Are the priorities of the Leonines and libertarians irreconcilable? In a certain sense, they are — Pope Leo XIII’s exhortation to further the “common good” in civic life was a call not merely to private conversion but to a conversion of the state itself. Leo affirms in Rerum Novarum that it is the “province of the commonwealth to serve the common good” and that the “free and untrammelled action” of individuals ought to be tempered by “the common good and the interest of others.” This type of thinking irritates the libertarian, who insists that vesting governments with a telos — other than his preferred telos of secure property rights and the prerequisite conditions for the exercise of his liberty — is a means of extracting a false unity from an otherwise varied people, of conscripting individual participation in a collective organism to which the individual has not consented to belong, and impeding the individual’s pursuit of his own private business. Jacob Marley’s realization that his “business” was “the common welfare” was one that came too little, too late, but the libertarian might take solace in the fact that the state didn’t nudge him one way or the other.
That is a caricature, in part, and is not entirely fair to the libertarian impulse. The instinctual distrust that libertarians hold for concentrated state power is not unlike the Leonine preference for “subsidiarity,” the principle that problems are best settled on the most local level germane to the matter in question. By its nature, a distant, imperious state tends to abridge the authority of smaller centers of power: the town-hall meeting, local charitable organizations, the parish, the family, and the individual. To Leo, the danger of the state is not merely its size, but its power to disregard or even deny the authority of those institutions that predate it and that properly command its deference: “Hence we have the family, the ‘society’ of a man’s house — a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.”
Whether it is an inborn feature of supra-state government or an accident of its maladministration, the federal government has decimated the power of localities, particularly in the past century. Federal grant-in-aid programs, for instance, have played an outsized role in the derogation of local institutions, undermining the autonomy afforded to local governments and civil-society organizations in dealing with homelessness, foster care, education, and the delivery of other social services. While one might respond that this is the fault of those administering such programs rather than of the grants themselves — “if men were to be governed by angels,” etc. — that assertion elides the fundamental problem, which is one of scale. It is beyond the scope of the federal government to determine, say, the history curriculum of schools in New Castle, Del., or the criminal penalties that ought to be levied against animal abusers in Le Claire, Iowa. The federal government — with its empaneled “experts” bent on “solving” local problems, and the armies of discount-rack Fouchés it employs to enforce its “solutions” — is naturally inclined to homogenize what is beyond homogenization, to flatten the diversity of American life, to standardize the particularities of local culture.
These dueling impulses that undergird Catholic social teaching — solidarity, which angers the libertarians, and subsidiarity, which bothers would-be Catholic statists — seems to be an impasse that can be resolved only by a vigorous preference for the local; for a thick, rather than thin, civil society; preferring, rather than recoiling from, the notion that local and state government might be active participants in shaping civic life for the common good.
Senator Marco Rubio’s speech at the Catholic University of America was a necessary, if inchoate, treatment of the “solidarity” half of the question. But when he asserts that “deciding what the government should do about [social decline] must be the core question of our politics,” he prompts the question: Which “government”? Some issues rightly fall under the carapace of the federal government, to be sure — trade, immigration, national security, and yes, the consolidation of corporate power —but in the rush to claim the ground abdicated by deracinated progressives, who feel more comfortable forwarding transnational priorities than national ones, the conservative risks ignoring the states and localities that make life worth living. Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen made this point at the National Conservatism conference, where he warned that the “nationalist” impulse on the right — which seeks to reclaim the national ground forfeited by progressive cosmopolitans — threatens to undermine localities: “Any national conservatism worthy of the name needs to be clear and forthright: The nation should be embraced, to the extent that it is embraced, as the appropriate and necessary political unit, only and insofar as it can be supportive of those aspects of our lives that require conserving.”
What are conservatives conserving, exactly, if not the local communities, regional identities, and traditions that take us outside ourselves and place us in a history not entirely our own, and that are most amenable to the problems that ail the individual and the community in which he lives?