Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Catholic Liberty

If you have been confused by the apparent oxymoron "Catholic libertarian," you shouldn't be.

The principle of subsidiarity is one of the key components of Catholic social teaching. Simply, the principle of subsidiarity states that nothing that can be done as well, or better, by a smaller and simpler organization should be done by a larger, more complex organization. As should be obvious, subsidiarity is a cornerstone of limited government and personal freedom and is diametrically opposed to the modern Welfare State.

Pope John Paul II criticized the modern welfare state in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, writing that the welfare state was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly into and depriving society of its responsibility, leading "to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

The U.S. Constitution was designed to leave most issues of importance in the hands of the citizens, and to the states. Under the Constitution, the federal government's role is (was?) to do only those things which the individual or states could not effectively do for themselves. The subsidiarity principle, insofar as it is firmly rooted in natural law, was at work in the foundation of our nation.

Subsidiarity applies to all human institutions, including the State itself. An example of a flagrant violation of the principle of subsidiarity is seen where the federal government usurps the rights and responsibilities of state and local governments, perhaps most famously in the form of unfunded mandates, leading to serious disruptions in the ability of the state to fulfill its obligations. Certainly confiscatory taxes and intrusive government programs interfere with the responsibilities of the individual and such institutions as basic to society as the family. No government has repealed the law of unintended consequences, as the state of the family at the beginning of the 21st century in America should make obvious.

Alexis de Tocqueville presciently predicted that democratic government would devolve into a huge, if possibly benign, nanny state "which would guide the individual in all of his affairs and insure that all of his needs were met:"
“For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”
The principle of subsidiarity is thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly compatible with America's founding principles. Just so, it also applicable in economics. When government, as it did in the Great Depression and - God help us! - is doing today, skews the economy, producers and consumers are not allowed to bargain freely, prices no longer reflect meaningful information and become instead arbitrary dictates of a clueless, distant bureaucracy. Central planning, or the placing price controls on everything from farm products to health care "limits the freedom of individuals by distorting the free market and takes away the power of decision from producers and consumers, entrusting it instead to government bureaucrats."

Interestingly, the 10 Commandments are not communitarian; they are directed to the individual. The first four deal with the individual's relationship to God. The precepts of the last six of the Commandments are meant to protect him in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows - from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.
Life, liberty, property. Libertarian and Catholic to the core.

None of this is original to me of course. For more, visit the Acton Institute. I borrowed heavily from Fr. Bosnich's article The Principle of Subsidiarity in Religion and Liberty

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