There should be no serious doubt that the election of Pope Francis in 2013 has emboldened certain Catholics to take not only a strong stand on behalf of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) (or their private interpretation of it), but to even radicalize CST’s tenets to the point where some see the specter of socialism haunting their thinking. Whether that charge is ultimately fair or not is not of immediate interest here. Still, opponents of this more strident (perhaps radical) form of CST have a powerful point when they remind the faithful that one of the building blocks of the Catholic Church’s social magisterium is subsidiarity — the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Too often, though, this is principle is overstated by Catholics attached to economic and political liberalism while being blithely ignored by those who believe, rightly or wrong, CST requires a broad tapestry of social-welfare legislation and regulatory bodies (more on that in a moment). One unfortunate outcome of this misguided quarrel is that it leaves outside observers believing that the ongoing fight for the “soul of CST” is one which is taking place against “freedom lovers” and “statists.” The truth is that many of the participants in this intellectual street fight are ill-informed about both what the Church teaches with respect to subsidiarity and how (primarily federal) regulation operates.
With respect to subsidiarity, proponents of a more expansive reading of CST seem to forget that if one wants to address a problem such as unjust wages, throwing all of their weight behind a significant federal-level minimum wage hike in the name of Christian charity is as wrongheaded as it is a waste of energy. First, there is no guarantee that a minimum wage will always be a just wage; in fact, it’s more likely that it will be unjust, often resulting in shortfalls for many while overcompensating a few. Second, even if a minimum wage could hypothetically bring workers’ pay scales closer to the just amount, a federal minimum wage is too clumsy of a device given disparities in living costs across the country. ($10/hour means a lot less in California than Wyoming.) Third, the principle of subsidiarity appears to dictate that local communities first attempt to address unjust wages through its available communal and legislative resources. In fact, given current federal inaction on the minimum wage issue, this is exactly what we are seeing across the country, albeit with uneven results. While a minimum wage may provide a necessary safety net for some, it is not a panacea. CST demands more (and in certain circumstances less) than what a minimum wage offers, though the particulars will vary across region, industry, and the circumstances of individual workers. Whatever steps are required to ameliorate the wage problem, CST requires that they be taken at the local level first, perhaps even as local as a city or township, before proceeding upward to the state and federal levels.
Of course, this call for localism should not be absolutized, nor should it be promoted vigorously in the face of common sense. National defense, for instance, is a public good that cannot be adequately supplied at the municipal or state levels. Certain multi-state commons, such as fisheries, need higher level oversight in order to curb excess resource depletion. Similarly, some environmental matters, such as harmful emissions, present collective action problems that need to be addressed by a more centralized, over-arching authority. At the same time it is important to bear in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to handle these, and a myriad of other, matters.
It would no doubt be helpful if these sorts of discussions were carried out in a more informed matter. One step in that process would be for all of the disputants to gain some grasp of how government regulation works (at the federal level at least) and what measures are currently in place to try and ensure that new rules are not economically deleterious. A good, though not necessarily uncontroversial, place to start would be a series of articles penned by Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein, who, until August 2012, served as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The first piece to read — which explains the workings of OIRA and the federal regulatory artifice — is “The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs: Myths and Realities,” 126 Harvard Law Review 1838 (2012). Second, to gain a firmer grasp on the use of formal cost-benefit analysis in designing and promulgating regulations, check out “The Real World of Cost-Benefit Analysis: Thirty-Six Questions (And Almost As Many Answers),” 114 Columbia Law Review 167 (2014) before supplementing it with the third piece, “Nonquantifiable,” California Law Review (forthcoming). None of these are “exciting reads,” but so it goes. The purpose of reviewing them is neither to accept Sunstein’s sometimes problematic approaches to regulation nor even to endorse cost-benefit analysis, but rather to gain a foothold on the regulatory state, how it functions, and what it may teach us on when and how to address certain problems through various government agencies. Any Catholic thinker seriously concerned about these matters would be wise to stop stumbling in the dark.