Action Alert!

Government: A Pervasive Expectation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 01, 2011

It’s a little thing, and it comes innocently out of daily life. I was adjudicating a student essay contest for a small and deeply-committed Catholic high school. The vast majority of the school’s families are strong Catholics who, as you might expect, tend to be conservative politically. Apart from involvement in military service, which is highly respected in conservative Catholic circles, as a rule parents using this school do not like big government, or its unnecessary intrusions into our personal lives.

Imagine my surprise, then, when several of the essays reflexively called upon government to solve problems. Two stand out in my mind, both quite well-written. One essayist, lamenting our American national obesity problem, argued that restaurants should be required (i.e., by government) to post nutritional and caloric information for every item on their menus. Another, noting that a large conference center in the Tysons Corner area of Fairfax County (Virginia) would be very good for the local economy, called upon Fairfax County to build it.

Come again? This is simply another illustration of how far our culture has gone in expecting that government will take the lead in solving every problem or promoting every good. Don’t get me wrong: Advocating restaurant menu requirements and government expenditures to promote the general prosperity do not contradict Catholic moral principles, though one can argue that both proposals violate the social principle of subsidiarity. But the biggest objection is that these proposals show no awareness of the core purposes of government or of the dangers of expanding it beyond its essential purposes. Instead, the unstated yet all-pervasive assumption is that we should always look to government for every benefit. Unfortunately, this assumption promotes bureaucracy, breeds inefficiency, and ultimately assaults the personal dignity of citizens.

Let me explain. First, taxes are necessary to fund everything which government undertakes. Even if private funds are sought for the construction of a conference center, a government bureaucracy devoted to planning and coordinating the effort must be supported by taxpayers. Taxation is a very inefficient way to allocate wealth, and it generally produces the worst returns, and so—strictly from the economic perspective—it ought to be limited to what is seriously necessary. Further, bureaucratic management invariably abounds in red tape, reducing the efficiency and effectiveness of all involved in any government project. Again, there should be very good reasons for this—necessary reasons arising out of the purpose of government.

Second, taxation, red tape and the resulting regulatory programs are all by their very nature involuntary. When government undertakes some mission, the general population must always pitch in financially and must often change its behavior in accordance with new rules. When government is tagged to deal with just about everything, the sphere of voluntary action, which is essential to human dignity, is severely reduced. Worse still, the sphere of enforced behavior is severely expanded.

If the very inefficiency of government involvement is not sufficient to warn citizens away from invoking government unnecessarily, the concomitant assault on the personal dignity of citizens ought to scare them off—I mean the inevitable assault on their right, within broad limits, to conduct their lives and use their resources as they wish, and to use their talent and creativity to solve both individual and collective problems. This ought to be a warning to citizens to ensure that the bar for government involvement in anything remains very high indeed.

It is a lesson that the American bishops are only slowly beginning to learn, after decades of assuming that if there is any problem in the social order, government must be lobbied to fix it. Recently there has been more attention to the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching, but there also needs to be more attention paid to the purposes of government itself, which may be broadly stated as protecting citizens against significant foreign and domestic threats from which they cannot otherwise protect themselves, and providing assistance in the development of such infrastructures as are both essential to the common good and otherwise, practically speaking, impossible.

But if government is to be invoked any time people are negligent in taking care of themselves in some way, or every time they wish to enjoy some benefit they do not presently have, then the inevitable results are bureaucracy and inefficiency, loss of liberty, initiative and creativity, and, in the end, totalitarianism. The dangers involved ought to be even more easily perceived today by Catholics, since the highest levels of government have been, for the past generation or so, exceedingly proactive in undermining or eliminating Christian values. Catholic interests are seldom government interests in the best of times, but the highly secularized governments of the once Christian West are increasingly at war with even the most deeply spiritual of Catholic interests.

All this is to say that for Catholics especially the default position ought now to be that it is exceedingly dangerous to propose or support any initiative which will transfer more power to government. Yet, as the student essay contest revealed, the idea that government is more of a solution than a problem—indeed more of a safeguard than a risk—seems to be very much in the air, carried by every breeze, and filtering through to the most unlikely places. If that is so, then we have a serious need to rethink our ideas about government and its relationship to both human potential and human happiness—not to mention its relationship to Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 04, 2011 10:12 AM ET USA

    Politicians promise bread to the circus, with constituents of every stripe eager to accept. Govt interventionism ignores what Catholic social teaching long-ago denounced: govt (as opposed to family or communal) aid almost always diminishes the recipient's (and his immediate community's) ability and will to solve problems, and thus diminishes his humanity and damages proximate social institutions. It's at root a moral corruption committed in the name of "caring", and the opposite of true charity.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 01, 2011 8:54 PM ET USA

    This is but one example of the erosion of traditional Catholic thought and action among Catholic youth. I was surprised at some remarkably immodest young women at practice in the gym of an very conservative school. I was more surprised that none of the faculty had any concerns or even seemed to notice. There are many young Catholics today- just watch video of WYD- who are nearly indistinguishable from secular peers in both dress and action. The ongoing decline is a legitimate concern.