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Government unlimited, society constrained

President Obama and Congress are keen to inflict many changes on this country, changes that will inflict a lot of damage. Aside from the particulars, the most significant problem with the Obama agenda is that it is a full-frontal assault on the principle of subsidiarity.

Made most famous in Rerum Novarum, an encyclical published by Pope Leo III in 1891, subsidiarity is a defense against the omnicompetent state. As summarized by one scholar, subsidiarity is the idea that “nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization.” In short, it’s checks-and-balances writ large across a society.

Subsidiarity reflects the idea that families, religious communities, civic associations, businesses, government agencies and many other associations have important roles to play. But woe to the people who let government take on roles that are better suited to other social organizations.

It’s easy and tempting for politicians to sell us on the proposition that government is the provider of our hopes and wants, the solution to our problems and provider of our needs. It’s in their self-interest to do so, and to paraphrase the cliche about hammers and nails, to the man who is a politician, every problem is a political one.

Over time, a large portion of the general population has adopted this point of view. In general, leftists’ preference for an active government is reflected in the fact that they give less money to charity.

President Obama, to his credit, wants to be true to at least one of his campaign promises. Unfortunately, it’s to raise tax rates on the higher-income earners an act that will have repercussions beyond the category of hedge-fund managers. Obama would raise rates, in part, through further limiting the value of deductions for charitable giving—that is, financial contributions to organizations in the non-governmental sector.

Writing in National Review Online, Peter Wehner and Phillip Merrick point to a recent study that estimated charities would have lost $4 billion in 2006 had Obama’s idea been in place then. Much of that money would have gone to organizations serving the poor, meaning that Obama’s policy favors government solutions to poverty to those offered by churches and voluntary associations.

To be sure, a sizable chunk of charity doesn’t flow to the poor (think of colleges and arts organizations), and some charitable funds go to organizations that in turn lobby for increased government activity.

Even so, charitable giving respects the principle of subsidiarity. In various ways, including its tax policies, the Obama Administration weakens the national respect for subsidiarity. If its tax ideas are allowed to stand, we will all be worse off.