Monday, October 1, 2012


We seem to be hearing a lot about “subsidiarity” lately.  “Subsidiarity” is enshrined in Article 5 of the European Union Treaty, where it is specified that (apart from areas exclusively in its competence) the Union should not act in other areas unless its action would be more effective than action at the national, regional, or local level. Like most things European, however, “subsidiarity” has a longer history which predates the problematic European Union.  It is commonly associated with the thinking of the 20th-century, aristocratic, German Jesuit Oswald von Nell-Breuning (1890-1991) and more famously with Pope Piux XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (which von Nell-Breuning is thought to have influenced.) In Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI asserted that “every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (Quadragesimo Anno  79).
As I understand it, the operative idea underlying “subsidiarity” seems to be to maintain what I would prefer to label “zones of free activity within society" - lest an all-powerful State arrogate all activity to itself, leaving only itself and atomized individuals. That, of course, was what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famously envisioned in his magisterial Leviathan - an  outcome that was so effectively illustrated in the familiar frontispiece of the 1651 edition of Leviathan. Of course, Leviathan's all-popwerful sovereign was seen by Hobbes as a necessary remedy for the inevitable consequences of human individualism, which unchecked could only result in a war of all against all. It is, in fact, individualism which historically has weakened the power of organic communities and social associations, eventually producing a situation in which there is nothign between atomized indiviudals and the State. Whether it is right-wing, captialist, "free-market" indiviudalism or left-wing, lifestyle individualism, the result is similar.
So "subsidiarity" makes serious sense as an argument against both excessive liberty and unlimited state power. An argument for limited government is not an argument against government. Whatever its current uses or misuses, “subsidiarity” is not about small government as a value in itself, but about limited government. That is, it is about government fulfilling its mission to “promote the general welfare,” in a way which complements, respects, and reinforces the roles, responsibilities, and activities of authentic human communities (among them families, churches, voluntary associations, etc.).  
The principle at the heart of this is that such “zones of free activity within society" - the authentic human communities experienced in families, churches, voluntary associations, etc. - contribute to human well-being in a fundamental and essential way. Therefore, it would be contrary to the common good of society to try to destroy such communities (as totalitarian systems typically try to do) or less directly to force them, in effect, out of business, something which governmental efforts to universalize an elite-group social agenda have already begun to do and may yet end up doing on a wider scale.
At the same time, “subsidiarity” is certainly no argument for abandoning public activity on behalf of “the general welfare” to individual benevolence, as is sometimes strangely suggested. Philosophical considerations aside, the practical absurdity of that is evident. For example, Catholic Charities annually distributes billions of dollars in service to the poor, but much of that comes from government assistance of one sort or other. It is ideological mystification to suggest that the cuts some have proposed in government spending would simply shift such service to the poor from an alien government to private charities - and to label that “subsidiarity.” Rather, the most likely outcome would simply be a radical reduction in the ability of those charitable associations to act effectively on behalf of those they serve.
Again the important value in all this is human well-being and the common good, both of which require the survival of such “zones of free activity within society" and a national government able to act effectively to “promote the general welfare.” Thus, for example, anticipating our contemporary experience of increasing inequality, Blessed Pope John XXIII wrote in 1963: “experience has taught us that, unless these authorities take suitable action with regard to economic, political and cultural matters, inequalities between the citizens tend to become more and more widespread, especially in the modern world, and as a result human rights are rendered totally ineffective and the fulfillment of duties is compromised.  (Pacem in Terris, 63).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I think it's a much misunderstood concept and you have helped to clarify it for me.