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  • The State Scores Again

    by Anthony Esolen

    capitol2

    Let us set aside, for the sake of this essay, various questions concerning the recent health-care bill passed by Congress. We will concede the highly dubious proposition that it will hold down costs; that it will not add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt; that it will not lead to the queues and the rationing that plague the English and the Canadian systems; and that there were no other ways, involving the private sector, to bring health insurance to people who did not have it and who did want it. We will even set aside the sin of abortion and the pressure that will be brought to bear upon Catholic hospitals to provide what they cannot remain Catholic and provide.

    What I want to suggest here is that the bill represents but a late stage in the transformation of the relationship between the individual and the state. To do this, I must insist on a fuller definition of the “political” than we have become accustomed to. We now consider politics to be the realm, principally, of national legislation, executive order, and court decision. But what is lost is the life of the polis itself, a community of free people who live together, celebrate together, work together, and provide together for the common good. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, who held a generally sunny view of the polis, the community is a natural outgrowth of man’s capacity to reason: to participate in divine law by enacting measures in accord with the natural law, with an aim toward providing goods that embrace but also transcend the individual.

    The Thomistic view of the polis underlies the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, which asserts that communities closest to the issue at hand should be allowed the freedom to tackle it. That is not simply because they do a better job of it, as some conservatives insist. It is because the fullness of community life is essential to our being human. It is doubtful that the state, much less the federal government, is better at educating children than were the fully engaged American townsmen of old, who hired and fired their own teachers at will, and had a fairly clear idea of what their children ought to learn. But even if it could do the job well, its assumption of that role would take from the community one of the most important responsibilities it possesses. It would overstep its own zone of authority to usurp another. Supposing some state agency could, with wonderful efficiency, feed children and make them do their homework and put them to bed; still, its exercise of this role would rob from the people one of the great challenges and joys of life, the raising of children according to one’s own best lights.

    When Alexis de Tocqueville observed America, he saw a democracy, for the time being, both bolstered and buffered by free associations of people — by families, community schools, churches, fraternities and sororities, beneficent organizations, and so forth. These made for a vital public life — and were correctives against both the ambitions of the state and the radical individualism that democracy can encourage. There was still the strong sense that government at all levels was but the creation of free citizens, who possessed, in their families and in other associations, their own duties and even their own rightful giving of laws.

    But what we have seen, in the last century and more, is the progressive centralization of power, allowing the functions and the authority of communities to wither and, paradoxically, freeing the individual from the constraints once imposed upon him by his neighbors, his church, his workmates, and his family. It is the strange collusion of a certain kind of libertarianism with a supine submission to the authority of the suddenly all-competent state. We see this clearly enough in the moves to approve same-sex pseudogamy. Two principles are at work. One is that the individual, unfettered from social constraint, can define for himself what a marriage shall be, in defiance of tradition and the obvious exigencies of nature. The other is that the state must sanction the definition; indeed, the state no longer recognizes marriages and families as societies that are prior to the state and that exercise claims for rightful self-governance. Instead, marriages and families will be the creations of the state — and the power to define is the power to control.

    The welfare state offers the individual a pact. It effaces the mid-level institutions that are so effective at old-fashioned political action — that might build a school, for instance, and then see to it that the boys and girls in it were properly brought up to assume their roles as men and women of the community. It allows the individual the crucial freedom of the zipper. In exchange for that freedom, it assumes the role of benevolent patron, lavishing its largesse upon a community-free, unreliable, and undisciplined populace, who are now not the creators of the state but its clients, or wards.

    The question, then, is not simply, “What system will most efficiently deliver health care to the most people?” I do not believe that it will help to nationalize medicine; but that is another issue. The real question is, “What traditions and laws best preserve the liberty of a people, not to do as they please, but to take responsibility for themselves and their communities, so that they will enjoy as fully as possible the human flourishing of the polis?” If we become beholden to the national government for our very health — let alone for the education of our children — what will be left for us to do but follow that government along tamely, conceding all matters to its purview?

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Julie

      While government provided healthcare, housing, food stamps and education may seem good on the surface, in reality we have transferred our reliance on God into asking, What’s the government going to do about it.” We have abdicated our God given responsiblity to help our neighbors, person to person. Dependence on a government that no longer recognizes that our rights are endowed by a Creator opens the doors for a panel of people to decide who gets educated, who gets food, whose life is worth treating, with the only regard being the money saved. More important than that is that God is left out of the venue. Satan would like nothing better than to have us forget that God will provide for us.

    • Carl

      John Lamont wrote another timely piece for First Things laying out the proof that the free market actually makes America more religious.

      Google “John Lamont The Prophet Motive”

    • Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick

      Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

      I wish somebody could get the word to Cardinal George and the USCCB that the following is not a valid syllogism–in fact, not any kind of syllogism:

      a) Doing/providing/guaranteeing X for people would be nice.
      b) The federal government should do/provide/guarantee X for people.

