A Thin Line We Must Walk

Some recent discussions have reinforced my natural disdain for many features of what is derisively called “The Nanny State”. The underlying philosophy of the nanny state, and of the modern liberals that run it, is that the people must be protected from themselves. Instead of viewing individuals as potentially responsible citizens, they seek to deprive them of their dignity as free and moral beings by imposing restrictions on personal behavior.

But there is such a thing as reasonable regulation for the common good. Catholic social teaching has never been libertarian at its core. It has condemned economic liberalism, the doctrine of the “invisible hand” – that the private pursuit of self-interest on the part of each leads necessarily to benefits and prosperity for all. Unlike the atheist Objectivists, we do not believe that selfishness and consumerism are virtues.

We are therefore, as Catholics and citizens, called upon to find a balance between respect for individual liberty and the common good. I am deeply dissatisfied with both lassiez-faire approaches to social problems (including and especially economic problems) and statist paternalism, because in a way they are two different versions of a bad parent.

One is the kind of parent that lets their child run wild; when he gets into trouble, they give him a pat on the head and say, “oh, boys will be boys” or something similar. At the very least they fail to instill discipline in their child from an early age and end up having to punish the same mistakes over and over again.

The other is the kind of parent that is overbearing and overprotective, that approaches life in a fearful and paranoid manner. Everything is a danger, everything is a threat. They would put a leash on their child if it were socially acceptable. They fail to allow children to learn valuable lessons through experience, through hardship and failure. As a result their character is stunted, and instead of gaining the ability to make sound moral decisions, they only know how to mechanically obey laws. This is a travesty of human dignity and purpose. And it shares in common with the lassiez-faire attitude a focus on symptoms instead of root causes.

I think the best kind of parent sets firm boundaries for their children, but respects them as individual human beings as well. And the best kind of state does the same for its citizens. A good and free society must be based upon trust, between the state, the community, and the individual citizen. We must not be afraid to demand regulation and intervention where it is clearly necessary and where it clearly serves the common good. For instance, I believe the deregulation of the financial sector and the proliferation of independent lenders, who turned en masse to predatory lending practices, played the key role in the sub-prime crisis. Both Alan Greenspan, who admitted his deregulatory philosophy was mistaken, and Ben Bernanke, declared that this was a serious problem in their testimonies to Congress.

But when it comes to personal matters, such as health, education, gun ownership, and other areas of life, it is simply intolerable for the state to attempt to create a perfectly ‘safe’ or ‘hate free’ society. There is a big difference between financial institutions responsible for billions of dollars of society’s money and individual persons, families and communities. If I cannot be trusted with the food I eat, the education I wish to give my children, possession of a firearm, or any number of related things, why ought I to be trusted to vote at all? Why are we bothering with the charade of democratic self-government when it is clear that some people cannot sleep at night unless there is a cop and a video camera on every corner?

The proponents of the nanny state don’t trust you or I to live our lives responsibly. They believe that the relative handful of people who abuse their freedom, often under conditions of social breakdown and decay which are never adequately addressed, are a sufficient justification for taking that freedom away from everyone else. More fanatical and single-minded than a suicide-bomber, their shrill and hysterical calls to “save the children” or some other cause du jour fill me with nothing but contempt. Whatever this type of person wishes to take away from me, I am almost positive that it is something I ought to have.

Some people may have a problem with the distinctions I wish to make. I envision libertarians arguing that big businesses ought to have the same theoretical degree of freedom as individuals, and paternalistic liberals calling for consistency in the other direction – why not regulate people as well as businesses? My answer is that the balance between these two positions is found in Catholic social teaching, and Christian thought in general. The integrity and stability of society is a primary concern for the Church, hence the severe, categorical condemnations issued by several Popes of economic liberalism and consumerism. There is simply no Catholic ground for rejecting economic regulation, or even the redistribution of wealth. Individual liberty may not come at the price of social disintegration and everyone has an obligation to contribute to the common good.

