The Anti-Federalists, the Oil Spill, and the Catholic Church

There are lessons of wisdom to be found in every folly, however painful the extraction. The ongoing, almost comic bungling efforts and non-efforts of the federal government dealing with the oil spill in the gulf is no exception. The most important political lesson is both conservative and Catholic.

The conservative lesson? When dealing with a local problem, a strong national government will invariably act for its own self-preservation, push its own national agenda, and entangle the hapless locals in its own morass of bureaucratic confusion. Insofar as possible, let the local folk do it. They’re the best judges of their own particular situation.


For conservatives, this is the wisdom of the Anti-Federalists, those forgotten founders of America who best understood the dangers of increasing federal power at the expense of state and local government. The Anti-Federalists were the stubborn conservative folk who allowed for ratification of the Constitution only if there were a strong Bill of Rights to protect state and local life against encroachments of the federal government.

For Catholics, the oil spill illustrates the wisdom of the principle of subsidiarity — a much-neglected jewel of the Church’s political prudence that, especially in these dark times, needs to be taken from her treasury and displayed prominently. Here it is, taken straight from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (1883)
The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. (1885)

The conservative principle dovetails well with the Catholic principle. The Anti-Federalists warned of the danger of a burgeoning federal government to state and local community. The principle of subsidiarity focuses on protecting the proper and natural functions of local communities from baneful control and manipulation by more comprehensive — especially collectivist — power. Both hold that human social, political, and economic life are best and most solidly built from the local ground up, and that national governments should supplement and support local efforts, rather than supplant them. Both assume that families are the fundamental moral, social, and economic unit, and that individuals in families — both as a right and duty — must be free to exercise their own moral, social, and economic responsibilities as they judge best, according to their own particular circumstances and needs. And finally, both realize that, given the reality of sin and the limitations of mere human nature, centralized political power will be far more likely to serve its own agenda at the expense of the actual needs of local communities.

 
To better understand the wisdom of the Anti-Federalists and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, we need only recall some of the details of the ongoing folly of the federal government in the Gulf of Mexico. The underwater oil rig blew on April 20, 2010. British Petroleum rushed in to assure that its stock price received as little damage as possible and that containment and cleanup costs would be kept to a minimum. The Obama administration gathered together immediately, and just as promptly did nothing, leaving it to BP to fix things despite the pleas of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal for help.
Happily, all help offered from various quarters around the globe (most conspicuously by the Dutch) was judiciously rebuffed by the federal government. On what grounds, it has never been made clear, although the Obama administration later solemnly invoked a dusty treaty and complained that Dutch efforts wouldn’t meet our environmental codes, spilling too much oil back into the water. (So, it’s apparently better to simply let 100 percent of the oil spread out than capture, say, 80 percent.)
When the slumbering federal government was finally goaded into action by public opinion, it sent down the U.S. Coast Guard to stop local clean-up efforts to ensure that the barges were complying with federal regulations about life vests and fire extinguishers. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department halted the creation of protective sand berms being hurriedly built to keep the oil from hitting the shores. They want to make sure sensitive areas of shoreline are protected from dredging. But isn’t the actual oil be a bit more of a problem?
Getting in the way of berm-building seems to be a federal passion. The folks down in Louisiana had been tearing their hair since the oil blow-out, trying to get permits to build the protective berms while the various federal agencies slowly, and with thoughtful attention to the intricacies of their own bureaucratic webs, mulled over their urgent requests.
To President Obama’s credit, he did stop by the region on his way to a vacation to strike some concerned poses on the beach. But when he finally decided to address the crisis decisively, he demanded a moratorium on all offshore drilling. The move was calculated to make him appear as a real commander in chief in a crisis situation. But for all the political posturing, his moratorium ends up penalizing other competent companies and destroying the local economy of the gulf, based upon both fishing and off-shore drilling.
In short, the oil company, BP, is only concerned about its own slippery economic hide. The federal government is, well, acting like a Federacy of Dunces, moved either to decisive inaction or destructive action and outright folly by a combination of bureaucratic myopia and mismanagement, hidden political motives (some of which are undoubtedly dark), and the desire to make national political points.
 
