The Heresy of Paul Ryan

Earlier today, Paul Ryan gave a speech at Georgetown University touching on the intersection of his Catholic faith and his budget. 

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, Ryan had the audacity to claim that his Catholic faith was compatible with his bill. He even went as far as to argue that the Catholic principle of subsidiarity — the idea that things should be handled by the least centralized and most local authority — was in many ways similar to the idea federalism. 

“Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community,” Ryan said, “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.”

Democrats, who regularly consecrate budgets as “moral documents” and imbue all things Big Government with didactic rhetoric, were simply appalled. Without coercive fairness there can’t be an ethical state.

My own view is that budgets should be actuarial documents — namely, balanced. But the Ryan argument that government should lift the poor from poverty rather than expand their dependency surely makes some moral sense. Though it might feel counterintuitive to the conscience, capitalism (fossil fuels, factories, cities, cars, etc …) has done more to lift people from poverty than all else combined. The more unfettered the more moral, in fact.

But — and this may not bode well for me after I move on — I am no Catholic. And I’m in no position to take a position. But here’s Catholic intellectual Robert P. George answering questions on government’s proper role:

What are the obligations and purposes of law and government?

(1) To protect (a) public health, (b) safety, and (c) morals, and (2) to advance the general welfare — including, preeminently, protecting people’s fundamental rights and basic liberties.

Wouldn’t this require the granting of vast and sweeping powers to public authority?

No; the general welfare — the common good — requires that government be limited.

You distinguish between government’s primary and subsidiary roles. What are the government’s primary responsibilities?

Government’s responsibility is primary when the questions involve (1) defending the nation from attack and subversion, (2) protecting people from physical assaults and various other forms of depredation, and (3) maintaining public order.

That the common good requires government be limited is not a radical idea, it’s the founding idea.

Not everyone agrees, of course.

“I am afraid that Chairman Ryan’s budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Georgetown’s Father Thomas J. Reese wrote in the Huffington Post. “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”

I guess, judging from Reese’s statements, making stuff up is ok with the Church these days. But Robert Costa nicely debunks the myth that Ryan is some sort of Objectivist radical — a myth spread by E.J. Dionne (who believes an “unfettered lightly taxed market economy” is a radical idea), Greg Sargent (who believes that a Romney/Ryan budget is “a radical vision when it comes to the proper distribution of wealth”) and Paul Krugman, among others. (emphasis mine) 

At Georgetown, Ryan contended that there could be “difference of opinion between faithful Catholics on this issue” — which was a nice change of pace from the rigidity of Reese. Ryan also went on to say, “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.” He made some excellent points on the failed war on poverty, pointing out that we now have the highest poverty rate in a generation.

“In this war on poverty, poverty is winning,” he said.

I realize Ryan is not a religious scholar, and as a politician he doesn’t want to be embroiled in a debate over religion; but it would be nice if more politicians would make a stronger faith-based argument for free markets, rather than continuing to allow the left to define the parameters of moral government. Because there are few things less moral — whatever its intention might be — than the state.