Jay Reding.com

Conservatism And Subsidiarity

President Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael Gerson, has a attack against small government conservatism in Newsweek. Gerson’s attack is rather blistering, and it shows that the conservatives who have accused the Bush Administration of abandoning bedrock conservative principles may have been all too right. For instance, Gerson argues:

As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called “an ideology of universal selfishness.” Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.

Now, he’s right on the first part. Burkean conservatism (which is what American conservatism is all about) stresses the value of societal institutions as the “permanent things” which bind society together. A healthy society possesses healthy institutions. However, where Gerson gets it utterly wrong is by equating societal institutions with government when the two are not equivalent, and in fact are often hostile to each other.

There’s a term in Catholic social theory called subsidiarity, a concept which has influenced the formation of federalism in the United States. Pope Pius XI explained the concept as this:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also 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. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy or absorb them.

Even taken out of its original Catholic context, the concept of subsidiarity is an important one in the history of the United States government. The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution is an example of subsidiarity in government — powers which belong to the people may not be abrogated by the federal government. In the rush by the courts to dramatically expand the power of the federal government through the Commerce Clause, the Tenth Amendment was declared a mere “truism”, nothing more than a slight speed-bump that did nothing to effectively bar the federal government from taking more and more power. (US v. Darby, 31 U.S. 657 (1941).)

Where Gerson gets it wrong is by associating federal actions with the strengthening of societal institutions. Government doesn’t strengthens social institutions, it absorbs them. The use of federal power is not an act of subsidiarity, it is taking from the social fabric and putting the state in a position of greater and greater power. It is the most superficial compassion imaginable. Gerson continues:

Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.

Gerson might as well be advocating liberalism — because he essentially is. The reality of the situation is that government can’t cure crime — it can lock up criminals, but that’s treating a deeper problem symptomatically. Government can’t cure poverty — we’ve tried for the past four decades, and the result has been an entrenched culture of dependency that stifles the individual initiative that lifts people out of poverty. It wasn’t until we dramatically rolled back the welfare state that real results were achieved. Government will never promote racial healing, instead setbacks and quotas serve to further divide this nation along racial lines by promoting the color of one’s skin over the content of one’s character.

What Gerson promotes is the same fallacy that liberalism pushes — that it’s the state that is the solution to our problems. The concept of subsidiarity reminds us of the most important of our conservative principles: that there is no such thing as compassion by proxy. The more the state abrogates the responsibilities of the individual, whether it is our mandate of compassion towards our fellow man, or whether it be the education of our children, the more our society loses the “permanent things” that hold us together. The state can promote healthy institutions not be interjecting itself, but by staying well out of the way.

Take Gerson’s example of the inner city. What does “antigovernment” conservative have to offer the people stuck in America’s ghettos? Far more than Gerson thinks. For one, conservatives believe strongly in limiting government and expanding individual choice by providing for school vouchers that allow someone stuck in a failing inner-city school to go to a private school where they have a chance to succeed. The failure of the educational bureaucracy and the enforced segregation of the public school system make school choice the single most important civil rights issue of our age — and government is the problem, not the solution.

The power of the state is in tension with the institutions of society. The bedrock principle of conservatism is not the sort of big government conservatism that Gerson would advocate — which ends up being a liberal philosophy with a Republican spin. It is a principle that keeps in mind the concept of subsidiarity — that fosters institutions as close to the people as possible, and never allows the state to swallow that which properly belongs to the people. Compassion is an individual trait, it is possessed by people working in soup kitchens, not D.C. apparatchiks deciding how much money goes where. The more the Republican Party forgets its values, the farther and farther we get from our principles and the more likely we are to lose. Gerson has all but abandoned our core principles in favor of a kind of squishy liberalism with a façade of conservative values. If all we will be is a pale imitation of the left, then not only we lose politically, but we will have abandoned the bedrock principles which have animated the conservative movement.

6 responses to “Conservatism And Subsidiarity”

  1. Mark says:

    The reality is that “big government conservatism” is ultimately as close as people like you can hope to get towards any long-term attainment of ideological bliss. Only through a pseudo-populist potpourri of artificial, debt-funded “tax relief” and fists full of government cash designated for earmarks and social programs can you sustain a political/economic climate in which the private sector allocates nearly all of its bounty on the wealthiest of the wealthy. The lawless market approach that you endorse ensures a top-dominated distribution of resources, particularly in a competitive globalized economy like the current one.

