Conservatives Must Increase Economic Security Not Undermine It

According to the idiosyncratic twentieth-century French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, “Order is the first need of all.” She wrote this line while enumerating the needs of the human soul, and defined order as “a texture of social relationships such that no one is compelled to violate imperative obligations in order to carry out other ones.”

But her claim also applies if we use a much more prosaic definition of order—say, the everyday order of a prosperous, law-abiding society where no one worries about getting mugged on the way to work, or losing their job and being unable to find a new one, or going broke to pay for medical care. An orderly society in today’s world is one where everyone has a reasonable degree of physical safety and confidence in the rule of law, as well as access to food, shelter, healthcare, education, and work. When many people go without these basic needs and face the prospect of starvation, serious illness, or extreme financial deprivation, their lives become unstable and insecure; they lack order and predictability.

If order in this expansive definition is our “first need,” then most people will prioritize it over other goods like independence and self-expression—and they will be willing to give up a relatively high degree of liberty in order to get it. These tendencies have obvious implications for the realm of politics and economics. Capitalism, for all its power to create wealth and spur technological development, entails a fair amount of disorder. Companies are founded and disbanded, industries rise and fall, workers are hired and let go. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare programs, and the rest of the safety net were created to mitigate this disorder and provide low-income individuals and families with at least some minimal degree of security.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many Americans feel threatened when conservatives seek to cut food stamps, slash welfare programs, stop the expansion of Medicaid, and limit unemployment benefits (even as job seekers far outnumber available jobs). The intentions behind these initiatives may not be cruel, but their results sometimes are. For an adult without savings and with a few mouths to feed, a $90-per-month cut in food stamps or a three-month bout of unemployment can mean serious difficulty. For those without health insurance, an unexpected emergency can mean bankruptcy. Even as conservatives tout a few sources of order—families, religious institutions, charities—their policies almost seem designed to exacerbate the destabilizing, disruptive aspects of market forces. It’s no wonder that the average American says Democrats are “more concerned with the needs of people like me” than the GOP.

If Republicans hope to win back the working class and make inroads with minorities (who are disproportionately likely to be poor or near-poor), then, they will need to do more than appeal to abstract notions of liberty. In a country that already has great freedoms, many voters will prefer to sacrifice a bit of liberty for a higher degree of economic security—and I find it hard to blame them. Conservatives should find ways to give these voters more order and stability, not less. Families, churches, and community groups are indeed crucial here, but they alone can’t guarantee well-paying jobs, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and good schools.

But just because the government has a role to play in these areas doesn’t mean Republicans need simply sign on to Democratic ideas. Conservatives, too, have proposed creative reforms that would increase workers’ wages, spur job creation, and give families access to better schools. If they want to attract new voters and improve the lives of the financially vulnerable, they would do well to concentrate their energy not on trimming the safety net but on developing and implementing policies like these.

Anna Sutherland is a freelance writer and the editor of Family-Studies.org. You can follow Family Studies on Facebook and Twitter.


Around the Web

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A Year Later, the Pope Benedict Most People Forget by John Gehring: “The Benedict legacy often forgotten today amid the understandable euphoria over Pope Francis is a significant contribution to the Church’s social justice tradition.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict by Michael Sean Winters: “Benedict’s pontificate was seminal in critical ways. His theological writings on the environment were more profound, and more urgent, than those of any other world leader, and surely the environmental crisis we continue to invite will be one of the most challenging crises humanity has ever faced.”

An economic school has led to gridlock in Washington by EJ Dionne: “When it comes to government policy, the Austrian economists paved the road to paralysis.”

Raising the minimum wage is the right idea for the right by EJ Dionne: “Conservative politicians really need to ask themselves: If they refuse to raise the minimum wage and at the same time insist on cutting health care and wage-support programs, are they not consigning millions more of their fellow citizens to lives of poverty? Most Americans reject this view, and that includes most conservatives who believe in work, family and personal responsibility.”

