The Anti-Federalists, the Oil Spill, and the Catholic Church

There are lessons of wisdom to be found in every folly, however painful the extraction. The ongoing, almost comic bungling efforts and non-efforts of the federal government dealing with the oil spill in the gulf is no exception. The most important political lesson is both conservative and Catholic.

The conservative lesson? When dealing with a local problem, a strong national government will invariably act for its own self-preservation, push its own national agenda, and entangle the hapless locals in its own morass of bureaucratic confusion. Insofar as possible, let the local folk do it. They’re the best judges of their own particular situation.

For conservatives, this is the wisdom of the Anti-Federalists, those forgotten founders of America who best understood the dangers of increasing federal power at the expense of state and local government. The Anti-Federalists were the stubborn conservative folk who allowed for ratification of the Constitution only if there were a strong Bill of Rights to protect state and local life against encroachments of the federal government.

For Catholics, the oil spill illustrates the wisdom of the principle of subsidiarity — a much-neglected jewel of the Church’s political prudence that, especially in these dark times, needs to be taken from her treasury and displayed prominently. Here it is, taken straight from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (1883)
The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. (1885)

The conservative principle dovetails well with the Catholic principle. The Anti-Federalists warned of the danger of a burgeoning federal government to state and local community. The principle of subsidiarity focuses on protecting the proper and natural functions of local communities from baneful control and manipulation by more comprehensive — especially collectivist — power. Both hold that human social, political, and economic life are best and most solidly built from the local ground up, and that national governments should supplement and support local efforts, rather than supplant them. Both assume that families are the fundamental moral, social, and economic unit, and that individuals in families — both as a right and duty — must be free to exercise their own moral, social, and economic responsibilities as they judge best, according to their own particular circumstances and needs. And finally, both realize that, given the reality of sin and the limitations of mere human nature, centralized political power will be far more likely to serve its own agenda at the expense of the actual needs of local communities.

To better understand the wisdom of the Anti-Federalists and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, we need only recall some of the details of the ongoing folly of the federal government in the Gulf of Mexico. The underwater oil rig blew on April 20, 2010. British Petroleum rushed in to assure that its stock price received as little damage as possible and that containment and cleanup costs would be kept to a minimum. The Obama administration gathered together immediately, and just as promptly did nothing, leaving it to BP to fix things despite the pleas of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal for help.
Happily, all help offered from various quarters around the globe (most conspicuously by the Dutch) was judiciously rebuffed by the federal government. On what grounds, it has never been made clear, although the Obama administration later solemnly invoked a dusty treaty and complained that Dutch efforts wouldn’t meet our environmental codes, spilling too much oil back into the water. (So, it’s apparently better to simply let 100 percent of the oil spread out than capture, say, 80 percent.)
When the slumbering federal government was finally goaded into action by public opinion, it sent down the U.S. Coast Guard to stop local clean-up efforts to ensure that the barges were complying with federal regulations about life vests and fire extinguishers. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department halted the creation of protective sand berms being hurriedly built to keep the oil from hitting the shores. They want to make sure sensitive areas of shoreline are protected from dredging. But isn’t the actual oil be a bit more of a problem?
Getting in the way of berm-building seems to be a federal passion. The folks down in Louisiana had been tearing their hair since the oil blow-out, trying to get permits to build the protective berms while the various federal agencies slowly, and with thoughtful attention to the intricacies of their own bureaucratic webs, mulled over their urgent requests.
To President Obama’s credit, he did stop by the region on his way to a vacation to strike some concerned poses on the beach. But when he finally decided to address the crisis decisively, he demanded a moratorium on all offshore drilling. The move was calculated to make him appear as a real commander in chief in a crisis situation. But for all the political posturing, his moratorium ends up penalizing other competent companies and destroying the local economy of the gulf, based upon both fishing and off-shore drilling.
In short, the oil company, BP, is only concerned about its own slippery economic hide. The federal government is, well, acting like a Federacy of Dunces, moved either to decisive inaction or destructive action and outright folly by a combination of bureaucratic myopia and mismanagement, hidden political motives (some of which are undoubtedly dark), and the desire to make national political points.
When the proposed Constitution (drafted by the so-called Federalists) was circulating the states for ratification after the famous Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the Anti-Federalists forcefully made the case that the Constitution delegated too much power to the federal government. In particular, they feared that the unlimited federal powers of taxation would create a vast bureaucratic web with “a large body of selfish, unfeeling, unprincipled civil officers” that would serve their own ends at the expense of state and local communities.
Here they were dead on, as those beleaguered in the gulf have woefully discovered. The Minerals Management Service, which oversees off-shore drilling, has been for some time in bed with BP — the interests of both being the feathering of their collective love-nests. Rather than shield the local communities from damage by the shoddy practices of BP, the bureaucratic powers of the MMS were aimed at maximizing the profits of a cut-corners company who couldn’t care less about the real people on the ground in Louisiana. The U.S. Coast Guard cares only that federal regulations in regard to boating safety are fulfilled to the letter, while the gulf coastline is slathered with crude. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department is obsessing about habitat integrity and following the regulatory snakes-and-ladders, even while the oil is lapping the shores and ruining the habitats anyway.
All these agencies are powerful enough to interfere, with such predictably lugubrious results, precisely because of the federal power of taxation. Local money, taken through federal taxes, nourishes the growth of federal bureaucracies that then push their own self-perpetuating agenda at the expense of the local communities. Just as the Anti-Federalists feared, an expansive federal government will “take every occasion to multiply laws, and officers to execute them, considering these as so many necessary props for its own support.”
The goal of any bureaucracy soon becomes, simply, the perpetuation and expansion of the bureaucracy itself. When a local crisis hits, the question for such a bureaucracy is not, “How can we help them?” but, “How does this affect us?”
Much the same must be said of the chief executive. President Obama’s overriding concern seems to be, “How does this affect me? How does this affect my national agenda?” His declaration of a moratorium on offshore drilling was an attempt at providing a counterbalance to his previous inaction. Appearing to do something, so as to drag his national polls up, was more important than actually helping the people of the gulf. As the locals made immediately and amply clear, it’s not what they want or need. Shutting down all offshore drilling simply kills the other half of the gulf economy.
As the principle of subsidiarity makes clear, the first priority should be defined by what the locals judge would be most helpful in the crisis. The federal government “should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need.” The need is certainly there, but the lessons of wisdom, both conservative and Catholic, are lost on Washington.
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  • Benjamin D. Wiker

    Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His website is

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