Social Reform As If History Matters
Social Reform As If History Matters

Social Reform As If History Matters

Challenging the monopoly of the state should not be confused with burning it to the ground.
October 2 nd 2014

If, in light of the erosion of civil society, you have pinned your hopes on the power of government to right wrongs and foster flourishing, then any challenge to government monopoly will look like a de facto grab for special interests (especially class interests). If you think only the state can save us, then any agenda to limit the state will seem heartless and selfish.

Of course, there are a host of unexamined assumptions behind these fears and worries—assumptions about who should make decisions that impinge on the common good, and where we should expect to find the resources for the flourishing of all. But the assumptions are just that: unarticulated (and often unexamined) presuppositions, about which thoughtful, compassionate people can disagree. If we resort to common—albeit ham-fisted—nomenclature, we might describe "progressives" as those who have decided that only government can truly care for "public" good: government is what we all have in common, and therefore government is the caretaker of the common good. Those who believe that public interest and the common good are often better served by "private" communities and non-governmental institutions are usually described as "conservatives."

If you think only the state can save us, then any agenda to limit the state will seem heartless and selfish.

But that means that, if you're a "progressive," conservatism sounds like it is synonymous with injustice. I think this is one of the reasons why some of the policy proposals championed by Christians (and Christian think tanks) are misunderstood. This is because Christian social thought has long emphasized the significance of civil society—the spheres and layers and "little platoons" of human social life beyond government that foster flourishing, care for the vulnerable, and contribute to the common good. In my own Reformed tradition, indebted to Abraham Kuyper, we talk about this in terms of "sphere sovereignty": a healthy society is comprised of a plurality of spheres that together—and in sync—contribute to the common good. It is not just government (or "the state") that fosters care and concern; the church, commerce, schools, and families also have important roles to play in equipping society to be what it is called to be.

In the Catholic tradition, "subsidiarity" has been one of the most durable principles of Christian social thought over the past century (check out this helpful "explainer" if you're unfamiliar with the term). Like Kuyper's emphasis on a pluralism of spheres, subsidiarity emphasizes that the common good is best served by empowering and trusting every "layer" of society to carry out its function. First articulated by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the principle is succinctly captured in John Paul II's centenary reaffirmation in Centesimus Annus:

A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

This is why policy proposals informed by Christian social thought often seek to challenge government monopolies and push back on a state that has overreached its jurisdiction (either by traipsing into the responsibilities of another sphere or by reaching into more intimate layers of society, such as the home or school). But they also push back on the tendency of the market to monopolize our lives, turning us and everything else into commodities to be bought and sold. Society is best served when both the state and the market support and unleash the resources of these other spheres and "little platoons."

For example, one of the reasons Cardus champions the cause of school choice and true pluralism in education, challenging the state's monopoly on schooling, is precisely because the common good is better served by the state making room for a diverse array of educational institutions and approaches. In terms of subsidiarity, schooling is the sort of social good that is best tended by smaller "societies" within society where parents—and the rest of us—are more intimately invested in the lives of children in our community. Schooling is a local project, not a federal one (the benighted hopes of "common core" notwithstanding). When we recognize this, parents win, children win, and as the 2014 Cardus Education Survey demonstrates, the public wins, too: so-called "private" schools are a public good.

But now imagine how all of this sounds if you believe that "government" is synonymous with "public" and the "common" good is synonymous with the "public" good: to challenge the state's monopoly and to encourage non-state communities will sound like a strategy for excusing ourselves from loving our neighbour and seeking permission to set up enclaves that benefit "me and mine." Indeed, if you treat "public," "government," and "the common good" as basically synonymous, then anything "private"—anything outside of the state—is going to be seen as selfish and unjust. (This is why, as Ben Domenech recently put it, "progressives want everything locally grown except government.")

Ultimately, I think this sort of reaction is misguided and stems from a confusion of "the common" with "the state." In other words, such reactions have a narrow, reductionistic understanding of how to steward the common good. The allergy to non-state institutions and communities (which we almost mis-describe as simply "private") is, in fact, to the detriment of the common good.

