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How to Limit Government

The United States is no more likely to become Europe than China America. But the worry many have that we will become a comprehensive welfare state and regulatory behemoth is, however ill-framed, well-founded. Our culture doesn’t do a good job of limiting political power. Government will remain in bounds only to the degree that it meets resistance, and the historic sources of resistance—family and faith—are in decline.

The family is the most ancient and enduring of what Burke called the “little platoons” to which we owe a primary loyalty and out of which grow a larger love of country and of mankind. Whether nuclear or extended, the family functions as an independent social organism, shaped by custom and morality deeper than law and regulation. It’s an integrated economic unit that provides the most ancient and enduring form of “social security.” A husband and wife know their needs—and the needs of their children, their own parents, and relatives—in a way that no government can possibly match.

In a healthy society with functional families, a substantial majority resists legislators, regulators, and bureaucrats who overreach. Citizens who feel competent to run their households, manage family finances, and raise children will fight back when government pretends to know best how to assign responsibilities, allocate resources, and educate children.

But today marriage and family are increasingly dysfunctional. Not surprisingly, government expands, of necessity claiming responsibilities once discharged by the now much depleted little platoon. Decades ago, our legal system had very little to say about domestic life. Now we have a whole area called “family law.” Then few programs provided families with financial aid and other support. Now support for single mothers, preschool programs, and general expansion of the social interventions and programs for increasingly isolated, vulnerable individuals reflect well-intentioned, indeed often necessary, efforts to compensate for the weaknesses of the contemporary family.

Government also expands in the redefinition of marriage. Fewer people get married, while more people live together, and those who marry often divorce. Couples believe that having children is optional, shifting the family from its age-old status as the fundamental fact of social life and the primary context for our personal lives toward one lifestyle choice among others. Marriage has been transformed from a morally and socially defined institution into a politically defined one. That’s what always happens when pre-political institutions become choices. Not surprisingly, fewer and fewer resist the redefinition of marriage by judicial opinion, legislative fiat, and ballot resolutions. Whoever controls government now controls marriage. This is a remarkable invasion of the social by the political.

Where family limits from below, religion limits from above. Faith makes a claim— the claim—on our loyalty. As an institution that nurtures and expresses faith, the church or synagogue or mosque is a sacred community with a law of its own. When Caesar’s laws contradict the laws of God, divine authority trumps.

Rousseau saw how Christian faith divides our loyalties. We can be citizens, yes, but we must be disciples first. Our highest loyalty is to the City of God, not the city of man. He rejected this divided loyalty as a threat to genuine freedom, which to his way of thinking requires an integral and all-powerful government that can give full and unlimited expression to the general will of the people. Therefore, he insisted, true religion is a natural and ennobling piety that has no creed or church and, consequently, does not involve a system of authority to rival the state.

Rousseau’s vision has gained ground. Atheism is rare, but many who believe in God don’t like “organized religion.” They describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Disorganized religiosity cannot limit government. A religion without commanding authority lacks the specificity and density of traditional faith strengthened by a creed and communal support in a church. As this weakens, government becomes the saecula saeculorum , the world without end.

Some explain the growing popularity of libertarianism among young people as selfishness, observing that it’s just like twenty-something males to imagine themselves eternally self-sufficient. But this largely misreads the libertarian impulse, which is by no means limited to Princeton undergraduates gunning for jobs on Wall Street. Many young people see libertarianism as a philosophy that will defend them against modern liberalism, which has become a vast politico-cultural complex that regulates everything from the economy to what words you’re allowed to use to talk about sex.

They’re right to want to fend off an imperial political culture that insists on its universal and smothering competence. But they’re wrong to seek refuge in a libertarian philosophy that envisions society as a collection of solitary individuals, people unbound by family ties and religious commitments. This atomizing approach makes us more, not less, vulnerable to political domination and bureaucratic management.

Man does not live by bread alone, nor is a political culture defined in financial terms. We can try to starve government with lower taxes, but it will not be starved. Unsustainable entitlement spending will not eventually bring an apocalypse that ushers in a new era of small government. We need strong families and vibrant religious communities. Without them, Leviathan grows.

America Transformed

After World War II, a powerful middle-class consensus predominated in America. What was good for the newly prosperous, mostly white, mostly suburban middle class was good for the country, and both political parties competed for the middle of the middle. That’s not true anymore. We’re no longer a middle-class nation, in large part because the middle isn’t middle class anymore.

Charles Murray provided a clear and sophisticated account of the new America in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 . (See my reflections on his findings in the March 2012 issue.) Now New Yorker writer George Packer has written a book that supplements Murray’s findings, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America .

