Ever since Congressman Paul Ryan announced his budget plan, claiming that it was inspired by his understanding of Catholic social teaching (CST) in general and subsidiarity in particular, old debates about the meaning of CST have flared up once again. Michael Sean Winters of NCR blasted Ryan’s conception of “subsidiarity”; then Stephen White of Catholic Vote critiqued some of Winter’s own oversimplifications. Since everyone and their aunt in the Catholic blogosphere will weigh in on this at some point, I’ll get it over with and throw in my two-cents now.
First: I do believe that some of Ryan’s statements are oversimplifications. For instance, he claimed that subsidiarity and federalism were more or less synonyms for one another. They are not. Stephen White pointed out that these concepts are complimentary, however, and they are.
Secondly: Winters, and he is not alone in this, repeats Vatican statements about “access” to health care as if they were an exact equivalent with Obamacare or other types of government-run healthcare schemes. As White pointed out, Winters presents his leftist policy preferences as non-negotiable points of CST.
Third: I think the entire framework of this discussion needs a serious overhaul.
On one level, something that has only been available for roughly a century or so cannot possibly be a “basic human right.” Rerum Novarum establishes that the natural rights that belong to each individual precede the state; this categorically excludes something as specific and dependent upon a high level of technological development as a lifetime of health services. Such goods and services can only be “accessed” to the extent that a technologically advanced society can produce them, and this capability in turn depends upon on a level of economic freedom that cannot be attained with purchasing mandates, excessive tax burdens, and bureaucratic control.
As long as scarcity is a fact, the forces of supply and demand, operating within the framework of a Christian culture of charity and compassion for the poor, are the best and most efficient means of ensuring that the greatest amount of people have access to the health services they need. Classifying the goods and services themselves as “human rights” simply creates a false sense of injustice when the inevitable realities of scarcity and bureaucratic inefficiency deny them.
This can only disrupt the social order and disturb the common good. What else but grave harm can come from big promises unfulfilled? To take one example: just as the American left believes it has reached its moment of triumph with Obamacare (provided SCOUTS doesn’t shoot it down), Europe’s demographic, military, and financial problems are bringing its welfare systems to the brink of collapse. Societies and governments do not develop policies in idealist vacuums. They develop in social and geopolitical contexts that are constantly changing. Whether we point to the horrific birth-rates of Europe or its increasing defense burdens in this post-Cold War era, we see that a whole set of “givens” in which the welfare state developed is rapidly deteriorating.
All of this is to say that it is simply the height of irresponsibility to create a linkage in the public mind between “basic human right”, a phrase that creates a very specific impression of something one is entitled to, with something as contingent as healthcare, which could at any moment for any number of reasons outside of anyone’s control suddenly become much more scarce than it is at the present moment. Even in our technologically advanced society, nothing is guaranteed. This is why the classical liberal conception of natural rights, which is present in Rerum Novarum in all of its simplicity and elegance, is really the best framework for addressing these issues. My right to private property doesn’t depend on how world events will impact the flow of goods or the sustainability of social programs. It comes from God and is worth something to me as long as I live in a society shaped by a culture in which people value and respect those rights. And respect, unlike advanced medical procedures or pharmaceutical drugs, is not a scarce resource.