Michael Sean Winters is (Partly) Right about Congressman Paul Ryan…

When I saw this Politico story about Paul Ryan and Catholic social teaching, I had two thoughts. The first was that “subsidiarity” and “federalism” aren’t as similar as Congressman Ryan makes them out to be. My second thought was, “I bet Michael Sean Winters will have something to say about this.”

And he did! Winters is (spoiler alert) not a fan of Ryan’s budget—or his politics in general, really—but he does score some legitimate points against the congressman from Wisconsin, and by extension, some common misconceptions about subsidiarity that often pop up on the “right.”

Here is the statement in question from Congressman Ryan:

To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.

Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.

First things first. Subsidiarity is not “really federalism.” Federalism is a principle of political decentralization which often parallels the principle of subsidiarity, but is not identical to it. This is exactly the point Winters makes. I think Winters even slightly overstates the degree to which subsidiarity is about decentralization, saying subsidiarity, “insists that solutions be crafted at the lowest level of social organization possible, first the family, then the community, then the State,…” As I’ve written elsewhere, subsidiarity is not about exercising power at the lowest possible level so much as it is about locating social responsibility in its proper place…with an emphasis on “proper.”

The goal or end of subsidiarity is the proper ordering of society for the common good. This requires each person and institution of civil society be afforded, as a matter of justice, their proper autonomy. Pope John Paul II spoke of this principle, and its centrality to Catholic social teaching, in Centesimus Annus:

According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This is what I have called the “subjectivity” of society which, together with the subjectivity of the individual, was cancelled out by “Real Socialism”.

The proper autonomy of these intermediary groups is derived from the kind of groups they are. Subsidiarity presupposes what Pope John Paul II calls the “subjectivity of society,” an idea that doesn’t marry too easily with the kind of social contract theory that underpins most American political thinking on both the right and the left. (Subsidiarity jives even less well with radical forms of legal positivism. Extreme libertarianism, insofar as it denies the subjectivity of society, is, as Monty Python would say, right out.) For example, a family has rights because of what it is, not because the state says so or even because a majority of citizens agree that it should. It has rights and proper autonomy because of the kind of institution it is by nature—by virtue of the social nature of the persons that are its members. So Winters is right again when he says, “Subsidiarity is rooted in Catholic personalism.” Misunderstand the human person and you will always misunderstand subsidiarity.

And Winters is also right that subsidiarity must always be accompanied by the principle of solidarity. Solidarity and subsidiarity must go hand in hand. Ignoring one always works to the detriment of both.

In Winters’ judgment, Congressman Ryan’s budget plan overplays subsidiarity and fails to satisfactorily address the principle of solidarity and so fails to sufficiently promote the common good. Fair enough.

But Winters’ then charges Ryan with all sorts of duplicity and malfeasance with regard to Catholic social teaching, none of which sticks unless one grants Winters a whole slew of assumptions—mostly liberal and mostly about the likely macro-economic effects of various policies—which, whether you share the assumptions or not, do not come directly from Catholic social teaching. No doubt Winters finds his own policy assumptions morally compelling, but he fails to distinguish between these assumptions—which are debatable—and principles of Catholic social teaching which, at least for Catholics, are not. Winters slips these assumptions into his moral reasoning as unstated premises. Then, having reached a different conclusion about the best course of action than Congressman Ryan, accounts for the difference by accusing Ryan of having betrayed Catholic social teaching.

The result is that Winters’ harshest criticisms of Ryan—those that are not mere ad hominems—all beg the question: they presuppose what they are trying to prove. To take one example, Winters slams Congressman Ryan for wanting to shortchange solidarity by “voucherizing” Medicare. But Winters assumes without argument that solidarity is better served by the current Medicare model (or some tweaked version thereof) than by Ryan’s proposal.

Now if “Medicare as we know it,” to borrow a phrase from our President, better serves solidarity than the Ryan Plan, then yes, the Ryan Plan is inferior to Medicare as we know it, at least with regard to solidarity.

But what if “Medicare as we know it” is about to go supernova and take our federal budget with it? What if “Medicare as we know it”  is already jeopardizing solidarity, both for those who will find it insolvent when they retire in a few decades, and for those future generations who will be saddled with the crushing debt of a program long since defunct? If that’s the case, then wouldn’t a sustainable plan to actually provide health insurance for seniors better serve solidarity between and among the generations, even if that meant a smaller (though still multi-trillion dollar) role for the federal government? Winters doesn’t admit the possibility that this could be so. (And which might explain why he assumes Ryan is either acting in bad faith or is ignorant of Catholic teaching.)

