As we approach, the Garrett Ranch rises before us like a city on a hill, an oasis at the edge of the great Texas desert — rather like the Acton Institute's Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference in a sea of pro-bureaucratic rhetoric. Stunted mesquite trees rise like sentinels from dusty ground, testifying to the fact that though the battle is difficult, there is still life and hope in this rugged land, and it is still noble and free. We have gathered to discuss how that metaphor is still relevant to our country and our world.
At the Institute conference held March 7—10 in Paradise, Texas, present and future religious leaders from many denominations gathered to discuss the complex interplay of politics, religion, culture, and economics. But the conference was not merely an academic exercise. Underlying every reading and discussion were the perennial questions, "Do our ideas and practices make us free?" and "If they do not, then what will make us free?"
According to the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted to make a people free. Free persons are full of that salutary pride and energy that allows them to take care of themselves and their own. In order to illustrate this principle, the concept of subsidiarity was discussed in detail.
Stated briefly, subsidiarity means the following: "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 coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with the view to the common good." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1883) In effect, this means that if I need to perform a function or solve a problem, my first court of appeals is myself. Isn't this, after all, what it means to be free and mature? The second court of appeals is perhaps my family and friends. If the function or problem still cannot be taken care of, it devolves upon "intermediate organizations," notably churches and charitable institutions. Only then should the function or problem reach the bureaucratic palms of local, state, and federal governments. With this in mind, one of the primary problems of the welfare state is this: What happens when the sixth or seventh court of appeals becomes the first? Take, for example, how we care for the elderly and the unemployed in the United States. In a court so distant from my problems and concerns as a free person, how can this court of appeals possibly comprise a jury of my peers?
Generally speaking, the problems caused by this state of affairs are evidenced all around us. As a large government continues to usurp the prerogatives of smaller institutions, those smaller institutions, including churches and families, begin to forget what it is like to care for their own. When a limb is not used, it atrophies. When one forgets how to care for oneself, he or she is no longer free.
One of the more provocative statements made at the conference was that it is a scandal to the church that our culture considers it mostly the responsibility of the government to take care of the "poor that we will have with [us] always." (Matt 26:11) To many of the social justice-minded, this statement sounds almost cruel. The statement must be placed within its proper context, however. Those who, usually in good conscience, promote larger government programs often speak of our need for "compassion." But the word compassion once meant "to suffer with," not "to offer handouts to." Sitting down with an elderly Mrs. Smith and sharing a meal with her is much more compassionate and freeing than sending Mrs. Smith a huge block of federal cheese via the U.S. mail. Could it be possible that in our misplaced compassion, we have forgotten the charity that suffers? Not only this, but could our misplaced compassion be growing the very diseases that eat away at the bloom of our freedom? This question was the heart and soul of the Toward a Free and Virtuous Society discussions.
It is safe to say that, given the rapid expansion of the state in the last century, the Acton Institute promotes "less government." It does not follow in the slightest, however, that promoting less government is tantamount to being "anti-government." I am, after all, very much in favor of roses. But the bush must be cut back from time to time that I may have bigger and more beautiful blooms. The Acton Institute only promotes less government so that we might have bigger and more beautiful people.