Friday, April 30, 2010

Building Understanding, Part Three: Religion, Government, and the Top-Bottom Problem

The other name for this post - if I didn't want to be formal about continuing the "Building Understanding" series - would have been: "Every Bottom Has A Top." That's because, in so many ways and on so many levels, we've arrived at a point that can be very illuminating in the attempt to achieve some sense of understanding between the Left and the Right in America (and maybe other places in the world, too).

Twitter poster Nathan Wurtzel made me stop and take notice this past Sunday when he tweeted that liberals think from the top down and never look at life starting from the position of the individual. Growing up in an anti-Reagan household and being raised by a parent who worked for George McGovern's campaign in 1972, I had only heard of top-down-ism as a Republican (not necessarily conservative, mind you - there's often a big difference!) flaw. But as I rolled the tweet around in my mind, the truth was really rather unassailable on a larger level.

Why did I not arrive at this precise and generally accurate realization earlier in life? Because I'm a Catholic progressive, not a secular one.

The Catholic tradition and the social teachings which flow from it promote a number of core values and principles. One such principle is subsidiarity, the idea that services should be given on the smallest and most localized level possible. The more direct the aid, the less of a chance for corruption or the distortion of the aid's intended purpose. That's a sound political and operational reason for subsidiarity, a reason that libertarians and conservatives have rightly and nobly championed. A specifically Christian teaching values direct aid because of the responsibility Christians have to help their neighbors in need, to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats - my favorite parable from the Gospels (Matthew 25:31-46) - makes this call quite clear.

In Catholicism, the emphasis on helping the poor, the least among us - the anawim of the Hebrew Scriptures - is encapsulated in what is called the "preferential option for the poor." That component of Catholic social teaching is often misconstrued as meaning a higher valuation of the poor than the rich, as though some lives are more important than others (hence, some souls are more important than others). What the "preferential option" really means is that Catholics, according to their means, should structure their lifestyles so that they can regularly tend to the needs of the poor. In other words, build as much charity and service into your lifestyle as is reasonably allowable; don't burn yourself out, don't overstretch, but give to your reasonable maximum, extending a fair share of time/talent/treasure to the needy.

Digging even deeper, some Christian communities - including the Catholic Worker movement, of which I am a member (the Seattle chapter of the Catholic Worker, dormant since May 11, 2007, is re-organizing and will protest the presence of nuclear weapons at a Seattle rally this upcoming Sunday) - practice subsidiarity and a preferential option for the poor by establishing houses of hospitality among the poor. (The Open Door Movement is a Protestant organization with many similarities to the Catholic Worker.)

These and (I'm sure) many other organizations reflect a deep and abiding passion for the poor among progressive Christians in multiple denominations. For many progressive Christians - some of which are community organizers - the whole point of political speech and action is to give voice to the people at the bottom of various social, economic and political power structures, enabling them to act as citizens and function as contributing members of society. I'm sure there are also some atheists and agnostics who strongly identify with the need to help the poor on a local level and in an intimate way.

So let it be known: There are considerable numbers of people in America who walk under the progressive banner and yet identify with the bottom... not just in terms of political preference, but as a way of life and as an extension of faith and practice.

It makes it all the more lamentable that, on a wider national level, liberalism writ large is guilty of having - as a reflexive default stance - an outlook on politics in which the federal government is seen and looked to as the best and foremost answer to people's problems. It is virtually impossible to look at our national polity and not conclude that the Left, taken as a whole, views government as a central part of the solution to social ills.

Here's what needs to be unpacked... and what needs to (consequently) be said about the ultimate failing of the political Left in the United States:

I'll let people on the Right try to address the similar tensions they face, but since I have grown up on the political Left and will always be more fundamentally Left than Right, it's necessary for me to own up to the Left's weaknesses and explain them... not just for my own sake, but for other people who self-identify as liberals or progressives (I prefer progressive over liberal myself).

