Michael Gerson has a piece that tries to paint the GOP as a party caught between libertarianism and Catholic social thought. As he explains it:
There are, in fact, two belief systems contending for the soul of the Republican Party, but one is not liberalism. The two intellectually vital movements within the Republican Party today are libertarianism and Roman Catholic social thought — a teaching that has influenced many non-Catholics, including me.
The difference between these visions is considerable. Various forms of libertarianism and anti-government conservatism share a belief that justice is defined by the imposition of impartial rules — free markets and the rule of law. If everyone is treated fairly and equally, the state has done its job. But Catholic social thought takes a large step beyond that view. While it affirms the principle of limited government — asserting the existence of a world of families, congregations and community institutions where government should rarely tread — it also asserts that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering.
The problem that Gerson runs into is that he assumes that government is the proper institution for “racial reconciliation, the problems of addiction or at-risk youths, or the economic prospects of the poor.” The whole point of the modern conservative movement is the realization that the imprecise and blunt tool of government is specially the worst instrument for dealing with those societal ills. Programs like “The Great Society” failed because they relied on the coercive power of government to achieve ends that cannot be met by a government program. No government program can create racial reconciliation because racial animus is a personal issue and government cannot—nor should it—have the ability to change the human heart. No government program can cure addiction because the only way to cure addiction is for addicts to want to get treatment. No government program can truly fix the economic prospects of the poor because government interference in the market exacerbates rather than cures a lack of upward mobility.
Government is, in short, the wrong tool for the job.
Catholic Social Thought does not require the sort of top-down solutions that Gerson seems to advance. In fact, such solutions violate a key tenet of Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity:
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 and absorb them.
— Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931
Gerson is right that Catholic social thought, as well as conservatism, includes a duty to help the less fortunate. However, that duty is a personal one. Giving more money to government isn’t compassion. There is no such thing as compassion-by-proxy, and there certainly is not such a thing as compassion through advocating higher levels of taxation by others.
Gerson asks what help an “anti-government” conservatism offers to America’s inner cities? To that question the response should be, “what help has years of fostering a culture of dependence on government been?” Gerson misses the point of the last few decades of modern conservatism—dependence creates poverty, while encouraging self-reliance reduces poverty. It was this principle that drove Gov. Tommy Thompson’s efforts at welfare reform, which in turn inspired the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The result of those reforms was to get millions of people off the welfare rolls and away from the downward spiral of more and more dependency.
While there is no doubt that Gerson’s motives are pure, he does not understand the basis of Catholic social thought, especially the concept of subsidiarity. There is a reason why Catholic social thought matches the two concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity as one. Neither one works without the other. Standing in solidarity with the poor isn’t enough if one tries to pass off that solidarity through impersonal organizations which subsume those small institutions that hold the social fabric together. Subsidiarity only works when individuals work with those smaller organization in solidarity with those in need.
Does the conservative movement need to be stronger in social concerns? Absolutely. Does that mean abandoning conservative principles? Absolutely not. Liberalism lacks an understanding of subsidiarity. Conservatism as an ideology is one that recognizes the value of subsidiarity at its core. Moreover, conservatives are no slouches on the solidarity part, as witnessed by evidence that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, are more likely to give to charity.
Big-government conservatism isn’t compatible with core principles of Catholic social thought, and it’s not especially conservative either. American compassion is not expressed by the size and scope of government, it is expressed by the compassion of individuals and small groups to effect real change. To disturb that “right order” Pope Pius XI described in Quadragesimo Anno is to lose sight of not only the principles of conservatism, but the principles of Catholic social thought as well.