When the proposed Constitution (drafted by the so-called Federalists) was circulating the states for ratification after the famous Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the Anti-Federalists forcefully made the case that the Constitution delegated too much power to the federal government. In particular, they feared that the unlimited federal powers of taxation would create a vast bureaucratic web with “a large body of selfish, unfeeling, unprincipled civil officers” that would serve their own ends at the expense of state and local communities.
 
Here they were dead on, as those beleaguered in the gulf have woefully discovered. The Minerals Management Service, which oversees off-shore drilling, has been for some time in bed with BP — the interests of both being the feathering of their collective love-nests. Rather than shield the local communities from damage by the shoddy practices of BP, the bureaucratic powers of the MMS were aimed at maximizing the profits of a cut-corners company who couldn’t care less about the real people on the ground in Louisiana. The U.S. Coast Guard cares only that federal regulations in regard to boating safety are fulfilled to the letter, while the gulf coastline is slathered with crude. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department is obsessing about habitat integrity and following the regulatory snakes-and-ladders, even while the oil is lapping the shores and ruining the habitats anyway.
 
All these agencies are powerful enough to interfere, with such predictably lugubrious results, precisely because of the federal power of taxation. Local money, taken through federal taxes, nourishes the growth of federal bureaucracies that then push their own self-perpetuating agenda at the expense of the local communities. Just as the Anti-Federalists feared, an expansive federal government will “take every occasion to multiply laws, and officers to execute them, considering these as so many necessary props for its own support.”
 
The goal of any bureaucracy soon becomes, simply, the perpetuation and expansion of the bureaucracy itself. When a local crisis hits, the question for such a bureaucracy is not, “How can we help them?” but, “How does this affect us?”
 
Much the same must be said of the chief executive. President Obama’s overriding concern seems to be, “How does this affect me? How does this affect my national agenda?” His declaration of a moratorium on offshore drilling was an attempt at providing a counterbalance to his previous inaction. Appearing to do something, so as to drag his national polls up, was more important than actually helping the people of the gulf. As the locals made immediately and amply clear, it’s not what they want or need. Shutting down all offshore drilling simply kills the other half of the gulf economy.
 
As the principle of subsidiarity makes clear, the first priority should be defined by what the locals judge would be most helpful in the crisis. The federal government “should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need.” The need is certainly there, but the lessons of wisdom, both conservative and Catholic, are lost on Washington.

 

Benjamin D. Wiker

By

Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com, and you can follow him on Facebook.

  • Bill Russell

    However one extols subsidiarity, the subsidiaries must believe in it themselves for it to work. After the Katrina hurricane, President Bush was wrongly faulted for the failure of the local governments (an incompetent mayor and a demagogic governor). They were trained, to the extent that their limited intelligence and uninformed civil philosophy enabled them, to be on the federal dole. Louisiana now is blessed with a more astute governor.

  • Austin

    There are catastrophic occasions, such as Katrina, the BP Oil disaster, etc., when the Federal Government needs to intervene, given the magnitude of the disaster. That being said, I think the real issue is the day to day affairs of local government, and how the Federal Government has intervened in areas that are not really its concern, such as education.

    Education has long been the province of state and local government. They have not always done the best job, but this is an area that traditionally has been the area of local and state government. Recently, Presidents of both parties have intervened [or some would say interfered], in education. Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education, which has institutionalized Federal interference, and even W Bush {supposidly a “conservative”], gave us No Child Left Behind, in collusion with Ted Kennedy. This is a Federal power grab and a violation of the 10th Amendment, but the Constitution has been thrown overboard long ago anyway.

    Obama did not cause the BP oil disaster, however, he has not handled it well. The Federal Government has actually prevented the Louisiana authorities from engaging in clean up work. The Federal Government talks tough about fining BP, etc. but were very lax prior to the well blowout on enforcement of safety regulations.

    The Federal Government needs to limit its activities and focus on doing well, what it is supposed to do.

