Among more than one set of Christians today, the government, particularly the U.S. Federal government, is considered an enemy. I understand and sympathize with that judgment. The government protects abortionists and puts defenders of unborn life in prison; spends large sums abroad to corrupt other countries with birth control and sex education; funds agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, which gives money to blasphemers; frequently usurps the rights of parents; in short, today the actions of the federal government, and of many state governments, often seem designed to denigrate and destroy Christian life and exalt evil.
It is no wonder, then, that many Christians regard the state as an enemy and are ready converts to a libertarian philosophy that sees government as a barely necessary evil and seeks to minimize its functions almost to the vanishing point. Is not this the most effective way of protecting ourselves against state encroachment?
Attractive as this might be, I do not think we can accept a point of view that sees the state as an evil, even a necessary evil. In fact, no Catholic can hold a true libertarian point of view and remain orthodox. There are a good many distinctions which must be drawn in this matter, but as a beginning we might look at quotations from two popes that indicate an attitude of great respect toward the institution of civil authority. First from Leo XIII’s encyclical Sapientiae Christianae (1890): “Hallowed therefore in the minds of Christians is the very idea of public authority, in which they recognize some likeness and symbol as it were of the divine Majesty, even when it is exercised by one unworthy.” Then from Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931): “The State … should be the supreme arbiter, ruling in queenly fashion far above all party contention, intent only upon justice and the common good….”
These words should give us pause, for they embody an attitude toward public authority quite different from that held by the many Catholic critics of government. But, on the other hand, it would be too simplistic and equally false to embrace an expansionist view of the government, one that sees a new government program as the solution to every ill of mankind or that naively trusts the government never to do wrong. The modem state does overstep its bounds and does so quite often. But in considering government, we must be like St. Peter, who, though he was put to death by the Roman government for preaching the Gospel, had written, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13-14); or like St. Paul, likewise put to death for the Gospel, yet who wrote even more strongly, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:3-4).
We must, then, begin with the conviction that for Christians “the very idea of public authority” is “hallowed” and is one “in which they recognize some likeness and symbol as it were of the divine Majesty.” This is strong stuff, but it is traditional Catholic doctrine and a matter of public knowledge. What is necessary is that we understand the meaning of this teaching and see what its implications are in the real world of today.
God rules His created universe. He did not simply create a world, establish certain self-executing laws, and then step back to watch what would happen. And this mode of ruling is the “likeness and symbol” which human rulers ought to emulate. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that even if mankind had never fallen, some sort of government would have been necessary. And, of course, since we did fall from our state of primitive happiness, government must not only co-ordinate diverse human actions but must also restrain and even punish human actions. Holy Scripture and sacred tradition, ratified by the Magisterium, make it clear that the authority to co-ordinate, restrain, and punish comes from God Himself. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the leaders of nations being designated by popular vote. But however they may be chosen, whatever authority they have comes from God. Anyone may have power; only God has and can give authority.
This necessity for government is shown by our reactions to the daily difficulties of life. When we see disturbances of the peace and order of the community we expect government to do something about it. It is true that we can be unreasonable in expecting government to solve every one of our problems, but still our instinct is correct. The human community does need a directing faculty. We do need government. Just as a group of people with no structure is a mob, similarly a nation without a government would be an unstable mass, unable to establish the necessary organs and means to take care of the many matters that necessarily arise in human social existence.
Unfortunately, only sinful men are available to govern and punish the rest of us sinful men. And that is why governments have often overstepped their bounds. This is not anything new; King Henry VIII of England is as good an example of the public authority gone astray as anything in our century. But though there has always been this tendency on the part of the state to violate others’ rights, there is a particular reason why the modem state seems to do this as a matter of course. The modern state has grown large and burdensome in part because the powerful mediating institutions which once existed have been destroyed. These mediating institutions once did much of the work that today we assign to the state. This is well described by Pius XI:
On account of the evil of “individualism,” as We called it, things have come to such a pass that the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous and interdependent institutions, has been damaged and all but ruined, leaving virtually only individuals and the State….But the State, deprived of a supporting social structure, and now encumbered with all the burdens once borne by the disbanded associations, is in consequence overwhelmed and submerged by endless affairs and responsibilities (Quadragesimo Anno).
What is the Pontiff talking about? The “variety of prosperous and interdependent institutions” included, for example, the craft guilds, which had as one of their most important tasks the regulating of economic activity for the public good, as well as for their own material prosperity. After these were finally destroyed, by the early 19th century, powerful and rich men began to amass economic power that enabled them to exploit both their employees and the consumer. As a result of the activities of these huge corporations and trusts, at about the same time throughout Europe and North America, there were demands for something to be done. And by this time, the only entity that could possibly do something was the government. Thus, in the vacuum that was left after the destruction of the guilds, state power seemed the only thing able to resist and control the powerful economic forces that threatened to dominate the citizenry. This was unfortunate, because many of these functions were not the state’s direct business, and because they gave the state a taste for power and for extending its influence wherever there was any sort of a need.
