When he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the story goes, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a local citizen what kind of government the Convention had devised for the nation. His famous response was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Good government, especially democratic government, relies upon the character of the people. Democracy requires upkeep.
I was reminded of this story recently as I read an essay in The Weekly Standard by my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Yuval Levin. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, no one writes more compellingly or more thoughtfully about American politics and political culture than Yuval. (I’d encourage you to read his essay in full.) Yuval is not Catholic, nor is he writing in religious terms, but he makes several points which resonate very deeply with Catholic social teaching and the Catholic understanding of society. I want to highlight just two of those points.
In Catholic social teaching—indeed, in all Catholic teaching—true freedom is always freedom for something and is thus both a condition and consequence of our being morally responsible creatures. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI makes this point while emphasizing the vocational nature of true human development:
A vocation is a call that requires a free and responsible answer. Integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples: no structure can guarantee this development over and above human responsibility. (Emphasis in original.)
While no structure can guarantee development over and above human responsibility, certain structures can inhibit human development. The state, for example, is necessary and good, but it is incapable of building the kind of responsible human relationships upon which all the rest of society depends. The state causes problems when it tries to do what it is incapable of doing. Here’s Levin:
And real responsibility is only possible when you depend upon, and are depended upon by, people you know. It is, in other words, only possible in precisely that space between the individual and the state that the left has long sought to collapse.
What happens in that space generally happens face to face—between parents and children, neighbors and friends, buyers and sellers. It therefore answers to immediately felt needs, and is tailored to the characters and sentiments of the people involved. This is both good and bad, to be sure. It means that what happens in that space can be moved by resentments and prejudices, by old hostilities and by greed and vanity. But it also can be, and often is, moved by warmer sentiments—by the love that binds families; by fraternity, friendship, and loyalty; by compassion for the poor and the weak; by a passion to see wrongs righted; by ambition and drive to excel and to be seen as excellent; by a desire to give your children more; by commitment to the place you are from and mutual support of neighbors; and by love of country. These sentiments, not systems of material provision, are what makes society tick, and what holds it together. And you could never replace them with government administration, however capable or rational it might be.
The space in which human persons can engage one another in solidarity—where we learn responsibility for one another “face to face”—is circumscribed and safeguarded by the principle of subsidiarity. Solidarity must be learned in and from those “intermediate bodies,” as Pope Benedict calls them, which are the hallmark and fruit of subsidiarity. The human relationships that teach us solidarity are precisely those same relationships that teach us responsibility. This is why Pope Benedict insists that, “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.”
This brings us directly to the second point: As a people, our capacity for self-governance depends on our ability to live freedom responsibly. Since at least the time of Aristotle, people have observed that the character of a nation’s citizens affects the laws of a nation, but that the laws of a nation also affect the character of its citizens. The laws we have made for ourselves are sure to shape us. The question is, “How?” Here’s Levin, again:
It has become increasingly apparent in recent decades that the trajectory of our welfare state is not consistent with the survival of this way of life. Left on its current course, the federal government will take up a greater and greater portion of our economic output (increasingly starving other social institutions and burdening future generations with debt) and will become less and less able to perform its own crucial tasks (as the costs of benefit payments to individuals overwhelm all other functions). Meanwhile, the character of some of those programs of benefit payment threatens to undermine the character of our citizens.
The latter problem, which conservatives often describe in terms of dependency, is better understood in terms of entitlement. People so poor they actually depend on government support surely deserve our help and a path to independence, which our public programs too often deny them. But it is people who are not dependent but who nonetheless feel entitled to benefits who really pose a challenge to republican citizenship. Because not only the poor but the great mass of citizens become recipients of benefits in our welfare state, too many people in the middle class come to approach their government as claimants, not as self-governing citizens.
What can be said of such a nation? We know that responsible, freedom-loving citizens are capable of building and sustaining a great republic when they combine self-reliance with a sense of personal responsibility and duty. We have seen it done; it is the story of America. No one has ever seen a great republic flourish when these same virtues are neglected or even replaced by a sense of entitlement. We may live in the most prosperous nation in history, but our moral and cultural heritage is far more valuable than our material inheritance. It would be foolish to think we could have the latter without the former.
Again: read Levin’s entire essay. It’s well worth your time.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholics Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.