But the dignity of the individual is also of primary concern to the Church. How we live within the context of our families and communities IS properly left for individuals, working together, without an overbearing, hysterical nanny keeping constant watch over us, to decide on their own. This is why the Church not only rejects the nanny state, but also the rigid capitalist model where the economy consists only of workers and bosses, owners with absolute authority. Instead she has proposed greater worker involvement in businesses, greater autonomy and freedom for those involved in production and services to arrange their own affairs. Both the bureaucrat and the boss at work often commit offenses against the dignity of the individual person, reducing them, as JP II once said, to an object of administration or a cog in an economic machine.

In the end our goal ought to be to produce morally capable individuals who, of their own accord, work together for the common good. This means both establishing firm boundaries while respecting autonomy within those boundaries. It means a constant vigilance to ensure that we never go too far in either direction, granting too much license or restricting autonomy too greatly. The social doctrine of the Church provides us with the insights and guidance needed to do this effectively.

10 Responses to A Thin Line We Must Walk

  • Well, many people speculate that we’re headed to become a socialist democracy – we might as well be a nanny country.

  • Johanne,

    As a matter of personal policy, I try to minimize to the greatest extent possible my use of the words “capitalism” and “socialism”, though I realize I did use it here.

    To me these terms have become meaningless, having come to mean so many things to so many different people. As far as I am concerned there are economies that accord with the Catholic vision of man and society, and economies that don’t.

  • Bravo Joe!! This is exactly what I have been thinking for years — there has to be a BALANCE between every-person-for-themselves capitalism and nanny-state socialism.

    I also believe that even if we did somehow hit upon exactly the right balance between regulation and deregulation, it would not necessarily last forever, and the balance would have to be periodically adjusted as economic and social conditions changed. What worked in the 1950s or 60s or 80s or 90s isn’t necessarily going to work today.

    Ideally, IMO, governments would restrain their spending, leave more tasks up to the private sector, and attempt to build surpluses or “rainy-day” funds during times of prosperity, so that in leaner times when the private sector cannot meet these demands, TEMPORARY deficit spending could be undertaken without bankrupting the state/country, raising taxes at the worst possible time, or incurring massive levels of debt that can never be repaid.

    Tax policy also has to change with the times as well. I do not believe as some conservatives do that ALL tax hikes or extensions of a tax to cover more items or types of transactions are inherently evil and to be opposed in all circumstances. Nor do I believe, as some liberals do, that tax cuts for the “wealthy” are inherently evil, since it is the wealthy who create most of the jobs that middle class and poor people rely on.

    I also don’t believe that sales or service taxes are necessarily unjust or regressive in comparison to income taxes. I would think that a small tax which everyone pays is preferable to a large tax imposed on only a few, because those few will inevitably find a way to avoid paying it and defeat its purpose.

    For example, say you impose a 1 percent sales tax on all purchases, food and medicine excepted. In most cases, paying an extra penny on a $1 purchase or an extra dime on a $10 purchase isn’t going to break anyone or discourage them from buying that item. Yet some fiscal conservatives from relatively wealthy areas scream to high heaven about the “injustice” of daring to consider sales taxes even smaller than that.

    On the other hand, if you slap an extra $1 on every gallon of gas, bottle of booze or pack of cigarettes, that is going to put a significant burden on purchasers, who will either stop buying the commodity or go elsewhere to buy it if they can.

  • Joe, I often don’t disagree with you. If I do, it’s typically not on substance. Perhaps we should take the White House on the same ticket? That way we can restore…err, finally establish Catholic political sanity in America :)

  • Elaine,

    Thanks for the comment. And you hit upon something important – the need to constantly shift the balance. I’m sick of people assuming that one, and only one, political and economic philosophy can be used at any given time. While I think the community should be the center of economics, I can see the need for a balance between free markets and regulation, perhaps allowing more freedom in one area at one time than at others.


