Here’s where we left off yesterday on the subject of police and other first responders: “When one system collapses, another system is forced to bear the weight — putting an undue burden and undue strain on that other system. What we’re talking about here, then, is a failure of subsidiarity.”

Here’s Dallas Police Chief David Brown desperately trying to communicate what that means, specifically, for big city police departments in America:

We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. We’re just asking us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding? Let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding? Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose-dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail? Give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.

What Chief Brown is describing is what happens when subsidiarity breaks down.

I won’t try to provide some dictionary definition of what subsidiarity means — those tend to be more confusing than the idea itself, which is subtle, but not really all that complicated. The point is simply to acknowledge that we’re all connected to one another in all the various roles and spheres and responsibilities we have in life. If we each meet our responsibilities, we make it easier for others to do so as well. But when we fail to fulfill our responsibilities, we make it harder for others to fulfill theirs.


I’m not directly responsible for raising the kids next door. That’s primarily their parents’ job. But I am responsible for those kids, and for their parents, in indirect ways. I can be a good neighbor or a bad neighbor. Being a good neighbor makes those parents’ job easier. Being a lousy neighbor can make it harder. Those kids and their parents and I are all also connected as citizens of our township, our school district, our state and our nation. Again, I can choose to be a responsible citizen or an irresponsible one — and that choice affects my neighbors’ ability to do right by their kids.

This can be empowering — if we’re all connected, we’re all capable of indirectly assisting each other by sending out ripples of support. But it also reminds us that our irresponsibility can ripple forth, indirectly burdening and harming others as well.

What Chief Brown is describing is the end result of widespread irresponsibility creating a greater burden for police as the responsible actors of last resort. His complaint is echoed in similar complaints from other government agencies forced to take responsibility because no one else will.

Americans have been perversely confused on that point ever since President Reagan warned us that “government is the problem.” That ideology taught us to fear Big Gubmint expanding to usurp all the responsibilities that were rightly ours as sovereign, solipsistic individuals. This is backwards and upside-down. It’s like railing against orphanages for usurping the rightful role of parents.

Yes, that could happen. It’s possible that a community with a large, overpopulated orphanage got that way because Big Orphanage conspired to abduct children, murder their parents, and discourage all relatives, neighbors, church-groups and the like from acting as foster parents, all so they could consolidate ever-more power for their expanding Orphanage Leviathan. But it’s far more likely that a large, overpopulated orphanage is the result of abdication, not usurpation. It’s far more likely that it is a final, desperate act of last-resort responsibility overburdened by the failures and irresponsibility of multiple levels and layers of the community’s larger network of mutuality.

So, yes, it’s possible that — as Reaganite ideology tells us — Big Police has expanded to usurp the responsibilities of our mental health systems, and also that Big Police shouldered aside our wonderful drug addiction programs to take those over, further consolidating its power. And that now Big Police is even subsuming responsible pet ownership as it seeks to include loose-dog catching in the grasp of its totalitarian tentacles.

Chief Brown argues that the opposite is happening, and that seems far more plausible. Our mental health system — a network of mutuality unto itself including layers of government, insurers, regulators, employers, hospitals, the medical profession, etc. — has been irresponsible, he says, and so police departments either have the choice to join in that irresponsibility or else to be the last resort of responsibility, taking on a task they are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to perform. If the rest of society — the rest of the network of mutuality — refuses to fulfill its responsibility for the care of mental illness, then police departments will have to step up and do the best they can.

Will they handle that well? Of course not. It’s not supposed to be their job. And — like every job — it’s not something that anyone can do well when denied the direct and indirect support of the rest of the community.

The usurpation by Big Gubmint that Reagan imagined everywhere is always possible, and sometimes happens. But far, far, far more common is the situation Chief Brown describes: government forced to take on ever-greater responsibility due to the irresponsibility of other actors in our network of mutuality — individuals, corporations, families, economies, cities, towns, counties, states, schools, businesses, churches, etc. Government is far too burdened with the responsibilities abdicated by all those other actors to have much time or resources left over for the nefarious usurpation of even more responsibility.

But the top-down usurpation of Reagan’s nightmare is not entirely imaginary — as Chief Brown himself inadvertently acknowledged with his final example. I omitted that example with the ellipses in the quote above, but let’s look at it here. Here’s the chief’s full statement:

We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. We’re just asking us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding? Let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding? Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose-dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail? Give it to the cops. 70% of the African American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well.  That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.

