I’ve been watching the furor over President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments with interest. As is often the case in political theater, I think both sides are overplaying their hands. Republicans are exploiting the President’s comments for all the political capital they’re worth, overlooking the nuance in the speech that would give context to the remarks that might allow for a more reasonable interpretation. And Obama is trying to pretend like the speech wasn’t symptomatic of his inherent socialism, which it quite obviously is.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if there is some truth to be found in the middle. That is to say, I don’t know about you, but I have been helped by the American system, and I think many people who have struggled until they ultimately became successful have as well. Yesterday, I read a piece by novelist John Scalzi that made me question my own life, and the help I’ve received along the way.
I went to public schools for most of my life. I ate subsidized lunches in the school cafeteria, because we couldn’t afford to pay full price. I read books from the public library, where I learned to love words, knowledge, and the arts of storytelling. I received federal grants and loans that helped me through college. I have received significant tax credits for the number of children I have. And though I’m not proud of it, when I was out of work or underemployed, there were times when my family even relied on government-supplied food assistance and medical care.
In addition to all of this, every day I do use government-funded roads, and do much of my work using the Internet – which was, in fact, a government-funded project.
I’ve also received help from friends and family. I’ve lived in basements when I had no place else to go, been sent donations to help cover the rent and food in hard times, and once received a $2,000 loan from a young man I’d never met (except through Internet comment boxes) that helped me to move to a new state and get a new job, and quite literally changed my life.
I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be where I am today without help, not only from people I know, but from the governments (and taxpayers) of the country I am a citizen of, and the states in which I have lived.
But I also know that my God-given talents, my willingness to work hard and persevere, and my desire to keep learning and getting better at what I do are all essential components of whatever success I achieve. They are, quite properly, the determining factors in that success. Anyone can be given assistance. Not everyone will do something with it.
While arguing about what the President said and what he meant, we may be missing out on an opportunity to have a legitimate discussion concerning the role government. How much should it help those in need, and how deeply involved should it become? Has government’s role in providing for the needy irrevocably disrupted the role of private charities and the Church, who should rightly be involved in taking care of the needy? As a wealthy nation, what policies should we have that might provide a safety net to the desperate, the ill, and the starving? Have the social programs that the government has instituted, and the infrastructure initiatives it has spearheaded, left us in a better place, or a worse one?
As a quasi-libertarian – but also a Catholic – I struggle with these questions. Some of them don’t have simple answers. We are clearly a nation that spends far too much and wracks up insurmountable debts, and our social programs are in dire need of reform. But does abuse negate use? In Pope Pius XI’s social encyclical Quadresimo Anno (which itself draws heavily from and builds upon Pope Leo XIII’s Rarum Novarum), the holy father points to the obligation of the state in terms that don’t leave much room for interpretation:
With regard to civil authority, Leo XIII, boldly breaking through the confines imposed by Liberalism, fearlessly taught that government must not be thought a mere guardian of law and of good order, but rather must put forth every effort so that “through the entire scheme of laws and institutions . . . both public and individual well-being may develop spontaneously out of the very structure and administration of the State.” Just freedom of action must, of course, be left both to individual citizens and to families, yet only on condition that the common good be preserved and wrong to any individual be abolished. The function of the rulers of the State, moreover, is to watch over the community and its parts; but in protecting private individuals in their rights, chief consideration ought to be given to the weak and the poor. “For the nation, as it were, of the rich is guarded by its own defenses and is in less need of governmental protection, whereas the suffering multitude, without the means to protect itself relies especially on the protection of the State. Wherefore, since wageworkers are numbered among the great mass of the needy, the State must include them under its special care and foresight.”
Some Catholics have argued that such prescriptions, though well-intentioned, fall largely outside the purview of papal authority. Dr. Thomas Woods, noted Catholic author, historian, and economic commentator writes:
The phenomena that economics touches upon, which include money, banking, exchange, prices, wages, monopoly theory, and many other topics, are replete with moral significance. But the positive, scientific statements about these phenomena that constitute the discipline of economics are necessarily value neutral. (By “scientific” I mean only that they involve causal relationships, not that economics is or should resemble one of the physical sciences.) Describing the workings of fractional-reserve banking is a positive task, not a normative one. Discussing whether such a system is desirable is a normative task, and qualitatively separate from explaining the mechanics of that system. One cannot make an intelligent comment about the former unless he understands the latter, and it is the latter with which economics, properly understood, concerns itself.
Likewise, economic policy may possess a moral dimension, but not a single proposition of economic theory involves a moral claim.
Nothing in the Deposit of Faith even comes close to deciding this and countless other important economic questions one way or the other. Not even the most uncomprehending or exaggerated rendering of papal infallibility would have the Pope adjudicating such disputes as these. Yet misunderstandings or ignorance regarding such seemingly abstruse points are so often at the heart of the policy recommendations that bishops’ conferences propose and papal encyclicals can seem to imply.
The discerning Catholic is left to wrestle with these questions, and to make informed political choices based upon the conclusions they reach.
I believe in entrepreneurship. I believe that innovation, hard work, and the drive to succeed can and often do get you very far in this country. I believe that success is not simply a consequence of good luck, of being in the right place at the right time – though that can certainly help.
But I also believe that the reason there is an American Dream is because there is an America that makes it possible. There is a system of laws, an infrastructure, and a freedom of opportunity that make it easier to succeed here than just about anywhere else on Earth. I’m grateful for that, and I think it’s something worth preserving.
President Obama gets at least partial credit for pointing this out. The irony is, he should also be held accountable for the fact that his policies would lead to that system becoming encumbered, overburdened, and eventually, dismantled. It’s not what he said that bothers me. It’s what he does. Actions speak louder than words, Mr. President.