A Srebrenica moment in Syria? by Nicholas Burns: “Putin will never reach a ‘Srebrenica moment’ on Syria. That leaves the rest of us to consider once more — how many more lives will be claimed by Syria’s ceaseless civil war before we are finally shamed to stop the killings?”

Front Left Corner of Heaven by Terrance Klein, America: “Because heaven is all about love, nothing but love can lead us there.”

Praise these Special Olympians by Michael Gerson: “People with intellectual disabilities are largely invisible in the global development agenda, but they should be its cutting edge.”

Beware of Pope Francis by Timothy Shriver: “When he embraced the young man with severe disabilities, he was calling on the world to change its approach to how we value human life by putting the most vulnerable at the center. To do so, each of us needs to become more vulnerable ourselves. That’s not easy or  comfortable.”

The Tea Party and the Hammock Theory of Poverty by Greg Sargent: “Some Republican lawmakers do seem sincere about charting a new course on poverty. But the party agenda remains in thrall to a set of ideas that remain largely the province of a small tea party minority, and are not nearly as widely held among Republicans overall.”

Yes, progressives can embrace Downton Abbey!  by Morning’s Minion: “The old order—unequal and unjust as it might have been—was nevertheless based on the notion that we are not simply autonomous individuals following our own destinies and our own desires. Rather, it was based on the firm principle that we are bound to society and to each other by reciprocal rights, duties, and responsibilities.”

What liberals can learn from the author of The Culture of Narcissism by Damon Linker: “Perhaps the most controversial element of Lasch’s argument, then no less than now, was his assertion that the Left’s advocacy of the sexual revolution was in fact a betrayal of both women and the working class. Whereas the family was once a ‘haven in a heartless world’ (to cite the title of the book in which Lasch first advanced the claim), the sexual revolution encouraged its near-total assimilation into the capitalist order of consumption and exchange.”


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Attacks on religion, liberty by Robert P. George  and Katrina Lantos Swett: “It is both ironic and tragic that in this season of universal goodwill the Christian communities of the ancient Biblical lands should find themselves in grave danger. Let us stand in solidarity with them today, and let us rededicate ourselves to the cause of protecting the religious liberty of men and women everywhere.”

Which Policies Reduce Income Inequality? by Laura Tyson: “President Obama has made significant progress combating income inequality. Under his leadership, the federal income tax system has become more progressive, and Obamacare is the most progressive social-insurance program since Medicare and Medicaid began in 1965. But there is far more to do. Raising the minimum wage is the right next step.”

The Church in 2014 by Michael Sean Winters: “The pope will continue his focus on the poor and challenge those of us in the affluent West to re-think our assumptions about economics and the good life, and he will continue to articulate this concern as key to evangelization. And, I suspect he will continue to tone down the culture wars. The difference in 2014 is that while last year we had symbolic and rhetorical steps in this direction, in 2014 we will see concrete acts and decisions, putting structural, organization flesh on his priorities.”

Changed, Not Ended by Julia Walsh: “I am not worried about changes in religious life; I am excited. I trust that God is up to something amazingly good. I believe that God is helping religious life evolve to meet the changing needs of society. I pray that we will have the courage and freedom to let go of anything that slows us from moving into God’s hope-filled future. I am glad I will be with sisters, strengthened by the legacies, traditions and prayers of our elders. Thank God, by grace, we are in this together.”

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Yes, You Should Talk Politics With Your Family by Anna Sutherland: “Family life is not always peaceful, but in a world of instant gratification and echo chambers, it’s a healthy check on our self-centeredness, our egos, and our confidence in our own ideas.”

Archbishop Kurtz on the new pope by Greg Hillis: “When it comes to the implications of Pope Francis’ message for himself, Archbishop Kurtz hears the pope saying to him and to all clergy: ‘Don’t become distant from the people you serve. Find ways to hear people, to visit people… The Holy Father is not asking us to see the person from a distance. He’s asking us to be close up.’ And indeed, the archbishop said, it is this accompanying of the person genuinely and lovingly that has to come before all else, because ‘if there is not that attempt to seek to accompany, then there will be no credibility.’”

