What were you thinking? Oh, you just wouldn’t understand.
Justifications are tricky, but if someone does something totally unexpected, or completely out of character, or inexplicably nasty, or just strange, you do ask them why they did whatever it was they just did. And they don’t really want to tell you it was just whim – they don’t want to seem flaky – or that the evil voices in their head told them to do it – they don’t want to admit to psychosis – or that they don’t think that someone like you even deserves an explanation – as they don’t want to face the cost of admitting that they always thought you were a jerk. So they get mysterious. They tell you it was an epistemological issue, or it had to with Austrian economic theory, or transubstantiation. That should shut you up, unless you’re well-versed in arcane theories of knowledge, or the works of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, or have spent time on the finer points of Catholic theological thinking. And of course that’s unlikely. So they’re safe. What can you say? They’ve tossed out a big mysterious word, or a string of them, and all you say is oh, okay then. Parents sometimes use this on children, or teachers on tiresome pesky students. It usually works.
But God help you if they toss out the word… subsidiarity. That word just sits there, like a mysterious magic totem – only the cognoscenti know what it means, and you’re supposed to be in awe – preferably befuddled awe. But this week, when Paul Ryan was asked to explain his budget – the one the House Republicans passed enthusiastically, even if it has no chance to go one inch further than the House – and he used that word to explain it.
The economist Paul Krugman has called the Ryan budget ludicrous and cruel:
First, Republicans have once again gone all in for voodoo economics – the claim, refuted by experience, that tax cuts pay for themselves. Specifically, the Ryan proposal trumpets the results of an economic projection from the Heritage Foundation, which claims that the plan’s tax cuts would set off a gigantic boom. Indeed, the foundation initially predicted that the GOP plan would bring the unemployment rate down to 2.8 percent – a number we haven’t achieved since the Korean War. After widespread jeering, the unemployment projection vanished from the Heritage Foundation’s Web site, but voodoo still permeates the rest of the analysis.
In particular, the original voodoo proposition – the claim that lower taxes mean higher revenue – is still very much there. The Heritage Foundation projection has large tax cuts actually increasing revenue by almost $600 billion over the next 10 years.
A more sober assessment from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office tells a different story. It finds that a large part of the supposed savings from spending cuts would go, not to reduce the deficit, but to pay for tax cuts. In fact, the budget office finds that over the next decade the plan would lead to bigger deficits and more debt than current law.
And there are the spending cuts, taking us back to the days of Calvin Coolidge, and the proposal to abolish Medicare and replace it with vouchers that can be used to buy private health insurance:
The point here is that privatizing Medicare does nothing, in itself, to limit health-care costs. In fact, it almost surely raises them by adding a layer of middlemen. Yet the House plan assumes that we can cut health-care spending as a percentage of GDP despite an aging population and rising health care costs.
The only way that can happen is if those vouchers are worth much less than the cost of health insurance. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2030 the value of a voucher would cover only a third of the cost of a private insurance policy equivalent to Medicare as we know it. So the plan would deprive many and probably most seniors of adequate health care.
Yes, it’s ludicrous, and it’s also cruel:
In the past, Mr. Ryan has talked a good game about taking care of those in need. But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, of the $4 trillion in spending cuts he proposes over the next decade, two-thirds involve cutting programs that mainly serve low-income Americans. And by repealing last year’s health reform, without any replacement, the plan would also deprive an estimated 34 million nonelderly Americans of health insurance.
So Krugman calls it “voodoo economics, with an extra dose of fantasy, and a large helping of mean-spiritedness.” And Krugman is not alone. Even those without a Nobel Prize in Economics are demanding Ryan explain what he was thinking, especially now that Mitt Romeny has called the Ryan budget “marvelous” (Obama had fun with that) – even if it does seem to shove money at the rich and take most everything from the poor and elderly, ending the government the people elected doing what people since the thirties have elected it to do, assuring the minimal survival of those who don’t have the big bucks at the moment. That’s not only humane, that assures the stability and health of the nation. That used to be thought of as a legitimate function of government.