The chief frets that “70% of the African American community is being raised by single women” and says this is a problem police departments are being asked to solve. That’s infuriatingly oblivious. This is not a problem police are being asked to solve, but a problem police are being asked to stop causing. The selective War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of black males in America are a huge contributing factor to the problem Chief Brown laments. Not to mention that the children of Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Akai Gurley, Dante Parker, et al., are now being raised by single women.

Police are very often in exactly the position that Chief Brown argues — the overburdened and under-supported responsible actors of last resort who are forced to cope with problems the rest of society, at multiple levels, refuses to deal with. But they are also, like the rest of society, sometimes guilty of failing to meet their own direct responsibilities — thereby overburdening others in turn.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. … So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

— James 2

I get what Adam Kotsko is shooting at in this post — “Stop saying ‘love’ when you really mean ‘liberal tolerance‘” — and that general point is worth remembering. Vague appeals to “Christian love” in support of some vague liberal idea are unlikely to be persuasive and shouldn’t be treated as a rhetorical trump card. They fail to respect the nature of the disagreements they are intended to resolve — which is that conservative/liberal or intolerant/tolerant Christians often are not disagreeing over whether or not one should be “loving,” but about what love demands or entails when such Christians encounter various sinners, unsaved outsiders, benighted heathens, witches, etc.

Or, in other words, when I invoke “love” to mean that I think the outcome of Obergefell v. Hodges was desirable, some other Christian might hear that word “love” and take it to mean they should “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” and thus display “tough love” by sending their gay son off to reparative therapy boot-camp.

We can’t assume that everyone hearing our appeals to “love” will understand that concept the same way we do. And when we implicitly argue that love requires “liberal tolerance,” we should be careful not to thereby imply that such tolerance is all that we mean by “love.”

In arguing that, Kotsko emphasizes this point: Love ≠ “liberal tolerance.”

That’s not wrong, but it’s misleading. A more accurate form of the equation might be this: Love > “liberal tolerance.”

Love and “liberal tolerance” are not the same. The former is greater than the latter. But the latter is a necessary prerequisite for the former. What Kotsko here describes as “liberal tolerance” refers to basic structural and procedural equality — what the second chapter of James describes as impartiality. It’s a bare-bones, bare-minimum expression of basic fairness. Without such basic fairness as a starting point, love becomes irrelevant and impossible.

Put another way, “liberal tolerance” is not a sufficient condition for love. But it is a necessary condition.

Such basic fairness or impartiality is not the only necessary condition, but take it away and love ceases to be a possibility. As James argues, partiality precludes love. It makes us “judges with evil thoughts,” rather than loving neighbors.

That’s a relatively minor quibble with Kotsko’s argument. Here is a relatively major disagreement: The mangled Hobbesian perversion he misrepresents as something like subsidiarity.

Further, does “love” mean supporting government policies to impersonally help someone? If my sister became homeless, I don’t think my go-to solution would be to write my Congressman and demand greater funding for shelters. And if you are trying to goad people into taking radically self-sacrificing actions on behalf of the homeless, or illegal immigrants, or whoever, I would remind you that love has degrees, and you may well learn that the person has enough on their love-plate with their day-to-day obligations to their own family.

Subsidiarity — what the scripture calls “an inescapable network of mutuality … a single garment of destiny” — is the form and expression of universal responsibility and universal relationship. Kotsko seems to have just invoked some garbled form of it in order to deny responsibility and circumscribe relationship.

This, too, is a way of precluding the possibility of love.

Now, to be clear, I gather that what he’s presenting here is not his own argument, but rather an illustration of the warped way that someone — some Randian Trumpvangelical, perhaps — might reinterpret a liberal Christian’s vague appeal to “love.” But since he provides such a compelling illustration of that, and then just leaves it hanging there uncorrected, we’re going to need to address why this anti-subsidiarity abomination is also expressly anti-love.

So let’s take that atrocious paragraph one sentence at a time:

Further, does “love” mean supporting government policies to impersonally help someone?

That is a question. It’s a question asked and answered by 2,000 years of Christian teaching. And the answer is “Yes.”

Again, “supporting government policies to impersonally help” others is not the only thing that love means. It is not the whole of love or a wholly sufficient expression of love. But it is a necessary element demanded by love. In the absence of that, love is absent.

This is where Christian social teaching talks about solidarity — the refusal to regard “others” as “impersonal” or unrelated/unconnected to ourselves. And more importantly, it is where Christian thought talks about subsidiarity — the shape and structure of our differentiated responsibility all-for-all.

The sleazy move here is the way Kotsko (i.e., his impression of the Randian Trumpvangelical) deploys the words “go-to solution” to imply a kind of zero-sum situation. It’s an either/or — do this or do that, one or the other. And that makes a complete mess of the idea of subsidiarity.

