Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

National Debt and the Principle of Subsidiarity

Michael J. Gerson


December 31, 2010
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

2010 closed with a flurry of legislative decisions in Washington on issues as diverse as capital gains taxes, homosexuality in the military, and immigration.  But the largest political choice this year came in November, when Americans overwhelmingly endorsed a change of ideological direction.  The effects of that decision will begin in January and continue for years to come. 

Americans are deeply concerned about debt, deficits and spending—all of which seem to be out of control and leading America toward the type of fiscal crisis many countries in Europe have experienced.  There is a moral aspect to the unsustainable accumulation of debt—a moral failure in funding current benefits at the expense of future generations.  And many Americans sense that the expansion of government over the decades has replaced and undermined other social institutions, such as families, charities and communities. 

This respect for private and religious associations is very American, but also a Christian principle—what has been called subsidiarity or sphere sovereignty.  In practice, it is pretty simple.  Human needs are best met by institutions closest to human beings.  The family is the first and best Department of Health and Human Services.  The church and community are the most effective and compassionate sources of help in time of need. Government should respect and support these institutions instead of making their work more difficult.

But the principle of subsidiarity runs the other direction as well. When local institutions fail to do their job, when they are weak or insufficient in scale, government has the obligation to provide effective help.  The role of government is limited to those areas where it needs to act, but within those areas, government action can be just and admirable.   

Beginning next year, Congress and the President will be making thousands of decisions applying this principle, whether they realize it or not.  Fiscal reality will force budget cuts in nearly every category of spending.  But budget choices are also moral choices, with human consequences, requiring wisdom.  Government is not always good or always bad—it is good within its proper bounds. 

Christians are called to bring a healthy balance to our political life.  Skepticism toward government is often legitimate; contempt and hostility toward government are not.  Often government falls short of our expectations.  Especially in times of austerity, those responsible for running government need constructive criticism and practical suggestions for reform.  What they don’t need are simplistic attacks on government’s very legitimacy. 

In the budget debates to come, Christians should not be pro-government, or anti-government, since both attitudes reflect someone else’s ideological agenda.  Government must be limited. Government can be noble.  The Christian responsibility, and contribution, is applying the first principles that discern between the two.

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”