All of us - no matter our ideology or our political leaning - must confront a number of challenges in our ongoing evolution as citizens and as students of the world around us. One core challenge, which is particularly broad in its scope and reach, is the need to be able to confront and acknowledge the weaknesses and limitations in our own worldviews, and to realize that the formation of sound policy usually doesn't emerge from the extremes, but from the collective wisdom of people who, over time, learn to live in balance with competing tensions. This theme of balance (not between Left and Right, but between/among aspects of everyday life) needs to be kept constant in our observations of the political landscape.

When we carefully consider what ought to hold sway in the realm of governance, the point is not to enshrine certain methods, but to safeguard principles and - ideally - outcomes that are worth fighting for. It's not the growth of government that progressives should seek; instead, the Left must prioritize the improvement of people's lives in a manner that doesn't unduly impose on the citizenry. This emphasis on the true goal, and not a methodology, has been lost in contemporary liberalism to the detriment of the country.

One can say that liberalism and progressivism have not been practiced much in recent years, but when the cry for government action is articulated - I've joined the chorus quite often over the years - a liberal must then become accountable for that position. It's not enough to say that the government should do something; much as the moral case against war demands that a war be conducted fairly (in addition to the initial decision to wage war itself), so it also stands that government has to conduct its affairs fairly and exercise due proportion, restraint and wisdom in its daily operations. To then insist on government action when government has not proved itself to be terribly competent or honest is the misstep that liberals - and I will include myself in this group of guilty people - have consistently made. It was not until 2007 - when the newly-elected Democratic Congress continued to approve war budgets and pass corrosive "free trade" agreements, especially in Latin America - that my last shred of hope in government fully and finally evaporated.


Previous blog posts have lightly touched on this topic, but it now deserves a more substantial examination: One of the great challenges of our time (a challenge that is likely to remain for future generations long after we're all gone) is to meet the needs of the "unchosen suffering" - those at the bottom - within a framework of fiscal responsibility and systemic integrity. As the recent economic downturn has shown (and this is not a liberal or conservative point; it should be seen as plainly empirical, a natural outgrowth of observing reality detached from polity or ideology), many lives - in America and throughout the world - are affected by forces beyond their control.

What happened in the governmental chambers of Washington, D.C., and the boardrooms of New York - not to mention offices of firms like Washington Mutual in Seattle and Countrywide in Los Angeles - hammered a lot of middle-income families in the gut. Some people in lower-income brackets got rightly slammed for treating homes as commodities and for playing fast and loose, but many other families who played by the rules and trusted in the expertise of mortgage companies and banks got taken to the cleaners. When these kinds of events take place, the importance of a safety net for wronged individuals becomes substantial. The innocents who saw their holdings get wiped out by the economic downturn deserve and need a helping hand, and the charity of private citizens - many of them with shrunken wallets in their own right - can't be expected to do ALL the heavy lifting. This is the enduring progressive worry: That people will continue to suffer, without choice, because larger structures aren't there to help them in times of need.

With that having been said, though, one must return to the problem facing liberalism today: government's manifest lack of both competence and honesty.

As much as I and other members of the Left want (and have long wanted) our government to respond to acute needs, that wish won't change the brokenness of our systems, mechanisms and institutions. Government debt is skyrocketing. China and other foreign entities propped up the likes of Citigroup and continue to funnel money into the innards of our financial sector. Goldman Sachs's cozy relationship with each of the last two White Houses and their Treasury Departments is a profound moral and ethical scandal of our age. Congressional worship of Alan Greenspan and a collective belief that the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street could do no wrong in the middle of the past decade ("the aughts," as many called them) revealed a tight and intimate fusion of government and high finance. Government and corporations - aided and abetted by both parties to an overwhelming degree, with Democrats being just as bad as Republicans (again, don't keep score; both parties are guilty as sin - it does little good to claim who's worse, even if one has the ammunition) - aren't just in bed together, to use that metaphor. They're making out (like obsessed lovers in the throes of passion)... and they're also making out (like bandits!).

