J. Alan Smith draws on the writings of St Thomas Aquinas to explore the State’s role in social welfare

There are two extreme views on the provision of social welfare. The first says that it is the responsibility of each person to look after the well-being of his fellows and the State has no role to play. The second says that it is the responsibility of the State to look after its inhabitants and the individual no longer has any duties in this matter. Each of these views is wrong.


There are clear instructions in the Gospels on our duties towards our fellows: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ These duties have been classified as the Corporal Works of Mercy: (1) feeding the hungry, (2) giving drink to the thirsty, (3) clothing the naked, (4) harbouring strangers, (5) visiting the sick, (6) ministering to prisoners, and (7) burying the dead. Thus each person has responsibilities towards the welfare of others though, in practice, he has a greater responsibility towards those he is more able to help: the rich man in his castle has a particular duty to the poor man at his gate.

Material things

On the other hand, St Thomas Aquinas, in analysing the right to property shows that there is a role for the State. The following quotations are taken from Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Qu. 66.

Aquinas writes: ‘man has a natural control over material things; for he can, in virtue of his reason and will, make use of material things for his own benefit’, citing both Aristotle (I, Politics) and the Old Testament (Genesis I). He makes two points concerning material things: the power of acquisition and disposal and their use.

Private possession

On the first point: ‘private possession is permissible. It is also necessary to human life for three reasons. First, because every one is more concerned with the obtaining of what concerns himself alone than with the common affairs of all or of many others: for each one, avoiding extra labour, leaves the common task to the next man; as we see when there are too many

officials. Secondly, because human affairs are dealt with in a more orderly manner when each has his own business to go about: there would be complete confusion if every one tried to do everything. Thirdly, because this leads to a more peaceful condition of man, provided each is content with his own. So we see that it is among those who possess something jointly and in common that disputes most frequently arise.’

On the point of their use: ‘As to this, men should not hold material things as their own but to the common benefit: each readily sharing them with others in their necessity.’

Human law

For St Thomas, the right to private property derives from human law: ‘The common possession of things is to be attributed to natural law, not in the sense that natural law decrees that all things are to be held in common and that there is no private possession: but in the sense that there is no distinction of property on grounds of natural law, but only by human agreement; and this pertains to positive law as we have already shown. Thus private property is not opposed to natural law, but is an addition to it, devised by the human reason.’

Aquinas points out: ‘Now according to the natural order, instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man’s necessity from such goods.’ Thus the State, as the author of human law, may act in the provision of social benefits as agent of last resort.


There can be a chronological relationship between the provision of benefits by individuals or private groups and by the State. In some cases, the provision of benefits was started by individuals or private groups and continues to be so, with no involvement by the State. In other cases, schemes developed privately with limited application are seen to be of general benefit and are usefully taken over by the State to provide a universal system more effectively. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to transfer responsibility for a service provided by the State to a group of volunteers. This is the main reason that the present administration has had difficulty with the idea of the ‘Big Society’. First, the terminology is wrong: it would have been better to have used Edmund Burke’s term the ‘little platoon’. Secondly, and of more practical importance, people are unlikely to welcome the removal of a service provided by the State and its replacement, if by anything, by a transfer of responsibility to a group of private individuals unless that transfer is accompanied by a government grant or an observable reduction in taxation.

The State cannot abandon all responsibility for the provision of benefits. As Disraeli wrote: ‘power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the PEOPLE.’ ND