Ryan’s Welfare Morality
by Donald Devine
Issue 211– September 12, 2012
When Rep. Paul Ryan was on his way to Georgetown University to deliver the prestigious Whittington Lecture back in April, ninety professors – including the Washington Post’s leading progressive ideologue, E.J. Dionne – greeted their fellow Catholic in the following manner:
we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.” In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.
All of this vituperativeness came before Mr. Ryan had spoken a single word. His critics were most incensed by his use of Catholic teaching on the doctrine of subsidiarity, the principle that lower levels of society such as the individual, family, community and local government should be preferred to higher ones such as the national government:
While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”
If they had bothered to wait for the speech the protesters might have heard Mr. Ryan specifically link the two principles. After arguing that current spending would result in a “debt crisis in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst,” Ryan specifically said any new approach “should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity — virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.” All the author of the document, Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, could respond was: “This is nonsense. As scholars, we want to join the Catholic bishops in pointing out that his budget has a devastating impact on programs for the poor.” It never occurred to his scholarly critics that even if his budget had passed in exactly the form presented it would have no necessary effect on the poor. It might even help them.
Ryan argued – specifically referencing Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to the German parliament regarding the loss of social vibrancy in Europe – that the U.S.’s greater commitment to a vibrant decentralized civic life, from Alexis de Tocqueville to the latest social science surveys, suggests American subsidiarity can more effectively deal with the needs of the poor – if the national government gives them the freedom to act. If there is one truism in U.S. welfare policy analysis it is that national welfare programs do not work. It was Democratic President Bill Clinton who signed the most radical welfare reform of modern times that sent the largest welfare program back to the states and localities. Almost everyone agrees it was a great success. It was not enough. Today there is still such a tangle of national programs they counter each other and present an obstacle to reform.
The greatest social problem of modern times is that the bureaucratic welfare state suffocates creative local action. Who says so? Let us go above the U.S. theologians and bishops to what Pope John Paul II said on national government intervention in his major social encyclical Centesimus Annus:
In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called “Welfare State”. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.
The professors, welfare experts, administrators of government funding and the rest really get angry when read Pope Pius XI’s original statement on the matter in the earlier encyclical Quadragessimo Anno that it is an actual evil to look to higher levels of government when lower ones can do the job:
It is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private enterprise and industry can accomplish; so too, it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies. This is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, unshaken and unchangeable.
Obviously, Mr. Ryan has read his Church’s doctrine on the matter better than the professors who apparently value their statist ideology above their popes’ pronouncements. Ryan’s budget says absolutely nothing about reducing state, local or private funding for the poor except that he expects that where the need is real that they will be more generous. Why assume compassion and decency are exclusive to the national government? Indeed, the reverse seems more true which is precisely the popes’ point.
It was America’s great fortune to have had the principle of subsidiarity incorporated into the fabric of its colonies. The concept is often attributed to early 17th Century Protestant philosopher Johannes Althusius, who influenced John Locke, who so inspired the Founders. As Lord Acton had emphasized, England had developed earliest and held longest to its old decentralized feudal structure before it too fell into monarchical divine-right and parliamentary centralization. Fortunately for the colonists, while Henry VIII and Elizabeth had adopted continental centralization, dynastic, religious, foreign entanglements and even a Commonwealth kept the monarchs and legislators too busy to control their colonies. By the time, George III took his divine right doctrines to the colonies it was too late to dissuade them from their Magna Carta, Bills of Rights, Locke and Montesquieu.
While separation of powers was in the Founders’ DNA subsidiarity was not. James Madison indeed thought all was lost when the resolution to make state laws subject to Congressional review failed in the constitutional convention. But subsidiarity had sunk deep into American habits and traditions and Madison came to understand that he was wrong and the majority was correct. As de Tocqueville found a few years later, the national government barely existed out in the country and the states did not reach down very far either. A true subsidiarity to assist neighbors and the poor had grown deeply into its local governments and voluntary associations.
This is the moral vision of subsidiarity still alive in the hearts (if not the language) of most Americans today as their greater trust and love of local government has been demonstrated in poll after poll over the years. Congressman Ryan understands this essence of the American character and morality. Unfortunately, his protagonists do not.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.