    • Deacon Ed

      the intense involvement with varied media of communication has helped to whittle away at any remaining semblance of community and has created an atmosphere of anonymity. In such a socially vacuous environment, it is easy for the government to step in and regulate our lives. Perhaps we should curtail the communication and get back to knowing our neighbors & fellow townspeople. (I forgot, there are no more towns; we live in a global community – egads!).

    • Brendan

      This is a great summary of the problem. However, it fails to ignore the fact that we as Catholics have allowed this to happen.

      First, Catholic Charities in most places has decided that they will take federal and state monies in order to provide counseling, adoption and foster care services, housing programs, and many other things. When one takes money from the government, there are strings attached such as not being able to hire only practicing and faithful Catholics, that people must have an MSW, that we can not require mandatory attendance at events that focus on spiritual renewal. Yet, we never asked the question “why were people in the past able to build hospitals, monasteries, schools, etc without a government dime”. They understood that charity can not be provided by the government.

      Secondly, we have failed to create community in our own parishes. Sorry, coffee and donuts and Renew will not do this. It can only be done when we live out the sacraments and are Christ-centered. This means having after-school programs for teens, tweens, and others: a CYO program of sorts, but focused on more than just sports and dances; There would be real family programming, where the parish again the center of activity (sorta like many Protestant churches to which I belonged in the past and for which on-fire Catholics left as there was something for them beyond Sunday).

      Thirdly, we no longer know our neighbors, where our parishioners live, etc. I take blame for this also. It is that one can not be a part of community unless one feels invested. This does not happen as we have fled for safety, switched parishes on whims.

      Finally, the Liturgy needs to unite. It fails to do this when there are so many abuses and when it has become ideological.

      Thirdly,

    • Phil in Canada

      Dr. Esolen:

      Have you perchance come across the group-blog Front Porch Republic? I think you’d find much in there with which to agree, and I can’t help but think your voice would find a fitting home among those of the current writers there.

    • sibyl

      This is a great description of why I so oppose the new legislation. Also, once we go down this road, how do we go back when we decide that it doesn’t do what it promised? the answer is, the changes only work one way. As one example, how are we to undo the damage done to African American communities as a result of welfare legislation, destruction of family homes and neighborhoods, subsidizing single motherhood, Planned Parenthood clinics? Does anyone think that just changing a law will restore what those communities have lost, even if we had the will power to change laws?

      Sometimes when I read the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I am almost overcome with envy. Yes, they had terrible trials. But they also had an almost unimaginably immediate power over their own lives — with the risks and rewards that it brought.

    • Kamilla

      Tony,

      You wrote about the two principles at work – the individuals’ self-definition and the state’s sanctioning of that definition. It’s a rot that started long before, but became plainly visible in the SCOTUS decisions leading up to Roe v. Wade.

      Now we not only have abortion, but more than 5 genders and prisoners suing for hormone treatments because they’ve convinced themselves they were supposed to be born a girl instead of a boy and the polyamorous are waiting until the voters are tired of fighting against same sex pseudogamy to make their move.

      But the right of self-definition generally only goes one way. If I define my existence by chastity and celibacy I will be told I am lying, delusional or psychologically damaged. If my husband and I choose not to contracept, we will be told we are damaging the planet and that my husband, who cares not one whit for the “health of my uterus”, is controlling my decisions. And, heaven forbid, I should attempt to define my Bed and Breakfast business as a family establishment that excludes homosexual couples. Virtue is seldom part of the state-sanctioned self-definiton of these Libertarian statists, unless it be someone who denies virtue by requiring a twelve-pack of Twinkies and three Super-sized fast food triple hamburger meals for their daily diet. He shall be anathema and the one who feasts on hummus and pita chips shall be called blessed.

      Thanks for, as ever, being a voice of sanity.

      Kamilla

    • John K

      “Why were people in the past able to build hospitals, monasteries, schools, etc without a government dime?” Perhaps the tax burden was less back then. They got to decide how their money was spent for these things by spending it themselves. With the increasing tax rates – oops, expiration of tax cuts – look for the red ink at the local parishes to get deeper.

      One of the aspects of health care reform was government takeover of student loans in order to “save money.” With the government doling out the money for medical school what procedures do you expect a medical student to have to learn to get the money? And then what procedures will they have to perform in order to get favorable repayment terms?

