Who is you?

The previous post tells the story of three ordinary people who acted as citizens and neighbors when confronted with a drowning man.

Their actions were heroic, yet this is very much a textbook case. This was an ethics professor's hypothetical in real life. (Ethics profs love hypthetical drowning victims almost as much as they love hypothetical Nazis. They even like to confront their students with hypothetical drowning Nazis.)

The problem with many of the hypothetical predicaments posed by ethics profs is that they also involve a hypothetical, abstract and undifferentiated "you."

Consider the following all-too-real hypothetical: You see an old man sleeping in the doorway of a church. His blanket is thin and the night is cold. What do you do?

The answer depends on who "you" are. You may be a local beat cop. You may be the pastor or a parishioner of that church. You may be a professional social worker. You may be a volunteer at the local homeless shelter. You may be a member of the city council. You may be the old man's daughter or niece or his long-ago college roommate or Army buddy. You may be a stranger who lives across the street from the church. You may be a despised Samaritan just passing through. You may be an airman first class who made a wrong turn on his way to the county clerk.

Regardless of who "you" are, you are responsible. But the nature of your responsibility — particularly in the longer term — differs according to the differentiated responsibilities of the various examples above. These differing responsibilities are complementary. They are not — despite the popular American confusion — exclusive.

In Christian thought, we talk about these different roles and responsibilities in terms of the principles of "subsidiarity" or "sphere sovereignty." These principles help us to avoid the either/or foolishness of thinking that one actor's particular responsibility precludes any responsibility on the part of other agents or agencies.

Regarding the state, this helps us to avoid bizarre and irrelevant arguments about the size of government by keeping our focus on the actual question — what is the proper role of government?

One of the few places where something like subsidiarity is recognized in American political talk is in the metaphor of the "safety net." This metaphor recognizes the responsibility of the state in the last resort. When other institutions and actors — families, markets, civic groups, neighborhoods and neighborliness — are fully functioning this safety net will go unused. Yet the state — the government(s) — does not have the option of abandoning its responsibilities just because these others may fail to fulfill theirs.

Libertarians and other reflexively antigovernment sorts tend to worry foremost about an expanding government usurping the rightful roles and responsibilities of these other institutions. (Libertarians, actually, have a fairly thin notion of such institutions — they tend to focus only on atomistic individuals and the federal state.)

While I agree that such usurpation would be a Bad Thing, I think this tends to misread the situation. I think they have it backwards. More often the situation is one in which these other institutions have abdicated their particular responsibilities, abandoning them to the actor of last resort — the state.

Consider orphans. These children, by definition, face a situation in which the institution primarily responsible for their care has failed them. Their parents are gone. The either/or foolishness of popular confusion can conceive of only one alternative — a vast, centralized, federal orphanage (probably something with lots of cinderblocks and fluorescent lighting).

In reality, America's response to the plight of orphans is shaped by the principle of subsidiarity.

The next best thing to children being raised by their parents is for those children to be raised by other members of their extended family. If those relatives are unable or unwilling to fulfill this role, the next best thing would be for these children to be raised in the care of friends or neighbors. If the friends and neighbors are unwilling or unable to fulfill this role, the next best thing is to find a caring foster family.

The foster care system is really a marvel. Despite all the horror stories we may hear of cruel, Dickensian exploiters, such stories are the exception. The system actually consists of an army of people willing and able to open their homes and lives to the children of strangers. They do so at a considerable sacrifice.

Here the government (usually at a local level) plays a limited role, providing both oversight and a supportive stipend. But the primary responsibility for the children's care rests with the foster family.

If no foster family that is willing and able to care for the children can be found, then they may be placed in the care of a private orphanage. These "homes for children" — usually run by religious or charitable groups — are the next next best thing. They are the next resort after a series of next-best-things have failed. Again, there are horror stories of exploitation, but these are, again, the exception.

Finally, if no such charitable institution can be found willing or able to take responsibility for these children, they are left in the hands of the state (the city, county, state and, finally, federal government).

It is absurd, in such a case, to suggest that the state is "usurping" the rightful role of all the failed actors that have come before. As the last resort, the state finds itself faced with a task for which it is ill-suited and at which it is inefficient. The state is much better at writing checks than it is at raising children — which is why it is both more just and more efficient for the government to provide financial assistance to those other actors in order to make them better able and (sadly) more willing to step in and prevent things from getting to this point.

Yet when things do get to this point — the last resort — the state, unlike all the actors and institutions that have gone before, does not have the freedom to reject its responsibilities.

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  • Peatey

    Fred, once again I benefit from looking at the same scene, but through your perspective.
    On a totally unrelated topic, I wish there was an archive search function so I could selectively read your past posts.

  • Reframing the safety net

    Who is you?Libertarians and other reflexively antigovernment sorts tend to worry foremost about an expanding government usurping the rightful roles and responsibilities of these other institutions. (Libertarians, actually, have a fairly thin notion of …