So how does Ryan explain this? Yes, he is an Ayn Rand guy – she may have been an atheist but he likes that winner-take-all and never-help-anyone-with-anything philosophy of hers, because that’s wonderful total freedom, and personal responsibly, with unicorns. But he’s also a Catholic, who says he cares for the wretched of the earth and charity and kindness and all that stuff. And the Church is pretty clear on such matters. How does he justify his marvelous budget?
Ah, the answer is subsidiarity. And there you have it. And in this interview with the Christian Broadcast Network’s David Brody he made that clear:
A person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social Magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?
To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.
Is that clear now? No matter:
Those principles are very, very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.
Ah, now you see what he’s saying. The Catholic Church has always held that governments keep people poor, even when they set up effective programs to help everyone survive. There should be minimum government. That’s subsidiarity, or something.
And the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger loved this, as this is where Wall Street hedge fund managers and Vatican prelates finally meet and shake hands:
Subsidiarity – an awful but important word – attempts to discover where the limits lie in the demands a state can make on its people. Identifying that limit was at the center of the Supreme Court’s mandate arguments.
The first major use of subsidiarity as a basis for public policy was in Pope Leo XIII’s famous 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (though the word itself doesn’t appear). Leo was seeking a way to protect the dignity of human beings caught during those years in the tension between unfettered capitalism and unfettered government. “The State,” he wrote, “must not absorb the individual or the family.” Arguments over where the balance sits have raged since.
The American left thinks this debate is settled. So, for example, any hint of Supreme Court dissent from settled doctrine justifies questions about its “legitimacy.”
Ah, we are high in the clouds here, where the air is thin and only the cognoscenti can survive, but Ed Kilgore brings us back down to earth:
Oh, really, it’s “the left” that has inflexible views about centralized versus decentralized methods of governing? Let’s take something really concrete, like the Medicaid program, the primary means whereby poor people (and in particular poor seniors) in this country obtain health services. It’s a joint federal-state program administered by the states, with roughly equal financial responsibility. States still make most of the calls about eligibility for the program and the scope of services, though over the years the federal government has used “super-matches” (very generous terms of assistance) to convince states to provide more (and more uniform) coverage.
Seems pretty “balanced” between federal and state responsibilities to me, particularly as compared with, say, the Medicare program, which is entirely federal (aside from a limited state role in provider reimbursement).
And here Ryan wants changes:
Paul Ryan wants to turn Medicaid into a “block grant” while reducing its funding level by about one-third over ten years. The details of his proposal are murky, but from past conservative moves in this direction, it’s likely he’s talking about giving states a fixed, capped sum in federal funds while eliminating most conditions for its use, as a way station to total state assumption of responsibility for low-income health care needs at some point in the future. So being poor in, say, Mississippi, with a large low-income population along with a generally low standard of living and a very conservative political culture, will become – even more so than it is today – a very different proposition from being poor in New York or California.
Does Paul Ryan really think government is “crowding out” civil society, its private charities and hospitals, in addressing the health care needs of the people of Mississippi? Is federal assistance thwarting the natural generosity of the wealthy and powerful of that state, who if left to their own resources, would take care of the problem on their own? Of course he doesn’t. But he probably does truly think block-granting Medicaid would help reduce “dependence on government” by the poor, which is another way of saying they need to learn to take care of themselves, find assistance on their own, or die.
But there’s nothing new here:
You can certainly make that helping-the-poor-by-abandoning-them argument; people have been making it for centuries. But he shouldn’t try to hide that atavistic attitude behind the skirts of Mother Church, or pretend he is engaged in a conscientious application of Catholic social teaching.
Yes, you can use a big word to shut up the pesky kid, but it’s only a big word:
Used the way Ryan and Henninger are misusing it, “subsidiarity” simply means abandoning public responsibilities where possible and dumping them on lower levels of government where necessary, with total abandonment the ultimate goal.
