The previous post was intended as red meat for a Thursday, but it prompted some good discussion in comments and I want to respond to a bit of that
Specifically, I want to follow up on this comment from josh, which is thoughtful and well-stated, but hits a sour note at the end:
“It’s once you recognize government as being generally inefficient, and less responsive to the needs of its constituents the further it is removed from them, that you start to think that governmental interference should be the last resort, not the first, and by that point you have become a libertarian.”
Actually, by that point you have become Pope Pius XI.
The above comment is a pretty good description of what Pius called the “principle of subsidiary function” in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Pius was expanding on the ideas laid out 40 years earlier by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. Both of those encyclicals were expressly written to steer believers between what Catholic social teaching views as the opposite evils of communism/collectivism and laissez-faire/libertarianism.*
Subsidiarity is a key aspect of Catholic social teaching’s critique of both of those extremes. It corrects a major failure of both — the tendency to overlook and exclude every aspect of society other than the individual and the state. That not only fails to account for every other actor and agency in civil society — family, neighborhood, volunteer groups, NGOs, unions, businesses, schools, churches, etc. — but it also distorts the true nature of individual and state, rendering the first as falsely atomistic and disconnected and the latter as falsely monolithic and removed (capable only of “interference”). Both laissez-faire capitalism and communism, in other words, are based on distorted abstractions that cannot account for the actual world we actually live in. Subsidiarity is one approach to correcting that distortion.
Another distortion that subsidiarity helps to correct is the notion that different actors and agencies have exclusive, rather than mutual, responsibilities. The either/or approach to responsibility is advocated by people who complain loudly of inefficient and oppressive Big Government. Yet as josh and Pius and Leo all note, the state bears the responsibility of last resort. Thus when other all other actors have abdicated their responsibilities due to belief in some exclusive either/or notion of their roles, the state, not enjoying the individual luxury of irresponsibility, is forced to take on more and more of those responsibilities. The irony here is that laissez-faire capitalism leads inevitably and inexorably to bigger, less efficient, government.
Subsidiarity is also an immensely practical principle. The notion that the primary (but never sole) responsibility belongs to the smallest, closest possible actor or agency helps to clarify that the primary responsibility of the larger and more distant actors is often that of empowering those closer to the situation to better fulfill their role.
One of the few places where something like subsidiarity is recognized in American political talk is in the metaphor of the “safety net.” This metaphor recognizes the responsibility of the state in the last resort. When other institutions and actors — families, markets, civic groups, neighborhoods and neighborliness — are fully functioning this safety net will go unused. Yet the state — the government(s) — does not have the option of abandoning its responsibilities just because these others may fail to fulfill theirs.
Libertarians and other reflexively antigovernment sorts tend to worry foremost about an expanding government usurping the rightful roles and responsibilities of these other institutions. (Libertarians, actually, have a fairly thin notion of such institutions — they tend to focus only on atomistic individuals and the federal state.)
While I agree that such usurpation would be a Bad Thing, I think this tends to misread the situation. I think they have it backwards. More often the situation is one in which these other institutions have abdicated their particular responsibilities, abandoning them to the actor of last resort — the state.
Let me go further: where the problem of inefficient Big Government exists here in the United States, it is more often the result of abdication to the state than of usurpation by the state. In other words, where it exists here in America, inefficient Big Government tends to be the direct and predictable result of anti-regulation, anti-government laissez-faire and libertarian-ish ideologies.
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* I’m a Baptist, so I don’t have much use for popes as clerical leaders, but several of my favorite economists also happen to have served as the bishop of Rome. If you prefer a Protestant/Reformed formulation, look into the Kuyperian idea of “sphere sovereignty,” which reaches the same conclusions without the hierarchical baggage of “higher and lower orders” that persists in the papal encyclicals.