The Ryan Selection & The Shape of the Election

by Michael Sean Winters

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Already, the entry of Congressman Paul Ryan onto the national stage is generating some interesting debates within the Catholic world and within the political commentariat. It seems to me that three issues are brought into greater focus by the selection of Ryan, although hoping for intellectual clarity on those issues during a political campaign may be hoping for the proverbial bridge too far. But, here goes.

First, Intrinsic Evil. Already, the website has warned liberals like me against making any “false equivalence” between Joe Biden’s dissent from Church teaching on abortion and gay marriage and Ryan’s dissent on social justice. To be clear, abortion is an intrinsic evil. (The HHS mandate is not an intrinsic evil, even though Supreme Knight Carl Anderson suggested it was on EWTN last week, showing how even the very well informed may not understand the concept of intrinsic evil.) There are dozens of things that are intrinsically evil, of course, and besides, since when is extrinsic evil not-so-bad? The important distinction in public matters is not whether the evil in question is intrinsic or extrinsic. The important distinction is whether it is grave or not. To repeat an example I have used before, and which Cathleen Kaveny first employed, driving while under the influence is, by definition, not an intrinsically evil act, but it is a very grave evil, and we are right to legislate against it.

But, the discussion points to a more important distinction. Of course, the taking of innocent unborn human life is more grave than laying off a worker or failing to provide public housing. And, Catholic apologists for the Democrats have been far, far too willing to dance around that gravity. But, the political issue is not whether the one is of greater moral gravity than the other but the prudential issue of what to do about both kinds of evil. Republicans like to invoke the need for prudential judgment when discussing the budget and they seem to think it permits just about anything. Failing to help the poor is gravely evil, and it is not less evil because it is an act of omission (“what I have failed to do” as we say in the Confiteor). If Mr. Ryan said, “Look, these federal programs that help the poor are not working, or they are not efficient, or they have too many downsides that accompany them, therefore I am proposing a series of local and state initiatives to combat poverty,” then he and his champions could invoke the argument about prudential judgment. But, today’s GOP is not, in fact, advocating a different approach to helping the poor, they are only advocating draconian cuts to programs that are currently working.

As well, those of us in the pro-life community have to think, and think deeply, about how to eradicate the evil of abortion. There can be no wishy-washy, “I am personally opposed, but don’t want to impose my views on others” nonsense – and, yes, that line of reasoning is nonsense. Abortion is an evil, a very grave evil, and the fact that there are millions of them every year should prick the conscience of us all. But, the moral certainty we have about abortion does not easily translate into political certainty about what should be done to eradicate the evil. If Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, I suspect most states would enact legislation similar to the court’s ruling, and after two or five or twenty women die from illegal abortions, the public outcry would be such that Roe would be enacted as a statute at the federal level within a matter of months. I confess I am not sure how to proceed, how to most effectively combat the evil. I think it is vital to make sure that no woman feels she must have an abortion because of financial or social pressures. I think we need to witness differently, admit that we understand why women in distressing circumstances can see abortion as an answer to those circumstances but that doesn’t make it right, and do our best as Catholics to change those circumstances or at least provide better options. Only when our witness has helped our society reach a certain level of moral consensus on the issue can we be sure that a legal change will not backfire. But, again, these facts may make Catholics on the left wary of using their vote or their veto to advance the pro-life cause, but nothing, absolutely nothing, gets them off the hook for failing to use their voice. We may not be able to end abortion tomorrow, but the only way to achieve an end to abortion some day is to start speaking against it today.

Second, Entitlement programs. I hope the Democrats don’t mess this one up. I recall seeing a news report on television in which a GOP congressman, it may have been Ryan, was asked about the proposal to change Medicare from a guaranteed benefit to a voucher program. The congressman assured the woman asking the question that if she was over 55 years of age, her benefits would not be affected. She replied, “What about my kids?”

