind of work to earn it. Work is humanizing; not working and receiving financial assistance (when one is able to work) is dehumanizing.

I truly believe this is what people would decide for their social order under the veil of ignorance. But some people ask “What is the value of this veil of ignorance if such an original situation never actually exists?” They don’t understand social contract theory. The point is to be able to argue to someone who proposes, supports or imposes a different social order “That is not what you would propose, support or impose under the veil of ignorance—if you did not know your vested interests and advantages or disadvantages.” It’s a critical principle for supporting certain social policies and opposing others as based solely on advantaged persons’ vested interests. In other words, it’s a form of reasoning.

I think such a social order is compatible with the gospel, with the Kingdom of God. It is at least more compatible with that than are other social orders. And it is realistic about humanity. It recognizes (as communism does not) that we are not yet in the Kingdom.

I also happen to think that people in the original condition, under the veil of ignorance, would create a social order with universal health care parallel with universal education. That is, open to all, funded by taxes, but not guaranteed to do everything possible. That is, free health care would sustain life and relieve pain but not provide elective surgeries (for example). People would be free to purchase supplemental health insurance for things like replacement of teeth (and crowns), reconstructive surgery, etc.

How would all this be funded? Well, for one thing, by spending less (than America does) on “guns” and more on “butter.” America’s “defense” budget is bloated. Reduce it by half and use the billions upon billions of dollars freed up to guarantee full employment. Much of the defense budget and spending is wasteful. Cut down on top level salaries and spending on high tech weapons that are not necessary to defend our own country. Gradually phase out much of the military (as we are in peace time or could be if we chose to be) and concentrate our national resources on human development.

I can, of course, anticipate objections from both social-political conservatives (“socialism!”) and Hauerwasian Christians. To the former I say, labels don’t scare me and I think the present order of things is simply inhumane (millions upon millions of homeless persons including children) and too far from anything even vaguely resembling the Kingdom of God for me to be comfortable with it. And my vision isn’t true socialism which, by definition, means public ownership of the means of production. To the latter I say that I don’t understand how it conflicts with authentic Christianity to propose and support social reforms. The reforms I here propose would take place by public choice through elections of representatives who support and enact them. I’m not advocating violent revolution. Nor am I advocating that Christians “take the reins of power” and use violent means to control or manage history.

Admittedly, what I have offered here is far from comprehensive. And, of course, “the devil is in the details.” But it seems to me every proposed social order arrangement has problems of implementation. It’s a matter of setting forth principles and then, through trial and error, making them work. We do it all the time. My proposal is simply that Christians and others who agree adopt this basic proposal and begin working together toward its implementation fixing problems as we go. The basic outline is similar, of course, to ones already implementing, in varying ways, in some northern European countries and Canada. I see no reason why the United States of America cannot learn from those social orders and move in their direction in our own way. Ours will be distinctly American just as theirs are distinctly Canadian and Scandinavian, etc.

Someone may ask what’s distinctly Christian about this proposal? Well, the motivation—Christian humanism (as I have described it here at least twice before) and our desire to approximate the humane community of the future Kingdom of God as much as possible within history. And, of course, our love for the disadvantaged and for the common well being of the human community because of the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.

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  • Bev Mitchell


    Well said, and with lots of quotable moments. Implied throughout is the distinctly Christian idea of “inclusive” as distinct from the essentially anti-Christian idea of “exclusive”. (In reference to Scripture, and just as two examples of the Christian “inclusive” – Peter, the thrice offered sheet and Cornelius, and, of course, Pentecost). I wonder if under the veil of ignorance people in general would opt for inclusive over exclusive, to the extent that you would make the need to reject one while adopting the other an explicit part of your just society? In other words, does prevenient grace provide for all a kind of pre-Peter experience or a pre-Pentecost?

    I was talking to a friend yesterday who would probably call himself an atheist, certainly anti-religion. The subject turned to the behaviour of some Christians here in Oaxaca (often stimulated by folks from the north) that essentially champions exclusion – to the point of physical conflict over doctrinal differences. I suggested that this is exactly the opposite of what happened on the Day of Pentecost which, among its many messages, preached inclusiveness loudly, clearly and in many languages. He leans a bit leftward in his politics, and was quite happy to hear that inclusiveness could be read from Scripture as a primary Christian position and goal. So, maybe I’ve answered my own question. Would be interested to know your response.

    • rogereolson

      Are you talking about inclusiveness of salvation? Of church membership? Of social equality? Could you be a little more specific? I think I tend toward inclusiveness of the first and third but not so much of the middle.

