The late European scholar Dr. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn said that politics in Western countries typically features a “Santa Claus party” and a “belt-tightening party.” We are in the midst of an American political campaign where we are witnessing just that. The Democrats think that government can solve most problems by promising to provide more programs and largesse to more groups of people. The Republicans will cut back on the largesse—or, more accurately, on the growth of the amount of it in the future—but won’t eliminate any of the programs.
The political battle on domestic policy seems to take place within a narrow range, say 10% left of center to 10% right of it—although in the long run the center of gravity keeps nudging further left. Even in the 1970s and 1980s when people had become somewhat disillusioned about government and its cost, they still wanted the “services” it provides. While government cannot adequately address human needs that must be met—such as insuring health care for those who cannot afford it—without a range of fiscal and other problems occurring, neither political party can quite come to grips with this. The Democrats won’t face the shortcomings or problems of an “activistic” government, and the Republicans can’t provide a suitable alternative to it. If a Greece-like fiscal crisis hits the U.S., then, both parties will share the blame.
It is not acceptable to say that it is simply up to people to take care of themselves and walk away. As the encyclical Pacem in Terris states, as part of the right to life people have the right to the means necessary to sustain it and make it possible to live becomingly, including food, shelter, medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security when deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of their own. To be sure, Catholic social teaching has never held that taking care of human needs is primarily the task of the state, but the state as the main guardian of the common good does have to insure that it will be done, that all may live with dignity and all be permitted to share in the universal destination of created goods. So, the state has a social welfare role. Also, since it is what John Paul II called the “indirect employer,” it—always in conjunction with the private sector and in line with the principle of subsidiarity—must work to end unemployment, help insure a family wage, help secure a means of assisting workers thrown out of work, put in place ways to avoid serious labor-management disputes and legal protections for workers, and guarantee commutative justice. These tasks, however, do not cast government in the role of the “social-assistance state” criticized by John Paul, which in an increasingly centralized way claims to be providing for people, and supplants the efforts of the family, the churches, and voluntary organizations that are generally in the better position to do this.
What does all this translate to as far as public policy and the specifics of governmental actions in our time are concerned? It means a firm commitment to the gradual disengagement of government from many domestic areas. The “services” that the public wants do not all have to be provided by government. Gradual disengagement does not mean that government turns away, but rather that it institutes a substantially different approach—a new paradigm, if you will—that slowly turns away from government-run social welfare programs other than a basic safety net. Instead of programs and public spending, public officials need to work—without interminable government grants and rigid regulations—to help build up a vibrant private non-profit sector (“civil society”). Also, while government cannot by itself renew the family, it needs to do some basic things to help it happen.
Part of helping the non-profit sector involves, to be sure, government just getting out of the way. In many cases, religious entities and charities were involved in aiding people long before the state got into the picture and there is often little that government bureaucrats can teach them. Nevertheless, a laissez-faire approach will not build up the non-profit sector any more than it works at anything else. Public officials have to work actively to reach out to the non-profit sector to encourage it and help it grow, they have to stimulate its activity in areas where government programs have made it moribund. Instead of passing legislation to set up new programs, they should pass legislation to remove obstacles to good initiatives. For example, instead of a health reform law that advances the path to a single-payer (federal government-controlled) system they should have made it as easy as possible for new approaches to operate such as small membership-based medical clinics and Christian groups set up to pool funds to help with each others’ health care expenses.
When the private sector becomes more responsible and responds to public needs better, instead of routinely pushing for new bureaucratic strictures that often end up being counterproductive, governmental executives can use their bully-pulpit and their political influence to make government more effective within its limited scope. Again, health care provides a good example. Instead of Obamacare, government should have worked with and put informal pressure on the health-care sector to reduce costs. The same could be tried with labor-management relations. While we certainly can’t pretend that labor laws and regulations are not needed—and maybe such liberal policy ideas as requiring greater corporate responsibility about moving plants out of communities and dislocating workers are also worth considering—wouldn’t it be interesting to see government officials and churches teaming up to sit down with businessmen and workers to help forge the kinds of cooperative relationships the Church calls for? It could be a way of fostering correct thinking about such matters as, say, the need for a family wage.
The family is an area where legislative change actually could be helpful—although the kinds of changes needed are mostly not on the radar screen. Certainly, government at all levels could help the family by lessening the tax burden on it. It could also help it with a concerted effort to restore parental rights, which have been seriously eroded for half a century. There would be no better place to start than a sweeping reform of the child abuse/neglect laws and the so-called child protective system (CPS), which I have written about critically for over a quarter century. The effect of these vague laws and the CPS’s anti-parent ethos is not to protect truly threatened children, but to attack innocent parents. Approving the parental rights constitutional amendment that has been introduced in the last few Congresses would be another good development. Yet another—that almost no one dares to speak up for—would be to reverse the trend of easy divorce since the 1970s, which one prominent legal scholar called “a cause of dry rot in the family.” Even just giving consistent rhetorical support to the traditional family could be helpful in an age when people are trying to tear it apart in so many ways. Most politicians call for “strong families,” but very few are willing to do anything significant to promote them. Strong families, however, are necessary to whittle down the domestic role of government.
It goes without saying that, instead of the recent moves against religious liberty, government needs to give the churches freedom, encouragement, and help to bring about a moral rejuvenation of American culture without which these other initiatives may be for naught.
It also goes without saying that for such a new political paradigm to have a chance to take hold, truly public-spirited politicians would have to “teach” the public about the reasonableness, value, and necessity of it. They would have to get beyond simply rounding up votes for the next election and recover the long-lost educative function of politics.
The strongest likelihood is that efforts such as these would have to come from the conservative side. In practical political terms, this means from some elements—especially serious, knowledgeable Catholics—within the Republican party. The Democrats are dominated by an increasingly hard-left mentality that became ascendant in the party in the early 1970s and now has an ideological monopoly over it. Such leftism, with its statist, over-centralization, anti-family, morally relativist ethos is inimical to Catholic moral and social teaching. It is also clear that it has thrown fiscal responsibility to the wind. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Republicans, however. The resistance within their ranks to the efforts of the TEA Party to restore a commitment to sound fiscal practices and constitutional principles suggests the reluctance of some of them to relinquish comfortable positions or even think outside of what has become the problematic mainstream. Nevertheless, American politics historically has operated mostly within a two-party structure. It’s time for the Catholics and other “men of good will” within the Republican party—and sympathetic commentators outside it—to call for debate about this new paradigm. With the economic pressures deepening due to expansive government, it’s no longer enough to be the belt-tightening party. It has to become much more.