If my sister became homeless, I don’t think my go-to solution would be to write my Congressman and demand greater funding for shelters.

That either/or implication is disastrous. It tells us that responsibility is never complementary, and thus that our exclusive responsibilities are in competition with one another. That means you don’t have to help a homeless person unless it’s your own sister. And it means that no one else has to help your sister, or to help you help your sister. So you’re all on your own, and we’re all screwed.

A person becomes homeless. Do you bear some responsibility for that? Yes. Always and absolutely, yes, whoever “you” may be and whoever they may be. We all do, all for all. Our shared, complementary responsibility is determined by the particular nature of our particular situations in relation to that particular person. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This differentiated responsibility — its directness or indirectness — varies for each of us based on proximity, role, and relationship.

I am a sibling, a son, a parent, a spouse, a congregant, a writer, a reader, an employee, a neighbor, a U.S. citizen, a Pennsylvanian, an Extonian, a passing motorist, an Earthling. My relationship with the homeless person in question may be shaped, directly or indirectly, by any one or several of those roles and identities. Each bears a different form and priority of responsibility, but those overlapping responsibilities do not preclude one another.

Kotsko’s libertarian character correctly suggests that he would bear a brother’s responsibility for his newly homeless sister, but it’s not correct to imagine that exempts him from also bearing a citizen’s responsibility — for her and for everyone else in a similar predicament. By arguing that his obligations as a brother exempt him from his obligations to anyone else — as a neighbor, a citizen, a professor — he’s actually making things much worse and much harder, both for himself and for his sister.

In other words, by saying that his responsibility as a brother precludes his responsibility as a citizen, he fails to meet his responsibility as a brother. Why? Because he’s attempting to remove himself and his sister from the inescapable network of mutuality that both he and his sister require to bear their weight. He wants to help his sister without the help of anyone else, and that’s impossible. That will fail.

The next sentence again references subsidiarity in a way that further distorts and deforms it:

… love has degrees, and you may well learn that the person has enough on their love-plate with their day-to-day obligations to their own family.

Welcome to the jungle.

That person over there “has enough on their love-plate with their day-to-day obligations to their own family” and thus cannot be asked or expected to bear even an indirect responsibility for anything more or to anyone else. And, therefore, no one else should be asked or expected to bear even an indirect responsibility for them or their family. Their employers, for example, cannot be expected to pay those folks a decent living wage or to maintain safe working conditions, because those employers, you know, already have enough on their love-plates with their own direct nuclear family obligations. Their neighbors cannot be expected to sustain quality schools. Their governments cannot be expected to maintain public safety, or public health, or the basic safety of food, water and air. Etc.

In such a world, no one bears any responsibility for writing their members of Congress about anything because either: A) the matter involves a direct kin, and so the “go-to solution” involves doing something other than seeking better laws and governance; or B) the matter does not involve direct kin, and so they have “enough on their love-plate” already without being obliged to do something about that too.

The same would be true, in such a world, for members of Congress themselves. Should they support policies that might help homeless families? Only if the families in question include their own sisters. And perhaps not even then.

Take away all indirect responsibility — mock and dismiss it as “writing my Congressman to demand greater funding for shelters” — and all of our more direct, more proximate responsibilities become enormously more challenging. If we begin to treat those direct responsibilities as exclusive — as precluding all of the indirect responsibilities — then we’re soon going to find that it’s impossible to manage them. Without the network of mutuality, we’re on our own for everything — which is to say, we’re screwed.

Screwing over ourselves, our neighbors, and our homeless sisters is not an expression of love. It is not compatible with any expression of love.

Again, that doesn’t mean subsidiarity is the same thing as love any more than “liberal tolerance” is the same thing as love. But the denial and rejection of either produces a Hobbesian nightmare in which love becomes an impossibility.


Subsidiarity is enormously important because, without it, we wind up stuck down a lot of dead ends, polarized by false binaries that render us stupid, angry and impotent to do much of anything about anything.

I realize it’s a fancy word — six syllables! — and that the idea is somewhat subtle. It also doesn’t help that an initial search for a “definition” will likely yield some impenetrable scholastic formula still tinged with assumptions based on some medieval notion of the Great Chain of Being.

It took us a while to see mutuality as a network, rather than as a hierarchical ladder.
It took us a while to see mutuality as a network, rather than as a hierarchical ladder.

Those definitions will usually tell you that subsidiarity is a principle. That’s not wholly wrong, but it’s not particularly helpful either. To the extent that it’s a principle, it’s a principle derived from and applying a whole bunch of other principles — which is why, in practice, it’s more like a craft than like a rule. That’s why reading the definition is about as helpful as reading the definition of bricklaying or acting or knitting or gardening. To understand it requires practice, not definition.

