Known in the church as “social teaching” or “social justice,” [Catholic teaching on the subject] rests on three pillars, as laid out in papal encyclicals: the dignity of the human person, solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity stipulates that society should join together in pursuit of the common good; subsidiarity requires that social ills be addressed at the most local level possible.
All three principles are actively under assault by the growth of government and the concentration of power in Washington.
Welfare policy provides a clear example of how federal policies can undermine human dignity. To our society’s credit, the United States has devoted much of its national treasure to combating poverty — January marked the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty,” on which we have spent some $22 trillion. Unfortunately, some of our country’s anti-poverty programs are so poorly designed that they harm the poor, encouraging dependency where they should encourage upward mobility.
Pope Francis has rightly declared that “where there is no work, there is no dignity.” In light of these words, the U.S. welfare system can actually deny dignity while claiming to grant it. Some government assistance programs can be more lucrative than work. This unfairly — but understandably — incentivizes some to stay out of the job market, abusing the social safety net designed to help those who truly need help. In so doing, it traps people in the poverty they’re trying to escape.
Washington’s rejection of subsidiarity contributes to this crisis. Every new federal law seems to create or empower a federal agency to regulate another facet of the U.S. economy and Americans’ lives. For the poor, this results in two problems.First, Washington typically addresses complex social problems with one-size-fits-all solutions. This often creates more problems than it solves. Subsidiarity, on the other hand, recognizes that private associations and local or state governments are better equipped to address most social issues. They have a better vantage point from which to identify and address local problems. And since local and state communities are most invested in the success of the individuals and families who comprise them, they’re more likely to recognize and reform a broken program, whereas Washington’s solution would be to expand it.
Second, Washington’s centralization of power saps the vitality of the wider economy. Washington’s insatiable growth annually siphons trillions of dollars from the economy — some of which philanthropists like us could give to local charities and businesses could use to create the jobs the poor desperately need. Instead, the money is lost in Washington’s alphabet soup of government agencies.
This centralization — which misconstrues the principle of solidarity by conflating big government with the common good — also leads to the corrupt capitalism that Pope Francis has condemned. The Holy Father witnessed firsthand in South America how capitalism can degenerate into cronyism when government becomes too powerful. There, politicians and bureaucrats hold the keys to the kingdom. Entrepreneurs must kiss the regulators’ ring or bribe the local bureaucrat at every turn. Bureaucrats and businesses also collude to protect politically favored companies and crowd out competitors — an arrangement that invariably keeps the rich rich and the poor poor.
This phenomenon isn’t found only in Third World dictatorships. It’s increasingly evident in Washington, where corruption, special interests and lobbyists are more prevalent and powerful than at any point in our lifetimes. The poor are an afterthought when there are hands to be shaken, subsidies to be grabbed and favors to be dispensed.