Time to abandon the preferential option for the federal government?
Blow off solidarity, and you get anarchy; forget subsidiarity, and tyranny slips in. How do we find and keep a balance?
The historian Lord Acton is famed for reflecting that “power tends to corrupt.” This is less an observation about power itself than it is about human nature. Whatever our aspirations or ideals, we are also goaded by instincts, biased by prejudices, and prone to self-serving rationalizations. In other words, to use an old-fashioned expression, man is fallen. (For first-hand proof, observe children at play or legislators at work.)
Our imperfect and egocentric nature makes it perilous for any of us to gain coercive power over our fellow men, since such power lets us indulge in selfishness, hubris, sadism, and other symptoms of the hunger to be “as gods.” Give someone the power to dominate, and these dark drives will rise and begin to corrupt the man, who might have otherwise been virtuous, until (as Acton warned) “absolute” power corrupts him “absolutely.”
Clearly, this statement alone is a little too pessimistic, and might, if applied too crudely, become a counsel of despair. A parent deserves the power to coerce her minor children, an officer to coerce his soldiers, and a policeman to force a tipsy driver out of his car. While such powers can be (and frequently are) abused, only a truly delusional utopian would imagine that human society can liquidate every trace of hierarchy or compulsion. It is a sad fact that many of the most destructive ideologies that emerged to mar modern life found their first motives in the urge to eliminate injustice and the abuse of power, only to become themselves more destructive than any of the old abuses. In twentieth century politics, as in nineteenth century medicine, the cure was often worse than the disease — or it was simply bad in a new and unexpected way.
Justified complaints about the coercive powers of fathers and husbands helped to generate forms of feminism that threaten to liquidate family life altogether. We have seen it in fact disappear from major sectors of Western society, with large swathes of the poor born out of wedlock and raised by mothers alone, dependent on distant government aid instead of husbands and fathers.
Outrage at abusive work relationships and unjust working conditions gave birth to the various forms of socialism, from the murderous Marxist-Leninism that collapsed in 1989 to the ossified modes of socialism that prevail now in Western Europe, which make it so hard to fire any employee that it is hazardous even to hire one, and swaddle every citizen in tissues of guarantees and subsidies that have somehow become “human rights.”
The racial biases and petty tyrannies that sometimes marked local government in America have encouraged two equal and opposite errors: the radical libertarianism that seeks to dismantle the state altogether, and its evil twin, the fervent centralism that would concentrate all power in the hands of federal bureaucrats charged with enforcing a uniform, utilitarian code of conduct on every community in America.
This last tendency — bureaucratic centralism — is the one that most gravely threatens us in America, as our federal government cheerfully contemplates the prospect of closing every Catholic institution in the country rather than let employers follow their consciences on what kind of health care they will offer. Reformers who see in every kind of existing inequality prima facie proof of injustice are willing to steamroll over religious freedom, property rights, and economic freedom in their relentless drive to ensure that every citizen receive a full menu of “basic human rights” that accrues at the moment of birth (and not, we must note, at conception) without imposing any responsibilities beyond one’s duty to pay his taxes. The state will take care of the rest, and it will see to it that there is no escape from its all-encompassing power, which invades every nook and cranny of private life, demonizes and then suppresses dissent, until the agenda of those who control the central power has imposed its ultimate goal: a political and intellectual uniformity that the Jacobins dared not dream of.
Large parts of the West already are subject to such regimes; Western European countries we still call “free” are devoid of private schools and colleges, bare of private charities, unfriendly to parents’ rights in education (some, such as Germany, jail homeschoolers and take away their kids), and willing to punish impolitic speech with terms in prison. These are the countries good American liberals look to as exemplars, while too many “conservatives” respond by promoting a kind of anarchism, or denying that real injustices can occur in private life or local government. It is our task as sober defenders of ordered liberty to recognize real injustice where it occurs, and offer solutions that do not play into the hands of power-hungry or utopian ideologues.
We must promote the values demanded by the principle of solidarity — our obligations to each of our fellow human beings merely because they are human — guided by the dictates of subsidiarity, which warn us not to give the federal government any power it does not absolutely need. Such transfers of power, from the individual to the local government, or the local government to the federal, are usually irreversible.
As Robert Higgs demonstrated in his classic Crisis and Leviathan, national “emergencies” (real, perceived, or manufactured) are frequently used by the advocates of centralized bureaucracy as the pretext for grabbing control over citizens’ lives, or seizing the powers proper to local communities and states. But even when the emergency ends, those citizens’ rights or local liberties are rarely given back. Clawing back liberties from a central government is always and everywhere like trying to take back a bone from a snarling dog. Why else did the federal government, which rightly instituted the military draft in the wake of Pearl Harbor, keep conscription in place for almost thirty years after the surrender of Japan? A policy which was necessary after our country had been attacked was left in place once it was no longer really needed, giving politicians the manpower they needed to engage in other “wars of choice” where the nation’s survival was not really in peril. Had the World War II era draft not still been in place, and had President Lyndon Johnson been forced to rely on volunteers, would he have marched so confidently into the war in Vietnam?
Our defeat in southeast Asia did at least give politic
ians the impetus to dismantle the draft. If that had not happened — if presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama had had at their disposal the means to coerce millions of Americans into service — who knows how many more “wars of choice” those presidents might have launched? Carter might have gone to war with Khomeni’s Iran. Reagan might have occupied Nicaragua or El Salvador, instead of just little Grenada. Bush I might have marched his troops all the way to Baghdad in the first Gulf War. Clinton could have occupied Yugoslavia, and sorted out the ethnic division of that country as his advisors saw fit. Bush II might have had the manpower to open even more bloody fronts in the neoconservatives’ “long war” against Islamic extremism, and attempt to impose American-style democracy in every corner of the globe (a goal he laid out in his infamous second inaugural address). And Barack Obama would have ordered our soldiers into Syria, where they would be dodging bullets right now.
Such are the military consequences of leaving unbounded, irrevocable power in the hands of the few in Washington, D.C. The civilian consequences are equally bad. The vast and tottering pyramid scheme of the U.S. entitlement system, which threatens national bankruptcy within the next fifty years, is the ugly outcome of neglecting subsidiarity in the policies we enacted, and employing a
preferential option for the federal government as the solution to every problem in America. We have chosen, instead of striving for private or local fixes, to transfer every meaningful decision in America to bureaucracies in Washington, who impose on our diverse country one-size-fits-all solutions, spending other people’s money with Utopian abandon. The only revenge those “other people” can take is to refuse to fund those programs with any new taxes, which leaves the bureaucrats and the congressmen who enable them with only two choices: dismantle their own power structures, or borrow trillions of dollars from China and bill it to our grandchildren. Given what we know of human nature, should we really be surprised at what they decided to do?
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is adapted from Jones’s and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).