Packer’s approach is narrative and anecdotal, Murray’s statistical and sociological. Murray endorses libertarianism. Packer is a man of the left. But both tell us the same thing. We’re at the end of an era. What used to hold us together is coming undone.

Packer focuses on three people, whom he follows from 1978 to the present. Dean Price is a serial (and failed) entrepreneur in North Carolina; Tammy Thomas, a single mother in Youngstown, Ohio; and Jeff Connaughton, a Washington staffer turned lobbyist turned rage-against-the-machine moralist. He provides brief sketches of Oprah Winfrey, Raymond Carver, Colin Powell, Andrew Breitbart, and others. He also returns a number of times to Tampa, Florida, which he treats as ground zero for the housing bubble that led to the 2008 financial crisis. He does not refrain from conveying his political views by way of character assassination (Sam Walton comes in for rough treatment) and shameless puffing (Elizabeth Warren gets royal treatment) as well as through good, old-fashioned leftist innuendo.

The Unwinding has flaws, but it’s about something real: the transformation of our society by powerful forces we don’t fully understand or, in many cases, even acknowledge. Packer focuses on globalization as well as the growing divide between haves and have-nots. And though he doesn’t notice it, his book tells us a lot about the end of marriage as a middle-class institution.

Dean Price is a white man raised in a working-class southern and Bible-thumping Christian household. As an adult he substitutes “peak oil” for Jesus’ return as the great Coming Judgment. Like his itinerant-preacher father, he preaches with fervor—in his case, the alternative-energy gospel. His marriages have suffered as much turmoil as his businesses—and have been as likely to fail.

Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Tammy Thomas was raised by her grandmother because her mother was a drug addict. Sustained by her grandmother’s work ethic, her own innate dignity, and her faith, Tammy manages to navigate into the lower edges of middle-class life. The men in her life give her children but not faithful companionship. Hers is a lonely struggle mitigated primarily by the solidarity she feels with other single black women. Eventually, after working in factories that close because of globalization, she is hired to do community organizing, work she’s good at and finds gratifying.

Smart and ambitious, Jeff Connaughton goes to Washington to work for Joe Biden. He parlays his political experience into a partnership at Quinn Gillespie, one of Washington’s most successful lobbying firms, where he makes millions. After Joe Biden’s election as vice president, Jeff returns to public service, now as chief of staff for Ted Kaufman, appointed as Biden’s replacement in the Senate. Someone who knows how Washington works, Jeff wants to change the system, but fails, and leaves D.C. a bitter (and very rich) man.

Then there are the Hartzells, a poor white family in Tampa. Danny and Ronale have two kids. High-school dropouts estranged from their alcoholic relatives, who are in any event poor as well, they live on the ragged edges of indigence, carless in a city where it’s very nearly impossible to get anywhere on public transportation.

Packer never seems to notice the role of marriage. He does not stop to ask if Jeff Connaughton’s existential emptiness stems, at least in part, from that fact that as a single man he has organized his life around himself even as he claims the high moral ground of civic-mindedness. Nor does he contemplate the ways in which Dean Price lacks the ballast of a stable family life. There’s no reflection on how her role as a single mother, single breadwinner, and single pillar of stability for her children made Tammy Thomas’ climb into the middle class much more difficult. And he does not see that the Hartzells are able to hang on because they’re married.

The decline in marriage as a middle-class institution corresponds to the economic decline of the middle class and its erosion as a great and stable center of America culture and politics. That correlation should guide our analysis of politics today. Over the past two decades, American liberalism and the Democratic party have reoriented themselves away from the needs of middle-class America and are organizing themselves around an upper-middle-class project of enhanced lifestyle freedoms that benefit them at high cost to those lower down on the social ladder. The unwinding that Packer and so many other liberals lament will not be stopped, much less ­reversed, unless liberalism and the Democratic party promote marriage as a middle-class institution.

Our New Elite

Packer is not entirely blind to liberalism’s reorientation toward upper-middle-class interests. He briefly profiles Alice Waters, a Berkeley gourmand and bon vivant. She sees herself as a foodie revolutionary, someone hoping to bring “a revolution of the senses, a communal experience of pleasure” that will counter “puritanical, mass-produced America.” As Packer observes, this revolution turns out to be a luxury of the rich, as have been so many post-sixties transformations of middle-class culture.

