Whether right or wrong or a bit of both, thoughtful foreign views of the American scene have a lot to contribute to our national self-understanding. Clifford Longley, a veteran columnist for the London weekly the Tablet, a journal of “progressive” Catholic opinion, is no de Tocqueville, but he’s an intelligent man who, despite his ingrained liberal bias, often says sensible things. It was therefore with interest that I recently sat down to read a Longley column on America and Catholic social doctrine.
In a way, I wasn’t disappointed. The column gave me something to think about and disagree with. How much more can you ask? But Longley missed the point about some central matters well worth discussing. Two especially stand out.
The first was his contention that a surge of “anti-collectivism” in America had lately made solidarity “a dirty word — a threat to American freedom.”
That misstates the case. Americans, so far as I can tell, haven’t turned against solidarity but against the notion that the federal government is solidarity’s best, perhaps only, guardian. The fact is that government intervention may sometimes be required to protect collective interests, and sometimes it may not. In particular cases, those interests can best be served by the private sector and/or local action. It’s a typical liberal fallacy, repeated by Longley, to leave subsidiarity out of the picture.
Regarding our English cousin’s underlying view of an America engulfed by individualistic anti-collectivism, it’s fair to reply: How about Great Britain? Are we to suppose that the austerity budget of the coalition government signals the collapse of solidarity there?
Some people, of course, would say it does, although college students rioting in the streets of London because their tuition is going up don’t make a persuasive case for that. But others would say austerity signals that Britain, even more than America, faces the fate of Greece and Ireland unless it cuts back post haste on government borrowing and spending. (There is a lesson here that most members of the American political class haven’t yet been brave enough to grasp.)
As for the anti-government sentiment that undoubtedly does exist in America, it’s important to understand that what most Americans really loathe and fear isn’t so much government itself but government bungling. The federal responses to Hurricane Katrina and to the early stages of the Gulf oil spill are cases in point. In both instances, people were infuriated by government floundering in the face of disaster. When big government works, Americans don’t complain. The argument about Social Security, after all, isn’t over how to get rid of it but how to keep it going.
Longley’s second questionable assertion is that the Church’s social doctrine holds the key to remedying American anti-collectivism, because “in striking a balance between the individual and the collective, Catholic social teaching leans towards the latter. Solidarity comes before freedom.”
No doubt it’s possible to lift proof texts from papal encyclicals in support of this claim — and also in support of its contrary. In one place the emphasis is on the individual, in another on community. But proof texts aside, and taking a reasonable view of the matter, it’s clear that the individual does, necessarily, enjoy a certain priority. Communities and their institutions, including government, exist for the sake of individuals, not the other way around. Totalitarian systems are based on the belief that the individual exists for the state — which is why, at bottom, totalitarianism is horribly wrong.
Furthermore, as I’ve remarked here before, the focus of social policy and social action, according to the teaching of the Church, is, or at least ought to be, the integral development of the person — the fullest possible flourishing of each individual in respect to all the fundamental goods that go together to make up his or her personhood. (This point is made by Pope Benedict XVI.) In the nature of things, integral development is something that happens, or fails to happen, in individuals rather than in collective entities as such.
Obviously, however, individual and community can’t be separated or set in opposition as a matter of principle. A fundamentally unjust community or one lacking in basic human and material resources will be unable to serve the integral development of each of its members. But that’s the point: In the final analysis, it’s the individual members, not precisely the community as such, that take priority.
Excesses in either direction are possible. The perception of overreaching by Obama and the Democrats in the name of supposed common interests — as, for example, in the case of health-care reform — undoubtedly provoked a reaction that’s lately been visible on the American political scene. Now, too, this reaction sometimes expresses itself in the confusion of libertarian individualism with authentic liberty. Banal as it may sound, the best approach is a golden mean between individual and community — and finding and embracing it is a fundamental raison d’être of a healthy political order.
But just here, in what appears to be systemic inability to agree on and work for fundamental political goals, is what makes the present polarization of American political life so threatening. Several years ago, the liberal sociologist Alan Wolfe called a book about America One Nation, After All. At the moment, and especially in the wake of the midterm elections, that sounds more like wishful thinking than sober analysis. And it’s what Clifford Longley should be worrying about.