    Conservatives have been admittedly shrewd in selling the public on an economic system that guarantees the long-term financial deprivation of the masses by distracting us with God, gays, guns, gynecology, and dangling the carrot of artificial “tax relief” in front of our noses. They’ve also helped ease our pocketbook concerns by doling out the Federal pork. Only if the GOP continues to advocate a Federal government that is both puritanical in its mandates on “naughty” behavior and generous with its financial outlays to help buoy a sinking middle-class can it continue to govern with anything approaching a majority. If the Republican Party chooses to give its fundamentalist base the finger (by, say, nominating Rudy Giuliani) or to quit filling the public trough with endless buckets of pork, you guys will shrink to the insignifance you suffered under back in the “persecuted ideologues” days of the Goldwater era.

  2. Jay Reding says:

    The reality is that “big government conservatism” is ultimately as close as people like you can hope to get towards any long-term attainment of ideological bliss.

    Give me a break. “Big government conservatism” is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it’s almost certainly going to be going by the wayside with the end of the Bush Administration. It was a failed experiment that showed some initial promise, but never delivered.

    Only through a pseudo-populist potpourri of artificial, debt-funded “tax relief” and fists full of government cash designated for earmarks and social programs can you sustain a political/economic climate in which the private sector allocates nearly all of its bounty on the wealthiest of the wealthy. The lawless market approach that you endorse ensures a top-dominated distribution of resources, particularly in a competitive globalized economy like the current one.

    Wow, how can anyone put so much tripe into one paragraph without it exploding? Other than being meaningless left-wing cant, it’s also silly. The reality is that governing principles along the lines of American conservatism have been wildly successful — the last truly successful Democratic politician on the national level was successful specifically because he embraced several conservative policy positions.

    The current Democratic Party is a throwback to the age of high taxes, protectionism, and liberal social policy. Unless we want a replay of 70s style stagflation, allowing those policies to be implemented would be deeply idiotic.

    Conservatives have been admittedly shrewd in selling the public on an economic system that guarantees the long-term financial deprivation of the masses by distracting us with God, gays, guns, gynecology, and dangling the carrot of artificial “tax relief” in front of our noses. They’ve also helped ease our pocketbook concerns by doling out the Federal pork. Only if the GOP continues to advocate a Federal government that is both puritanical in its mandates on “naughty” behavior and generous with its financial outlays to help buoy a sinking middle-class can it continue to govern with anything approaching a majority. If the Republican Party chooses to give its fundamentalist base the finger (by, say, nominating Rudy Giuliani) or to quit filling the public trough with endless buckets of pork, you guys will shrink to the insignifance you suffered under back in the “persecuted ideologues” days of the Goldwater era.

    Just wait… the Republicans might actually be smart enough to embrace the principles of Ronald Reagan once again. If the Democrats think that the old “tax and spend” days are here again, they have another thing coming. All this pseudo-populist bullshit is just a thin veneer over the same old Democratic Party – protectionism that will kill jobs, weakness on national security, and an irrational fetish for bigger and bigger and government. The Democrats won this fall based on putting up conservative candidates in conservative districts — and being up against a GOP whose own missteps finally caught up to them. Now that the Democrats actually have to govern rather than sit on the sidelines and bitch, they’re going to find it much more difficult than they thought.

    All this bullshit about the “disappearing middle class” is just that — pure, unadulterated bovine excrement. What would the Democrats do? Kill free trade, and the millions of American jobs that depend on the globalized economy. Make the US economy less internationally competitive by raising taxes. Reinforce the racist apartheid of our failing public schools by throwing money to the same rich fatcats who profit off the failure of the educational system. Coddle murderous tyrants like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while dithering about with the feckless and incompetent UN.

    The Republicans lost because they lost sight of their values — but even a Republican Party that only pays lip service to its values is better than the Democrats when they decide it’s time to take off the mask and start being the same left-wing radicals they’ve always been.

  3. Mark says:

    “All this bullshit about the “disappearing middle class” is just that — pure, unadulterated bovine excrement.”

    When in a hole, you gotta be smart enough to quit digging. Democrats will admittedly have a tough time stopping the runaway train that the middle class is aboard, but at least they’re trying. People like you, highly representative of the country club Republican set, don’t even pretend that they’re trying, bombastically ridiculing the 60-some percent of Americans who believe the country’s economy is on the wrong track with the most condescending rhetoric imaginable. The good news is that you guys might finally start believing in global warming when the hell that you’ve created for yourselves gets too hot to tolerate.

    “The Republicans lost because they lost sight of their values”

    Again, PLEASE continue to believe that, narrowing your party’s message to serve the Goldwater coalition, an 11% slice of the national electorate that believes in the orthodoxy of Milton Friedman. I think I can live with Barack Obama pulling in an 89% majority in 2008. The more that Republicans like you “get back in touch with your values”, the better the likelihood that the good guys will hand you the Goldwater-esque thumping that you so richly deserve.

  4. Mark says:

    “Just wait… the Republicans might actually be smart enough to embrace the principles of Ronald Reagan once again.”

    You’re joking right? Ronald Reagan invented big-government conservatism.