And sorry, Henninger is off 180 degrees in his assessment of the debate over centralization and decentralization of governing responsibilities. It’s not “the left” that’s trying to relentlessly increase centralized government power, but the Right that is determined to centralize power in the wealthiest regions of the private sector. Disabling public-sector programs that have been in existence for decades based on decades of Supreme Court precedents is part and parcel of that agenda. “Subsidiarity” has absolutely nothing to do with it.
And, oddly enough, there are people well-versed in arcane theories of knowledge, and the works of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and some who have actually spent time on the finer points of Catholic theological thinking. In fact, there was this statement from a group of fifty-nine Catholic theologians and leaders of charitable organizations:
As Catholic social justice leaders, women religious, priests, theologians and other concerned Catholics, we are deeply troubled that Rep. Paul Ryan – chairman of the House Budget Committee – is defending a budget proposal that makes dangerous cuts to food stamps and other vital protections for the most vulnerable as compatible with the teachings of his Catholic faith. Simply put, this budget is morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good. A budget that turns its back on the hungry, the elderly and the sick while giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest few can’t be justified in Christian terms.
And they get specific:
Rep. Ryan claims his budget reflects the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity.” But he profoundly distorts this teaching to fit a narrow political ideology guided by anti-government fervor and libertarian faith in radical individualism. This is anathema to the Catholic social tradition. In fact, ever since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Catholic social teaching has recognized a positive role for government and our collective responsibility to care for our neighbors….
We urge Rep. Ryan to reconsider his radical budget proposal and refrain from distorting Church teaching to give moral cover to a budget that fails to live up to our nation’s best values and highest ideals.
Drat! They knew the word, and they know what it really means. Busted! Ryan hints that the Catholic Church has, since 1891, held that governments are evil – they just get in the way when you’re trying to do good works. And fifty-nine Catholic theologians say nope, that’s not what the Pope said, and that’s never been the Church’s position. So who are you going to believe, Paul Ryan or the Pope?
Politico’s Tim Mak has more – “The signatories include the leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a women’s Catholic organization, a retired Priest in Ryan’s district, and the former Associate General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.” And he spoke with John Gehring, the Catholic Outreach Coordinator for Faith in Public Life:
“If Rep. Ryan thinks a budget that takes food and health care away from millions of vulnerable people upholds Catholic values, then he also probably believes Jesus was a tea-partier who lectured the poor to stop being so lazy and work harder,” said Gehring. “This budget turns centuries of Catholic social teaching on its head. These Catholic leaders and many Catholics in the pews are tired of faith being misused to bless an immoral agenda.”
From the statement, once again:
Simply put, this budget is morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good. A budget that turns its back on the hungry, the elderly and the sick while giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest few can’t be justified in Christian terms.
And Ed Kilgore adds this:
Ryan has every right to promote his budget as a good idea for the country. But let’s spare the crocodile tears for the poor whom he would liberate from “dependence,” and the abuse of social encyclicals to justify libertarian political philosophy.
But he had to say something, and he had a big word – subsidiarity. And dropping that big word, with an authoritative and definitive thud, was better than saying that he was just listening to evil voices in his head, in this case the voice of Ayn Rand. One doesn’t want to admit to psychosis, and hearing voices is a bad sign – and hearing the voice of Ayn Rand is even worse. And confusing Ayn Rand with a long-dead Pope is even worse than that.
But justifications are tricky. And John Kenneth Galbraith explained cases like this quite concisely – “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
Yes, you see that all the time, although not usually with a mysterious seemingly-impressive word no one ever used before, and involving a late nineteenth-century Pope. But it didn’t work, and maybe Ryan should have said his budget was based on eleven-dimensional string theory and the quantum nature of time. Then no one would have been able to say anything at all, save for a few experts in advanced theoretical physics. If you need a justification choose one no one could possibly understand. That may be the essence of politics, or bullshitting.