Medicare, like Social Security and Medicaid and SNAP, deliver benefits to people in need. But, the programs are not really about the recipients, they are about the kind of society we want. Do we want, and are we willing to pay for, a society in which certain basic human necessities, those without which human dignity is denied not honored, are up for grabs and available only to the fittest and the successful? Or do we want a society that recognizes that human persons, qua human persons, are entitled to shelter, food, and health care?

Say, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan win and are able to enact their proposals. Instead of a guaranteed benefit, seniors will get a voucher to purchase insurance. Say the insurance they purchase fails to cover them when some new disease afflicts them? Or the insurance company jacks up the rates so high, the person can no longer afford the coverage? Romney and Ryan plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so such scenarios are not remote. Are we to say to the person, sorry, but you should have chosen a better insurance policy? You didn’t, so no one is obligated to pay for your chemotherapy or other treatment. You are on your own. Keep warm and well fed. Is that the kind of society we want? Is that who we are? Medicare is not about seniors, it is about us, all of us. Better to say, because it is about seniors and their needs, it is about us. Medicare does not promise lavish spa visits of the kind rich people can afford when they get another round of tax breaks. Medicare promises that American citizens will be freed from the fear of bankruptcy as their health needs become a more prominent aspect of life in its later stages. As a society, we should be willing to pay for that.

Third, economic libertarianism. On Saturday, I wondered aloud if Mr. Ryan had been asleep through the autumn of 2008. The unfettered market brought on the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Yet, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney act as if nothing had sullied the belief, the superstition really, that the Unseen Hand of market forces will produce the best results for everybody.

Last year, I reviewed Angus Sibley’s book “The ‘Poisoned Spring’ of Economic Libertarianism,” in which Sibley, a successful businessman and investor provided plenty of prudential judgments about why the free market needed to be regulated. You can find that review here. I encourage everyone to read Sibley’s book. He focuses less on Ryan’s beloved Ayn Rand, whom even Ryan realizes is persona non grata in public discourse, than on the Austrian economists who still enjoy high esteem in GOP circles. Sibley’s book provides convincing arguments as to why laissez-faire is just lazy, economically and morally.

I received an email from a friend and colleague last night who asked what my indictment of Ryan meant for my frequently stated objection to the reduction of religion to ethics. To be clear: The kind of economic libertarianism espoused by Ryan and Romney is not merely about social ethics. It is about anthropology. Hayek and von Mises and Rand did not view the human person the way we Catholics view the human person. Apart from the “Imago Dei,” – and, to be sure, I never view the human person apart from the Imago Dei, cf. Gaudium et Spes #22 – we view the human person as social in nature, embedded in relationships and in society and culture, in which those relationships do not exhaust human possibilities, in which there is room for individual autonomy to be sure but an autonomy that always holds a social mortgage, and, importantly, in which solidarity, not competition, is the primary exigence of social organization. The issues I have with libertarians of the left or the right is not, first and foremost, an ethical issue, but a deeper one. In the doctrine of the Trinity, in the revelation of Jesus who calls Himself “the son,” we see that at the very heart of reality is a God quite different from the unmoved mover or primordial substance known to the philosophers. Our God is a God whose essence is relationality, or better to say, love. We are created in the image of that God. We are called to everlasting communion with that God. We cannot, in the meantime, opt for a utilitarian or libertarian ethos even if it were proven that it works best, which is not proven. Both parties, in different ways, ask us to abandon the fullness of the Catholic vision of human life and society. Which leads to my last point. I hope all Catholic commentators, left, right and center, will use the next few months not to score political points with those who do not share their partisan affiliations, but to challenge their own side of the aisle, to encourage Democrats not to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the unborn and to encourage Republicans to reject this fetish for human autonomy that is libertarianism. This could be a “Catholic Moment” if all Catholic commentators challenge their own. I fear, instead, the next few months will see both sides treating the faith as window dressing for partisan arguments that are, in different but important ways, hostile to all that the Church teaches about human dignity and society. The Catholic cafeteria is open. How sad.

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