Paul Ryan Gets It Wrong Invoking Catholic 'Subsidiarity' Principle

Subsidiarity is not a synonym for federalism, as Ryan has it, and it should never be conflated with economic libertarianism or individualism.

By + More

Rep. Paul Ryan recently raised concerns about the erosion of civil society and local communities. He also reflected on how Catholic teachings on "subsidiarity" have influenced his controversial budget proposal.

With a tip of the hat to the American Spectator's Quin Hillyer, here's Ryan:

A person's faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?

To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that's how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Will the New Ryan Budget Plan Hurt the GOP in 2012?]

I've got a couple of problems with this.

First, it's obvious Ryan suffers from a rather large ideological blindspot. The Nisbetian narrative on the weakening of local bonds doesn't just finger big government; it also holds markets responsible. In this view, "creative destruction" doesn't work like that famous tablecloth trick—it actually breaks a few plates and glasses. Maybe, for the sake of progress, it's worth it in the end. But painful trade-offs must be made.

Ryan seems to think that if government aid to the poor is radically scaled back, those old civic bonds and institutions will just organically reappear, like wildflowers. Churches and charities—and we all know how flush with time and resources they are!—will move right into the breach. No one gets hurt.

Forgive me if I can't picture this sequence of events as blithely as Ryan apparently does.

[ Scott Galupo: Conservatives Should Be Wary of Paul Ryan's Budget Plan]

But wait. It gets worse.

There's actually a fairly well-developed literature on subsidiarity. I don't subscribe to all or even most of its precepts. The point is, anyone who's more than casually acquainted with it would know it's not a synonym for federalism, as Ryan has it, and it should never be conflated with economic libertarianism or individualism. Subsidiarity, as David Cloutier (channeling the agrarian poet Wendell Berry) writes, is about strengthening community as a bulwark against private and private interests.

For a laundry list of reasons why subsidiarity and Ryan-ism are in stark contrast, check out James Baresel, writing in the Distributist Review. A sample:

Subsidiarity is a communitarian philosophy. In this doctrine the human person cannot be understood apart from his communal nature and his communal existence. Subsidiarity claims that a communal, social and political existence is imposed on the human person by human nature, by the natural law and, ultimately, by God.

For the libertarian, by contrast, the human person is individualistic. The libertarian considers the communal, social and political aspects of human existence to be the result of human free choice and considers these aspects of human existence to be created by man rather than by God. ...

Because subsidiarity claims that human nature is communal the same doctrine claims that our obligations to the community are imposed by nature, rather than by free agreement. So, for example, the authority of the government comes from God and the natural law rather than the free consent of the governed. The people must obey whether they have consented or not. A just salary or wage is determined by the employee's financial need (provided the employer has sufficient resources to pay an amount which meets this need and still have his own financial needs and the needs of sustaining his business met) rather than by a free agreement between employer and employee. We must contribute to the common good of the community (town, country, nation, etc.) in which we live. Even if we do not wish to do so, we can justly be compelled against our will to do so and the government can compel us to this even if we have never consented to the government's existence or right to do so.

Paul Ryan needs to find a new fig leaf.