We have written here numerous times about the principle of subsidiarity. Back in June 2011, we wrote the following, in the course of another discussion on debt:
A discussion of our dramatic debt situation led (perhaps inevitably) to a discussion of the need to reform wasteful government departments, an area of general agreement between us. In spite of the fact that my larger point was that discretionary spending is not the problem driving the debt, I did mention that the Department of Education is on many conservatives’ wish-list for elimination.
Explaining why allowed me to explain a core conservative principle: subsidiarity:
Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.
We don’t oppose the Department of Education because we hate children and want to see them fail, though that is the almost-inevitable shriek from our opponents on this issue. Rather, we oppose the Department of Education because we believe that as centralization increases, efficiency decreases. It is in keeping with our core belief in subsidiarity to propose that education would be better handled at the state and local level, rather than with the inefficient, unresponsive, overbearing, one-size-fits-all approach that the federal government must, almost by definition, take.
Ronald Reagan opposed the Department of Education, then a brand new entity. Just like the rest of us, he opposed it not because he hates children and wants them to fail, but because he believed it would not work. And now, several decades of evidence appear to be proving him (and the rest of us) right . . .
Subsidiarity (and related concepts: sphere sovereignty, federalism, etc.) is a sine qua non of conservatism and libertarianism. But we conservatives and libertarians did not develop this ancient concept. Long before were discussing it over coffee or in the halls of power and academe . . . long before the Enlightenment . . . the Catholic Church was deploying and refining the concept as a core part of Catholic social teaching. And they are applying that teaching rather sensibly to health care reform.
What Must We Do?
The justified reaction to the significant defects in our current health care policies is to say, “Something must be done.” Many believe: “We have to change health care in America.” Despite the many flaws with our current policies, change itself does not guarantee improvement. Many of the proposals which have been promoted would diminish the protection of human life and dignity and shift our health care costs and delivery to a centralized government bureaucracy. Centralization carries the risk of a loss of personal responsibility, reduction in personalized care for the sick and an expanded bureaucracy that in the end leads to higher costs.
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I. The Principle of Subsidiarity: Preamble to the Work of Reform
This notion that health care ought to be determined at the lowest level rather than at the higher strata of society, has been promoted by the Church as “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity is that principle by which we respect the inherent dignity and freedom of the individual by never doing for others what they can do for themselves and thus enabling individuals to have the most possible discretion in the affairs of their lives. (See: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ## 185ff.; Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1883) The writings of recent Popes have warned that the neglect of subsidiarity can lead to an excessive centralization of human services, which in turn leads to excessive costs, and loss of personal responsibility and quality of care.
Pope John Paul II wrote:
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus #48)
And Pope Benedict writes:
“The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person -every person -needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. … In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3) – a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est #28)
While subsidiarity is vital to the structure of justice, we can see from what the Popes say that it rests on a more fundamental principle, the unchanging dignity of the person. The belief in the innate value of human life and the transcendent dignity of the human person must be the primordial driving force of reform efforts.
Their conclusion demonstrates a highly sensible balance between the Catholic principle of solidarity with the poor—the need to do something—with the need to to go off half-cocked and do anything.
These last two principles: Solidarity and the Promotion of the Common Good cause us to say that we cannot be passive concerning health care policy in our country. There is important work to be done, but “change” for change’s sake; change which expands the reach of government beyond its competence would do more harm than good. Change which loses sight of man’s transcendent dignity or the irreplaceable value of human life; change which could diminish the role of those in need as agents of their own care is not truly human progress at all.
A hasty or unprincipled change could cause us, in fact, to lose some of the significant benefits that Americans now enjoy, while creating a future tax burden which is both unjust and unsustainable.
Read the whole thing.
I salute Reverend Joseph F. Naumann (Archbishop of Kansas City in Kansas) and Reverend Robert W. Finn (Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph) for their wisdom and sane response to the question of Obamacare and health care reform.