My favorite description of subsidiarity — description, not definition — is the bit from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” that I included at the top of the previous post: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”

Everyone has a role to play in everything. All are responsible for all. Our roles and responsibilities differ — they may be direct or indirect, sometimes several steps removed. But everything is connected. If I abdicate my direct responsibilities, I will end up placing a heavier burden on those with indirect responsibilities — forcing them to play a more direct role. If I neglect my indirect responsibilities, I will end up placing a heavier burden on those who bear a more direct responsibility — possibly causing them to fall under the weight of it. This mutuality is, as King said, inescapable. Others affect me and I affect others, inescapably.

This mutuality and interconnectedness is the key to understanding the problems that arise when we see some failure anywhere within this vast network. Say, for example, there is a child going hungry. Where did the failure occur that allowed this injustice to happen? Well, first we should look at those closest to the problem — those most directly connected and directly responsible for feeding this child: the parents.

If a child is going hungry, that child’s parents have failed to meet their direct responsibility to feed the child. Absent any understanding of subsidiarity or mutuality, we may be tempted to stop there, place all the blame squarely on those parents and ask no further questions. Tsk, tsk, irresponsible parents, you should feed that child. The end.

That would almost always be stupid and cruel — not least because it doesn’t actually correct the problem and result in the child now being properly fed. And the insistence here is that the problem must be corrected, i.e., we are all responsible for ensuring that this child will be fed, now and going forward. The best way to do that would be to ensure that those most directly responsible — the parents — pick up the ball and do what they’re supposed to be doing here. We can imagine scenarios in which that might be accomplished by wagging our fingers and lecturing those irresponsible parents for failing to feed this child, and such imagined scenarios might even occasionally exist in the real world. But it is far likelier that these parents have failed in their direct responsibility because they are unable to feed their child. And if they are unable to do so, then the problem or problems that need to be corrected likely lie elsewhere — with the irresponsibility of those more indirectly responsible for this particular child.

It’s probable, in fact, that the failure of these particular parents to feed this particular child is the result of a whole host of irresponsible actions by dozens of different actors indirectly connected to this child’s wellbeing. It may be that these parents are doing everything humanly possible to feed their child, but that employers and job markets and housing markets and macro-economics and the king on his throne are making this almost impossible by denying and neglecting their indirect responsibilities. If they were playing their role properly, then the parents would be able to play their role as well. But when all those indirect actors fail to act responsibly, it becomes more difficult — or even impossible — for these parents to fulfill their more direct responsibility.

Those parents may then be forced to turn to other, more proximate but still indirect actors to assist them in carrying their now heavier burden. They may, in other words, turn to neighbors and relatives, churches and soup kitchens and food pantries and the whole nobly inadequate patchwork of private charities. Sometimes that may be enough to enable those directly responsible to bear a burden made heavier by dozens of other irresponsible indirect agents. So perhaps rather than just lecturing these parents to continue bearing their sole and exclusive direct responsibility, incalculably intensified by the refusal of the rest of the network to ease that burden, we could instead provide those parents with some assistance navigating the landscape of private charities that might assist them where the rest of society has refused to do so.

But it may be that when we go to find these parents to talk to them — whether to lecture them or to offer charitable support, or some combination of the two — we learn that they’re no longer around. This child is going hungry, it turns out, because the parents most directly responsible for feeding them have died.*

Orphans — the sad but undeniable fact of orphans — highlight the danger and cruel stupidity of ideologies that preach atomized, exclusive responsibility. Those who allow themselves to be trapped within such ideologies wind up confounded by the existence of orphans. Who is responsible for feeding a hungry child? The parents, they say — only and exclusively the parents. They don’t want to hear any of this “it takes a village” business. But all parents are mortal, and some die too soon, and an ideology which teaches that parents are exclusively and solely responsible for children is unable to know what to do when that happens.

This is particularly confounding for American ideologies of exclusive responsibility. These American ideologies are obsessed with crude, imaginary binaries — public vs. private, big vs. small, people vs. government — and those binaries are unable to provide anything other than ghastly “solutions” to the problem of orphans. Either/or they say. Either parents are solely and exclusively responsible for feeding their children or the State must be, in some crudely monolithic, centralized sense. Thus the alternative to responsible and capable living parents must be some federal orphanage run by faceless, heartless bureaucrats — some gigantic cinderblock structure, no doubt, with rows of identical bunks, bowls of USDA-surplus gruel, and children clothed in prison-surplus jumpsuits.