Thereafter, politics in many countries became a constant struggle over the size of the state. One side saw clearly the dangers of big government; the other side saw equally clearly the dangers of domination by private groups and looked to the government to protect the common good. As long as we think of state power as the only legitimate way of dealing with these things, we will continue to have this sterile conflict over how large the government ought to be. But both sides in this debate are wrong: One side defends what has been called the philosophy of a cancer, the bigger the better. The other side is busy outbidding itself to see how much of the government it can eliminate. But whichever of these sides triumphs, its triumph will always be temporary. For if the first side wins, the excesses committed by the state will bring about a reaction, while if the second group wins, the outrages committed by big business will create demands for new laws and regulations. As the French poet Paul Valdry is said to have remarked, “If the state is strong, it will crush us; if it is weak, we will perish.”
The notion that the state is our enemy, then, is in large part a reaction to the state’s overreaching itself, to the attempt on the part of the state to regulate every aspect of life and society. The state as described in papal social thought is clearly important, even majestic, but it is not competent to deal directly with everything. It has limited but real functions. And I should note that these functions are larger than those of the “law-and-order state,” the state that does nothing else but guard the borders and suppress crime. Pius XI praises Leo XIII because that pontiff had “fearlessly proclaimed the doctrine that the civil power is more than the mere guardian of law and order” (Quadragesimo Anno). The whole of Catholic social thought presupposes and teaches that the proper concerns of the state go far beyond preserving law and order. As Leo XIII taught “rulers should anxiously safeguard the community and all its parts” (Rerum Novarum). Nor does John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus teach otherwise, for in that encyclical there are many passages that speak of the same kind of role for the state. The law-and-order or libertarian state is concerned with only a small number of things. The liberal state is concerned with everything and seeks to regulate everything directly. The Catholic state is likewise concerned with “the community and all its parts, ” but it does not seek directly to regulate and control everything. Very often, as we will see below, it simply fosters and watches over the efforts of intermediary bodies.
We have seen, then, that the tendency to regard the state as one of our chief enemies is not consonant with authoritative Catholic thought and further, that this tendency is chiefly caused by the state’s overstepping its proper bounds, especially by the modem state’s congenital propensity to try to control everything directly, because no other sufficiently powerful bodies exist that can share in the necessary regulation of society for the common good. And we have also seen that the impasse this has created is the cause of the endless squabbling about the proper size of the state—big, little, or in-between. But all these attempts to find exactly the right size are foolish, because they assume that the state and only the state has any important function in shaping society. If the state does not do it, then turn it over to the vagaries of the free market. This is the modern notion, but it is wrong.
Let me give some examples of how the Catholic theory of the state could be implemented and what this would mean for society. I will give examples of how the central government could be relieved of some of its burdensome duties – duties whose performance often provokes resentment because it is charged that the state is sticking its nose into matters that are none of its business and about which it knows nothing. The solution suggested by Catholic social thought does recognize that there are real evils that need eliminating or regulating, but approaches these things in a manner different from that of both liberals and conservatives in America.
My first example will be OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the federal government, created by Congress in 1970. The purpose of OSHA is to make and enforce rules for safety in the workplace. And there is no doubt that OSHA was created to address a real need. Workers are injured on the job, and business often has little economic incentive or ethical desire to make the workplace safe. In fact, there can be a temptation to regard workers as expendable parts of the production process.
But OSHA has also been criticized for imposing needless and silly rules and requirements that are difficult and expensive to implement. Bureaucrats in their Washington offices cannot regulate, it is said, work processes and workplaces of which they have no direct experience. Since they know little about the realities of the work environment they are supposed to regulate, they are apt to issue rules applicable to every workplace without taking account of differences, or to make rules that are so vague that no one can know whether or not he has satisfied them short of having an inspector come and look for violations. And it is charged that the cost of complying with OSHA rules and of the accompanying record keeping, particularly for small businesses, is prohibitive.
I expect that there is something to these criticisms. Some of OSHA’s regulations doubtless are ridiculous and burdensome. But the inference that is intended to be drawn from this, namely, that OSHA should be abolished and things returned to the status quo ante, I reject. In ordinary circumstances the state should not be burdened with inspecting workplaces and writing detailed rules. This is an instance of its being “overwhelmed and submerged by endless affairs and responsibilities” as Pius XI said. And this is also an excellent opportunity to revive, in some measure, some of those “prosperous and interdependent institutions” the Pontiff spoke of. Specifically, joint union and management committees, with the right, if necessary, of appeal to the state, and of enforcement by state authority, ought to be entrusted with setting the rules for workplace safety currently done by OSHA. The members of such committees not only would be familiar with the actual work processes and environment, but would also have a direct interest in the prosperity of their industry. The equal presence of the union representatives would ensure that management’s interest in profits could not overrule sensible safety requirements.
Whenever the parties directly involved with a process can assume more responsibility for making their own rules, then the government can be relieved of a burden it ought never to have had. The correct alternative to direct government regulation is not to do nothing and to give profit-making businesses a free rein. Very often there are alternatives that do not necessitate setting up a new government bureaucracy, but instead rely on those actually doing the work to take control of their own situation.