In the face of these realities, liberals simply have to confront the fact - and it is a fact - that government isn't working. It's not working the way it was supposed to work; it's not serving the people it's supposed to serve; it's not maintaining appropriate distance from special and outside interests; it's not being a watchdog and advocate which looks out for ordinary people just trying to live their lives; it's not facilitating an easier and more manageable existence for anyone outside its doors; and last but certainly not least, it's not delivering results to the populace.

Liberalism can't continue to reflexively and automatically invoke government as a savior. Yes, private charity - the embodiment of the ideal of subsidiarity and, moreover, of personal action in response to local problems - is not entirely enough, but the moral agency connected to private charity offers a purity and clarity which need to be promoted in American life. When human persons, of their own free will and with their own sweat, create better outcomes on the ground, that's highly preferable to the cold and distant machinations of an aloof government giving a handout to a person with whom it has no intimate emotional relationship. The limitations of the conservative or libertarian perspective (which I'll allow others to elaborate on at greater length) are not limitations of argumentative quality; they're limitations of scope and scale.

In Seattle, I've personally seen how government - as broken and dysfunctional as it is - still plugs in gaps and keeps already-frayed lives from falling even further into disrepair. I've also listened to stories and read accounts of how government's deficiencies wind up increasing the pressure on citizens to deliver charitable services to the needy.

At the Seattle Catholic Worker - founded in 1975 - the soup kitchen program it initiated served roughly 80-100 people per day, five days a week, through 1980. Logs and record books in the Seattle Catholic Worker archives - corroborated by the accounts of the people who ran that soup kitchen at the time - indicate that from 1981 through the rest of the 1980s, soup kitchen attendance swelled to 225-260 people per day.

Why did that happen? Don't ask me. Ask the longtime Seattle Catholics who regularly practice subsidiarity and have spent their lives offering localized, direct help to the people at the bottom of society. Ask these progressive people of faith if Ronald Reagan's mental health and social service cuts created that surge in soup kitchen attendance. "Yes" will be the almost uniform answer.

It's a somewhat cruel irony, when you think about it: While secular liberals, for the most part (I'm sure there are some principled exceptions), automatically trumpet the virtues of government and promote the need for government intervention on so many levels, a great many Catholic liberals (and other progressive Christians) have already been living with and working for the people at the bottom. Yet, any government movement away from increased social service expenditures will almost certainly make it harder for progressive Christians and many other private individuals to - of their own accord and initiative - meet the rising needs they see in their communities. This was true in the Seattle of the 1980s, and it's just as true now if not more so. The average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Seattle is valued between $1,000 and $1,100, making affordable housing a very scarce commodity in this city. Government is awful, and yet without its funds, local needs would be even more acute.

It's a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't situation, an awful mess with no easy solutions or answers - not, at least, in the realm of hard choices and bewilderingly complex realities facing anyone who works in or with the federal government of the United States.

I'll close, then, with this thought, which will be unpacked in the near future: Government does not deserve to be - and has not proven itself worthy of being - the primary mover or central agent in people's lives. Government cannot be the first response or the immediate and complete answer to the problems faced by the "unchosen suffering" in our land. Yet, with all that having been said, it does keep a great number of people from falling completely off the radar screen of society, something that - at least in Seattle - has been apparent for the past three decades (if not more so).

This is a discussion which needs to develop and continue in our homes, at our water coolers, and in our churches, but let this idea begin to take root in our minds: The basic way to confront the government-power problem, and to get liberals to focus more on the people at the bottom of American life, is for government - especially at the federal level - to be seen not as a "first responder" but as a LAST responder; not as a first outlet but as a LAST resort, when all other options for help have been reasonably exhausted.

