The Catholicity of Paul Ryan’s Budget
The Kingdom of God is neither a program of social reform nor a political platform. When rendering to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, we do a disservice to God if we reduce God to the level of a political agitator. Yet while highly specific, programmatic prescriptions for government are inherently suspect if based on claims of divine inspiration, it is certainly meet and right, in assessing policy choices, to apply broad principles derived from faith – in order to ensure they are indeed consonant with the most profound truths we will ever know. Catholics wrestling with American federal budgetary issues, therefore, would do well to inform themselves of some of the themes stressed by their most recently beatified servant, Pope John Paul II. Quite reasonably called by one scholar “the Pope of Subsidiarity,” PJPII distrusted overly centralized bureaucracies for excellent, faith-based reasons.
The Catechism of the church explains subsidiarity succinctly: 1883 Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”
In Centesimus Annus, PJPII wrote that an uncontrolled Welfare State “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
Catholics worried about the erosion of the social safety net should therefore understand that there is a vast difference between reforming the safety net and destroying it. It is in that light that the current debate over the budget proposals of Wisconsin’s Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan should be understood. Ryan, himself a practicing Roman Catholic, is decidedly not undermining the safety net, but trying to salvage it for future generations – another determinedly Catholic concern, that of the sacred trust we hold for posterity. Again, this was a favorite theme of John Paul II.
Talk to Ryan for even a small amount of time and you are immediately struck by the sincerity of his concern about the debt burdens the nation faces and about how it robs hope from generations yet unborn. Examine the details of his proposals and you’ll see stark examples of subsidiarity in practice. What American political liberals describe as an assault on Medicare and Medicaid is nothing other than subsidiarity applied to those programs in order to save them. He would “block-grant” Medicaid to the states – a “community of a lower order” than the federal government – and let the states operate the programs with particular attention to local needs.
For Medicare, Ryan would preserve almost every jot and tittle for Americans 55 and older, but for those under 55 he would devolve choice, and authority, back to the individual. He would do so via what decades of moderate Democrats and Republicans alike have supported, namely the idea of “premium support,” which is basically a straight government grant controlled by the individual which the individual can use to purchase insurance. Liberals denounce this as a “voucher” – although why “voucher” should still be a bad word is not exactly clear. Regardless of what it’s called, it is certainly no affront to those who, ten years or more from now, will become fully eligible for Medicare. It gives control to them, rather than to bureaucrats. It saves money. Indeed, it is modeled after Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program – which because of very similar, consumer-based, market-oriented provisions, has cost the government far less money than projected while costing consumers remarkably less in premiums than even the most optimistic number-crunchers expected. In short, the experience of Medicare Part D suggests that Ryan is hardly being outlandish to say that giving control back to consumers in a market-based system can save money without harming benefits – and thus preserve Medicare for future generations. Either way, it is fully consistent with Catholic principles of subsidiarity and generational responsibility.
The point is not to say whether or not it will work, or whether it is wise policy, and the point certainly is not to say that Catholic teaching requires supporting the Ryan plan. The point is that, by being fully in accord with Catholic principles writ large, the Ryan plan can be adjudged on its merits as a serious contribution to the debate, without Catholics somehow worrying that it in any way violates the Christian imperative to care for “the least of these.
Catholic teaching does not endorse any particular program for elderly health care. But it does give guidance as to whether or not a program is within a broad range of acceptable outcomes. Applying the precepts of Pope John Paul II especially, one can conclude that the Ryan plan passes that test with ease.
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Editor for The American Spectator