Subsidiarity and the Social Doctrine

"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money [to spend]." Margaret Thatcher

“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” G. K. Chesterton

Subsidiarity in the Gospels

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What is the USCCB's problem with subidiarity?

On May 21, 2010, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a media statement which sought to identify the way forward for Catholic engagement in the healthcare debate in light of the passage of healthcare legislation. The USCCB stresses that at the core of the bishops’ advocacy throughout the debate was a concern for three principles: (1) the protection of innocent life from the use of lethal force from conception to natural death; (2) the maintenance of conscience protections; and (3) the realization of universal access to healthcare for all, especially the poor and migrants. These, the USCCB stresses, will remain at the forefront of its contributions to the healthcare discussion. The USCCB consequently asks America’s “Catholic community to come together in defense of human life, rights of conscience and fairness to immigrants so we will have a health care system that truly respects the life, dignity, health and consciences of all.”

All this is well and good. Unfortunately, there is no mention in this text of a concern voiced by a good number of Catholic bishops throughout the debate: an assessment of whether the recent healthcare legislation can truly be said to reflect adherence to the principle of subsidiarity. For anyone who needs a reminder of what this principle means, here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (CCC 1883):

Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘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 co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good’.

It’s important to note that subsidiarity is not an “anti-government” or “anti-state” principle. Indeed it affirms that there is a role for government because (1) there are some things that only governments can and should do and (2) sometimes the state does need to intervene when other communities are unable to cope temporarily with their particular responsibilities. Nor, it should be added, does subsidiarity always translate into the very same policy-positions, precisely because some elements of the common good are in a constant state of flux.

That said, it’s puzzling to say the least that the USCCB, both during and after the healthcare debate, is not in the habit of referencing subsidiarity as a vital principle for Catholics to reflect upon as they consider the implications of what few now question amounts to the massive expansion of Federal government control over healthcare in the United States. Contrary to what some Catholics imagine (especially the professional social justice activists who dissent from fundamental church dogmas and doctrines while casting anathemas against anyone who disagrees with their own prudential judgments on any number of economic issues), striving to widen access to healthcare need not automatically translate into the state assuming a dominant role.

In their important joint pastoral letter of August 22, 2009, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, and Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph listed subsidiarity as a vital principle upon which Catholics should reflect when thinking about health care reform. They even described subsidiarity as “the preamble to the Work of Reform”. Elsewhere in the document the bishops spelt out what this means for healthcare reform:

The right of every individual to access health care does not necessarily suppose an obligation on the part of the government to provide it. Yet in our American culture, Catholic teaching about the ‘right’ to healthcare is sometimes confused with the structures of ‘entitlement.’ The teaching of the Universal Church has never been to suggest a government socialization of medical services. Rather, the Church has asserted the rights of every individual to have access to those things most necessary for sustaining and caring for human life, while at the same time insisting on the personal responsibility of each individual to care properly for his or her own health.

During the healthcare debate, a considerable number of Catholic bishops expressed similar views. Bishops Walker Nickless of Sioux City, for example, was very specific:

… the Catholic Church does not teach that ‘health care’ as such, without distinction, is a natural right. The ‘natural right’ of health care is the divine bounty of food, water, and air without which all of us quickly die. This bounty comes from God directly. None of us own it, and none of us can morally withhold it from others. The remainder of health care is a political, not a natural, right, because it comes from our human efforts, creativity, and compassion. As a political right, health care should be apportioned according to need, not ability to pay or to benefit from the care. We reject the rationing of care. Those who are sickest should get the most care, regardless of age, status, or wealth. But how to do this is not self-evident. The decisions that we must collectively make about how to administer health care therefore fall under ‘prudential judgment.’ [I]n that category of prudential judgment, the Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care. Unlike a prudential concern like national defense, for which government monopolization is objectively good – it both limits violence overall and prevents the obvious abuses to which private armies are susceptible – health care should not be subject to federal monopolization.

Preserving patient choice (through a flourishing private sector) is the only way to prevent a health care monopoly from denying care arbitrarily, as we learned from HMOs in the recent past. While a government monopoly would not be motivated by profit, it would be motivated by such bureaucratic standards as quotas and defined ‘best procedures,’ which are equally beyond the influence of most citizens. The proper role of the government is to regulate the private sector, in order to foster healthy competition and to curtail abuses. Therefore any legislation that undermines the viability of the private sector is suspect. Private, religious hospitals and nursing homes, in particular, should be protected, because these are the ones most vigorously offering actual health care to the poorest of the poor.

These and similar views expressed by many bishops were dismissed as “libertarian” by whatever’s left these days of the Catholic left – as if only libertarians could possibly believe that limiting government power and encouraging private sector and civil society solutions to genuine social and economic problems are good things.

The truth, however, is that the USCCB’s professional social justice bureaucrats have a long history of playing down or even ignoring the implications of the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity isn’t, for example, even listed as one of the “Themes of Catholic Teaching” on the Justice, Peace and Development section of the USCCB’s website. It is long past the time for that to change.

Samuel Gregg

The Principle of Subsidiarity

One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.

This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “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 spite of this clear warning, the United States Catholic Bishops remain staunch defenders of a statist approach to social problems. They have publicly criticized recent congressional efforts to reform the welfare system by decentralizing it and removing its perverse incentives. Their opposition to the Clinton Administration’s health care plan was based solely upon its inclusion of abortion funding. They had no fundamental objection to a takeover of the health care industry by the federal government.

