Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Limited Government II: Subsidiarity

In late November, I posted my thoughts on the necessity of limited government, government where powers are spelled out and no particular individual or branch of government has too much power. Defending limited government also means that there are major areas of life for citizens which are simply none of government’s concern: e.g., to Whom they pray if they pray at all, with whom we associate (except in matters of criminal investigation), what books we read, what we say to the local paper (unless it is a criminal threat). We are free to start a business, as long as the business itself is legal, or to join a union, apply to Masons or Elks, bet the ponies (as long as we continue to pay our bills and feed our families, the government can show no interest) or stand outside the track and pass out leaflets on why gambling is a sin, etc. We are free to make fun of our president or any other politician–or any religious leader. This may be childish, rude, or even, from some perspectives, blasphemous, but as long as no threat is given, it is not the concern of the government.

I contrasted this concern for limited government with a different philosophy that is popular in many conservative circles: small government. Small government may be limited in the sense that it simply doesn’t have the resources to address a problem, but it can still cover far too many areas of life. Limited government is not vested in any one size. But the growth of bureacracy can lead to inefficiency and a kind of tyranny, as Max Weber repeatedly warned his friend and fellow German political philosopher, Karl Marx. Marx’s dream of “the withering away of the state” when state-socialism finally achieved Communist utopia was foolish, Weber knew, because of the incredible growth of bureacracies–which would be even larger under a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” And so it proved. History is the laboratory of ideas and Marxism-Leninism failed in that lab–terribly inefficient bureacracies were its fatal weakness.

So, what is the answer? Here, I turn to modern Roman Catholic social teaching, not because I am Catholic (anyone reading this blog knows otherwise), but because Catholic social teaching has developed an articulate principle that speaks to this problem–and is fully consistent with the radical democratic vision of the Levellers that is the point of departure for this blog. The principle is called subsidiarity.

You can find several different definitions of subsidiarity in the papal social encyclicals of the last 100 years (See the education one gets when one is, for a couple of years, the sole Protestant faculty member of the religion and philosophy dept. of a small Catholic university?), but the basic idea is this: Social problems should be dealt with at the smallest or most local level possible. If a problem can be handled in a neighborhood, it doesn’t need and shouldn’t have a national or global solution.

This cuts down on bureacratic ‘red tape,’ although it doesn’t eliminate it. It also allows for flexibility instead of “one size fits all,” programs and it encourages local initiative and responsiveness in local governments to the citizens they see daily.

I can hear my conservative friends cheering. But not so fast. Unlike the anti-government types who want to “starve the beast,” so that it is small enough to be “drowned in a bathtub,” (Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-government, pro-capitalist group that opposes almost all taxation and government programs), subsidiarity realizes that not all problems can be solved on local levels. Some need statewide action, others national, or even global solutions. Take the problem of catastrophic climate change due to human-caused global warming: In the absence of coherent national and global work to reduce carbon emissions, local and state actions are commendable. But thousands of different approaches with different standards are finally not going to be sufficient. Tackling this problem will require coordinated efforts in the international community.

Further, and here my conservative friends will gasp, subsidiarity would seem to apply to corporations as well as governments: Communities should normally encourage local, small businesses over national and international ones. And since we are trying to block accumulations of unchecked power, sometimes it will take government power to block corporate power–the power of accumulated money and capital.

Balancing these interests is not easy. Democratic, limited government is a messy affair with many a failed experiment that needs scrapping. Sometimes we can find out only afterwords that a problem could have been handled better locally-or, contrariwise, needed a more macro approach beyond the local level. Sometimes what is needed is global or national programs with built-in flexibility for local and regional adaptation. Hammering such out is difficult–but worth the effort. Do we sometimes need to shrink government bureacracy? Often, and this is why I completely supported the Clinton administration’s “reinventing government” policy of cutting waste, carried out by VP Gore. That was the only administration in recent U.S. history that actually reduced government bureacracy–and got very little credit from conservatives for doing so. (By contrast, government has mushroomed in ill-advised ways under Bush. Some conservatives–and MANY liberals and progressives–have complained about this, but others only seem to be opposed to government growth when Democrats do it.)

Sometimes we need to add to government bureacracy. President Bush argued that creating one large Homeland Security Department that linked all emergency response and intelligence organizations together would be more efficient in protecting the nation. After several years in this experiment, I think it safe to say that it has also failed in the laboratory of history. It has been terribly inefficient, while restricting citizen freedoms in ways inconsistent with limited government.

