25 April 2005

Christian democracy in America, revisited

In an earlier post I wondered whether the publication of Lew Daly's "Compassion Capital" might represent the mainstreaming of the neocalvinist and neothomist movements in North America. If so, it will likely be a mixed blessing at best, as any account of a religious perspective native to another continent and culture is certain to be riddled with half truths at best and outright errors at worst. For example, any exploration of neocalvinism by the uninitiated will inevitably bring up the apparent apartheid connection in South Africa. Similarly, mention of neothomism, with its principle of subsidiarity, raises in some minds the spectre of European corporatism and even fascism. Never mind that Afrikaner neocalvinists — some of whom I know personally — were in the forefront of efforts to dismantle apartheid and incurred the displeasure of the nationalist régime. Never mind, as well, that such neothomists as Jacques Maritain and Yves René Simon, authored a manifesto in 1934 warning their compatriots of the dangers of fascism in France. It is simpler to draw caricatures, which makes for easier classification of the unfamiliar.

This said, Daly has an interesting take on a fundamental difference between European christian democracy and the Bush administration's faith-based initiative. The latter is not, after all, an assault on poverty, as Bush has claimed, because social expenditures to combat poverty have not been and do not look set to be increased in the US federal budget. As Daly sees it, here is where christian democracy takes a different approach:

The fundamental mechanism of Christian democracy is the social transfer of income, seeking to “moderate the outcome of the logic of the imperfect market by transferring considerable sums of money to families and other social institutions in need,” as [Kees] van Kersbergen states. Full employment policy is not ideal, because it reaches too far in adjusting social structures. Where markets fail, social transfers rehabilitate families and communities to the material level proper to their needs and dignity. Where social services are necessary for emergencies or temporary needs, the “subsidiary function,” approximating as much as possible a family approach, is the standard. “Privately governed, publicly financed welfare arrangements are the ideal.”

Sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity require independent service providers, and neutral funding of even the most religious. But they do not operate in a social vacuum, and the principal goal is not the provision of services by religious groups, as with the faith-based initiative. To the contrary, what makes subsidiarity in social services something other than charity is the comprehensive system of social transfers that backs it up, guaranteeing a living family wage in good times and bad. Christian democracy repudiates charity in favor of the public transfer of resources. That is what the “social question” was about in 1891, and the comparative results are striking. For example, in the ten-year period after 1984, the United States had less “pre-government” or “market” poverty than Germany, and only slightly more than the Netherlands. Yet “post-government” poverty in the United States—poverty after taxes and transfers—was much higher. Over ten years, the percentage reduction in overall poverty in the United States—pre-to-post-government—was only around 20 percent, while in the Netherlands it was over 90 percent and in Germany nearly 70 percent. The reason for this success is obvious: both countries devote significantly more of their national product to social spending, or, as one recent study puts it, “social transfers matter.” Whether public commitments strengthen or weaken traditional community is a question of benefit types and the structure of services—who provides them—not their finances. Without public finances, justice is not possible.

Christian democracy, in those countries where it has been implemented, is thus based on a systematic collaboration between public and private sectors to combat poverty. This collaboration combines the increased social transfers of social democracy with considerable autonomy for confessionally-based organizations, such that "the public responsibility is to authorize and finance social programs, whereas private responsibility governs the delivery of services or benefits." The American faith-based initiative borrows from christian democracy only the emphasis on private delivery and not the increased social spending.

I myself, while favouring the faith-based initiative, early concluded that Bush's claim that confessionally-explicit organizations are somehow uniquely equipped to combat poverty represented a case of severe overselling. The version of "compassionate conservatism" championed by Marvin Olasky is particularly wont to speak the language of "win[ning] the war on poverty." By contrast, the Center for Public Justice has had a more modest aim, namely, to end discrimination against faith-based organizations in the disbursement of government social welfare funds. Period. It has quite deliberately refrained from making exaggerated claims concerning the efficacy of such organizations. Thus to identify the Center's neocalvinist approach with Olasky's less careful approach is not entirely warranted, even if some of the emphases may coincide.

But what of increasing public social expenditures? From my own reading of the Center's literature and position papers, this does not appear to be a notable emphasis, apart from its new Guidelines for Government and Citizenship urging that financial assistance be "generous and effective, not stingy and second-rate." In this respect, its Canadian counterpart, Citizens for Public Justice, may have a bit of an edge, if Daly's analysis is correct. This, of course, raises the question of what the proper level of social expenditures ought to be in a developed welfare state. Clearly there is no obvious answer to this, which may explain why the Center has not seen fit to incorporate a particular ideal level into its Guidelines. Whatever level is implemented will find some citizens claiming that expenditures are too low and others believing them to be too high.

What further complicates the issue is the fact that social justice organizations, while laudably taking up the cause of the economically disadvantaged, typically urge increased social expenditures no matter what level they happen to be at. If such expenditures constitute 25 percent, 35 percent or even 55 percent of a government's total budget, the social justice advocates will predictably call for even more, apparently without sensing the need to admit the possibility of a realistic upper limit. Last year, in my Comment article, "Neocalvinism and social justice," I wrote the following:

A government with a genuine desire to seek social justice must pursue a variety of strategies, while recognizing that its ability to act directly is limited. To begin with, in those countries characterized by the most egregious maldistribution of productive property, some form of basic redistribution, such as land reform, will have to be considered. However, in most Western countries possessing a substantial middle class, the strategy of choice would likely be different and would entail at least two components. One of these would indeed be to maintain and perhaps even to strengthen the social safety net that is part of the commons, that is, the shared legacy belonging to all citizens of the political community. At what level should this be maintained? The answer cannot be determined a priori but must be subject to the deliberative process that is part and parcel of ordinary politics.

I would still affirm this last statement. At the same time, it might be wise to bring in policy analysts with experience in this field to try to ascertain the proper balance between the generous provision of public services and the maintenance of economic incentives for the private sector. Though they certainly should not be in a position to impose a "solution" directly, their input might nevertheless serve the deliberative process within an elected parliamentary body.

Is the Bush administration availing itself of such expertise? Is it earnestly encouraging Congress to discuss the proper level of social expenditures in the federal budget with a possible view to increasing them if deemed appropriate? Daly believes it is not, although the White House itself suggests otherwise. All the same, Daly persuasively argues that christian democracy, whether in its neocalvinist or neothomist variant, has resources from which the current president could stand to learn. Despite the inaccuracies and half truths in Daly's article, I can enthusiastically agree with this assessment.

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