    You know what they say about great minds :) But I wonder, which of us would graciously allow the other the top spot on that ticket?

  • A condemnation of ‘economic liberalism’ ought be qualified and elaborated upon. Markets and prices are tools toward certain ends (as are institutes of public administration). What is troublesome is not the operation of markets but the identification of pareto efficiency as the ultimate end of social relations (or, as in the social thought of certain objectivists, an understanding of social relations as a consequence of a sort of promethean competition).

  • What is troublesome is the notion that state and community have no role to play in ensuring that the market is restrained by social, moral and ethical considerations. That, I believe, was the point of Pius XI’s condemnation of economic liberalism.

    The fact that it also encourages consumerism is why John Paul II denounced it in his own time, as well as Pope Benedict, if you find what he has written on economic matters. How I anticipate that next encyclical… whats the hold up anyway!?

  • “Consumerism” is a rather vague term, often invoked and almost never defined.

    I should note that “the notion that state and community have no role to play in ensuring that the market is restrained by social, moral and ethical considerations” is something that I do not think stated literally has much of a history outside the imagination of social theorists. Laws proscribing prostitution or the drug trade, laws requiring transparency in commercial transactions, laws circumscribing the practice of usury, certain sorts of tort claims, &c are all examples of social, moral, or ethical considerations being constituted into boundaries within which commercial activity takes place. I am not aware than any are particularly novel, either, though perhaps Mr. McClarey might educate us on that point.

  • ““Consumerism” is a rather vague term, often invoked and almost never defined.”

    Good thing, then, that I sought to flesh out the Catholic understanding of the word here:


    As for your second comment, of course there have always been minimal regulations against force or fraud. There have even been periods of regulation, demanded by the people and enacted by the government, of which I approve, but others – yourself, perhaps? – do not.

    Catholic social teaching is not negative libertarianism, to see fault only in force or fraud. Vast concentrations of wealth and vast social inequalities threaten social stability. Like it or not, the Popes – rightfully and rationally, in my view – took the threat of violent revolution seriously. Millions of people do not take up arms and fight and die because they are mislead by ideology, but because that ideology speaks to a deeper need.

    Addressing the root of the problem means addressing those social processes by which wealth becomes concentrated, individuals atomized, and classes polarized. It means, as Pius XI explicitly argued, regulating private property with an eye to its own preservation. It means, as John Paul II said, the primacy of labor – the human aspect of production and exchange – over capital.

    None of that is logically exclusive to the operation of markets. Markets have never really been the problem, in themselves – the problem is when the market is idolized, when its outcomes are declared sacred and inviolable. So, I don’t have as much a problem with free markets from a utilitarian standpoint as I do from a moral standpoint. When and where markets work, I am for them. When and where they obviously pose a threat to the common good, or when another method might better serve it, I am not. There should be no “market ideology” one way or the other, in lavish praise or vicious hate.

  • “Markets have never really been the problem, in themselves – the problem is when the market is idolized, when its outcomes are declared sacred and inviolable.”

    I don’t believe the marketplace is sacred and inviolable, but I do believe it is natural and reflective of reality.

    What bugs me about mainline Catholic economic thought is that it fails to recognize the social and communal benefits to savings and wealth accumulation. When someone gets rich, its not just them that benefits: its the people who gain from their products, the people they invest in and the endurance in hard times that savings allows for.

    Libertarian thought does not promote selfishness. “Self interest” and “selfishness” are not the same thing. “Self interest” in the free market benefits everyone in a variety of ways; “selfishness” is by nature self destructive. I would argue that all the “greed” you’ve seen with the Madoffs of the world were not operating in concert with libertarian, free market values.

    Libertarianism is not anti-charity either. It simply points out that government is not a charity organization, and only has coercion as a tool. It can only take from one group and give to another. Its called stealing.

    Catholicism is well versed in meditating on love and the virtues found in the human heart. But, IMHO, the Church has quite a ways to go in developing its response to economic realities discovered in the last 150-200 years.

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