      • Bev Mitchell

        In many situations I’d settle for just a more inclusive attitude. 🙂 Our general culture, and often our Christian culture, worship exclusiveness. As for specifics, I agree that the Church must hold to orthodox belief and this should be reflected, at least in principle, in membership policy. But the Church, as mission, fails when it is not inclusive. The message, even the orthodox message, of the Church can and should be presented in as inclusive a manner as possible that is consistent with the central tenants of the faith. Sadly, when this is done even in a relatively limited manner, many cry foul (eg. controversies over “Love Wins”, “The Shack”, the perfectly reasonable parts of the so-called Emergent Church).

        But this wanders from your main point which deals with what we might reasonably expect from human beings in general with respect to creating an ideal social order. I suggest that inclusiveness (good) exclusiveness (bad) should be a simplified motto for such a society. What I wonder about is if we could reasonably expect people to come to this conclusion while operating under the veil of ignorance and using only human spiritual resources.

        • rogereolson

          Of course, my ideal social order is what I think can be accomplished by law. A truly ideal social order would most definitely be inclusive along the lines you envision. But I am pessimistic about legislating morality (matters of the heart). We can legislate equality of opportunity, but I suspect we can’t legislate true equality in terms of what Volf calls embrace.

          • Quartermaster

            The politicos have tried to legislate equality of opportunity, but the fallen world keeps finding a way around their best intentions. Too often, after that, it boils down to a power grabbing scheme. That is what we have now because the earlier efforts failed.

            While we as Christian, as employers, should pay fairly for the labor we purchase, it simply is not possible to pay more than the value the labor returns in gross. As a rule, you can actually only pay about one third of what a persons labor actually returns. This may seem unjust, but it is the way it is. A business can’t pay anyone anything if it can’t survive and employing people is expensive.

            What you advocate is what William Buckley called immanitizing the eschaton and it just as unrealistic for Christians as it is the radical left and will eventually cause the same problems we are seeing in our country now. I would like things to work as the will in the Kingdom, but as long as sin is regnant in this world, it never will.

          • rogereolson

            Surely we should try to anticipate that as much as possible under the conditions of sin. Your account of pay disturbs me, though, as we have in America a situation where many people are paid minimum wage by employers who are living extremely luxurious lives. They are taking advantage of high unemployment to pay workers less than their labor is truly worth.

  • Dr. Olson, I wanted to let you know that your podcast episode was published today. Thanks again for coming to the show!

  • Craig

    What they would want, and create, is a social order in which everyone has opportunity to improve their standards of living, a social order in which work and credit are guaranteed, but not without qualifications.

    Maybe you should consider Rawls’s conception of fair equality of opportunity which, in Rawls’s own statements of his two principles of justice, takes a kind of priority over the maximin principle you mention.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    Sounds like an interesting experiment. You might talk to a small nation and see if they will want to be part of the experiment into social reality that you have in mind. I’d be interested in how it looked as it survived into the next century – especially if it was located next to a country like Iran or North Korea.

    Two points of clarification. You mentioned the phrase “undeserving poor” and elsewhere you have mentioned the “deserving poor”. Who are these “deserving poor”? What is it that they deserve? And from whom do they deserve whatever it is that they deserve?
    Second, you mentioned the Bill of Rights, but also mentioned a “Second Bill of Rights”. The first Bill of Rights were to protect individuals/states from the encroachment of the Central Government power to “abuse” them in various ways. This “Second Bill of Rights” seems very different in that it mandates government action in favor of certain peoples and groups. What would you propose to curtail abuse of the government upon the citizens – giving favors and punishments in unsavory ways to their friends\opponents – as they are mandated to redistribute resources?

    • rogereolson

      It seems that the “abuse of the government upon the citizens” that you describe is already the case and has always been the case. I propose term limits to help curb that (including for bureaucrats). In my vision of an ideal social order the “undeserving poor” are those who are capable of working but refuse to work.

  • Ray

    Good post. Certainly thought provoking. However, it seems to me that much of what you are describing is the system that is already in place in Western Europe. A system that is collapsing and if it were not for the U.S. picking up most of the defense bill for W. Europe, it would have already collapsed. I can agree (as a combat Veteran) there are places in defense that can be cut, much of it at the Pentagon. As a political Conservative, I also believe in redistribution of wealth. However, I believe the best mechanism for that distribution is the market not government.

