Paul Ryan received a great deal of criticism from Catholics who claimed his budget was unfaithful because the spending cuts in his proposal disproportionately impacted the poor.
Last night Ryan defended his plan in a speech at Georgetown, saying his Catholic faith–especially the two principles of solidarity and subsidiarity–informed his thinking.
Leading the charge against the very notion of decentralization is Thomas Reese, Jesuit priest and former editor of America magazine, who disagrees that there are better ways to help the poor than raising taxes and enlarging the federal government:
Not all of the church’s faithful, however, were convinced by his defense. In terms of understanding the Catholic Church’s doctrine on social issues, “we’d give that speech an F,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown’s Woodstock Theological Center. “Catholics believe that problems should be dealt with at the lowest levels. But if families could take care of themselves, and the local government could, we wouldn’t have the crisis that we’re facing right now.”
The original letter from Georgetown faculty opposing the budget (Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, never one to miss an argument in favor of Catholic statism, is also a signatory) was penned by Reese, and while it’s as churlish as one might expect–complete with a potshot about how he must prefer Ayn Rand to the Gospel; their argument basically boils down to ‘Jesus wouldn’t approve of your budget, Congressman Ryan’–it demonstrates one of the difficulties with having a national dialogue over decentralization and subsidiarity.
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.”
Fine. But it’s obviously not the job of a national legislator to implement solutions at the local level.
Ryan’s budget isn’t perfect. Most egregiously, it fails to scrutinize Defense Department spending with nearly the same rigor as he brings to domestic reforms–defense spending goes up, when it’s higher in real terms than during the Reagan years. It’s not fair to say Ryan wants to throw granny off a cliff, but it is fair to say he would throw granny off a cliff before he’d scrap the Joint Strike Fighter.
The idea that the progressive Catholics have the moral high ground on this issue, however, is dead wrong. Their precious Medicare entitlement will be broke by either 2024 or 2016 depending on who you ask, and it won’t be able to help anyone then. The point people like Paul Ryan are trying to make is that incremental, thoughtful decentralization is preferable to the tumultuous, potentially violent decentralization that could result from debt crisis and political collapse.
But people like Reese oppose any effort to shift entitlement and poverty programs back to states or localities because they believe in the inherent virtue of federal redistributive programs. There is no end to the good the state can do for the poor because there are always more rich people we can tax. If Ayn Rand is Paul Ryan’s false idol, theirs is FDR. The whole tableaux takes on a nasty ward-heeling sheen when you think about the fact that most of the signatories, being from Georgetown, are in one way or another vested in central government and the disproportionate benefits it confers upon those who live in or near Washington.
I’m reminded of an old essay on Frank Meyer and fusionism in which Murray Rothbard asks, Can a coerced act ever be virtuous?
Suppose, for a moment, that we define a virtuous act as bowing in the direction of Mecca every day at sunset. We attempt to persuade everyone to perform this act. But suppose that instead of relying on voluntary conviction we employ a vast number of police to break into everyone’s home and see to it that every day they are pushed down to the floor in the direction of Mecca. No doubt by taking such measures we will increase the number of people bowing toward Mecca. But by forcing them to do so, we are taking them out of the realm of action and into mere motion, and we are depriving all these coerced persons of the very possibility of acting morally. By attempting to compel virtue, we eliminate its possibility. For by compelling everyone to bow to Mecca, we are preventing people from doing so out of freely adopted conviction. To be moral, an act must be free.