One of the federal agencies that has often been a target for elimination is the Department of Commerce. Now, Commerce does many and varied things, from forecasting the weather to taking the census to promoting American exports. To a great extent it was established to aid business. But if business truly finds these services important, then there is no reason why some of them could not be taken over by industry groups, preferably representing both organized labor and employer organizations. For example, such industry councils could promote U.S. exports by advertising abroad, by establishing funds to make start-up loans to firms wishing to export and by sponsoring trade shows and the like. Even much of the information-gathering and data-publishing work of Commerce could be done by such industry councils. Even now, private industry and trade associations collect and publish much reliable statistical data that is used even by the federal government.
One part of the Commerce Department is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the National Bureau of Standards). This agency “assists industry in developing technology to improve product quality, modernize manufacturing processes, ensure product reliability, and facilitate rapid commercialization of products based on new scientific discoveries” (U.S. Government Manual). Some people might call this corporate welfare, but aside from that, there is no reason why industry could not work to sponsor its own research programs and improve its processes and products. This is not an activity that needs to burden the central government and be supported by taxation. It is surely proper for government to encourage such activities, but they are primarily the responsibility of the companies involved and of the industry councils I mentioned above, which could be formed to deal with matters pertaining to a particular economic sector.
There have been a few attempts in this country to decentralize the institutions that regulate and promote our economic activity. In 1933 the Franklin Roosevelt administration attempted a system of self-regulation by industries called the National Recovery Administration. Although not perfect, the NRA could well have been a means of instituting a system of industrial self-government by owners and workers, very much like what Pius XI had called for in his encyclical Quadragesimo Annojust two years earlier. President Roosevelt even called the industrial entities created by the NRA “modem guilds” (a phrase often used by Catholic writers of the period) and Msgr. John A. Ryan, the great Catholic writer on social justice, was actually a member of the NRA’s Industrial Appeals Board, established to rule on complaints brought by businessmen. During its brief life the NRA showed promise, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935 ruled the NRA unconstitutional on the grounds that governmental power had been delegated to non-governmental bodies. Thus Roosevelt was forced to create more agencies and bigger bureaucracies to regulate the economy directly. Had the NRA been allowed to work, it is possible that some of the vast expansion of the federal government would never have taken place.
The fact that so thoroughly practical a politician as Franklin Roosevelt was able to get the NRA approved by Congress shows that such an approach is not alien to American traditions. But the current hostility to the federal government’s regulating effort is not based on an appreciation of the proper role of government so much as on a desire to allow private business free play. But Catholic thought, from the New Testament forward, has always been deeply aware that the economic appetite, the “love of money” as St. Paul calls it (1 Tim. 6:10), is responsible for a host of evils. And this is true not only for an individual but for a society also. There is no magic law of economics that allows individuals to indulge an unlimited desire for gain and that somehow channels all this activity toward the common good of society. I am aware, of course, that the tradition of economics descending from Adam Smith teaches otherwise. One should note, though, that Smith’s view was framed in an age of Deism and presupposes a self-regulating sort of cosmos, with a God who stands back and watches and a government that does likewise. But such a view of things is deeply hostile to Catholic social thought, which has always held men responsible for the evils caused by their choices and actions, both when acting alone and in concert with others.
Another promising kind of economic entity whose role could be expanded in the United States is the cooperative. Co-operatives deserve an article to themselves, so here I will confine myself to speaking of only a small part of their possible functions. In the provision of basic services, such as water and power, co-operatives could well supplement or even replace utilities directly owned by local governments or those organized as private businesses. It is true that co-operatives do supply such services, especially electricity, but there are other areas in which government may be relieved of directly providing a service and allowing those directly concerned to make provision for their own needs.
In much of what I have written here I have been critical of the unfettered market. But to be cautious about Capitalism is not to embrace Socialism. It is only to recognize that the Fall of Man encompassed also his economic appetites. A realization that the government has grown too large should not be an occasion to embrace economic Deism. As I have suggested, there are many other ways of approaching economic regulation that do not rely on direct governmental intervention. The state can be our friend in helping to establish such forms of regulatory bodies and in seeing that, once established, they do not abuse their trust.
But a thoroughgoing rejection of economic Deism must come first. And for Catholics this can probably best be obtained by a deepening of our understanding of the Catholic vision of man. For just as Socialism’s fundamental error is anthropological in nature, so too is libertarianism’s. Likewise, “from the Christian vision of the human person there necessarily follows a correct picture of society” (Centesimus Annus). The errors of Socialism and the errors of Deistic economics rest on false images of man. We will probably make more progress toward accepting the Catholic conception of the economic order if we first accept its image of man.
If we are to subject all our being, our thinking, and our living to Christ and His Church, we cannot ignore the existence of Catholic social teaching. Whether we like it or not, it is part of our patrimony, and until we embrace it as unreservedly as we embrace the rest of Catholic teaching, we will hardly be able to call ourselves orthodox or faithful Catholics, and we will never be free of the tug-of-war between statism and individualism.
Originally published in New Oxford Review, vol. 66, n. 6 (June 1999).