Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I am utterly puzzled a) as to why Pres. Obama thought it either necessary or wise to address all the nation's school children and b) why so many of my fellow citizens either think this is a good idea, or do not see it as a matter for even a small amoount of concern. While I readily concede that it is not the end of representative democracy as we know it, I think it shows that we need to be better educated about the principle of subsidiarity, which basically sees the value in decisions being made and carried out at the lowest possible level. Subsidiarity trusts people to make good decisions about what directly affects their lives.

Subsidiarity is a word that, along with solidarity, appears over and again in most modern Catholic social teaching, including in the Holy Father's recent encyclical Caritate in Vertatis, in which, writing about the phenomenon of globalization, he points out that "subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state. It is able to take account both of the manifold articulation of plans — and therefore of the plurality of subjects — as well as the coordination of those plans" (par. 57).

Subsidiarity is very important to our constitutional order, according to which what belongs to the federal government and what belongs to the states is fairly clearly spelled out, with education clearly and historically not falling under the purview of the federal government. To my mind, it is no accident that educational achievement has fallen as the result of increasing federal encroachment, which always claims it will have the opposite effect, believing, in the face of a lot of evidence to the contrary, that per pupil spending equates to student achievement. Yes, this includes the overly ambitious and intrusive No child left behind.

Don't get me wrong, this is not about what President Obama said- it was banal beyond belief and a lot about himself! It is not about whether he has the right to make such a speech, he does, this is about whether it is a good idea, or, more bluntly, whether he ought to have given it. After all, do our children really need the president to tell them to study hard, stay in school, and wash their hands frequently? It is also about whether we are naive enough to believe that there is no political motivation behind this, especially with the president's popularity on the wane and just before a major address to the nation and a joint session of Congress on the very issue that is making him less and less popular, health care, his proposal for which represents a massive expansion of the federal government.

Good citizenship is not built through efforts like this. The White House can feign all the surprise they want at opposition to the talk, Jon Stewart can go comically and maniacally on and on about what nuts all of us who think this is a cheap political trick are (I will probably even laugh at his jokes), but the administration knows what they are doing and they're betting that this will help advance their political program. The really sad thing is that they are probably right.

All of this sounds pretty strident, but I allowed my 3 school age children to watch the talk. We talked about it before and we will discuss it this evening. For all of us, as Congress prepares to go back into session, it is time to start talking about the limits of government.

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