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THE FEDERAL ROLE AND FEDERAL SPENDING: A PROGRAM OF GRADUAL DISENGAGEMENT

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Neither Left nor Right but Catholic

THE FEDERAL ROLE AND FEDERAL SPENDING: A PROGRAM OF

GRADUAL DISENGAGEMENT

By Stephen M. Krason

As the Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives, resulting from popular unhappiness with overreaching federal powers and uncontrolled federal spending, we are seeing their proposals on how and where to cut the budget. In contrast to the blind Keynesianism of the current Democratic party—i.e., believing that the level of government spending and deficits is irrelevant—many of these new Republicans are surely correct in thinking that if a new path is not forged the future consequences could be bleak. After all, European countries are facing economic crises because of excessive public spending. Jefferson said, “We must make our election between economy and liberty or profusion and servitude” because taxation follows from debt, “and in its train wretchedness and oppression.” One of the main reasons that thinkers point to for the decline of political orders and civilizations is over-centralization. More federal control and shaping of public policy from the center—from Washington—goes along with runaway spending. The implications are indeed serious.

Some of the ideas for cutbacks are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These are logical and could be done immediately; they hardly involve functions that are not already performed elsewhere or require government (but still they will not be politically easy to achieve). Obviously, entitlements and other areas of social welfare spending need to be brought to bay as well. Programs such as Medicare are now among the major fiscal strains on the federal budget and are getting worse. Actually, the very cost of maintaining a large federal bureaucracy to administer and direct so many governmental activities—with most of the money going to employee salaries, benefits, and pensions—is the greatest demand on the public treasury. To deal with these problems requires a gradual, extended effort (a program of gradual disengagement). Catholic social teaching could not justify a precipitant approach, even if it were possible. Anyone serious about Catholic social teaching cannot be oblivious to the need to insure that those who truly need help receive it—which sometimes involves public action—and to avoid unemployment (even if it means sharply scaling down the federal workforce). In both cases human dignity—the preservation of which is probably the central imperative of Catholic social teaching—is at stake.

Gradual disengagement is not only sensitive to the concerns of Catholic social teaching, but the only politically possible approach to substantially reducing the federal role. It is prudent, not only in the political sense but because it would minimize the social dislocations that would result. The rhetoric of limiting the federal government always sounds good, but it will have a chance of implementation only if it is gradual. It is worth noting that even the most philosophically pro-limited government president since the 1920’s, Ronald Reagan, succeeded little in reversing the centripetal tendencies in American political life.

That underscores the basic question: Does the Republican party have the intestinal fortitude to truly make and see through a long-term commitment to gradual disengagement? The track record is not good, but we’ll see.

There is no question that Catholic social teaching justifies—more, requires—a reassessment of the massive federal role. The principle of subsidiarity necessitates a clear reason to move activities from the local to the higher, more distant level. In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II called for returning the care of persons, as much as feasible, from government bureaucracies to the family, the Church, and private entities. Pope Leo XIII warned that taxation could reach levels where it unjustly violates the right of private property. High taxation is, of course, sine qua non for big government.

A successful commitment to gradual disengagement requires a basic shift in perspective by national officials. Legislators have to think of themselves less as policymakers and more as problem-solvers, so that they will learn that a new law is not always the answer and maybe they should work with the private sector to determine how to address problems—without coercion. Presidents should use the persuasive and prodding powers of their office—the “bully pulpit”—to get nongovernmental institutions, groups, and officials together to debate and hammer out solutions. During the health care debate of 2009, I wrote that this was the proper way to approach this question.  It almost goes without saying that we cannot expect this from the statist Obama administration.

A successful strategy of gradual disengagement requires, in line with subsidiarity in its fullest sense, a long-term commitment by government officials, leaders in all parts of the private sector, and average citizens to build up what Pope Benedict XVI has called “civil society” (private, generally charitable and non-profit entities) to address human needs in a more or less systematic way. This will also involve initiatives to strengthen the family—not by more government regimenting of childrearing through the likes of public schools and the so-called “child protective system,” but inter alia by looking to the proposals of the social encyclicals. To be sure, all this is difficult, but without it gradual disengagement would fail. The pattern will continue of small contractions of the federal role, followed by political reaction leading to a new period of statism, with the end result of federal power always expanded more than before and liberty further diminished.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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