Winters is correct that Paul Ryan’s description of subsidiarity leaves something to be desired. But Winters’ own tendency to assign government a virtual monopoly role in promoting social solidarity is at least as unbalanced. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate:

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.

And again,

The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.

None of this proves Winters wrong or proves Ryan right. But consider this: Despite the fact that the national debt exceeds GDP, Paul Ryan’s budget increases federal health-care spending from $810 billion in 2013 to $1.257 trillion in 2022. Michael Sean Winters seems emphatically convinced that that constitutes “social privitism.” (He’s already called it “social Darwinism.”) Meanwhile, US unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicare Part D come to about $1,044,000 per taxpayer and climbing, making the threat of “paternalist social assistance” seem at least plausible.

Both men express their concerns in terms of the principles of Catholic social teaching, principles that must be implemented according to the particular demands and circumstances of the times in which we live. Given all that, ask yourself this: whose concerns seem more reflective of reality? Winters’ concern about too little solidarity, or Ryan’s concerns about too little subsidiarity?

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.


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  • R.C.

    Not sufficiently addressed either here or by Winters:

    Solidarity is only true Solidarity when voluntary, because of the requirement of personalism.

    Mere objects do not make choices. Mere objects are not created in the image of God. Mere objects lack that intrinsic dignity. For this reason, one may, without moral outrage, shove an object around forcibly if needed to put it where it is convenient, and make it do what one wants it to do.

    But one may not treat persons in that way. Persons make choices. They are created in the image of God, free in order to love. When they exercise their free will to love one another, they exercise it as God intended it to be exercised. Solidarity with one another is one form of that voluntary exercise of love. Thus, when they band together as a group for a common (good) purpose, they utilize their free will as God intended it to be used.

    But when one compels them at gunpoint to “join a group” it is not Solidarity; it is the opposite: One is showing no respect for their personhood, one is injuring their human dignity by treating them as mere objects. (Imagine what the Polish labor union “Solidarity” would have been had it been a compulsory organ of the Communist state which every worker had to join!)

    When two persons form a volunteer organization or start a private school or a labor union or even (gasp!) go into business together so as to better feed their children, that is Solidarity.

    When the government compels all persons in a society to get their health insurance through a government system and forbids them to do it any other way, that is not Solidarity. It is the devil’s bloated-spider parody of Solidarity. It is to Solidarity what a Satanic ritual is to the Mass.

    This is why we often (incorrectly) see Solidarity and Subsidiarity in tension: Because we are so accustomed to calling some things Solidarity when they are actually the Satanic parody. The Satanic parody, because it is compulsory, suppresses Subsidiarity: When the state makes a particular social interaction compulsory, it necessarily makes that interaction a bastion of state power and arrogates that power to itself, thus destroying alternative loci of power.

    But true Solidarity, which is voluntary, is no enemy to Subsidiarity. When participation in a noble cause is voluntary, one may participate…or not. One may form alternative noble-cause groups…or not. These alternative groups may remain independent of the first group, or join forces with it. Subsidiarity remains possible, because separateness remains possible.

    Subsidiarity likewise protects Solidarity. When the people have the option to join groups or not, then they likewise have the option to merge groups and swell the ranks of groups as they agree, in Solidarity, to work together.

    So we see that in God’s wise design, Subsidiarity works together with Solidarity just as the Grace and Providence and Sovereignty of God work together with Human Free Will.

    Winters is wrong because he has mistaken central-government activities, which are always necessarily forcible, for “Solidarity in Action.” They aren’t; they are just more instances of the unnecessary depersonalizing of human beings: More of the Satanic Parody.

    • Rose

      Great comment, great clarity. Thank you. “Solidarity with one another is one form of that voluntary exercise of love”, my favorite part of your comment and the government seems to want to force us into doing this in a way that they believe is the right way even if we don’t agree with them.

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  • Joe M

    Thank you Stephen. Excellent break-down of the arguments. Winter’s position seems to rely on the idea that there is no point at which the amount mandated by government for the poor actually creates poverty. Assisting poverty at the expense of creating poverty is not serving the common good. It is serving an exclusive good. — And if there is any doubt that expansive government programs can’t create hardship, we need only to look at Europe. Their economic problems are well publicized. What is less known is that in most EU countries, their tax systems are far LESS progressive than in the US. The types of programs that Winter’s appears to prefer are simply not economically feasible via ever-increasingly progressive taxes. One way or another, the people these programs are intended to help end up paying the highest price.



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