Syria’s children suffer, and the world just shrugs by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: “The world has devoted a great deal of diplomatic energy to securing Syria’s chemical weapons. It has yet to do the same for securing Syria’s children.”

Out of jobs, out of benefits, out of luck by David Frum: “People who can’t work still must eat. Americans in distress have a claim on the rest of the nation. Extend unemployment insurance. Sustain food stamps. While we’re looking for a new deal, at least quit deluding ourselves that the old deal is still operable. It’s not. It has passed on, from everywhere except our increasingly outdated memories.”

The resurgent progressives by EJ Dionne: “You might summarize the revived left’s basic gripe with this question: Why was it so much easier to spend public money on rescuing financial institutions than on rescuing families caught in a cycle of unemployment, collapsing incomes and foreclosures?”

Listening to the Founding Fathers by Michael Gerson: “The broad purposes of the modern state — promoting equal opportunity, providing for the poor and elderly — are valid within our constitutional order. But these roles are often carried out in antiquated, failing systems. The conservative challenge is to accept a commitment to the public good while providing a distinctly conservative vision of effective, modest, modern government.”

States make moves toward paid family leave by Washington Post: “The moves on the state level, advocates say, are a sign that people are tired of waiting for Congress to act to bring workplace laws dating to the 1930s, when a majority of mothers were at home, in line with a modern workforce, in which a majority of mothers work.”

Rocky Mountain High? by CNS: “Denver Police Chief Robert White said in late December that his staff will not actively enforce bans on recreational smoking in public, adding to some parents’ fears that the murky situation will become a legal free-for-all.”


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Pope’s ambassador: US bishops should act warmly toward Catholics, not follow ideology by AP: “The Vatican ambassador to the U.S., addressing American bishops at their first national meeting since Pope Francis was elected, said Monday they should not ‘follow a particular ideology’ and should make Roman Catholics feel more welcome in church.”

Sit down and be quiet: How to practice contemplative meditation by US Catholic: “One day in 1974 Meninger dusted off an old book in the monastery library, a book that would set him and some of his fellow monks on a whole new path. The book was The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous 14th-century manual on contemplative meditation.”

The Francis Era: Synthesis or Civil War? by Ross Douthat: “And for my generation of Catholics, wherever our specific sympathies lie, this inheritance of conflict has created a hunger for synthesis – for a way forward that doesn’t compromise Catholic doctrine or Catholic moral teaching or transform the Church into a secular N.G.O. with fancy vestments, but also succeeds in making it clear that the Catholic message is much bigger than the culture war, that theological correctness is not the only test of Christian faith, and that the church is not just an adjunct (or, worse, a needy client, seeking protection) of American right-wing politics.”

Everything You Need To Know About Batkid by Ryan Broderick, Buzzfeed: “Five-year-old Miles spent the day keeping the streets of Gotham/San Francisco safe from ne’er-do-wells.”

Prudence or Cruelty? by Nicholas Kristof: “So slashing food stamp benefits — overwhelmingly for children, the disabled and the elderly — wouldn’t be a sign of prudent fiscal management by Congress. It would be a mark of shortsighted cruelty.”


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Pot and Jackpots by Ross Douthat: “There are significant differences in the ways gambling and pot have won America….But both have been made possible by the same trend in American attitudes: the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy. And both, in different ways, illustrate the potential problems facing a culture pervaded by what the late sociologist Robert Bellah called ‘expressive individualism’ and allergic to any restrictions on what individuals choose to do.”

The Downside of Playing Hard to Get by Anna Sutherland: “So it would seem that playing hard-to-get has its rewards in the relationship market. But that doesn’t mean we should all adopt it as a strategy: deceit and manipulation seem an unlikely path to a happy relationship characterized by honesty and openness on both sides.”

My Favorite Jesuit? by Paul Brian Campbell SJ, People for Others: “We are, I’m sure, all familiar with Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, but how many of you know another founder of the Jesuits: Pierre Favre?”