However, there is a legitimate worry and concern that we need to hear in such reactions. For example, based on the principles of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity, we would encourage the state to make room for micro-societies within society to educate children, including the little platoons of faith communities who have thick visions of the good that sustain education in virtue. We would also argue that all children would benefit if educational decisions were unhooked from distant federal puppeteers and entrusted to flourishing local communities of practice.

But then what about those children who don't live in such micro-societies? What about those children who live in the ruins of modernity, unhooked from thick communities of practice, for whom the state is their only society? If, according to the wisdom of subsidiarity, we managed to wrest education from the tentacles of provinces, states, and federal meddling in order to entrust it to societies of parents more directly invested in their communities, then what about those children whose parents are unable or uninterested in such investment? Isn't the state their last line of defense?

We need to beware of policy proposals that are "principled" but fail to attend to history. Society is never a blank slate. We always already find ourselves in some historically determined moment. Our "here and now" is always the product of a "there and then." While good policy should be informed by enduring, even timeless wisdom, it is always policy for a particular people at a particular moment with a particular history.

So even if the enduring wisdom of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity give us helpful resources to imagine how a good, just, flourishing society should be organized, we need to recognize that getting there from here will pose particular challenges. This might mean we can't proceed in a straight line. For example, even if educational policy informed by principles of subsidiarity is right on the money (and I think it is), subsidiarity presumes layers of social well-being and communal health at multiple "levels" of society. But what if the pretensions of the state over the past century—which we rightly protest—have also eviscerated just the sorts of little platoons needed for a "subsidiary" society to flourish? Then simply reorganizing society according to subsidiarity will effectively abandon swaths of society to their own devices. And that not only looks unjust; it is unjust.

In 2011, Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out something similar in the midst of British discussions about "The Big Society" and calls for devolution and decentralization:

The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.

While some of us like to point to the historic vision of Ruskin or Leo XIII, we have to concede that history has continued on a course in the meantime. And things have changed: while the welfare state continued to live off of the borrowed capital of little platoons for a long time, the dual machinations of an overreaching state and a creeping marketization of everything has eroded those historic communities. Curtailing the state's monopolies in order to devolve power to smaller communities only works if smaller communities actually exist.

The puzzling irony, then, is that now, when we call for limiting the state's monopolies in order to make room for other spheres of social flourishing, we have to recognize that, for many, the state is all they've got. That's not an argument for continuing to prop up the behemoth, but it is the reason why policies that encourage "private" endeavours sound like—and can sometimes be cover for—the pursuit of enclaved special interests that abandon the common good. (It's one of the reasons I worry the language of subsidiarity could fall into the hands of libertarians.)

Those who rightly seek to foster civil society outside government, and who do so for the sake of justice and common good, need to concurrently address how to care for all those who, severed from any meaningful little platoons, are effectively wards of the state. And, in fact, advocates of subsidiarity are aware of this. As Pope John Paul II noted in Centesimus Annus, the vagaries of history sometimes mean we'll find ourselves in an emergency system where we have to make up for the micro-societies that are no longer there:

In exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.

The goal, of course, is to encourage, nourish, and support flourishing micro-societies within society. There is, without question, an opportunity for the church to enfold and care for those for whom the state is, effectively, their only "parish" and for whom public schools are their only sanctuary. We can do so even as we encourage healthy Jewish and Muslim "little platoons" educating children for their—and the common—good. But there remain significant questions about whether something like our default humanism and its secular myths are enough to really sustain the civil society we need.

Reform can only be enacted in the messiness of history, so challenging the monopoly of the state should not be confused with burning it to the ground. And calling for the state to make room for flourishing communities to educate children in accordance with their visions might not be mutually exclusive with seeing a limited, if lamentable, role for state schools in the meantime. We are where we are, and we got here for a reason: envisioning and hoping for something better includes taking seriously those at risk in this "meantime."

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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