Matt Cavedon of the Acton Institute writes that I and other “leftists” are trying to “own” the pope’s new encyclical, Caritas in veritate. Since private ownership is the summum bonum for the folks at Acton, maybe I should take this as a compliment. But there’s plenty of encyclical to go around, and I don’t mind sharing it with Acton’s policy experts, as long as they’re willing to read it.
Cavedon complains that Catholic leftists are overlooking the importance of subsidiarity in the pope’s thought. The term “subsidiarity” has a kind of talismanic power for free-market conservatives who are looking for a handle on the church’s social teachings. Subsidiarity, they say, means the smaller the better; and it applies, they say, to government. This is, as Cavedon would put it, not incorrect, but by themselves these two half-truths don’t quite add up to the whole truth.
In fact, subsidiarity is a broad principle about propriety of scale, and it does not apply only to government. Although it implies what we might call a preferential option for the local, it also implies a symmetry between economic power and political power. As small as possible, yes — but also as big as necessary. If you are going to insist on keeping all political power local, you must also insist on keeping the power of capital local. Conversely, if you are going to defend economic globalization, as free-market conservatives do, you will need to find some kind of global political authority that can check the power of multinational corporations.
True, the pope never says exactly what such an authority would look like: it might be nothing more than a closely coordinated coalition of states; it might be nothing less than a supranational government. Whatever it is, it will not be a village council or a chamber of commerce. One of the many provocative arguments of Caritas in veritate is that there is a political arrangement that corresponds to every level of community, from the most local to the most universal. To have the U.N. take up a job that a municipal government can do just as well or better is a clear violation of subsidiarity. But it is no less a violation of subsidiarity to expect municipal governments by themselves — and separately — to head off abuses by companies that make their products in one place, sell them in another, and distribute the profits to investors who live in neither place.
Wherever the word “subsidiarity” occurs in the encyclical, the word “solidarity” is not far away. “Subsidiarity” is mentioned just twelve times, beginning half way through the document (paragraph 47); “solidarity” is mentioned forty times, beginning near the beginning (paragraph 11). The pope understands solidarity as an animating principle of democracy — the motive force that keeps democratic government from becoming a mere procedural arrangement. He also seems to understand it as a common denominator of justice and charity, operative at every level of community. Solidarity goes beyond politics, of course, but it does not go around it.
This means that any account of Catholic social teaching that overlooks solidarity or tries to depoliticize it won’t get very far. Some conservative thinkers, such as Michael Novak, seem uncomfortable with the word because they associate it with totalitarian rhetoric, but Pope Benedict seems to like the word even more than most popes. For him, it has more important associations:
The global market has stimulated first and foremost, on the part of rich countries, a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods, increasing purchasing power and thus accelerating the rate of development in terms of greater availability of consumer goods for the domestic market. Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States as they seek to attract foreign businesses to set up production centers, by means of a variety of instruments, including favorable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labor market. These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. (paragraph 25)
The people at Acton may believe that the State has no business being social — that it should fight our wars, imprison our criminals, and then get out of the way so that the rest of society can take care of itself. But this antipolitical program is at odds with the entire trajectory of Catholic social teaching, from Rerum novarum on. The church has always insisted that distributive justice is as much a concern of the state as criminal justice, and Benedict in particular claims that a lack of distributive justice undermines the “social cohesion” that markets, and civilization itself, require:
Through the systemic increase of social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries (i.e. the massive increase in relative poverty), not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of “social capital”: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (paragraph 32)
Free-market conservatives think it is a mistake for governments to worry too much about economic inequality and “relative poverty.” In this, they have a substantial disagreement not only with Catholic leftists, but with Pope Benedict himself. They should address this disagreement frankly rather than papering it over with pages and pages of vague talk about subsidiarity.