Happily, the false binaries and crude ideologies of our political rhetoric aren’t actually reflected in the way we deal with actual orphans here in America. Those ideologies and their binary thinking infect this system and make it run worse than it should, but to a surprising extent, America’s treatment of orphans is shaped by a high regard for subsidiarity.

This is enormously practical. Subsidiarity is practical because it helps us to look at the world the way it actually works, and thus to see what it is that isn’t working when some part of the whole isn’t working. It reminds us not to treat all the various interconnected parts of the world as isolated and disconnected. We’re thus able to see how the failure of one part of the whole may be the result of failures elsewhere, and that the solution may mean not just fixing one broken piece, but strengthening all the pieces around it whose weakness allowed it to break.

That frees us from false binaries and ideologies that suggest clumsy either/or solutions — either private or public, either individual or cooperative, either charity or government, etc. That’s especially important at this moment in American politics, where we’re dealing with a fiercely anti-government ideology — “small government!” and “the government is the problem” and “get governments hands out of my Medicare.” That ideology is based on a host of responsibility-denying binaries that lead, inexorably if ironically, to ever-larger, more monolithic, less efficient and less capable government involvement in everything.

There’s no surer path to Big Government than an ideology that rejects universal mutuality and refuses to allow the agent of last resort any responsibility or involvement until the last resort.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Here we see part of why subsidiarity has been such a big deal in Christian social teaching and Christian political thinking: because of orphans. Orphans are kind of important, biblically speaking. In the Bible, as in Dickens, the treatment and care of orphans is the bold line dividing the just from the unjust, the saved from the damned. It’s sadly not the case for the kinds of Christians who worship the Bible as a paper god, but for those Christians who actually read their book, orphans matter.


“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Here, via John Fea, is a terrific question from this week’s Republican Presidential Town Hall, followed by Dr. Ben Carson’s terrible answer to that terrific question:

From CNN’s transcript:

JESSICA FULLER, PARTICIPANT: Dr. Carson, how do you reconcile the differences between traditional Christian values, specifically caring the least of these, and current GOP stances on social issues such as welfare and subsidies for the poor?

CARSON:  Well, when you say current GOP, I’m a part of the GOP and let me tell you what my stance is. My stance is that, we the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society. It’s not the government’s job. You can read the Constitution all you want, it never says that it is the government’s job and I think where we’ve gotten confused.

Oy. Four sentences in and Carson has already referenced the Constitution and “We the people,” while weirdly insisting on a distinction between “We the people” and “the government.” It seems Carson has never read even the opening lines of that Constitution. (Or closing lines of the Gettysburg Address, for that matter.)

You remember: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Screenshot 2016-02-20 at 4.45.43 PM

The Constitution won’t allow for Carson’s separation of “we the people” versus “the government.” And it says right there in the Preamble the our function as our own government explicitly includes promoting the common good — the “general welfare” — and ensuring the “blessings of liberty” for every last one of us.

But I’m afraid Carson’s answer only gets worse from there, starting with a “history” lesson based, apparently, on Carson once having seen a handful of Little House on the Prairie re-runs:

CARSON: In the old days of America when communities were separated by hundreds of miles, why were they able to thrive?  Because if it was harvest time and the farmer was up in the tree picking apples and fell down and broke his leg, everybody pitched in and harvested his crops for him.  If somebody got killed by a bear, everybody took care of their family.

So we have a history a taking care of each other.  Now, for some strange reason starting sort of in the 20’s with Woodrow Wilson, the government started getting involved in everything. …

Ever heard of Abraham Lincoln? Or how about the 19th century — ever heard of that? Because apparently Ben Carson never has. For him, American history starts with some idealized 18th-century agrarian kibbutz and then skips directly to Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in the 1920s (which was actually not in the ’20s, but let that pass).

Skipping over Lincoln and the rewriting of the Constitution following the Civil War has weirdly become Republican orthodoxy nowadays.* That’s as profoundly misleading as citing the Articles of Confederation as though they were still binding for our government. And so Carson is profoundly misled, arguing that Wilson betrayed the clear principles of our Founding Fathers like President Hanson and President Boudinot.

CARSON: Now for some strange reason, starting sort of in the ’20s with Woodrow Wilson, the government started getting involved in everything.  It kept growing, metastasizing.  By the time we got to the ’60s, LBJ was saying, we, the government, are going to eliminate poverty.

Now how did that work out?  You know, $19 trillion later, 10 times more people on food stamps, more poverty, more welfare, broken homes, out-of-wedlock births, crime, incarceration.  Everything is not only worse, it’s much worse.