    I would also take issue with your understanding of “Trickle-Down” economics. I believe it did/does work. I was born poor and watched my family work its way out of poverty (no government help), in large part, due to Reaganomics and the increase in jobs and money that flowed into the economy. The gap that you mentioned is due largely to the influx of non-skilled immigrants, many undocumented. I think Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell have written numerous works showing how the minimum wage/living-wage actually depresses the economy, salary increases, and hiring rather than help it. I believe that when there is competition, employers will pay better wages and benefits in order to get better workers. Henry Ford did this prior to the Unions or government forcing him to do so. The rightful role of the government in all of this is to ensure competition as opposed to monopolies as we saw in the 1800’s.

    Lastly, and I was thinking of this before reading your blog, if we are going to look to the scriptures as our guide, then should we also incorporate the work week that is found in scripture? One day off a week and working from sunrise to sunset? There doesn’t seem to be any biblical case, with regards to the Kingdom, for a 40 hr. work week and a weekend.

    • rogereolson

      We have very different interpretations of things. I do not think Henry Ford was a hero of the working men and women. I’m glad your family prospered, but that has not been the case with most of the poor since the beginning of so-called “Reaganomics.”

      • Ray

        What would be your reason as to why the “poor” have not prospered? Lack of opportunity or work ethic? In your above proposal I do agree with your work requirement. That is one of the items most lacking in our current policy. However, by guaranteeing a living wage, are we not encouraging a poor work ethic?

        • rogereolson

          I thought I addressed that with my comments about “refusing to work.” I had in mind not just someone who declines to accept an offered job but also someone who accepts but then doesn’t do the work he or she is capable of doing. After a couple of re-assignments (taking into account that not everyone is suited for every job), such a person (chronically neglectful of his or her duties) would be categorized as unwilling to work. Until he or she changes and gets busy, that person would not receive “welfare.”

  • Andy

    This is a good post, especially because you come from the angle of a theologian. And I grant that these are musings, here.

    May I interact with the ideas a bit?

    I, too, have noticed Rawls (quoted in earlier posts here, and from other sources) and find him interesting because I think there is much common ground in his thoughts between so-called liberals and conservatives. I’m glad to have your summary.

    I want to add that we are allowed to measure. We are allowed to measure whether a proposal actually improves the state of the poor. We are allowed to measure if our policies and programs actually raise the minimum (per maximin ideal). We are allowed to measure the effect of a policy on the homeless. We are allowed to measure if the rising tide has floated some other boats.

    It seems we always have good intentions at the beginning of an idea, but don’t often measure the results. It’s as if good intentions are good enough. And we have a lot of data. I could list a couple of resources, and I’m sure both sides (if I can simplistically say two sides) could list plenty of good presentations or books showing data, if not evidence. [I refrain from listing my favorites because as you’ve said, we don’t have lots of free reading time, and I’d rather hear your recommendations, anyway.]

    I thought of an actual example of your proposed jobs program, albeit on a much smaller basis. Lawyers typically come out of school with a lot of loans. Some state prosecutors or public defender offices offer a loan forgiveness program for lawyers who sign on with them and stay for 5 or 10 years. They typically make much less money than they could elsewhere. This is a transfer of wealth, so to speak, but rationalized as a legitimate cost to attract and retain good lawyers. One might use the term “common good.”

    I’d like to add that I’ve come to believe that government is extremely inefficient (it’s really quite depressing). Is this because self-interest incentivizes waste (for the sake of one’s own job)? That’s probably a separate topic, but it hints at some weaknesses in your proposal. If , for example, you pay someone to design and maintain training programs, the program becomes so important to them that they rationalize away any measurements against them holding a job. That example is too real in Atlanta, for example.

    Thanks for sharing your musings, here, and allowing me to observe these scholarly interactions. And I especially value the book recommendations.

  • gingoro

    “However, I do not assume that everyone is totally depraved. ” I’m curious as to what part of everybody is not affected by sin?

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me that “totally depraved” is not really a good term for the belief that every part of every person is affected by sin. It’s like using “inerrancy” for “perfect with respect to purpose” (as I have complained here before). To most people “totally depraved” will automatically imply “completely evil.” I have said many times here that I believe in total depravity insofar as it means utter helplessness to save ourselves or achieve anything truly spiritually good apart from grace. But insofar as it means the image of God is obliterated, I do not believe it.