On the progressive side, many, including myself, argue for a national health care system that is run by the government and “single payer,” that is, paid for by taxes rather than private insurance programs. Conservatives fear a bureacratic nightmare and lowering of health care standards, but we already have that under the current system–and thousands who cannot afford healthcare on top of that. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has long estimated that the costs of starting up such a system (in reality, expanding Medicaid and Medicare to universal coverage) would be offset by the savings in paperwork from the current inefficient system. Subsidiarity suggests that since local solutions have proven inadequate, a national plan with much local flexibility would be best–and there are already several successful models in the national health plans of other nations, such as Canada. Considering that health care costs are the single largest labor expense of many troubled U.S. industries, including the auto and airlines industries, a national healthcare system would also be a boon to business–allowing U.S. businesses to compete on a more even field with nations whose companies do not have that labor expense because of national health systems.

Subsidiarity is a principle that can help us weigh the different problems of bureacracy, commitment to limited government, and yet problems that cannot be tackled either by market forces alone, nor simply on local levels.

January 6, 2007 Posted by | government, politics | 10 Comments

Limited Government, I

In the U. S. political scene, so-called conservatives make much of the need for “smaller government.” I argue that the actual size of the federal government is not, per se, the issue or shouldn’t be. The principle that needs reviving is the importance of limited government, that is, governments whose authority is limited (and spelled out) and whose power is limited by other concentrations of power, by what we in the states commonly refer to as a system of “checks and balances.”

Now, I want to contend that Christians have strong reason support limited government. Let me be clear: I am not making the anachronistic claim that anything like modern democratic republics are foreseen in the Scriptures. They clearly are not. But several strands of the biblical witness, it seems to me, do show a healthy suspicion of concentrated and autocratic power.
Early Israelite life had no central government: tribes and villages settled matters by elders who consulted together at the village gates. Wise women seem also to have made their contributions. When more coordinated action was necessary, God raised up a judge–usually a figure who was part-prophet and part military leader.

The system was certainly open to abuse. A pro-monarchy strand of Scripture reflected in the editing of Judges itself recalls the time of the judges primarily as one of lawlessness and views the monarchy as the cure. But 1 Samuel 8 challenges the nature of concentrated power in a monarchy in extremely realistic terms. And there is a strong anti-imperialist theme throughout much of the rest of Scripture, despite the idealizing of David and projecting of a royal Davidic figure as the future Messiah. (Many scholars believe that one reason Jesus was reluctant to use the term “messiah” about himself was the association of the term with royal military conquerer figures.)

So, even though some strands of Christianity have been very pro-royalist, supporting the supposed “divine right of kings to rule” or blindly supportive of whatever autocratic government is in power, other Christian groups and theologians, with strong biblical support, have rightly pushed for limited government with checks and balances on power. A seriousness about the nature of human sinfulness has guided such folk–no one can be trusted with too much unsupervised power.

The best modern political arrangements that have incorporated such checks have been forms of democratic republics. In parliamentary democracies an important check is separating the head of state (e.g., the British monarch and her represenatives–usually a Governer General–in Commonwealth nations, or the President of France, etc.) from the head of government (a prime minister who leads the majority party in parliament). Parliamentary systems also have the check of being able to have early elections if a prime minister fails a vote of no confidence.

The U.S. system lacks those checks, but our Framers deliberately limited each branch of government to powers carefully spelled out in the Constitution, and gave each branch of government checks against the others–checks eroded by the idea of a “unitary executive” posited by the Bush administration which believes it is answerable to no one. An independent judiciary with the power of judicial review of laws for their constitutionality is essential–a judiciary which, as far as possible, is shielded from political pressures (once appointed). Constitutions which include “bills of rights” for citizens are also important checks as are forms of federalism (although smaller nations will need less of this) which work to prevent over-centralization.

Advocates of “small government” are certainly right to worry about the growths of bureacracies and over-regulation. But one has to ask about the purposes of government and recognize that some problems cannot be solved at less than national or even international levels. Those problems will take a large central bureacracy for those problems (e.g., threats to the environment, global human rights, etc.) Too often, those using the rhetoric of “small government” are simply wanting low taxes (not asking the purpose of the tax in question or the fairness of taxation burdens) or deregulation of businesses to the detriment of the common good. Many, for instance, are remarkably unconcerned with bloated military bureacracies or with concentrations of power in an “imperial presidency”–as long as the executive in question is of their party.

We need to insist on the checks and balances of limited government. In the next part of this series, I will talk about the tradeoffs between government power, concentrated business powers, and citizen powers, as well as the principle of subsidiarity.

November 28, 2006 Posted by | government | 6 Comments