  • Mrs O

    Please support and show proof that BP and those other oil companies are participating in shoddy practices:

    “Rather than shield the local communities from damage by the shoddy practices of BP, the bureaucratic powers of the MMS were aimed at maximizing the profits of a cut-corners company who couldn’t care less about the real people on the ground in Louisiana. ”
    Please tell me how BP could care less when they have asked for help, outside help, and couldn’t get it because of the ban on foreign ships and stupid regulations.
    Please tell me how BP could care less when they are paying out to those in LA and MS and other states who have had their businesses impacted by this spill.
    Tell me.
    It seems easy to criticize but from what I have seen, those men that work on those platforms, and the oil company, are not doing shoddy work and safety is a very high priority in their books.
    Also, some seem to forget that crude oil is not “just” for fuel and many things you enjoy and use every day probably are made from or have some crude oil in them: candles, medicine, bandages, cds, clothing (especially non iron kind), carpet, rubber on your shoes, tires, paint, make up, etc.
    So, although you started with something that is close and dear to my heart, namely the gov’t being too involved, even to the point of not being able to do anything, you take a turn and it becomes us vs the big bad oil company who, if they were to stop drilling, many people would be upset and a little more than inconvenienced-especially our medical field. And if not inconvenienced it would become too expensive.

  • Mrs O
  • Mrs. O

    The POTUS does get credit for not allowing competent help in the gulf to not only help contain the spill, but also skim the water when he preferred to appease the labor unions by taking time and training our own vs hiring those sitting and waiting, albeit from other countries, who know what the heck they are doing.
    He gets full credit for that.
    Maybe lessons can be learned as we are visiting our beaches this summer and that some changes need to take place.
    Shame on us.
    Shame.
    Magnitude of this spill could have been avoided.

  • Mrs. O
  • John

    “Put not your trust in princes but in the Lord.”

  • Michael

    However one extols subsidiarity, the subsidiaries must believe in it themselves for it to work. After the Katrina hurricane, President Bush was wrongly faulted for the failure of the local governments…

    In the case of Katrina, it is proper to blame the federal government for choosing to send in troops, locking the area down, and disarming and driving out the locals in the aftermath of the hurricane. The federal government basically invaded and instituted de facto martial law which when it comes down to it is about the only thing it does wall.

  • Ursula

    “Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead.” That should be the rallying cry of state and local officials who know what is best in times of crisis and deal with the consequences of big government later. Of course, in the case of Katrina, some state and local officials were inept and incompetent. They failed first and foremost. It takes real leadership to act swiftly.

    And so I say to the Gulf coast states leaderships, “take control, take charge, and act with the authority given to you by your own people to take whatever steps necessary to defy the Federal government mandates. Send a message to the country that responsibility starts at home and have the courage to stand up for those convictions.”

  • Ken

    People who believe in having states take charge over most matters should check out the news blog: ConservativeStates.com

  • Mary W

    “Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead.”

    Wonderful, apt quote, since it was originally made by a Navy Admiral in Mobile Bay.

    “And so I say to the Gulf coast states leaderships, “take control, take charge, and act with the authority given to you by your own people to take whatever steps necessary to defy the Federal government mandates. Send a message to the country that responsibility starts at home and have the courage to stand up for those convictions.”

    I completely agree, but perhaps the governors of the gulf states are casting a wary eye on what the federal government is proposing to do to Arizona, and making their decisions accordingly.

  • Michael Hebert

    I have difficulty believing anyone could plausibly argue that the spill is the fault of the federal government.

    It is plain on its face that the spill was caused by a private company, and the only role anyone can say the federal government had in causing the spill is that it didn’t enforce existing regulations. How is this evidence for small government?

    As for the spill cleanup, this article essentially says two things:

    1. The government didn’t act decisively enough to clean up the spill.

    2. The federal government is too big to effectively clean up the spill.

    The logical conclusion here is that the government shouldn’t try to clean the spill up, because it can’t. So explain to me how anyone can blame the government for not doing enough (or doing the wrong thing)if you think it shouldn’t be doing anything at all? That’s like the prisoner who gripes that the food is bad and there isn’t enough of it.

    It makes no sense.

