“The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace.” – Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus #49
The 2012 U.S. presidential campaign has, to a degree unseen for several years, brought to the fore the fundamental issues of political life: the relationship of the individual to society, the role of the state and of the economy in society, etc. The selection of Paul Ryan as Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate, an intellectually capable and ideologically driven conservative, ensures that will continue to be the case.
It is no surprise that politicians and pundits are returning to basics. The financial crisis and Great Recession, not to mention the Euro crisis, have convinced most that something has gone fundamentally wrong. We are in a period of social and intellectual ferment, comparable to the 1930s and 1960s, in which people yearn for new ideas to fix a broken society. It is unfortunate, then, that the ideas on offer from both the Left and Right put forward such an impoverished view of human community.
Starting with the Left, President Barack Obama’s policies and campaign rhetoric reflect what Yuval Levin calls “the hollow republic,” in which the “middle ground” between the individual and the state—family, civil society, business—is hollowed out. This does not mean eliminating these institutions, but rather “an attempt to turn private mediating institutions into public utilities contracted to execute government ends.” Obama reflects a long tradition that is suspicious of social institutions acting independently of the state as sources of prejudice and social conflict.
Levin claims that this tendency helps explain recent conflicts over religious freedom, including not only the controversy over the contraception mandate, but also the revocation of licenses of Catholic Charities adoption agencies that would not serve same-sex couples and the denial of government support to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugees Services for not providing or referring for contraceptive and abortion services.
This suspicion of independent mediating institutions is also reflected in Obama’s controversial campaign speech given in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13 (the relevant passage is cited in Levin’s article). Although Obama’s point was to show that individual initiative is dependent on the contributions of the community, all of his examples involve the government. According to Levin, “The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.”
The absence of community outside of government is also found in “The Life of Julia,” an Obama web advertisement demonstrating all of the ways that a woman is assisted by government throughout her life: the Head Start pre-kindergarten program, a Pell grant for college, health insurance provided by Obama’s health care reform, the ability to sue for equal pay, free contraception, pre-natal care for her unborn child, a Small Business Administration loan, Medicare, and Social Security. Regardless of the merits of each of these programs, what is disturbing about the advertisement is that Julia’s only relationship is with the state. She has no family and no community.
Ryan has attempted to carve out space for community apart from the state through an appeal to Catholic social teaching. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network and in his speech at Georgetown University, he claims that the principle of subsidiarity means that civil society often meets the needs of the poor better than government by promoting human interaction, and therefore government should be cut back to make room for these efforts.
Although Ryan has been criticized for his one-sided interpretation of subsidiarity, a more fundamental criticism is that the civil society he envisions is something of a mirage. Ryan’s admiration for the philosophy of Ayn Rand certainly calls into suspicion his commitment to building community organizations that serve the poor. More importantly, however, Ryan’s budget plan includes plenty of cuts to government spending, but there is no corresponding conservative plan to promote civil society.
There is certainly awareness that there is a crisis of civil society in America. In his recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray points out that besides the inequality of wealth that divides rich from poor, there is also an inequality of social capital. The wealthy, unlike the poor, tend to have intact families, attend church, and engage in a vibrant civic culture. The wealthy, both literally and metaphorically, have gated themselves off from the poor. Yet Murray’s solution largely amounts to more tut-tutting from the wealthy to the poor about family values and a strong work ethic.
The absence of any concerted effort by conservatives to build the civil society organizations they claim to believe can promote the common good better than government reflects the strong emphasis on individual achievement in conservative ideology. In his response to Obama’s Roanoke speech, conservative writer Charles Krauthammer claims that “To say all individuals are embedded in and the product of society is banal.” But is this indebtedness to society, let alone the problem of unequal access to positive social influences, really reflected in conservative thinking? For the most part it accepts market outcomes as a reflection of individual creativity and hard work rather than accidents of birth or life experience. Yet if such accidents truly do play a role in our success, then fairness requires that we do more to provide people with the social capital and material resources that open up the opportunities for success.
Paul Ryan’s appeal to Catholic social teaching has definitely enriched the debate in this year’s presidential election through its appeal to subsidiarity and the necessity of community and civil society. It has also, however, revealed the impoverished role of community in the thinking of both the mainstream Left and Right in the U.S., and should spur Christians to develop strategies for promoting civil society organizations that bring together the well-to-do and the poor and build social capital in poor communities.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Moral Theology at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011).