Acton Commentary

In Defense of the Minimal


Periodically, it is good to revisit the foundational principles that make up our worldview, to take a look at what enthralls us. With the many important issues that arise day after day, the urgent can often be mistaken for the important. Such a mistake, of course, always detracts from serious reflection on what is important, making our foundations brittle and our thinking conventional. In no sphere is such a temptation greater than in the area of commentary on public policy, an area where ideas are too easily subsumed by the political.

Such an observation does not denigrate the political, only puts it in its place. For the political arts are a proud and haughty discipline, prone to overreach—especially when its practice is unmoored from the ideas that animate it. It is when politics insists on pursuing the urgent, to the detriment of the important, that it proves to be ugly, arrogant, and ultimately, ineffective. The political arts, lacking substance, become nothing more than mere tactics for the attaining of hollow “victories.” When this happens the dignity of the political, so articulately defended by Aristotle, is soiled by cynicism and degraded by hubris. To preserve the dignity of the political, to prevent it from becoming “mere politics” in the pejorative sense, and to save the substance of sound policy, it is necessary to defend the minimal proposition concerning politics and policy.

Defend the minimal? What does this mean? To understand more easily what it means to defend the minimal, it helps first to understand what the maximal is.

In dealing with the broad categories of politics and policy, it is both necessary and accurate to divide all the actors into two camps—those defending the maximal proposition and those defending the minimal proposition. There is a world of difference separating these two camps. What they do share, however, is recognition of the role played by mediating structures in society—those face-to-face and people-to-people institutions such as the family, churches, private associations, neighborhood relationships, and the seemingly infinite number of other voluntary associations. Both camps attempt to formulate their policy and political agenda around these mediating structures and organizations, but the intentions of these opposing camps toward these structures and organizations are very, very different.

Defenders of the maximal proposition believe that the political and policy institutions of society should utilize these mediating structures to the greatest extent possible. On the surface, such a proposition appears harmless, and perhaps even laudatory. Who would object if the local church-run soup kitchen decides to coordinate its effort with federal, state, and local programs to assist the needy? After all, aren’t we all trying to help the poor? Shouldn’t faith-based institutions be treated fairly for doing the same work? And we all know that resources are scarce; cooperation and coordination in this fashion seems almost morally obligatory . The proponents of the maximal proposition rely on this sentiment to further their cause and, intentionally or not, end up turning every effort of civil society into an agency of the government.

The problem with the maximal proposition, and the resulting co-opting of the mediating structures of society that such a proposition logically entails, lies within the very nature of government action. Government efforts are a construct of policy, designed with incentives and disincentives, administered by bureaucrats, and underwritten by state coercion. This is not to dismiss the positive effects or the possibility of sound policy on the part of government; it is only to recognize its inherent limits. Society’s mediating structures are quite different from government efforts, because they are voluntary and altruistic in nature, with a large majority of them being religiously motivated. These are categories and motivations that the political agenda of the maximal proposition is simply unable to grasp or appropriate. As a result, where the ambiguities of voluntarism and the sureties of coercion intersect, look for coercion to prevail.

Government programs, being the construct of narrow policies based on the demands and limits of politics, are designed to be activist in execution and tend to homogenize the actions of players within the mediating structures. Even when creative thinking is encouraged within the confines of articulated policy, one can safely assume that the limits of creative thinking have been meticulously defined within the statutes governing the policy’s implementation. New programs, personnel, and funding illustrate that those people who need to be seen “doing something” about society’s problems, such as politicians and bureaucrats, have taken action. The maximal proposition has the effect of turning charity into state mandate and mediating institutions into government branch offices. This is an easy, but ineffective road, bringing to mind H.L. Mencken’s aphorism that “for every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

Defenders of the minimal proposition hold that public policy should be designed to do as little damage as possible to the mediating structures of society. Inherent in this understanding is the conviction that it is these mediating structures that offer the most creative and most helpful solutions to social ills. More than that, proponents of the minimal proposition believe that it is the absence, diminishment, and destruction of these institutions that have, in many instances, led to the very social ills that society now needs to address.

This camp, profoundly rooted in the exigencies of human nature as it is (and not as social engineers would have it be), generally look askance at the prescriptions offered by proponents of the maximal proposition. Specifically, they point to the programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” as the triumph of good intentions over positive outcomes. The most ominous negative outcome of these programs’ attempts to utilize society’s mediating structures was the considerable weakening of these structures. Many of these good-intentioned programs had the effect of weakening the structures of family, marriage, churches, and other institutions by simply ignoring the fact that, human nature being such that it is, power and influence always follow the money. Frankly, many of the institutions “used” by government programs left many of these mediating structures demoralized. Particularly targeted (and demoralized) by many of these maximalist programs were black churches, institutions that remain as the most important mediating structure after the family in many neighborhoods across America.

Defenders of the minimalist proposition argue that the minimalist approach is far more capable of achieving maximum effect. Most social ills are the result of personal displacement, due a the breakdown of those, to use Father Richard J. Neuhaus’s term, “communities of particularity, memory, and mutual obligation.” In this view, it is the goal of all social policy to reintegrate the poor, the needy, the wounded, and those lacking the ability to cope, into full participation in these “communities of particularity.” It is these communities, not government programs, which constitute the true social safety net that keeps the vast majority of people from ultimate ruin, alienation, and moral dissipation. Weakening these institutions through inappropriate government intervention or through personal moral corruption not only bodes ominous for meeting the needs of the poor, it calls into question the very survival of our society and nation. The words of an unnamed Catholic priest from the nineteenth century nicely sum up the core convictions of those advocates of the minimalist approach to public policy:

“How long will our nation perdure into the future? I can predict this with full certainty to you: Our nation will exist as long as there are virtuous citizens who struggle against all temptation and hate sin. As long as piety and godliness rule over both you and those citizens who come after you, and as long as the citizens of this nation have moral fortitude, our nation will exist until the end of the world. If it happens, however, that evil and sin should prevail here in the future such that the greater number no longer walk the path of virtue, our nation then will also come to ruin as have all associations that have served sin.”

Central to defending the minimalist proposition from the overreach of maximalist policymakers is the defense of the “libertas ecclesia”, the freedom of the Church. This freedom of the Church is more than just defending the prerogatives of the Church to minister unencumbered by the imperatives of the state. Rather, it is a gauntlet thrown down; a line of demarcation that should not be crossed; an understanding that civil society and its institutions are off-limits to statist intrusion—not just for the good of the mediating structures of civil society, but for the good of the state as well. Neither the state nor civil society can long survive when the state overestimates its responsibilities and civil society is incentivized to underestimate its obligations. One should be rightly suspect of those programs promising to “level the playing field,” for as was said earlier: Where the ambiguities of voluntarism and the sureties of coercion intersect, look for coercion to prevail, coercion being at the heart of even the most well-intentioned maximalist policy proposal.

The challenges of our times are great and it is unfortunate that the maximal proposition still holds many a policy maker in thrall of its potential, despite heaps of evidence illustrating its failure. Taking time to examine the foundations of our worldview and the modes of operating that animate our actions in the public square can be helpful in determining what needs to be done in order to make sound progress in the future. Abraham Lincoln said it best when he stated: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” With such being said, I think the minimal is eminently defensible, then and now.