Why the troubling contradiction between Papal teaching and the policy recommendations of the U.S. Bishops? Part of the problem may rest with the reliance the Bishops have placed upon commentators such as Monsignor George Higgins. In the spring of 1994 Monsignor Higgins gave a lengthy talk on the principle of subsidiarity to the Albert Cardinal Meyer Lecture series. Higgins stated that the “principle of subsidiarity is concerned with the relationship of the state to other societies, not with the nature of the state itself.” This view is wrongheaded. Subsidiarity applies to all human institutions, including the state. When the federal government usurps the rights and responsibilities of state and local governments, a flagrant violation of the principle of subsidiarity has occurred. If upper echelon bureaucrats in a Cabinet department operate in a top-down manner and deny any flexibility to their subordinates, the effectiveness of this department will be diminished. Higgins’s interpretation of subsidiarity exempts the internal operation of the various levels and branches of government from any critical scrutiny.

The ultimate purpose of Higgins is to defend the welfare statist philosophy which he and his allies in organized labor have advocated for decades. This leads to serious distortions in his analysis of the principle of subsidiarity, especially in his treatment of Alexis de Tocqueville. Higgins cites de Tocqueville’s praise for voluntary associations as part of a larger discussion in which he endorses an enhanced role for government in fighting poverty. But Higgins ignores other aspects of Tocqueville’s work which would devastate his thesis. As Russell Kirk observed, Tocqueville strongly opposed the centralizing impulse which afflicts modern democracies. In accord with subsidiarity, true democracy is a product of local institutions and self-reliance. Consolidation is the weapon of tyranny, but the friend of liberty is particularism. “Among the public men of democracies, there are hardly any but men of great disinterestedness or extreme mediocrity who seek to oppose the centralization of government; the former are scarce, the latter powerless.”

Monsignor Higgins, by contrast, fails to even mention the relationship between federal, state, and local governments. Any extended discussion of the principle of subsidiarity which neglects to consider the respective roles of the state and federal governments in the American system is radically flawed. As our founding fathers made clear in The Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution was designed to leave many issues of great importance in the hands of the states. The federal government was to do only those things which the individual states could not effectively do for themselves. The subsidiarity principle was at work in the foundation of our nation. But from the New Deal era onwards, there has been a steady growth in federal power at the expense of the states. This has sparked a renewed interest in the Tenth Amendment, which reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states.

But there is another area of Alexis de Tocqueville’s thought which runs directly counter to Monsignor Higgins’s argument. Higgins is defending the Welfare State, the prospect of which Tocqueville dreaded. Tocqueville described the system which he foresaw in terms which are chillingly similar to modern society. He predicted that modern democratic government would degenerate into a huge, paternalistic state which would guide the individual in all of his affairs and insure that all of his needs were met. “For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

Tocqueville strongly opposed this system because it kept the citizens in perpetual childhood. Pope John Paul II criticized the Welfare State in Centesimus Annus for the same reason. However, Monsignor Higgins does not even address the Pope’s critique. He makes one passing reference to it before directing the attention of his hearers elsewhere. Higgins cites Gregory Baum’s argument that the principle of subsidiarity has been complemented by the principle of socialization, first elaborated by Pope John XXIII. Baum defines subsidiarity as “de-centralization” and socialization as “centralization”. In other words, in this view, Catholicism teaches the principle of de-centralization and the principle of centralization simultaneously!

The absurdity of this argument is clearly revealed by taking a closer look at the meaning of socialization. In reviewing John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, Father Robert Sirico observes that the Pontiff’s desire was to strengthen mediating institutions in order to protect the primacy of the human person. Far from advancing any form of collectivism, Pope John wanted to “multiply social relationships” so that the individual would be free to pursue the common good. Socialization does not mean centralization. Rather, it refers to the voluntary associations which Alexis de Tocqueville praised as being a vital part of American freedom in the 1830s.

The principle of subsidiarity is both thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly American. The U.S. Catholic Bishops should be leading defenders of it. That they are not is due to intellectual currents which go beyond the partisanship of scholars such as Monsignor Higgins. The Bishops have not learned the key lessons of the 1980s: the success of free market economics and the failure of collectivism. The top-down, centralized planning of the Soviet system could not succeed because it contradicted the subsidiarity principle. When producers and consumers are not allowed to bargain freely, prices cease to reflect meaningful information and become arbitrary dictates of the bureaucracy. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “Without the basis for calculation which Capitalism places at the disposal of Socialism, in the shape of market prices, socialist enterprises would never be carried on, even within single branches of production or individual countries.”

If the Bishops understood this point, they would not be advocating government price controls on goods ranging from health care to cable television. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops needs to take a closer look at the principle of subsidiarity and to apply it more consistently. In the realm of economics, this would entail respect for the mechanisms of the free market and opposition to state intervention exemplified by the failed Clinton health plan. The Bishops must understand that taking away the power of decision from producers and consumers and entrusting it to government bureaucrats violates the subsidiarity principle. Concerning political teaching, the Bishops should support efforts to restrict the Welfare State and to return to the states rights and responsibilities taken from them since the 1930s. If they do, the U.S. Bishops will find themselves more in accord with the Papal teaching of Centesimus Annus, the Catholic natural law tradition, and the convictions of most American Catholics.

Fr. David A. Bosnich is a priest in the Byzantine Catholic Church.