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Subsidiarity in Drag

In the on-going debate about the federal budget, several conservative Catholics have sought to defend the draconian cuts in federal spending being demanded by the House Republicans by invoking the principle of subsidiarity. The cuts are so manifestly directed at programs that assist the poor, while demanding precisely no sacrifices from the wealthy, that the invocation of subsidiarity bears the appearance of a fig leaf. Actually, the reality is worse.

Subsidiarity is the idea societal issues and problems are best dealt with at lower levels of social organization, and that the higher levels should intervene only when the lower levels have failed to achieve the social goal in question. So, the most basic social unit, the family, should deal with whatever problems it can, then turn to the community, the state and only as a last resort should the federal government be employed.

In an article in the journal First Things, George Weigel wrote: “One of the four core principles of Catholic social doctrine is the principle of subsidiarity, which teaches that decision making should be left at the lowest possible level in society, commensurate with the common good. A lot of Catholics forgot about subsidiarity during the 2009 health-care debate. That failure should not be repeated in 2011 and 2012.”

Weigel echoed an argument made during the health care debate by Deal Hudson, writing in was then “Inside Catholic,” now known as Crisis: “To assert the right to health care as the end of the argument leaps over both prudential reasoning and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which stipulates that a social problem should first be dealt with at a local level before being addressed at higher, governmental levels.”

In his letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Congressman Paul Ryan equated subsidiarity with federalism, writing, “The Budget’s reform of Medicaid and other proposals is also informed by the principle of subsidiarity. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (§. 186) instructs: ‘it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.’ In American political terms, this is the same purpose as ‘federalism.’” Of course, federalism has to do with the prevention of tyranny by separating powers between the federal and state governments. Subsidiarity favors lower levels of social organization in order to maintain a personal, human quality to such interactions. The founders were not animated by the personalism that informs Catholic understanding of social relations, relations that the Randian worldview of Cong. Ryan would not acknowledge. And, in his subsequent statements about Dolan's reply, Ryan has studiously ignored Dolan's explciit pairing of the idea of subsidiarity with another key principle of Catholic social teaching, solidarity. Again, that would not fit with the Randian worldview.

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To be clear, I would welcome the application of subsidiarity to America’s many and varied social programs. (I confess it is easier to do so because I do not live in a low-tax state like Mississippi where social services leave much to be desired.) I agree entirely with Pope Benedict’s insight that we must keep the dignity of the human person at the center of all of our social programs and that it is easier to do this when we know the person we are helping, and when the person being helped knows the person doing the helping. Of course, in a complex society, bureaucracy is unavoidable: In the case of health care, I do not see how an insurance company’s bureaucracy is any less oppressive than a government one. Still, there is much to be said for keeping programs – and just as importantly, the taxes that pay for them – close to the source.

But, have Weigel or Hudson or Ryan visited a state capital recently? Every governor and state legislature is struggling to balance their own budgets. Can they point to a single Republican Governor who is standing up and saying, “Hey, we are going to be taking over Medicaid and introduce a new, state-run, health care system for the poor and the working class, so I must raise the state income tax?” Has any Republican-controlled state legislature announced new state-run social programs that provide assistance to the poor currently provided by the federal government, from the nutritional assistance of the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program to food stamps to housing assistance? If this has been happening, I have not seen it.

Instead, the Republicans who are leading several states have used their authority to attack unions. Where are the cries from the right about this? After all, unions are precisely the kind of intermediate social institutions subsidiarity aims to uphold. Alas, this is one instance where state intervention is desired by conservatives.

In a theoretical view of this invocation of subsidiarity, it looks like a fig leaf. But, in reality, and applying prudence (another word conservatives like to toss around) it is worse, it is subsidiarity in drag. These conservative Catholic defenders of the GOP are taking a venerable principle and turning it into a sham, a version of subsidiarity that is dressed up to appear as something other than what it really is. If this is not hypocrisy, I do not know what is.

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