David Brooks and Michael Gerson find in Rick Santorum a hopeful departure from the current radical Republican presidential contenders who range from neoliberal to libertarian. They celebrate his embrace of subsidiarity as a more robust political philosophy than the rest of the field. I share much of their desire, but little of their optimistic read of the political thought of the former Pennsylvania Senator.
It is hard to believe that the former lead Senate liaison in the K Street Project is guided by a political philosophy significantly different than the Republican mainstream. Indeed, Santorum stands firmly with them. He supports both Paul Ryan’s budget and the Balanced Budget Amendment. He would cap Federal expenditures at 18% leaving a government little able to render subsidium when needed in times of crisis.
Santorum’s It Takes a Family takes its title from Bob Dole’s zinger response to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village in the 1996 presidential campaign. The Catholic notion of subsidiarity insists that it takes both families and villiages, as well as an economy yoked to the common good by government powerful enough to do so.
This debate is important not only for politics, but for Catholic social thought. Santorum and other so-called "conservative" uses of subsidiarity are deeply distorted and threaten to confuse believers and deprive the republic of the full force of this Catholic moral principle.
The full Catholic version of Subsidiarity is outlined in the Vatican Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. As a moral principle subsidiarity has both a positive and negative meaning. In its positive sense, “ all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies.” (#186) In its negative sense subsidiarity limits such intervention from usurping the power and agency of lower level governments, communities and institutions, including the family.
The distortions are not Santorum's fault. Catholic neo-liberals (who generally call themselves conservatives) have worked tirelessly to reduce subsidiarity to its negative sense and establish this as the keystone of Catholic social thought. They do so by selective reading-- and outright editing--of Papal teaching from Pius XI through John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
This careful lobotomization of subsidiarity renders Catholic social teaching a docile partner in the neo-liberal program of limiting government and subjecting social institutions (schools, healthcare) to market logic. (Witness Ayn Rand devotee Congressman Paul Ryan’s invocation of subsidiarity in his attempted apologia for his radical budget to Archbishop Dolan this summer).
It was Pius XI who placed subsidiarity (and social justice) at the center of Catholic social teaching in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno. That document was written amidst the post-war ruins of European liberalism and the rise of Fascism and Stalinism. This was an epoch in which state usurpation of lower level power was the overriding threat. He offered what has become the most sacred text for neo-liberal catholics:
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. (#79)
Pius’s presentation of subsidiarity was not focused solely on big government. Indeed, in the same section, he offered hair-curling criticisms of economic liberalism.
The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.
“Economic life” must be “again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.” “Social justice and social charity” should guide the social and juridical order. This is the work of a range of social and economic actors (powerful guild-like unions were central to his vision), but responsibility ultimately falls upon “public authority” to “protect and defend” this order. (#88)
We are a long way from 1931. The ghost of Stalin is constantly conjured to distract us from the world in which we live, 30 years into the neo-liberal era inaugurated by the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions. Decades of economic deregulation, trade liberalization, and tax cuts have brought economic growth of a sort, but growth marked by a stagnation of wages for low and middle income families, and by a corresponding rise in both income and wealth inequality. In addition to our current economic crisis, this period has also produced a massive rise in corporate power. Industries have concentrated (food, finance, insurance) and globalization has unleashed a race to the bottom both domestically between states and internationally between nations.
Families and communities are being profoundly disempowered in precisely the way subsidiarity cautions against, but not by government. Our lives are ruled by insurance companies, banks, media conglomerates and transnational corporations.
While Santorum is willing to take aim at big media, the rest of the epochal growth in corporate power is outside of his subsidiarity lens.
Subsidarity has much to contribute to our political thought. In order for it to do so, we must retrieve its full meaning, and develop it further to address the new challenges we face. Those wishing to do so (including Brooks and Gerson) would be better served by starting with the discussion of governance in Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate and the Pontificial Council on Justice and Peace’s document on Financial Reform. Pay particular attention to the parts that George Wiegel says should be ignored.