As he seems to half know, today the Democratic party’s muse is far more likely to be the Berkeley gourmand and bon vivant than Tammy Thomas. Or Ronale Hartzell. A poorly educated white woman, she’s almost entirely invisible in our current political culture. (That includes the right, by the way. Many American conservatives want to reorient the Republican party around a purified message of economic freedom that has less than nothing to do with the lives of people like Ronale Hartzell.)

And then there’s Jeff Connaughton. He represents our new ruling class. Vice presidential staffer, multimillionaire lobbyist, then chief of staff for a senator: Nobody has a sounder claim to being part of the “establishment” than Connaughton. And yet he sees himself as an outsider.

After the advent of multiculturalism, being “marginal” rose in status and being at the center became an existential burden. To be part of the establishment was to be responsible for lots of bad, oppressive stuff. Not surprisingly, no matter how rich or wellborn, everybody scrambled to find ways to be an “outsider,” a dissenter, a free spirit. Thus Connaughton. He spent his entire adult life at the center of the mad scramble for power and wealth in Washington—and succeeded—but nevertheless fashions himself a rebel. It’s a fascinating psychological conceit: devoting one’s life to getting to the center while denying one is part of the establishment.

Packer often refers to “the establishment,” as if there are people in Washington fundamentally different from Jeff Connaughton. I doubt it. President Obama himself seems to cultivate the same self-image. Most of the people who run things today want to view themselves as outsiders—as “a fresh voice” or “an agent of change.”

So it’s not just the middle class that is being transformed. The top is changing as well. What made the old establishment an establishment was as much a mentality as its wealth and power. That mentality had its own conceits and self-deceptions. Franklin Roosevelt would have denied he strove for high office; he preferred to think he was accepting his duty to the country and assuming a position proper to his rank and talent. There’s a very unappealing sense of entitlement in this older elite culture, but there’s an equally appealing sense of responsibility.

After the 1960s, elite culture rejected an older sense of class entitlement—replaced it, I fear, with an attitude of individual entitlement encouraged by a meritocratic ideology. This has led to a transformed sense of responsibility as well. As Jeff Connaughton’s story indicates, today’s elites tend to oscillate between a self-complimenting idealism that rages against “the system” and highly pragmatic harvesting of the wealth, position, and perquisites that “the system” so generously provides to the meritocratic elite. They are happy to be beneficiaries—to be “takers”—while adopting the pose of the revolutionary or “outsider.” This unwinding of the older establishment mentality at the top may be as important as the erosion of the middle.

Popes and Interviews

After last month’s interviews with Pope Francis were released—the long one conducted by Jesuit Antonio Spadaro and the shorter one by atheist Eugenio Scalfari—the New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein opined that they leave “no doubt that he is in a hurry to further the stalled work of the Second Vatican Council: to open the church to modern culture, and to have a dialogue with other religions and nonbelievers.” Finally, after the conservative, backward-looking pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church is getting up to speed!

It’s not a persuasive reading of Pope Francis. The pope calls himself “a son of the Church,” whose teachings are “clear.” But Goodstein’s is not an implausible reading.

In the first place, in Francis we’re not dealing with a modern politician or corporate titan who surrounds himself with speechwriters and handlers who keep him “on message.” The spontaneity is refreshing, a nice counter-witness to our manipulative and increasingly untruthful public culture of carefully orchestrated sound bites. But spontaneity naturally leads to messages that can be misrepresented. The most prominent have been his statements about gays and lesbians, which the secular press has presented as indicating a rejection or at least moderation of Catholic teaching. That’s not surprising. Our secular culture is obsessed with sexual identity and can’t stop talking about it.

There are substantive reasons behind progressive enthusiasm, however, that are less blatantly self-serving. John Paul II was an immensely cultured man with expansive interests who spoke with doubters and atheists and worked to infuse the spirit of Christian humanism into the best of modern secular philosophy. But he also had a determined and courageous spirit of opposition to evil, one doubtless formed and hardened by his youthful experiences of Nazi brutalities and his long adult struggle with communism. His image of what we’re up against, the culture of death, was powerful.

Benedict’s papacy reflected an equally encompassing mind and spirit. His dialogue with Jürgen Habermas fulfilled the hopes of Gaudium et Spes : a man of faith finding common ground with a man of goodwill. But he also emphasized a firm Christian resistance to the dangers and perversions of the post-Christian West, most memorably to the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Here there is a real difference. Pope Francis shies away from opposition. The most famous example is the “Who am I to judge?” response to a question about gay people. Less noted but more important are his measured statements about the challenges we face, which reflect a context only well-catechized Christians are likely to recognize.