      • gingoro

        Thanks Roger. I agree that the terminology “totally depraved” leaves a great deal to be desired and should be changed. Also I do not think that the image of God is obliterated even in unregenerate mankind although one might wonder about some of the 20th century leaders like Hitler or Stalin.
        ps Have appreciated your posts this last year!

        • rogereolson

          Thank you.

  • A brave proposal for an ideal social order! I’ve been too timid to write much on these issues, since my ideal of equal opportunity, a living wage, and a safety net always seems naive when I’m faced with the efficiency of free markets. Wealth redistribution is as old as the Jubilee of Mosaic law, and must be made the permanent fabric of society or else capital will continue to protect itself, resulting in plutocracy and abuse of power. Unfortunately there are many barriers to your social order, for example the unprecedented worldwide debt, banks that participate in usury and print their own money (essentially what the shareholders of the Federal Reserve do), the erosion of local governance in favor of the United Nations, media and public education institutions that are hostile to God (though sometimes giving Him lip service), and simply the fallen nature of man manifesting in vicious competition for resources like predators of the African savanna.

  • Steve Rogers

    Whew! This proposal stirred two sentiments in me. First, it made me want to breakout in stanzas of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Second, by showing how far from it we remain, it made me want to pray even more fervently, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…” Thanks for casting such a far reaching vision of what could be if God governed every heart. I will be trying to put such principles in practice in my little sphere today.

  • Craig Wright

    In the discussion of universal health care, there was a concern for government control which results in inefficiency. As a retired public school teacher, and a Viet Nam army veteran, I have seen inefficiency and wastefulness in both our universal education system and our national military. Yet, nobody wants to do away with either one because of the benefits to society as a whole.

  • ernie

    Dr. Olson, I find your proposal extremely compelling and quite similar to the social order in Norway and other Scandinavian countries. Those countries have consistently had the best rankings in every possible index or metric devised to measure human development. People are usually afraid of the word “socialism” because they automatically associate it with the failed systems of former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (which were communist, not socialist). Furthermore, the way the ‘s’ word is used in American politics cannot but add to the muddying of waters. But people have to be aware of the fact that ANY intervention of government in economy is “socialism”, so if they really are afraid that much of that concept, they have sever any meaningful relation to modern society and go live in the woods. In my humble opinion we need more of socialism in the good old USA, and it would also be very Christian as well.

  • Interesting proposal Roger – as I had this conversation with a couple military officers recently. The military has been a tool since WWII for getting education and getting out of poverty. It would surprise many people on the outside I think what life is actually and what people actually believe in the military.

    The conversation was about what would happen if we took some of the same structures that have been very successful in the military and applied them across more government jobs. For example, the GI bill and 100% healthcare, moderate housing allowances etc. How would that look? How would it work? Could the Peace Corp – two years commitment, with expenses paid in another nation, and educational benefits on return be translated to other structures? What about Red Cross incentives for medical personel? It’s an idea that is being floated, but lacking in support. Right now anything but the military is seen as evil in the government by the general Republicans (which for the record, doesn’t make much sense as there is plenty of waste going on in the military as well?) but support for anything else seems lacking. Why?

    • rogereolson

      I can’t answer that “Why?” I have asked it of many social and political conservatives without satisfying answers. I have talked with people who vehemently argue that government is by nature wasteful and inefficient and we need to “starve the beast” to force it (federal government especially) to scale down. But when I bring up the military most of them get very defensive (no pun intended) and fail to acknowledge that it, too, is extremely wasteful and inefficient. Somehow they think government is only wasteful and inefficient when it’s helping needy people but not when it is developing new weapons systems.

      • Bev Mitchell

        This is a fascinating branch of this discussion. I am familiar with the reaction one gets when mentioning any flaws in the military to entrenched conservatives, but using the inefficiency to compare gov. programs in general and the military in particular is a great idea. I usually go straight for the drones and hellfire missiles with about the same amount of success as Joy F and Roger have had with the efficiency argument.

        But, when the entrenched conservatives in question are also evangelical Christians, there is great irony to be had here as well. Why should an evangelical Christian be hyper-concerned about some person, lazy or not, getting something they do not deserve?

      • Ray Wilkins

        Perhaps the Military, run by the government, works as well as it does, because everyone in the Military willfully gives up their Constitutional rights and places themselves under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

  • This is a brilliant and provocative piece, with much for believers across the ideological spectrum to chew on. But you ruin it with your comments about Reagan’s effects. I have reservations about supply side economics: it ignores the reality of our fallenness and the degree of desperation that the truly poor face.