  5. Jay Reding says:

    When in a hole, you gotta be smart enough to quit digging. Democrats will admittedly have a tough time stopping the runaway train that the middle class is aboard, but at least they’re trying. People like you, highly representative of the country club Republican set, don’t even pretend that they’re trying, bombastically ridiculing the 60-some percent of Americans who believe the country’s economy is on the wrong track with the most condescending rhetoric imaginable. The good news is that you guys might finally start believing in global warming when the hell that you’ve created for yourselves gets too hot to tolerate.

    The reason why so many people think that is because they’ve been fed a pack of lies that contradict the reality of the situation. Unemployment is at historically low levels. Productivity is high. Wages are on the upswing.

    The biggest threats we face are runaway entitlement spending, runaway immigration, and a failing public education system. And guess what, the Democrats will make those things worse.

    Given that the Democrats want to follow the failing social model of Europe that has produced anemic economic growth and double-digit unemployment, just wait until the Democrats start raising taxes and lowering economic growth. Thankfully, if the President grows a pair and starts pulling out the veto pen, that won’t happen.

    Again, PLEASE continue to believe that, narrowing your party’s message to serve the Goldwater coalition, an 11% slice of the national electorate that believes in the orthodoxy of Milton Friedman. I think I can live with Barack Obama pulling in an 89% majority in 2008. The more that Republicans like you “get back in touch with your values”, the better the likelihood that the good guys will hand you the Goldwater-esque thumping that you so richly deserve.

    Yup, those Goldwater Republicans were such failures, weren’t they? They sure never had any electoral success at all. Nope, not at all.

    And Barack Obama? Give me a break! He’s the best the Democrats have, but that’s like being the best hockey player in Guatemala. Especially when Hillary decides that he’s stealing her spotlight, Obama’s gonna actually have to run a real race — and as talented as he is, he’s still never once had a competitive race in his life. The Clinton smear machine will take him down a peg or too – which is why we won’t see him run until at least 2012 after the Giuliani Administration is through.

  6. Mark says:

    “The reason why so many people think that is because they’ve been fed a pack of lies that contradict the reality of the situation. Unemployment is at historically low levels. Productivity is high. Wages are on the upswing.”

    Ah, yes, the old “Who are you gonna believe? Me or your own lying eyes?” defense. Health care costs are soaring through the roof. College tuitions are soaring even faster. Virtually every American’s “prosperity” is the product of several thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt, and wages finally saw an uptick this year after five years of decline. The more you remind everyone how great things are, the more out of touch you look. It warms my heart to see you haven’t learned a damn thing and plan to push your party’s economic platform even further towards an ideology that is being soundly rejected by the vast majority of Americans…..and that you apparently intend to remind that same majority how blind and clueless they are about their own situation every step of the way.

    “The biggest threats we face are runaway entitlement spending, runaway immigration, and a failing public education system. And guess what, the Democrats will make those things worse.”

    One out of three ain’t bad….at least by Jay Reding standards. If the Dems use their new majorities to help Bush enact McCain-Kennedy, they risk losing their majority as fast as they gained it.

    “Yup, those Goldwater Republicans were such failures, weren’t they?”

    True Goldwater Republicanism has never been attained. Would-be conservatives that have followed him, both at the Presidential and Congressional levels, have all embraced a presence of government that is larger than the most left-wing Democrat in American politics today could ever dream possible.

    “And Barack Obama? Give me a break! He’s the best the Democrats have, but that’s like being the best hockey player in Guatemala. Especially when Hillary decides that he’s stealing her spotlight, Obama’s gonna actually have to run a real race — and as talented as he is, he’s still never once had a competitive race in his life. The Clinton smear machine will take him down a peg or too – which is why we won’t see him run until at least 2012 after the Giuliani Administration is through.”

    I used Obama as an example. If the Republicans think they’re gonna elected in 2008 running on a 2002/2004/2006 platform, as they seem to believe they should, even Hillary could conceivably whoop them. Right now, the only Republican who is even remotely scary is Mitt Romney, but if the Massachusetts patrician who ran for President in 2004 was successfully branded a “flip-flopper” by the opposition, the Dems are gonna have an absolute field day tar-and-feathering the uber-flip-flopping Massachusetts patrician who runs for President in 2008.

    As for McCain, he’s looking less and less like the 800-pound gorilla with each passing day. His campaign strategy of calling for substantially more U.S. troops in Iraq seemed brilliant two months ago, allowing him to hedge his bets and eventually lament the inevitable defeat in Iraq as a consequence of not following his hawkish advice. But he didn’t count on Bush actually taking his advice and leaving him not a leg to stand on once the outcome of the added troop presence is simply higher U.S. soldier casualties. It seems like George Bush’s purpose on this Earth is to destroy John McCain’s chances of becoming President, huh?