Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Social Welfare and the Pluriformity of Authority

David T. Koyzis


By David T. Koyzis

In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a second economic bill of rights, arguing that the guarantee of political rights in the U.S. Constitution had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” Among the rights he believed ought to be guaranteed were the “right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;” the “right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;” and the “right to a good education.” Although nothing came of Roosevelt's proposal in the U.S., similar rights were enshrined four years later in articles 22 through 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which his widow Eleanor played a significant role in developing.

The key difficulty with subsuming such issues under the category of rights is that it tells us nothing about who is to provide the goods supposedly guaranteed by them, thereby bypassing the issue of authority which is of more than peripheral importance. It is one thing to say that people have a right to a decent home. It is another to indicate which authoritative agent is responsible for providing this and under what conditions.

If government itself becomes the principal authority for the provision of decent housing, it risks overextending its own resources as well as its competence. This difficulty does not arise with respect to negative rights such as freedom of speech, as government is expected simply to refrain from interfering with their exercise and to recognize the limits to its own authority, which it is eminently qualified to do. Positive rights, if seen as rights at all, are thus fundamentally different from the negative liberties protected in the Bill of Rights because they call instead for concerted action by multiple authoritative agents. This suggests that the language of rights cannot be stretched indefinitely.

The authority of the state should never be supposed to substitute for that of other institutions, when the latter are able to function properly on their own. If the public sector occupies too large a share of a country's resources and if taxes are too high to support it, other independent initiatives will tend to suffer accordingly. Furthermore, where governments are in the grip of a worldview holding that whatever public funds touch must be secular, that is, “nonreligious,” the large public sector will inevitably squeeze out church and para-church ministries undertaking to address the very social ills they may be better equipped than government to deal with. Our society would be spiritually, and not only economically, impoverished if governments were to take over entirely from the Salvation Army, the Jewish Federations of North America, Islamic Relief Worldwide and local church diaconal ministries.

The Center for Public Justice took an active role in developing social welfare policy positions in the 90s = and had an influence on the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, formally known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Its impact was felt especially in Section 104, “Services Provided by Charitable, Religious, or Private Organizations.” This section provides that, where government disburses funds to openly confessional organizations for public welfare purposes, it must do so on the same basis as it does to nonconfessional organizations. This prohibition of discrimination against faith-based organizations is known as “charitable choice.” Such organizations retain their independence from government and their right to maintain their distinctive confessional identities. In particular, they retain the right (read: authority) to limit their hiring to those who agree with the organization's mission and accept its confessional basis.

Although those operating within an individualist framework will protest that this amounts to allowing such organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion backed by public funding, those with a better understanding of the pluriformity of authorities will recognize that every organization works within a particular set of purposes with which not everyone will agree. Social Darwinists will not be hired by a group dedicated to helping those in need. Nonfeminists will not be brought into a group championing feminist causes. There is nothing amiss in this. The identity of a community implies the authority to determine who does and does not qualify for membership. Government's authority should not be assumed to trump this, except under very exceptional circumstances.

A variety of institutions bear responsibility for bettering the lot of the poor and needy, including government, the pluriform institutions of civil society and – we must never forget – the poor themselves.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has completed a second book on authority, office and the image of God, forthcoming from Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf & Stock.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”