Friday, February 1, 2013
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Mitt Romney’s naming of Paul Ryan as his running mate has brought renewed attention to the proposed budget that Mr. Ryan largely authored. Notable among the proposals are the replacement of Medicare with premium support payments, and the conversion of the federal share of Medicaid payments to block grants to the states.  According to the Congressional Budget Office these changes will result in a greater financial burden on Medicare beneficiaries, and a greater cost burden on the states for Medicaid which will be partially offset by eliminating certain Medicaid benefits for the elderly.
As perhaps should be expected, Mr. Ryan’s proposal doesn’t include cuts to defense spending.  At the same time, it reduces the top tax rate for individuals to 25%.
All of this is old news, and criticisms of Mr. Ryan’s plan abound. What deserves some focus, however, is Mr. Ryan’s claim that his proposal derives from Catholic social teaching. In particular, he says that his budget is in accord with Catholic teaching on subsidiarity. 
According to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, a major part of Catholic social teaching, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”  Mr. Ryan equates this with federalism, but, while federalism can certainly be administered in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, the two are not synonymous.
Federalism is a political doctrine pertaining to the distribution of powers. Subsidiarity, on the other hand, looks to the distribution of function according to competency and humanity, with the underlying conviction that lower level entities will better perform functions that are, in fact, within their areas of competence. If something can be competently handled by a local community or private association, then doing so is preferable to having it handled by a larger and more distant community or government that will be more remote and less likely to have the ability to tailor its efforts to local or individual concerns. Moreover, a community of a higher order should never interfere with the function of a lower order community.
But the principle of subsidiarity does not stand for the proposition that matters should be pushed to communities of a lower order regardless of competence and ability. Some who deem themselves federalists will want to suggest that social welfare matters should be handled by the states and not the federal government. That is a constitutional interpretation, but it is only in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity if the states can handle social welfare better than can the federal government. There is a good reason for believing they cannot do so.
Social programs have to be supported with taxes, and that remains true whether the federal government administers them or if they are left entirely to the states. If all social programs are left to the states, then the states will have to levy all of the taxes to support them.
But states want businesses to locate within their borders. Higher taxes serve as a disincentive to that end. Yet the lower a state’s tax rates, the less it will be able to afford social programs. The competition between states will thus incentivize lower social welfare spending which could easily fall well below the level of need in such circumstances.
If Mr. Ryan wants to legitimately claim that his budget is in accord with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, it is for him to demonstrate that the human needs currently covered by Medicare and Medicaid which will be eliminated under his plan will be better handled elsewhere. To date, he has not done so, and, indeed, seems to have no plan for how such needs will be dealt with if his budget is adopted. He cannot simply assert that the human need aspect of the question is irrelevant because the costs of Medicare and Medicaid have become impossible to bear, since he refuses any cuts to defense spending, even though the U.S. defense budget represents 41% of the world’s military expenditures , and he wants to lower the tax rates on the nation’s wealthiest individuals.
It is to be hoped that the misrepresentation of Catholic teaching will not become a habit with the politicians. One is reminded of Nancy Pelosi’s claim on Meet the Press in 2008 that historical Church teaching provides wiggle room on the question of abortion , a patently false assertion.
There is such a thing as Catholic social teaching, and it does not suffer from ambiguity. Unfortunately, it is to be observed that there are politicians and others who have the face to try and co-opt that teaching to the service of one or the other of the political parties, which necessarily results in the misrepresentation of that teaching. This is a problem that needs to be remedied.
On December 1, 2012, the first issue of the online magazine, Christian Democracy, will appear. There will be no cost for viewing it. The purpose of the magazine will be to examine current affairs in the light of Catholic social teaching as it is, and not in the service of any political party. You will find the magazine here.