This is, frankly, half deliberate dishonesty and half batshit ignorance. Carson is making up numbers and ignoring facts. When this crap flows from the mouth of a more sophisticated liar, it’s worth responding in detail, but Carson can’t even be bothered to offer a plausible-sounding right-wing revisionism.

And this is particularly disgraceful coming from a medical doctor — a man who knows firsthand how Medicare benefits older Americans, keeping them from being impoverished by aging and disease. For decades this man has deposited Medicare money into his personal bank account, but here he is saying that the Great Society programs made “everything … much worse.” Disgusting.

But Carson’s odious regurgitation of hateful lies isn’t what’s interesting here. The really interesting bit comes next, when Carson’s rambling answer meanders closer to the foundation of Christian social teaching that has so far eluded him. And then, just when he seems about to grasp it, he trips over his own feet and falls on his face.

CARSON: And that’s because it’s not their job. It’s our job. I wish the government would read the Constitution. I think that would probably help quite a bit. And maybe they did read it and maybe they got confused when they read the preamble which says one of the duties is to promote the general welfare.

They probably thought that meant putting everybody on welfare. But in fact … I don’t think it means that at all. And what we need to do is level the playing field.

I wish we’d gotten a follow-up question here so that we could have pressed Carson to explain what it is he thinks “promote the general welfare” does mean. He never says, and it’s impossible to imagine what he might think it could mean beyond some sort of vapid, contentless platitude.

All he seems sure of there is that the “general welfare” and the blessing of Liberty don’t have anything to do with poverty. For Carson, apparently, an impoverished nation might still be enjoying a state of general welfare. And “justice” too, apparently. He thinks poverty has nothing to do with that either. (“Sorry all your kids are starving, Mrs. Joad, but at least you’ve still got your general welfare and you can sit back and enjoy your justice and tranquility.”)

It might also have been interesting for a follow-up question regarding what Carson means by “level the playing field.” That might have confirmed what’s already quite clear: Ben Carson has no idea what he means by that.

CARSON: But the government can play a very important role in facilitating what we, the people, do. …

So close. So tantalizingly close. I mean, yes, Carson still weirdly insists on a binary chasm separating “the government” from “We, the people,” and that’s stupidly un-democratic and anti-democratic and just basically incoherent. But here, at least, he seems to be grasping toward some vague notion of mutuality — that in some way his imagined monarchy and the rest of society might have some shared interests and might in some way be connected and be able to work together across his imagined chasm.

But then he quickly retreats. “Let me give you one quick example,” he says. And his example has nothing to do with government facilitating private charity. It is, rather, an argument for a more comprehensive private charity — one that could, expansively and expensively, play an even larger role in replacing collective public action.

CARSON: Let me give you one quick example.

Look at all of the out-of-wedlock births that are going on, particularly in our inner cities.  I have been speaking at a lot of the non-profit organizations that support organizations that support these women so that they don’t have an abortion, so that they have the baby.

But usually their education stops when they have that baby.  Now if you not only support them through that pregnancy, but now provide childcare for them so they can go back to school and get their GED or their associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree or their master’s degree, learn how to take care of themselves, teach their baby how to take care of themselves so that you break the cycle of the dependency.

This is a Palin-esque word salad. Carson wants some undefined someone to provide child-care and education so that people can “break the cycle of dependency” on having child-care and education provided.

And Ben Carson wants babies “to take care of themselves.” Rugged individualism in diapers. (Diapers that these liberty-loving babies will, of course, change for themselves lest they be caught in the “cycle of dependency.”)

The key to understanding his confusion here is that Carson has no idea who the antecedent is for “you” in “Now if you only support them …” and thus has no idea who it is who is then being asked to “provide childcare.” Is this government? If so, Carson is contradicting himself by calling for a revival of Great Society programs, picking up where LBJ left off. Is this private charity? If so, this doesn’t work as an example of government “facilitating” private charity in pursuit of the general welfare.

Undefined, undifferentiated pronouns are always the hallmark of someone who doesn’t understand subsidiarity. Define and differentiate those antecedents and you begin to appreciate the inescapable necessity of subsidiarity, the bonds of mutuality and the direct and indirect functions that all have in relationship to all.

CARSON: That’s the only way we’re going to get through these programs. That is true compassion. Having people become dependent on others is not compassion at all.

One-way dependency is, indeed, a paternalistic perversion of “true compassion.” But Carson veers off into his babies-taking-care-of-themselves absurdity by denouncing anyone being dependent on anyone else. This is Carson’s idea of independence — every man is an island. He wants to rewrite the Constitution so that it begins, “I, a person.”

