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American – and Catholic?

Two weeks from tomorrow, Americans will go to the polls in a rare mood. As you’ve heard ad nauseam, voters are angry, so angry that the opinion organizations don’t even know how to weight population samples. The media attribute this to “anti-incumbent” feeling. But the incumbents in danger are almost all Democrats. Current sentiment is more properly understood as an intuitive fear of colossal spending and concentration of power in the Federal government.

That’s a perennial attitude in America. The whole thrust of our founding was to create a nation that could enjoy the benefits of unity without the threats of tyranny. It takes a great act of imagination to see, but our Founders did not create a system, as we say now – in which essentially nothing lies outside government. They sought limited government with enumerated powers. And if any of those become – as the Commerce Clause has been – a license to create other powers, then constitutional order and freedom are at an end.

Americans do not learn such things in public schools anymore. We are a people almost bereft of social theory, but we have a lived experience of ordered liberty. It’s flawed, like all human things, but unlike any other nation, we sense how freedom and order may go together because we had both at the start.

Anyone familiar with modern Catholic social thought should be able to appreciate both those goods. The GPS for such matters appears in Quadragesimo anno, written in the 1930s when authoritarian and totalitarian regimes were ascendant. QA famously invokes 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.”

But unfortunately, in my view, the text continues:

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.

      Pius XI, seven years before QA

Properly understood, it’s right that the state should be “directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands,” and not meddling in matters best left to others. But what this means is, in practice, almost never properly understood and has been used by Catholics who know better to justify ambitious statism. By the time John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus (1991), the Church had further experience of modern nation states, and the pope cautioned about the exercise of power, even warning about the disincentives of the “social assistance state.”

The QA language is unfortunate because it assumes a state that – first – understands and – second – is capable of acting in measured and systematic ways – at best, only intermittently true propositions. Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian Nobel Prize winner, once called this the “fatal conceit,” because it substitutes the alleged knowledge of experts for the vast practical intelligence of individuals and numerous civil societies in any nation. There are times when experts are needed, but they’re fewer than the experts think.

To take an example very much in voters’ minds: We have an administration headed by another Nobel Prize winner, educated at two Ivy League institutions, and a former law professor at the University of Chicago. The members of his economic team included, until recently, the former president of Harvard and the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Because of the financial crisis, they were given virtually unlimited amounts of money and no limits on where to spend it. After two years of efforts, only the partisans would claim it has worked as intended.    

The crisis began with the housing market and involved sometimes criminal deception on the part of financial managers in the packaging and reselling of loans. But expert federal regulators looked at many of those loans and, in most cases, actually thought the derivatives “dispersed” risk by putting together diversified packages. Underlying political issues also reflect on the directing wisdom of the state. Many people now talk about “predatory lending” to poor people by mortgage companies who knew they would not be able to handle the loans. Often, the very same people once objected to “redlining,” refusal to lend in risky neighborhoods to poor people with low credit ratings. The state “watched” and usually “urged” greater lending to promote property ownership. Democrats and Republicans alike – along with our cultural and financial elites – thought this a fine, an American, idea.

The record since then has not been much better. We have spent immense sums to insure liquidity at the banks (good on balance) and at the same time to stimulate economic growth (mostly misguided and ineffective). Indeed, the stimulus may be the main culprit in continued high unemployment. One of the things that freaks out businessmen, who actually do create jobs in the normal course of things, is the sheer unpredictability that results from a federal government that assumes it has answers. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers and familiar with calculating uncertain future conditions. But even fluctuations in markets are small things compared with the disruptions that a modern state can suddenly introduce into economy and society. Quadragesimo anno warned about such things eighty years ago.

The lessons to be drawn from all this will probably not be learned. Neither political party seems to be much devoted to limited government. Or humility.  Or wisdom. Government is a blunt instrument. It produces many unintended consequences, among legitimate uses: “things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them.” Realistic appraisal of those uses – the wisdom of when to act and, perhaps more importantly, when to refrain – has been too long neglected. We’ll have a change of power shortly. It remains to be seen if we’ll also have a change of mind.

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.