Your humble servant will from this point forward devote most of his time to that endeavor in that I will be the editor of Christian Democracy, though it is planned for other writers to be involved. Postings here will of necessity diminish, though it is not planned that they will disappear completely. But I trust that I legitimately suppose that Catholic social teaching will generate a wider interest than the mere musings of your humble servant, delusions of grandeur notwithstanding.
I hope you will visit to agree, disagree, or simply observe.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 
These are the words found near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence that set forth the philosophical foundation and justification for the separation of the United States from Great Britain and the British Crown. The language used reveals how much things have changed since that time.
What is striking is the belief in absolute and foundational truths that the words exemplify. The rights of humanity are described not as mere preferences but as realities that human minds immediately apprehend, requiring no further justification. What’s more, what is as self-evident as the rights themselves is the fact that they have been given to us by our Creator.
Many contemporary minds will have difficulty accepting the existence of such intangible realities, truths that are not susceptible of public demonstration by scientific methods, which can only be realized in the subjective experience of individual perceivers. Human rights, and the Creator who gave them, can be perceived by individual minds, can be discussed as parts of a common subjective experience, but cannot be demonstrated apart from subjective experience.
Utilitarianism, which has become an underlying premise for all political discourse in the United States, denounces the existence of such realities. Thus, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, in his “Short Review of the Declaration,” ridiculed the Declaration’s assertion of the existence of such rights.  He didn’t dare in his day and age to ridicule the existence of a Creator, but atheism is of a piece with a mentality that would deny the existence of human rights as self-evident truths.
Certainly, if there is no Creator, there can be no human rights apart from human preferences. But if human preference is the only standard to go by (as Utilitarianism would have it), then human rights are not foundational facts about the world but mere abstractions of human desire. In such a world right and wrong are exemplifications of wishes; murder, genocide, and a host of other atrocities are not evil because they transgress objective requirements of human behavior, but because they are unpleasant and undesirable.
Surely one has the right to be an atheist or a Utilitarian in the United States. But there should be no confusion. What one believes impacts how he approaches the world.
For Bentham, the “fundamental axiom” was that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number…is the measure of right and wrong.”  A legitimate concern with regard to such an ethic is the well-being of the lesser number.
But Bentham was right to this extent: if there is no Creator, then there may well be no better standard of human behavior than what has been supplied by his “fundamental axiom.” If there is no Creator, then there is no one who could have established objective standards of human behavior, and there can be no human rights but those that are projections of human notions of desirability.
In a culture like ours that eschews tradition, such a philosophical underpinning of human rights can be particularly pernicious. It is common to see children who desire things that are not good for them. We flatter ourselves that we outgrow such tendencies in adulthood, but there are plenty of examples to demonstrate that the maturation process is never complete. By rejecting the acquired wisdom of previous generations, while at the same time rejecting any notion of objective standards of right and wrong, we reduce ourselves to a society of infants. And infants need guardians.
The liberty to reject the idea that there is indeed a Creator who endows us with unalienable rights is a paramount right. But the existence of that right does not mean that there are no consequences to such a belief, for there most certainly are such consequences.
Friday, July 20, 2012
Russia and China yesterday vetoed a proposed United Nations Security Council resolution that would have threatened sanctions against the government of Syria if it didn’t stop its violence against the uprising taking place in that country.  The resolution was backed by the United States and other western powers. It was the third time Russia and China used their veto power to block resolutions designed to bring pressure on the Syrian government in connection with the conflict.
The western powers are outraged. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. characterized the vetoes as “dangerous and deplorable.” Mark Lyall Grant, the U.N. ambassador from the United Kingdom said that the effect of the vetoes would be “to protect a brutal regime.” None of the western powers, however, promised to abstain from violence in the event of an uprising in their own countries.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador voiced concern over opening the door “to external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs.” Imagine that. What have the western powers, particularly the United States, done in recent years to make Russia believe that they might invade another sovereign nation?
You could knock me over with a feather. I never thought I would live to see the day when Russia and China would be trying to thwart a pretext for a U.S. military invasion.