Guest Column

Subsidiarity and the common good

By Mike Leman
Posted 3/2/21

In 1976, three years before she became Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher said, in an interview, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s …

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Guest Column

Subsidiarity and the common good

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In 1976, three years before she became Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher said, in an interview, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” Oddly enough, her statement rings true today in our own state.

For decades, many who follow the Legislature have quipped that Wyoming is the most conservative socialist state in the country. How so? 

Because we Wyomingites have never been averse to true benefits that come from government programs, but we have preferred to let the oil and coal industries pay for them, rather than reaching deeper into our own pockets. Due to declining revenue from mineral severance tax, local government agencies have been cutting services and putting in place hiring freezes for years. Last November, Gov. Mark Gordon announced an additional $500 million in cuts, which include layoffs.

To keep critical services afloat, the Legislature has relied heavily on the “rainy day” savings fund, but this account has been rapidly dwindling and will not last much longer. Wyoming is “running out of other peoples’ money.”

Generations of Wyomingites are truly blessed to have grown up during a time when we received so much at so little cost to ourselves. Unfortunately, much of what we have taken for granted is about to go away unless the Legislature is prepared to make some changes.

According to the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis, on average, a family of three pays $3,180 in taxes while receiving $27,050 in government services. The question Wyoming legislators will have to answer this legislative session is whether or not their constituents are willing and able to live without the $23,870 worth of unfunded services.

Good stewardship requires ensuring proper allocation of funds and eliminating waste, but fewer funds coming into the state has resulted in fewer dollars allocated for city and county governments. Along with cuts to Wyoming’s departments of health and education, fewer dollars also have been allocated to local law enforcement, emergency services and road maintenance. Fewer dollars also resulted in cuts to programs serving Wyoming’s youth, vulnerable adults, and the elderly, as well as programs providing mental health treatment. (This last point is extremely concerning as Wyoming regularly ranks in the top three states for highest rates of suicide, per capita.)

Subsidiarity is a principle of Catholic social teaching which holds that large institutions in society (like the federal government) are responsible for ensuring the protection of human dignity, and the common good and to ensure that basic human needs are being met. At the same time, subsidiarity means that larger institutions SHOULD NOT overwhelm or interfere with smaller institutions that are capably providing those same protections.

Through the centuries, the church has recognized that human dignity and the common good are best protected by local institutions (the most local institution being the family). This does not mean, however, that if local institutions are incapable of providing for basic human needs, that larger institutions are off the hook.

Many of my friends are concerned that socialist ideas seem to be gaining interest nationally. They notice that even conservative-minded people are placing unrealistic hopes on government — as if the “right form” of government can solve all of our problems. That will never be true. Families, religious communities, and local charities all have an irreplaceable role to play. And yet, the best “version” of government should still be debated.

I am no expert, but, it seems to me that the best way to prevent socialism is to enable strong state governments. Local governments are in a better position to determine what necessary infrastructure looks like. They have a clearer understanding of the particular unmet needs of the people, as well as what would be the most effective and efficient solutions to the problems people are facing.

Strong local governments are more accessible and easier to hold accountable. And, in the event that the federal government does overstep its constitutional authority, which it often does, we will want a state government weighty enough to push back. But Wyoming will only be able to do that if it is adequately funded. Specifically, how do we ensure that?

That is the hard question our legislators are currently facing. What is clear is that we can no longer wait for coal and oil to “bounce back.” Our legislators will have much to consider, including making further cuts, finding creative ways to bring new business here (like blockchain legislation has done), raising taxes, or some combination of the three. The challenge will be to keep in mind the human toll each decision will have, including lost jobs or lost aid to the most vulnerable.

Let us pray for our legislators this session.

 

(Mike Leman is the legislative liasion and is involved in Catholic social teaching for the Diocese of Cheyenne. He is based in Cheyenne.)

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