3 min read
Presumptive Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan has been portrayed as a heartless, Randian ideologue who would leave middle class, poor, and elderly citizens without a secure safety net in order to secure tax breaks and advantages for millionaires like himself and Mitt Romney.

Bill Keller, for example, wrote in Monday’s New York Times:

Make no mistake, Ryan embodies a philosophy that most public needs -- even such sensitive needs as health care and retirement security -- are better served with a lot less government and a lot more trust in the dubious mercies of the marketplace.

The kernel of how Ryan can counter such characterizations is found in his Whittington Lecture delivered in April at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute (video here). At that Catholic institution, Ryan described his plans for fiscal reform in terms of the social doctrine of his Catholic faith.

Ryan began by noting that

the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are “living at the expense of future generations” and “living in untruth.”

Ryan then explained his budget proposals, which respond to the untruth that America can maintain its current level of government spending, by reference to Catholic teachings about solidarity and subsidiarity. More about these teachings can be found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which Ryan mentions at the end of the question-and-answer portion of his lecture.

Ryan describes how solidarity, “the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all,” motivates his proposals that would, on his account, actually protect the poor:

Those unwilling to lift the debt are complicit in our acceleration toward a debt crisis, in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst.

Subsidiarity, the principle that the smallest or lowest-level authority should handle matters and that central authorities should handle only those matters that cannot be handled by lower authorities, implies that government is often not the best agent to provide services. Ryan asserted in his lecture:

I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government. . . . Our budget offers a better path, consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith. We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families, and to communities.

In the question-and-answer period, Ryan took up the concept of how solidarity and subsidiarity apply to government action (starting at 52:46). Speaking with energy and conviction about how to respond to the needy, Ryan said:

Number one, [subsidiarity] is a principle that often gets overlooked. It’s a principle that needs to be connected with solidarity, in my view. Solidarity without subsidiarity simply means much more bigger, more distant government. Subsidiarity without solidarity means more individualism. So these things are in harmony with one another, and people of good will can disagree on where the balance occurs between the two. But these two principles are twin pillars that need to be incorporated in all of these things. . . . Subsidiarity is related to the principle or concept of federalism, which is a political application of that social ideal. And that means that government and institutions closest to the people govern and serve best because it keeps that human interaction in place. It’s not some cold, distant bureaucrat sitting in some bureaucracy in Washington that sees you as a decimal point on a spread sheet, it’s a human being that knows you, that knows your problems, that looks you in the eye and sees the suffering that you’re experiencing that has the wherewithal and the resources to help you. That, to me, is the key to all of this, and I worry, with the debt we’re having, with the fact that we’ve been sending our money and our power out to this vast federal government, we’re doing damage to our communities, to the principle of subsidiarity so that we can better serve the common good. Because if you have too much government you displace those civil, mediating institutions which we call civil society: those charities, those churches, those civic groups, those ways we interact with each other in our communities. You make it harder for that space to be filled, and that does damage to both the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

The language of Catholic social thought and terms like “subsidiarity” must be translated into language appropriate to a pluralistic America. But Ryan has a compelling, compassionate vision for providing for the poor, the elderly, and the needy in America -- and he’s convincing when he speaks about responding to suffering, as he was at Georgetown. It’s critical to a winning election campaign that he and Romney find a way of countering the Obama administration’s technocratic vision of care with their humanistic vision of care.

1 thought on “Paul Ryan’s Catholic social vision: Solidarity and subsidiarity”

  1. suresh arora says:

    In order to understand where Paul Ryan is coming from, I had to go read Jefferson’s version of the Bible (easier to read, understand the concepts of subsidiary and solidarity. I read up on the other two influences on his thinking – Ayn Rand and Hayek.

    His thinking may be applicable to heterogeneous rural environments of the past in certain parts of the country. In today’s world, as you point out yourself – a multiracial, multicultural society, that is dynamic and highly mobile, the concepts of subsidiary and solidarity have to work differently. Certain basic needs like health care and a living wage have to move up in the hierarchy. He is also not willing to make any concession for the extraordinary circumstances this country is going through while he can try to make a case for his philosophy over the longer horizon. Rand advocated free healthcare and Hayek advocated a minimum living income, he chooses to ignore both to live within his orthodoxy of no tax increases, even to reduce debt.
    Only conclusion I come to is that his views and approach are deeply colored by the deep fear of “Big Government” and somewhat of a fondness for “Individualism”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *