Contra Garnett

by Michael Sean Winters

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My friend and fellow Catholic commentator Rick Garnett has taken issue with my takedown of George Weigel’s most recent article. I charged that Weigel is dissenting from Church teaching. Garnett thinks I may have overstated the case. Unfortunately, and quite uncharacteristically, Garnett uses a strawman or two to make his argument, which I shall consider below. More importantly, Garnett – and Weigel – seem to be unaware of the actual state of affairs on their side of the aisle, invoking the possibility of an “anti-statist” but nonetheless compassionate conservatism that simply does not exist.

First the strawmen. Garnett writes:

It is sometimes hackery, but in any event it's mistaken, to assert (as some in recent months have done) that, “because the Church supports unions, it's contrary to Church teaching to criticize public-employee unions,” or to claim that “because the Church teaches that the political community has an obligation to the vulnerable, it's contrary to Church teaching to express concerns about the costs, efficiency, and long-term sustainability of current social-welfare-spending practices.”

It would be hackery indeed to say that the Church’s support for unions forbids criticism of public sector unions, but the issue in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states taken over by the GOP in 2010 has not been “criticism” of public sector unions. The issue has been the right of the unions to collectively bargain. Wisconsin was the most famous case. There, Governor Scott Walker began his term by enacting large tax breaks for the wealthy. This created a larger state government deficit than the one he inherited and he used the “crisis” he had thus helped create to justify not only cutting benefits for public sector employees but to deny their right to collectively bargain. Do Walker’s actions constitute “criticism” of unions? Or do they, as I believe, constitute a repudiation of Church teaching on the rights of workers?

Weigel, of course, loves unions so long as they are in the rear view mirror, circa 1980, and in Poland. Solidarnosc – which all peoples who love freedom and justice should recall with admiration – ended up playing a pivotal role in the collapse of Communism, exposing as never before the lie the Marxist regime told about it being a government of the workers. The lie had been long understood, but when the workers, the actual workers, stood up to the government of Poland, the lie became unsustainable. It took several years of martial law for the political and social ramifications of the exposure of the lie to take hold, but take hold they did, and the collapse of communism in Poland was only a matter of time. American conservatives, like the communists in Poland, claim to support the Church’s teachings on the rights of workers, they just don’t like these unions. This is an old rhetorical trick, to suggest support for a general rule – unions are good – while in fact fighting unionism tooth and nail in the real world. You can support unions and disagree with their actions, just as one can support the Second Amendment and not the NRA or support Israel and not agree with every decision taken by Bibi Netanyahu. But, when everything you say and support has a distinctly anti-union flavor, you must, if you are to avoid the charge of being opposed to the Church’s support for unions in principle, indicate a better way forward, especially if you are a public intellectual like Garnett is and Weigel claims to be.

Garnett also seeks to create another strawman, that of a kind of moral equivalence between left and right, and this is where he, like Weigel, betrays a simple failure to grasp the political reality of the moment. Garnett writes:

So, as I see it, Catholics whose politics are on the "progressive" left have to be careful not to equate the Church's affirmation of "society" with a default preference for government or state action. And, Catholics whose politics are on the "conservative" right have to be careful not to allow an appropriate appreciation for the facts that the society (like the family and the Church) is prior to and different from the state, the competence and legitimate authority of which is limited, to become a crude, knee-jerk, anti-government stance.

That is how I see it too. But, in case Garnett has not noticed, “progressive” Catholics are not allergic to revising and improving government programs that are demonstrably helping the poor. Nor does it seem to me that the left today, Catholic or otherwise, is simply beholden to “state action.” The Affordable Care Act is so complicated precisely because it did not try to undo the ridiculous system of private sector health insurance that we have in this nation in favor of a public sector health care system like the UK’s National Health Service. Garnett is smart enough to understand that whatever else the ACA is or is not, it is not “government-run” health care. Yes, there will be more involvement by the government in the delivery of health insurance. Yes, at times, the government will overstep in its role, as we have seen in the HHS mandate. But, we know what “government run” health care would look like. I would be fine with that. I am quite certain Garnett would not be. But, what is enjoined on Catholics of all political affiliations is recognition that health care is a basic human right, and the provision of adequate health care is a basic moral responsibility of a society.

Mr. Weigel wrote, and Garnett repeats, “Catholic default positions in favor of shoring up, even expanding, the post-World War II American social welfare state must also be re-examined because of certain undeniable realities. Catholic social doctrine is a tradition of moral realism: it takes facts seriously.” I would submit that one of the “undeniable realities,” of the post-war era is that unlike all other modern, industrialized nations, America alone has millions of uninsured fellow citizens. And I would submit that evidence of a “tradition of moral realism” that “takes facts seriously,” would be some kind of proposal from Catholic conservatives that would address that undeniable reality. Tort reform is not the same thing as taking facts seriously.

Weigel and Garnett have an obligation to explain to the rest of us precisely which “statist” policies they want to rollback and how such a rollback would serve the common good. Food stamps? Re-read Matthew 25 and then ask yourself which is more morally urgent, maintaining a program that helps feed hungry people, a program that could be improved and made more efficient to be sure, but one that nonetheless limits one of the usual scourges that accompany poverty, malnutrition, or maintaining tax breaks for millionaires? Would Weigel and Garnett suggest rollbacks in Medicaid which, as we saw last week, not only advances social justice, but is demonstrably pro-life? It would be one thing to criticize federal programs that help the poor if, at the same time, conservatives were proposing a series of alternatives state and local policies to meet the same needs. Mr. Walker was so busy attacking unions and shoveling money to millionaires in the form of tax breaks, perhaps he has not had time to craft a state program to alleviate poverty, malnutrition, or lack of access to health care. Has the conservative darling Congressman Paul Ryan come up with local or private alternatives to the programs his budget would eviscerate?

The USCCB has consistently proposed three standards for moral evaluation when it comes to federal budgetary priorities. Does a given proposal protect human dignity? How does it affect “the least of these?” And, does it advance the common good? I would submit that today’s Democratic Party, for all its many faults, is still animated by the last two of these criteria and desperately needs to wrestle more seriously with the first. But, I would also submit that today’s Republican Party simply ignores these last two criterion and only pays lip service to the first.

Garnett writes, “Of course -- as the President might say, ‘let me be clear’: It is not the case that we should, or that Catholics may, give up on solidarity or on using political and other resources and power to care for the vulnerable. No one is saying that.” Actually, Rick, today’s GOP is saying precisely that and Catholics like Weigel are attempting to give them cover for saying so. Regular readers will know of the profound esteem I have for Garnett’s mind and his contributions to public debate. But, his gifts would be better deployed than in enabling Weigel by supporting a false moral equivalence between Democratic proposals which, however flawed, are actually helping poor and vulnerable people today and GOP proposals that reflect the kind of social Darwinism the modern social welfare state was designed to combat.


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