Neo-Conservative? Moi? Print
By David Warren   
Saturday, 06 April 2013

A common criticism of my effusions, over the years when I’ve been cast as a newspaper pundit, is that I am some kind of “neo-conservative,” who cares more about downsizing ye olde Nanny State than about anything else, and would leave the poor scrabbling, and take the sick down to the river and shoot them. It is further insinuated that I’m indifferent to the downstream environmental consequences of dumping the bodies in the river, afterwards.

Well, sometimes the criticism is more subtle than that, but not much.

Perversely, anyone who suggests that people – Catholics especially – should be doing something directly for our neighbor, rather than leaving the state to take care of it, may be subjected to such charges. The atheist Left has successfully indoctrinated a large part of the public to believe the states claim to a monopoly not only on force, but also on virtue and benevolence. With this comes the suspicion that any private purveyor of charitable services is getting in its way.

And the state has laws to enforce its monopolies. It has struck me that almost everything Mother Teresa was doing on the streets of Calcutta would be illegal if attempted on the streets of America, and that the comfort her nuns brought to the dying could be sued as medical malpractice.

Indeed, a study just published up here in Canada argues that Mother Teresa was no saint. Her habit of “glorifying human suffering” was at odds with modern clinical procedures; her care with money is condemned as penny pinching on the poor; and the old Christopher Hitchens smears against her character are wheeled out for another airing. Mother Teresa is also chastised for her “overly dogmatic views” on abortion, contraception, and divorce.

The study, though designed for publication in the journal Sciences Religieuses, was done by inmates of the departments of education and psychobabble in the universities of Montreal and Ottawa, and from what I can see, it embodies a view of Catholic Christianity that is perfectly opaque.

Herein lies our problem of communication. Modern secular public welfare and the teaching of the Church come from opposite places. The state has invaded exactly the province where Church, extended family, and Christian community used to operate, and has over the course of the last century displaced and obviated the traditional arrangements, building immense and extravagant bureaucracies to deliver social services, with obviously failed results.

When I write “obviously failed” I must fly in the face of the states apologists, who do not recognize the moral squalor in contemporary American life, having no absolute standard by which to compare it, nor any historical sense of the degeneration of family life over the decades. The ways people live are just “options,” and poverty is measured by the states arbitrary and self-serving statistical methods.

And yet, now that the state has the monopoly, what is to be done? Take away such services as the bureaucracies provide, and there will indeed be terrible suffering. This is because the whole organic order that once took care of the poor, sick, elderly, disabled, has been eviscerated, and the population at large has been de-Christianized and taxed out of its charitable propensities. The poor would indeed starve, the sick would go untreated, the elderly would be utterly abandoned if Nanny State suddenly went over a real fiscal cliff.

Nor, from lack of historical precedent, can we guess how long it would take for something like the traditional order to be restored. That this would eventually happen goes without saying, for intricate arrangements of care have formed and grown within every society, Christian or not. The state was never necessary to them, until it made itself necessary by intervention.

We have forgotten today the arguments made against the spread of “welfare” in earlier decades, when just this result was foreseen. The argument from moral jeopardy was prominent – that even modest old-age pensions would (modestly) discourage people from showing foresight and making provisions; that any kind of public “insurance” must necessarily promote the kind of behavior beneath which it extends the “social safety net.”

These arguments were confronted directly, because they could be easily characterized as mean. More subtle arguments were ignored, about how Church, family, and community were being undermined. It was precisely because they had to cope with the realities of human life, and stand up against misadventure, that the organic arrangements acquired strength. The very foundations of human society were being dismantled and replaced with “theory.”

Educated Catholics have no business forgetting that every large institution now under the detailed regulation or actual ownership of the state was created by the Church. This includes hospitals of every description, housing for the poor, and every kind of social outreach to the needful, regardless of faith, as well as medical and social-work training at every level, and indeed schools and universities generally.

All of these things are part of the mediaeval heritage, all go back many centuries before anything like the modern state came into existence. To speak as if the state invented or is the natural shopkeeper for these things is to lie. The state has been appropriating them.

Similarly, educated Catholics have no business forgetting the size and reach of this Catholic infrastructure until, in historical terms, the day before yesterday. And for that matter, throughout the Western world, the remaining infrastructure was built almost entirely by Protestants on the Catholic model, motivated by the same Scripture and Tradition whether or not acknowledged.

No serious argument was ever made for tearing it all down. The job has been done incrementally, and became inevitable once the premise of state responsibility had been established.

The question for the defender of what I persist in calling the Nanny State is, “Do you accept this premise?” For once it is accepted, there is nothing to argue about. He may characterize my position, falsely, as “neo-conservative.” It is in fact the old Catholic position, to which he is opposed.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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