President Trump has put forth his proposed budget, and, like vultures preparing for their prey, the media are sharpening their talons. And so it begins: Media such as CNN, The New Yorker, and CNBC are now proclaiming that Armageddon is at hand for every social service, arts, housing, and community programs for the poor, underserved, and needy in our country. What kind of federal government, they bemoan, is it that does not feed hungry schoolchildren or impoverished elderly, promote the arts for inner-city schoolchildren, or provide services to our malfunctioning neighborhoods?
A Federal Government That Truly Cares
My answer: A good and honest one. A federal government that truly cares about its citizens and their hearts, souls, and treasure does not pretend that it can perform these services better than local neighbors can, nor does it take these advantages and opportunities away from them.
This is more than a political essay. This is the recognition of two eternal truths: 1) A central governmental behemoth can never help as effectively as local, interested neighbors can. 2) More importantly for our spiritual lives, when the government does the work that we the people should be doing, we tend to no longer see it as our calling.
The federal government can do a few things better than we locals can. It can run national enterprises which are too large in scope or complexity for local entities to operate. Think of the post office, treasury, the military, international relations, or interstate travel. No matter how well intended, individual citizens or local neighborhood groups just can’t manage those operations.
But in defining the concept of federalism, James Madison, considered by many “the Father of the Constitution”, made clear that the vast majority of responsibilities rest with local entities. In The Federalist Papers 45, he stated clearly: “The powers delegated … to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
Subsidiarity and the Federal Government
Like attempting to cut hair with an ax, the federal government is “all thumbs” when it comes to administering local needs. Only we know our neighbors, our communities, our fellow citizens well enough to understand the subtle nuances of the problems each of us faces locally. Federal government involvement typically results in large and wasteful duplication of tasks, miscommunication, mismanagement, bloated budgets, and, not surprisingly, general failure to solve the problem or solve it well.
Realistically, only we can truly “take care of our own.” Only we can truly understand the needs of our neighbors and ourselves well enough to identify the source of problems and formulate effective local solutions. And as Catholic Christians, this is precisely what we are called to do.
The principle of subsidiarity, defined in Section 185 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, is the civic outgrowth of St. Paul’s portrayal of the Church as the Body of Christ in which we all fulfill a particular purpose. When we synergize our unique gifts and talents for a single purpose, we can accomplish much more than we can individually and perform much more effectively and justly. This is the positive sense of subsidiarity, discussed in Section 186. The negative implications, however, are just as important. These implications “require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom, and responsibility must not be supplanted.”
Taxes and Works of Mercy
When we step back and allow a big central government to do the tasks that we were meant to do, thoughts about works of mercy toward our fellow man — the heart of our existence as Catholics and Christians (and devout Jews and Muslims, by the way) — is at risk of being pushed aside and justified merely by signing our 1040 each April.
The hungry family at school? My taxes paid for Federally-funded free breakfast and lunch at school.
The sick elderly neighbor who lives alone? My taxes paid for his Medicaid, Medicare, medicine, and visiting nurse.
The ill-educated child at the central-city public school? The Federal Department of Education uses my tax money to test, administer, and implement best practices.
The disabled co-worker? The ADA, funded by my tax dollars, will take care of making sure everything is accessible.
The homeless man by the highway? My taxes have paid for public housing that he could use.
A Poor Substitute of Ourselves
We pump our tax money into more programs, greater assistance, larger infrastructures, and wear the fake virtue of the Pharisees while absolving ourselves from giving our more powerful hearts, spirits, and talents in subsidiarity with one another. We throw our laundered money at people and treat them as problems to be solved rather than fellow humans to be nourished, healed, inspired, noticed, and, most importantly, loved by the unique hearts each of us possesses. In the end, sadly, we pay an extravagant ransom, both monetarily and spiritually, for a poor substitute of ourselves.
Ultimately, loving our neighbors as ourselves is not the Federal Government’s responsibility. It’s ours because only we can truly love as God loved us and it is what He commanded us to do. It’s time to stop passing the buck to the Federal government and bring our responsibilities to one another back to our hometowns, and into our own hearts, where they belong.