Look to Disraeli, Conservatives by R. R. Reno: “Right now liberalism seems to have the upper hand, especially in culture. Most people want what they’re offering, which is greater space to be a free actor in our personal inventions of sexual identity, marriage, and family. But by my reading of the signs of the times people want more than that. They want freedom, yes, but they also want solidarity, which in the cultural politics of our time means an enduring marriage and functional family.”

Whittaker Chambers Versus Ayn Rand by Cass R. Sunstein: “Chambers goes so far as to link Rand with Karl Marx. Both, he says, are motivated by a kind of materialism, in which people’s happiness lies not with God or with anything spiritual, and much less with an appreciation of human limitations, but only with the use of their ‘own workaday hands and ingenious brain.’”

Syria Goes Hungry by New York Times: “The experts warn that if the crisis continues into the winter, deaths from hunger and illness could begin to dwarf deaths from violence, which has already killed well over 100,000 people, and if the deprivation lasts longer, a generation of Syrians risks stunted development.”

Make room for young people by Michael O’Loughlin: “The way to prevent that crisis from happening is to bring a bit of Silicon Valley into the church, inviting young people — especially those in their teens and 20s — into meaningful positions of leadership and responsibility. For both the church and young people, it would be a ‘win-win,’ at once evangelizing and strengthening the faith of young leaders and increasing the vitality, creativity and energy of the church.”

Slavery Isn’t a Thing of the Past by Nicholas Kristof: “The United States is home to about 60,000 people who can fairly be called modern versions of slaves, according to a new Global Slavery Index released last month by the Walk Free Foundation, which fights human trafficking.”

The high prices of living in poverty By Kevin Clarke: “This ‘poverty tax’ extends to virtually all aspects of the lives of America’s low-income families. Financial services and mortgages cost more for poor people. Check-cashing, rent-to-own, and payday loan operations skim vast sums from the poor. And a new study reports that the physical and psychological costs of being poor are surprisingly high.”

What You Can Do by John Carr: “Sacrifice for others and priority for the poor may be politically incorrect, but they are religious obligations.”

$10 Minimum Wage Proposal Has Growing Support From White House by NY Times: “President Obama, the official continued, supports the Harkin-Miller bill, also known as the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from its current $7.25.”

The world must unite to save Central African Republic from catastrophe by NY Times: “We are in a delicate situation in the Central African Republic, and the tension is mounting. There is a terrifying, real threat of sectarian conflict.”


Around the Web

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Subsidiarity and Libertarian “Small Government” by James Baresel, The Distributist Review

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All Good Things by David Frum

“Here are five essential tasks to commence before conservative reform truly rolls forward…Conservative reformers need to do a better job of starting with the problem and working forward, not starting with the answer and working backward…But one of the lessons I think conservatives should take from the 2012 Romney defeat is that the increasing concentration of wealth in America has dangerous political and intellectual consequences…Conservative reformers must not absent themselves from the environmental debate…Conservative reformers should make their peace with universal health coverage…conservative reformers should admit, if only to themselves, the harm that has been done by the politics of total war over the past five years.”

President of USCCB Joins Other Bishops’ Conferences in Letter to Leaders of G8 Nations; Urges Them to Protect the Poor, Address Fair Trade, Transparency

“Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the Group of 8 nations (G8) to urge national leaders to protect the poor and assist developing countries at the upcoming G8 Summit in the United Kingdom”

Vatican’s U.N. observer stresses need to eradicate world hunger By Catholic News Service

“Finding a solution to the ‘ongoing scandal’ of worldwide hunger should be a top priority, said the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations.”

Things Modesty Hasn’t a Damn Thing to Do With by Bad Catholic, Patheos

“But almost everyone who has the courage to lift their heads above apathy’s drowning pool and talk about modesty at all — Christian, feminist, atheist, the lot — expresses the virtue as a thing primarily determined by its effect on the other, as if total modesty was, by way of dress, the ability to not tempt a man into lust. Thus seems to me the saddest, most hopeless definition of them all.”