    I live on the Gulf Coast, and I want the federal government to do something. Why? Because it’s a big spill. To big for any one state to clean up. Individual states can’t deal with a spill that is literally bigger than they are.

    The size of government should be proportional to the size of a job. An ant can move sand more efficiently than a steam shovel, pound for pound, but that doesn’t mean ants can clear a beach.

    This is easy math, fellas. The spill is bigger than any one entity — except the federal government. At least an entity that large exists. If it didn’t, gulp, we would have to invent one.

  • Samuel

    This disaster was a perfect gift for the Obama regime. From his lawless shake-down of BP, to his intended ignoring of a federal court’s ruling against his ‘drilling moratorium,’ the Obama will surely continue to use this crisis as an opportunity for political expediency; such is the nature of a demagogue. Perhaps this is his ‘opportunity’ to take control of the oil industry, just as he has illegally siezed control over health care, insurance, banking, financing, and the automobile industry. This man is setting himself up as a dictator and he despises the U.S. constitution, viewing it as ‘inherently unjust and immoral.’ It is hard for the average American to believe that the President of the U.S. dislikes our country, but it is only a matter of time before every reasonable person is forced to conclude that Obama intends to Rule, not to lead. Because of the dark intentions of the Democrat party, I fear for the safety of my country and family.

  • Paul Bergeron

    “Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead.”

    Wonderful, apt quote, since it was originally made by a Navy Admiral in Mobile Bay.

    “And so I say to the Gulf coast states leaderships, “take control, take charge, and act with the authority given to you by your own people to take whatever steps necessary to defy the Federal government mandates. Send a message to the country that responsibility starts at home and have the courage to stand up for those convictions.”

    I completely agree, but perhaps the governors of the gulf states are casting a wary eye on what the federal government is proposing to do to Arizona, and making their decisions accordingly.

    The quote is more ironic than apt, considering that the public is calling on aid from an impotent colossus created by the President who sent the Admiral to crush local government.

  • Paul Bergeron

    I have difficulty believing anyone could plausibly argue that the spill is the fault of the federal government.

    It is plain on its face that the spill was caused by a private company, and the only role anyone can say the federal government had in causing the spill is that it didn’t enforce existing regulations. How is this evidence for small government?

    As for the spill cleanup, this article essentially says two things:

    1. The government didn’t act decisively enough to clean up the spill.

    2. The federal government is too big to effectively clean up the spill.

    The logical conclusion here is that the government shouldn’t try to clean the spill up, because it can’t. So explain to me how anyone can blame the government for not doing enough (or doing the wrong thing)if you think it shouldn’t be doing anything at all? That’s like the prisoner who gripes that the food is bad and there isn’t enough of it.

    It makes no sense.

    I live on the Gulf Coast, and I want the federal government to do something. Why? Because it’s a big spill. To big for any one state to clean up. Individual states can’t deal with a spill that is literally bigger than they are.

    The size of government should be proportional to the size of a job. An ant can move sand more efficiently than a steam shovel, pound for pound, but that doesn’t mean ants can clear a beach.

    This is easy math, fellas. The spill is bigger than any one entity — except the federal government. At least an entity that large exists. If it didn’t, gulp, we would have to invent one.

    It makes no sense to blame the federal government if one does not expect the Mineral Management Service to inspect offshore rig operations instead of spending taxpayer dollars on its staff’s perversions. The Anti-Federalists’ point is that an expansive federal government is intrinsically incapable of preventing or resolving crises because it exists for itself. I too live on the Gulf Coast and this is what I see: New Orleans has not been rebuilt by the bureaucracy, despite Bush’s promise, and the Gulf will not be cleaned up, despite Obama’s promise as incumbent of the same.

  • ef

    I’m new around here, so forgive me if I’m rehashing old arguments.

    How has the church squared the principle of subsidiarity you mentioned here with the official embrace of collectivism that characterizes a significant portion of Vatican II?

    I ask because I am trying to square my own conclusions about the effects of collectivism on spirituality with the official position of the church in many matters of policy. Subsidiarity seems to be a direct contradiction with the principle later adopted.

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