People on the ground know the needs of their community best, and it's much more nourishing to the whole of society for individuals to choose charity instead of having a lot of dollars - often wastefully - thrown around at taxpayer expense without delivering results. Yet, there will be occasions when government does need to intervene. Such is the tension of crafting policies and responses to problems: One side might have the better theoretical approach or the more idealistic vision, but both sides ultimately need to shape and constantly refine the ways we deal with problems.

The following idea is easy enough to articulate, but it must now be enfleshed in progressive efforts within the hardball worlds of politics and governance: The shift in our larger thought process as progressives doesn't have to abandon government, but it definitely has to downgrade government and regard it as the last solution, not the first, in response to people's crushing problems and dire needs.

So many religious progressives have always identified with the people at the bottom over many years of ministry and service; for me, other Catholic Workers, and other lefty Christians, the Gospel and the life of Jesus are all about outreach to the poor, the lowly, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the voiceless. However, for all the times when we progressives have reflexively looked to the government - a broken and disordered government - we have not viewed life from the bottom up.

May this enduring and substantial weakness within the architecture of liberalism - indeed, the greatest flaw of the American Left in the course of its entire existence - be addressed in the 21st century. We progressives need to reshape our fundamental posture to the government we've trusted far too naively for far too long a time.


  1. Matt, beautifully said. There's hardly a thought I disagree with. For my part, I am a Constitutionalist and a Libertarian, though not nearly strict enough for some Libertarians, I'm sure, because of what I am about to say: I believe that government can and should serve as some sort of a safety net. As you express in my post, I completely disagree with the mentality that government is the first and best solution. Ideally, the federal government would adhere to its constitutional role and stay out of the social services business. Completely out. I've worked for the federal govenrment. I now work for a local government dealing with federal grants. The federal government sucks. No other reasonable conclusion can be reached. It is corrupt, inefficient, lazy, bureaucratic, and cold. It's a bureaucratic nightmare with too much oversight over stupid stuff that doesn't matter (about that new TPS cover sheet...) and not enough oversight over what really does matter (ie, making sure federal dollars are being spent responsibly.) Perhaps because of my experience, I can't imagine wanting to give the federal government any more of a role in our daily lives than it already has. (Yet, with the passage of the Health Care Mandate Bill, we have done just that. Sigh.)

    State and local governments have the constitutional authority (unlike the feds) to provide social services. Of course, as any San Franciscan can tell you, state and local governments can be every bit as poor, wasteful, inefficient, and expensive as the federal beast, but for the most part I don't believe that to be true. I'd much rather have policy made by those in Tallahassee and administered by City Hall than by Washington. Why others disagree will always be a mystery to me. I assume it has to do with the notion that states may not be as "fair" as the federal government (hahaha), but someone on the Left will have to fill me in on the reasoning.

    However, we should also be mindful that government aide is not dispersed fraudulantly or to those who, completely by choice, choose not to help themselves. (Again, this is much easier done on the local level than from Washington, no?) While some libertarian purists might well argue for pure social darwinism, I tend to think that even somebody who leans libertarian can recognize that Men should not be as uncaring toward fellow Man as the beasts. But let's get social services to where they belong (both from a constitutional perspective and a Good Government perspective.) And let's make government the last resort, not the first.

    I believe there are issues that the Left and Right will never come to agreement on. They are too numerous to list. But this topic should be fairly noncontroversial. Sure, some on the Right may object that government at any level shouldn't be in the social services business. Sure, some on the Left may be more concerned with feeding the Leviathan than actually, I don't know, helping people. But by and large, this is an area that the Left and Right can, and should, find common ground. Thanks for the post, Matt, and God bless.

  2. Well said Matt on so many levels. I completely agree about the Federal government needing to be a last responder which begs the question who SHOULD be the first responder? In my mind the Church is equally as guilty for NOT stepping up and helping more. Granted there are elements, but when mega churches spend millions on building up-keep and pastor salaries and pittances on social programs it becomes clear that the Church is failing in her calling as well.