The truth is this: Everyone is dependent on everyone else. This has nothing to do with some supererogatory “compassion.” This is simply the essence of the human condition.

We are caught in an escapable network of mutuality. We are all connected, all dependent on one another.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* It’s as if the Republican Party is most ashamed of the legacy they should be most proud of. It’s like hearing Paul McCartney trash the Beatles and Wings while insisting he should be judged only by his late-career solo work.

The party of Lincoln gave us a strong federal government. It gave us the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, federalizing the Constitution and reinventing America by introducing things like public education. Today, if you hear a politician demanding the repeal of the 14th Amendment or railing against the evils of public education, you don’t need to check to see if there’s an R by their name — you know it’s a Republican talking. Modern Republicans all talk like Calhoun and act like John Wilkes Booth — eager to end Lincoln’s supposed federal tyranny. Weird.

December 28, 2011, here on slacktivist: Subsidiarity and the outline of your next novel

This is the point at which I usually begin to talk about “subsidiarity” or about the “inescapable network of mutuality” or, since I already mentioned the jobs crisis here, about “direct” and “indirect” employers.

But instead let’s just talk about stories. Let’s talk about the outline of your next novel.

Look again at that list of entities above — families, friendships, etc. Any one of those might, at some point, come to function as a “bully” in the life of an individual. In doing so, it would be betraying its intended purpose and function, but any single one of those entities so corrupted could turn a person’s life into a hell.

So instead of using that list above as the starting point for another lecture on subsidiarity, let’s instead think of it as a novel-generating machine. Pick one item from the list. Twist it into a bully. Voila! There’s your next novel.


July 30, 2007, on this blog: Pennhurst & subsidiarity

We are poorly served by the widespread belief that our society involves two, and only two, kinds of political actors: individuals and the state. Subsidiarity, by contrast, recognizes the existence of a host of other actors and agents: families, neighborhoods, civic groups, schools, universities, businesses, churches, religious congregations, nonprofits, etc. Refusing to acknowledge the existence of such actors means refusing to acknowledge the relationships and responsibilities that individuals and the state have to them, which leads in turn to a distorted, Hobbesian, understanding of both individuals and the state. Individuals become viewed as detached, solipsistic atoms engaged in a war of all against all. The state becomes viewed as a monolithic, gargantuan Leviathan — a threat to, rather than the created servant of, the individuals. They are viewed as binary opposites, a view that allows in turn only the binary possibilities of socialism/totalitarianism or anarcho-libertarian/social Darwinism.

(It’s worth noting that the American Constitution rejects this binary view with its distorted understanding both of individuals and of the state, and it does so in its first three words.)

This binary outlook cannot accommodate the mentally disabled. They are, like all children, dependent, and thus incapable of surviving in a Hobbesian jungle. They are dependent, first and foremost, on their families. Acknowledging the reality of such dependence, and of the reality of the existence and obligations of families, shatters the illusions of the binary outlook and forces us to consider the wide world that exists beyond its artificial walls.

This is a pretty terrific PSA from New Zealand dealing with sexual assault (so please be warned that it may be triggering for some).

I came across this via Tobias Rodriguez at Feministing, who provides a good discussion of “bystander intervention as another means to end sexual violence.”

And it is that, as the video powerfully shows. But this idea applies far more generally.

In a sense, “bystander intervention” is an oxymoron. Once you intervene, you are no longer a bystander. The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a “bystander” — that’s just a euphemism for a neighbor pretending they’re not a neighbor. For a neighbor failing to be a neighbor. As the scripture says, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The PSA is titled “Who are you?” — which is close to the title of a post here on the subject of subsidiarity, titled “Who is you?” In that post I wrote:

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. …

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.

The Kiwi PSA illustrates exactly this point. It introduces us to a set of characters with different roles in the story — “The Best Friend,” “The Employee,” “The Flatmate,” “The Stranger.” Their roles are different and thus their responsibilities are different, but they are all responsible. They are all caught up in the same inescapable network of mutuality.

In the first half of the video, we see each in turn evade that responsibility. “Who is my neighbor?” they ask. “Am I my sister’s keeper?” And as always when we ask those weasel-questions, the story in that version does not end well.

But then the story rewinds and we get to see them each, in turn, getting it right — embracing the truth that we are all neighbor to all, and that there can never be such a thing as a “bystander” outside the bounds and the bonds of what that entails, each to each and all to all.

So, who are you?

Noah Smith’s post, “The liberty of local bullies,” does a good job describing the inadequacy of contemporary libertarian ideology.