    • Kevin

      The question is not whether or not we need government. Of course we need government. The question is whether we want government that coordinates our national efforts in a good way or a bad way. Health care for all is a very good thing. It is an example of government working to make life better for people. Deregulation of financial institutions can be a very bad thing. We’ve seen what happened with the Savings and Loan crisis. The recent Wall Street problems are another example that brought us all to the edge of a second great Depression. What happens when employee safety standards are toned down? Mines collapse, workers die. So government can be very prosocial, or it can make life miserable for all. I don’t buy Esolen’s argument that universal health care is leading us down some slippery slope to communism. Our lack of universal health care was a national disgrace. We were alone among first world nations in failing to provide it. The legislation that passed is about as conservative and corporatist a solution as it is possible to get.

    • Aaron

      Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

      I wish somebody could get the word to Cardinal George and the USCCB that the following is not a valid syllogism–in fact, not any kind of syllogism:

      a) Doing/providing/guaranteeing X for people would be nice.
      b) The federal government should do/provide/guarantee X for people.

      Or even this one:

      a) As Christians, we are obligated to do X for our fellow man.
      b) The government should do X.

    • Jim

      Dr. Esolen,

      Thanks for summarizing the topic charitably. As I have a tendency to sympathize with libertarianism, I appreciated the reminder of its negative side which lead to this path.

    • Brandon

      Is it the fact that centralized government itself is an issue, or is it that the machinery is in the hands of heathens?

      Here is a hypothetical: What if the EU were a 21st Century re-establishment of the Holy Roman Empire? What if a Hapsburg were named head of the EU, and Holy Mother Church explicitly established as the power as in the days of old? Would your knee bend or would your yankee sensibilities seize you and would you rail against it?

    • Tom

      Is it really idolatrous to regard the state as the source of physical provision? Don’t most of us work at big state-like corporations and don’t we expect from them our employment and thus are physical provisions? Short of becoming hunter/gatherers, we depend on corporations for our food, clothing etc….

    • Joe

      What is not being addressed here is this; what about communities so bad off they can’t do a good job with their kids. What about a destitute minority community? If the ideal is instant resolution, visible justice, what then? Although Esolen begins to address issues, this is not the sort of reaosning that left alone will counter liberal argument. Communities in Mormon Utah might “work,” but they do not work in downtown Detroit. What then?

    • billy d

      Here is a hypothetical: What if the EU were a 21st Century re-establishment of the Holy Roman Empire? What if a Hapsburg were named head of the EU, and Holy Mother Church explicitly established as the power as in the days of old? Would your knee bend or would your yankee sensibilities seize you and would you rail against it?

      Well, I can’t speak for Dr. Esolen, but for my own part I would say of course not! Even our own government is full of Catholics (even if they are not churchmen), but that’s no reason to accept the blatant destruction of subsidiarity and the dignity of the human person.

      Even in the so-called “days of old” when “Holy Mother Church [was] explicitly established as the power,” the principle of subsidiarity as delineated above was respected. We assume that “national” governments then were as they are now, but in deed no such was the case.

      The argument against the “heathen” same sex “marriage” isn’t against heathenism per se, but against the very idea that the State needs to recognize and bless the union of the family unit, which – in Catholic social teaching – precedes and founds the state. It is the inversion of the conceptual order, putting greater emphasis on the more abstract (ie. the State) than the concrete (the human person and the family, the most concrete “community”).

    • Brandon

      “Well, I can’t speak for Dr. Esolen, but for my own part I would say of course not! Even our own government is full of Catholics (even if they are not churchmen), but that’s no reason to accept the blatant destruction of subsidiarity and the dignity of the human person.”

      How would a true Catholic Imperium violate subsidiarity and the dignity of the human person?

      You say that the governments of old were not like the states of today…there are differences, yes…but the concentration of power in the institution of a Monarchy or Empire was par for the course in Christendom at one point…with a Nobility and Administration that wasn’t particularly interested in the sentiments we take for granted as Americans and which offend the same. Pope Leo XIII even stated in his letter to the Church in America that “Separation of Church and State” is not the ideal for the Church nor should it be treated as such. Libertarianism in religion is anathema, and at one point Monarchy was the preferred mode of governance in the Catholic world.

      Which brings me back to my original point:

      Is it Statism and Centralized Power itself which is offensive, or is it alright if the right people are in charge?

      A Monarchist and Republican can both be Catholics in good stead.

    • gb

      “Is it Statism and Centralized Power itself which is offensive, or is it alright if the right people are in charge?”

      Brandon, Go read Caritas in Veritate. It answers these (& many other) questions very well.

    • Gabriel Austin

      We will not get into heaven because we paid our taxes which are then diverted to charitable ends. We get into heaven because we freely donate charitable ends – we, individually and often sacrificially.
      It is the “freely” [which means that we can choose not to contribute] that counts.

    • theorist

      I think that the eternal point is that there is that the state is not sufficient or even necessary to attaining social and intersubjective good -it probably tends against it. Therefore it doesn’t matter so much who is running the state but rather that a state exists. The latter problem is a problem of means taken to approach an end, but the former is always a problem of ends and character.