In one interview he was asked about social changes and “the way human beings are reinterpreting themselves.” The question evokes thoughts of many destructive tendencies in secular society: doctor-assisted suicide, which reinterprets the individual as master of life and death; fluid sexual identities that treat human nature as raw material for self-expression; a consumerist mentality unable to recognize the common good. But Francis focuses on the successes of modern society, not its failures: the abolition of slavery and, in places, the death penalty.

Instead of reflecting on the modern ambivalence about objective moral truths—a tendency that so concerned John Paul II and Benedict—Francis observes that “in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better.” Our age makes mistakes, to be sure, but he consistently turns to the Church, not the world, for examples of failure. “The Church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think,” he observes in one instance. He then singles out “decadent Thomist commentaries” for censure.

There’s quite a bit of the Sermon on the Mount in this reflection: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” The secular press does not recognize this pattern of Christ-guided self-scrutiny—nor that Jesus says these things in the context of a long discourse filled with firm and highly specific teachings about how we are to behave. This scriptural background should give pause to those who imagine that Pope Francis is preparing to make vague and ineffectual any of the Church’s moral teachings that he himself pronounces “clear.”

Nevertheless, this is a stance different from those of the last two popes. They tended to emphasize the spirit of St. Paul’s words “Be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort.” Where John Paul II and Benedict were inclined to see the Church as a sign of contradiction, Francis tends to see the Church as a companion who encourages, or as an attentive, sympathetic doctor. Secular readers intuit this difference, and they read Pope Francis as poised to affirm them and the moral culture of our time.

Another dimension of his interviews encourages this view. The pope observes that we’re not to allow ourselves to get locked up “in small things, in small-minded rules.” The Church needs to find “new roads” and “new paths” and “to step outside itself.” This will require “audacity and courage.” In many other places, he condemns a mentality that is juridical and “small-minded,” that creates an “environment of closed and rigid thought.” This approach fears change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins, on the frontier.” A Christian is not to be “a restorationist, a legalist” or to long for “an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security’” but instead must embrace “open-ended thinking.”

I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets by observing that these stock phrases and images come from the standard playbook of progressive reform, both religious and secular. This way of talking does not challenge but instead tacitly reinforces the dominant way of thinking in America. It is a dogma of our time that anyone who dissents from progressive views is narrow, bigoted, close-minded. Meanwhile, “audacity and courage” characterizes anyone who takes up the progressive agenda. Is it then surprising that the New York Times , the Huffington Post , and the National Catholic Reporter are delighted? By their reckoning, the pope is singing from their hymnal.

A single pope can’t speak with equal concern and effectiveness to every Catholic’s circumstances. Francis’ rhetoric of transformation, however fitting on its own terms, isn’t always helpful here. I look around today and don’t see much in the way of “closed and rigid thought,” at least not in the Church in America. On the contrary, a typical Catholic parish in New York almost certainly contains a far wider range of political and moral views than the faculty of Columbia University—or, for that matter, of Fordham University—and certainly more than the staff of the New York Times .

Of himself, Francis says, “I am a bit astute . . . but it is also true that I am a bit naive.” By my reading of the signs of the times in America, he’s been a bit naïve. His words have given unhelpful encouragement to those who would like the Catholic Church to surrender and accept the dominance of our secular elite. But he’s also been a bit astute. We need to take risks to bear witness to Christ, perhaps most frighteningly the risk of admitting to the beam in our own eyes.

Erasmus Lecture

On Monday evening, October 21, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks delivered the twenty-sixth annual Erasmus Lecture to a standing-room-only crowd of five hundred at the Union League Club of New York. Sacks served as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for more than twenty years. In that role, he became one of the world’s most prominent spokesmen for Jews and Jewish concerns. And not just Jews. Sacks speaks for religious believers of all faiths who find themselves embattled in the secular West.

His lecture, “On Creative Minorities,” was a direct response to then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections on the post-Christian West and to his call for faithful men and women to see themselves as a leaven, a creative minority. Long powerless and often oppressed, but still enduring and often influential, Jews, Sacks argued with eloquence and grace, can help show Christians how to be a creative minority.

Every year’s lecture is memorable. But this year’s was not just intellectually engaging. It was religiously momentous. Over the past half century, the Catholic Church, along with other Christians, has been entering into dialogue with Jews. Sacks’ lecture marked a striking advance. He presumes dialogue and calls for partnership. Jews and Christians need to stand together—and speak together—in joint witness to what he called the “ethic of love.”

His lecture will be published in these pages soon.