The modern American libertarian ideology does not deal with the issue of local bullies. In the world envisioned by Nozick, Hayek, Rand, and other foundational thinkers of the movement, there are only two levels to society — the government (the “big bully”) and the individual. If your freedom is not being taken away by the biggest bully that exists, your freedom is not being taken away at all.

Smith recognizes that this ideology ignores the obvious reality of our world. It’s view of society is far too thin and constricted. There’s far more to society than just the individual and The State. Society also includes, for example: “… a large variety of intermediate powers like work bosses, neighborhood associations, self-organized ethnic movements, organized religions, tough violent men, or social conventions.”

All true. But Smith’s list is too short and is too much shaped by the other inadequacy of that libertarian ideology, which is its tendency to treat anything other than the individual almost exclusively in negative terms — as a “bully” limiting or restraining the freedom of individuals. (I don’t think this is what Smith means to argue, but his critique of libertarian ideology here  winds up adopting the shape of his subject.)

All of these intermediate “powers” — to use that oddly Pauline termcan be bullies, or can become bullies, but that is not their only or their proper or their primary function in our society or in our lives. We are not all and always Stephen Dedalus — the romantic, heroic individual struggling against kinships, institutions, traditions and all the other bonds that serve only to keep us in bondage. These powers and principalities do not function exclusively as “bullies.”

Just consider the first of Smith’s examples — “work bosses.” Like about 14 million other Americans at this point, I do not have a boss right now because I do not have a job. I do not regard this as a form of liberation, as a welcome enhancement of my individual liberty. To be unfettered from employment does not make me more free, but less so.

If we’re going to get anywhere addressing problems like the jobs crisis that has left millions of us unemployed, then our solutions have to be based on society as it actually is, rather than on some theoretical model that fails to account for the actual world. It won’t do to follow a model that is unable to acknowledge the existence of anything other than the individual and The State. Nor will it do to follow a model that is unable to conceive of institutions, relationships, associations and governments as anything other than “bullies.”

A better model of society is one that can recognize the existence of a vast and multilayered network of such institutions, relationships, agencies, associations and governments, identifying the complementary role each has to play and their mutual responsibilities.

Let’s first consider “the big bully” of The State, which isn’t really the massive, monolithic, centralized “The State” at all. Government encompasses a vast variety of actors large and small that we relate to and rely on in a multitude of ways. Each of us lives in a network of levels of government, with each level in turn differentiated with various agencies, services, bureaucracies, offices, officers, regulators, responders, police, courts, councils, legislatures, schools, libraries, etc. Treating them all as a single, undifferentiated entity takes away our ability to think about what each should or shouldn’t be doing. And determining beforehand that they are all just “bullies” or a single “big bully” begs the question — mistaking a presumption for a conclusion.

As vast and various as all those aspects of government are, put them all together and they’re still dwarfed by multitude of non-state, non-individual entities that make up our world: families, friendships, clubs, teams, bands, troupes, affinity groups, congregations, denominations, businesses, banks, exchanges, markets, unions, neighborhoods, theaters, leagues, societies, charities, associations, etc.

This is the point at which I usually begin to talk about “subsidiarity” or about the “inescapable network of mutuality” or, since I already mentioned the jobs crisis here, about “direct” and “indirect” employers.

But instead let’s just talk about stories. Let’s talk about the outline of your next novel.

Look again at that list of entities above — families, friendships, etc. Any one of those might, at some point, come to function as a “bully” in the life of an individual. In doing so, it would be betraying its intended purpose and function, but any single one of those entities so corrupted could turn a person’s life into a hell.

So instead of using that list above as the starting point for another lecture on subsidiarity, let’s instead think of it as a novel-generating machine. Pick one item from the list. Twist it into a bully. Voila! There’s your next novel.

If you like, you can pick more than one item from the list and turn several of these entities into bullies in the life of your protagonist. But don’t overdo it — don’t use all of them.

If you portray all of them as bullies then your readers will begin to suspect that the problem doesn’t lie with the rest of the world, but with your protagonist. Also, how would you resolve such a story? If, for example, the story is one in which the hero’s family has become a bully, then you can resolve the story by having her liberate herself from that bully. But you can’t have a hero who liberates himself from that entire list.

If your story ends with your hero saying, “I am not bound by and do not care about my family, my friends, or any clubs, teams, bands, troupes, affinity groups, congregations, denominations, banks, businesses, exchanges, markets, unions, neighborhoods, theaters, leagues, societies, charities or associations,” then your hero won’t turn out to be much of a hero at all.

He’ll just be a libertarian and, well, kind of a jerk.

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