Pope nixes ‘boring’ practice of reading text to students, uses Q&A by CNS

“He urged everyone to try to live more simply saying, ‘In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it’s incomprehensible how there can be so many hungry children, so many children without an education, so many poor.’

Extreme poverty in the world ‘is a scandal’ and ‘a cry’ for help, he said. That is why ‘each one of us must think how we can become a little bit poorer’ and more like Christ.”

Is comic Jim Gaffigan the Catholic Church’s newest evangelizer?  by Michelle Boorstein, Washington Post

“Gaffigan seems to effortlessly embody the idea the Catholic Church and other denominations are desperately promoting: You can be a devout member of mainstream American life. You don’t have to leave God in order to live in the regular world.”

The City of God? by Archbishop Vincent G. Nichols

“Our relationships are an intrinsic part of who we are. As human beings we are not just individuals. We are each born into a human community and find our deepest fulfillment as persons in relationship to others, and I would add, to God. This idea is central to the Judeo-Christian vision of humanity created in the image and likeness of God, who is a communion of persons.”

It’s Cuomo vs. Dolan in NY Abortion Fight by Kevin Clarke, America

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Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, Advocate for the Poor, Dies at 83 by NY Times

“In the late 1980s, as whole neighborhoods were being ravaged by AIDS, drug abuse and crime, Bishop Sullivan went to Washington to testify before Congress about the plight many people were facing.”

Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes by BBC News

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Why it’s OK to be a Liberal Catholic or Conservative Catholic

It is not unusual to hear Catholic political commentators say that the Church is above politics, that its teachings transcend the labels and descriptions that define our politics.  In articles, commentaries and discussions, a person will inevitably encounter this caveat. Whether on torture, the HHS mandate or immigration, these figures contend they are merely applying the timeless and apolitical teachings of the Church to the social and political matters that the Church and her members must engage.

This is an unhelpful and trivial observation. While it is indisputable that the Church and Her teachings exist outside of, and independent from, our current political and social circumstances, we, as persons do not. The positions that we take, even those that are rooted in Church teachings, are embedded in our unique circumstances. We are political beings. These are political issues and positions that we are taking.   Even if the Church transcends politics, we necessarily must operate within a concrete historical context.

If we as Catholics are to accept that, then we should recognize that most articulations of the Church’s teachings can be categorized using the language found in contemporary American political debates.  The application of Church teaching cannot entirely transcend the concrete and historical, and it is problematic to behave as though it does.

Catholics of many viewpoints and in various positions within the Church (lay, religious or clerical) take positions on topical debates that cannot be separated or distinguished from the political context in which these debates occur. The political circumstances frame and guide their application of Church teaching. For a politically engaged Catholic to embrace the label of “liberal” or “conservative” is to not to turn away from Church teaching, but to be realistic and practical.

The political landscape in which American Catholics operate needs to be defined in a way that is both accurate and comprehensible.  Catholics should not fear or denounce this supposed “politicization” of the faith. The faith is not somehow being corrupted by its relegation to the mundane, messy world of contemporary politics. We lack the power that God has as an omniscient being to know all truth in its complete and unadulterated form.   We are left to find our way in the world by examining our surroundings and learning from others, both Catholic and non-Catholic.  This inevitably shapes our views, including our political perspectives.

The reality is that the positions we take are recognizable by other people in this country and can be easily classified within the discursive space which fills our political world. It is clear that some Catholics are textbook liberals, while others are typical conservatives.  For those who break from these paradigms—the Catholic Bishops for instance—we can still define certain positions they take as “liberal” while others can accurately be described as “conservative.”

To employ the vocabulary used in contemporary American politics and to link these descriptions to the positions we take in applying Church teachings is a way to help us understand our world and operate in it. So don’t feel embarrassed embracing the “conservative,” “liberal,” or other adjective you attach to your Catholicism. Let’s not mistake the Church’s transcendence for our own.