On Wednesday, Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan traveled to Cleveland State University to deliver what was billed in the press as a speech on poverty. But Ryan gave a speech that was about much more than anti-poverty policies or entitlement reform. The heart of Ryan’s speech was an articulation and defense of civil society, one that resonates deeply with Catholic social teaching. (Video and transcript, here.)
“Americans are a compassionate people,” Ryan said, “And there’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we are debating in politics.”
At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last month, President Obama said that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan believe that, “since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.” Wednesday, Paul Ryan attacked that “false argument” head on. “It’s a straw man set up to avoid a genuine debate,” he said.
Ryan acknowledged that conservatives in general and Republicans in particular often fail to give a compelling account of the ways their policies serve the common good.
I’m a proud Republican. Our Party does a good job of speaking to the part of the American Dream that involves taking what you’re passionate about and making a successful living of it. But part of what makes America great is that, when Americans don’t succeed, we look out for one another through our communities. My party has a vision for making our communities stronger, but we don’t always do a good job of laying out that vision. Mitt Romney and I want to change that.
The first step to change that is offering an alternative to the (often well-intentioned) mindset that measures social justice by federal spending levels. “We’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty.”
Ryan pointed out that the federal government spent enough on means-tested anti-poverty programs this past year (more than $1 trillion) that Uncle Sam could have just cut a $22,000 check for every single American living in poverty—including children. What do we have to show for all that spending?
Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. That’s nearly one in six Americans – the highest poverty rate in a generation. During the last four years, the number of people living on food stamps has gone up by 15 million. Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. And one in four American students fails to attain a high-school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don’t graduate. Half.
“In this war on poverty,” Ryan said, “poverty is winning.”
So what’s the alternative? Ryan focused on two main solutions. First: Jobs and a robust economy. More jobs will mean more income and less poverty. President Obama’s recovery has been so anemic that, while the economy is technically growing, falling wages and chronically high unemployment mean more and more people are struggling to keep their heads above water.
The second part of the solution—and this is gets to the very heart of Ryan’s argument—is rebuilding and strengthening civil society. Nothing is a greater bulwark against poverty than civil society.
Congressman Barney Frank once opined that, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” A similar sentiment was offered at the DNC last month when a convention video proclaimed: “Government is the only thing that we all belong to.”
In Cleveland, Paul Ryan offered a very different view of government’s relationship to society:
There has to be a balance: allowing government to work for the common good while leaving private groups to do the work that only they can do. There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual – our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join, our places of worship — this is where we lead our lives. It’s where we live our lives. They shape our character. They give our lives direction. And they help make us a self-governing people.
Families, churches, charitable organizations, volunteer organizations, even businesses and trade unions: these are the places where we learn what it means to care for one another. These are the places where we learn what it really means to be responsible for one another. These are the places where we learn that freedom finds its fullest expression, not in autonomy or isolation but in love and commitment. These are the places where we learn how to live freedom well.
In short, civil society is where we learn solidarity.
Civil society generates the kind relationships and habits of civic friendship that government simply cannot replicate. When government overreaches and tries to take upon itself more than its share of responsibility for the common good both government and civil society suffer—and ultimately the common good suffers, as well. Here’s Ryan again:
It’s not just the abuse of government that undermines civil society; it’s also the excesses of government. Look at the road we are on, with trillion-dollar deficits each and every year. Debt on this scale is destructive in so many ways, and one of them is that it crowds out civil society by drawing resources away from private giving.
When government crowds out civil society and draws resources away from civil society’s ability to provide for the least among us, government fails in its most basic obligation.
What is government’s duty when it comes to civil society? It is to secure their rights, respect their purposes, and preserve their freedom. Nothing undermines the essential and honorable work these [civil society] groups do quite like the abuse of government power.
That sounds an awful lot like the Catechism, which says, “It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.”
Building civil society isn’t something government can do at will, but it is something government can inhibit. Ryan cited the HHS mandate as one specific example.
This mandate isn’t just a threat to religious charities. It’s a threat to all those who turn to them in times of need. In the name of strengthening our safety net, this mandate and others will weaken it.
If there is a dearth of solidarity in American today, it’s not from a lack of government. Ryan argues that tipping the balance of social responsibility even more toward government — as President Obama would have us do — will only accelerate the decline of civil society, leaving the weakest among us even more exposed and vulnerable.
Ryan’s is not a Randian view of civil society. It’s not even a libertarian view of society. It’s a profoundly Catholic view of society (and deeply “conservative,” too) in which the “vast middle ground between the government and the individual” is seen as the natural home of solidarity and where the good of government is never mistaken for the common good.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic 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.