    But this is maddening: “Since the ‘Reagan revolution’ the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer (in America).” Thats’ a ridiculous statement. The rich ALWAYS get richer during prosperous times. The rich get richer because they make income from investments. If the nation is prospering, investments prosper, and the rich get richer.

    As for “the poor getting poorer”: the Reagan years saw a $3,000 increase in real median income per family, including lower and middle class families, after a commensurate decrease 1960-1980. The entire line is a canard which evidence does not bear out. Were the poor under or after Reagan worse off than the poor during the Depression? It’s a ridiculous bit of common “wisdom,” and it undermines an otherwise brilliant post.

    • rogereolson

      I have read numerous articles demonstrating it to be true. Sorry you disagree.

  • I just wanted to add that a surprising number of very poor people do not work because they are taking care of others who are very poor, sick or disabled. My sister in law is on welfare and food stamps, but is also taking care of her brother who is an invalid who requires round the clock care. Because she is a CNA she is paid a ridiculously small amount for her work, but I know others doing the same work for nothing while receiving government assistance. I think people would be SHOCKED at the sort of serious medical problems which are rampant among very poor people. If you include caring for the sick, disabled, someone else’s kids, the elderly, etc as work, the actual number of people who just don’t work is minutely small. I also think that Christians need to be taking the performance of the works of mercy very seriously. And not simply in order to meet needs, but also because unless we are in close, intimate contact with people who are in need, our ideas and opinions about them and how to fix things will inevitably be fatally flawed.

  • I am going to be a lonely voice and defend the welfare state.

    I really appreciate the positive sentiments behind this proposal, but I think in practice this system of universal welfare would be too cumbersome and inefficient.

    The real problem is what happens when people show up for their workfare jobs and don’t work terribly hard. Now, you would want to identify such people as undeserving poor and threaten them with the sanction of losing all financial support. But would this happen in practice? The consequences of being sacked from the workfare program would be disastrous (being left destitute and having one’s children removed). I am pretty sure that the social cost involved would be so high that in most cases it would rarely be applied to those who turned up for work without putting much work in.

    Thus we would end up with a vast army of people being paid to work, but doing very little of it. The ‘undeserving poor’ would likely opt to remain in the workfare program for life. Thus the big disadvantage of the welfare state, the disincentive to work would apply to this system.

    The welfare state model is full of evils, but I believe they are necessary evils.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure what you mean by “welfare state.” Paying people who are capable of working not to work?

      • Basically, yes. That is how it works in most countries with a system of state welfare.

        I think it’s significant that very few countries have a comprehensive system of workfare. If it was practical to make unemployed people do work in return for their benefits, every country would do that. Unfortunately, it is not. It is much cheaper and much less complicated to pay people to do nothing than it is to pay them to do work with very little value. As I said, it’s a necessary evil.

  • Joe

    Thanks Roger – you have started from gospel values rather than “the American way of life”.
    Rawls is a using the Golden Rule.

    You refer to Catholic Social Teaching, and might be aware of Pope Benedict’s essay (not in his capacity of Pope, but as a scholar) called “Europe and its Discontents” which includes the the following:

    “In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.”


  • Steve

    Hello Mr. Olsen, I read your article “Is God’s love limited to the elect?” at this link:

    I am curious to know what you think about John 17:9 where Jesus said :
    ” I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. ”

    If Jesus loves everyone, then why would He not pray for everyone, but only for those the Father had given to Him?

    Jesus called the Pharisees children of the Devil:
    John 8:44
    You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

    Would you tell these Pharisees that “Jesus loves you”?

    Who are the ones whom the Father gives to the Son? Are they not the ones He has chosen from before the foundation of the world to be a bride for His Son, those predestined to become one with Him in a holy union of marriage where the two become one? Are they not the ones who Peter wrote about:

    1 Peter 2:9
    But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

    Are they not the one’s who have received God’s free and sovereign grace and God’s free GIFT of faith, and in whom God freely and sovereignly works by His Spirit to draw them to Himself and to cause them to will and to do His GOOD pleasure?

    • rogereolson

      You are overlooking the corporate nature of election.

      • Steve

        If Jesus loves everyone, as you believe He does, then why did He not pray for everyone, and inspire John to record this fact?

        ” I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. ” John 17:9

        • rogereolson

          He wasn’t praying for anyone’s salvation in that case; he was praying for his disciples and their unity, perseverance in faith after his departure, etc. And he wasn’t saying ONLY they were God’s. So you’ve asked me something, not let me ask you something. Does God love all people or only the elect?