Subsidiarity is enormously important because, without it, we wind up stuck down a lot of dead ends, polarized by false binaries that render us stupid, angry and impotent to do much of anything about anything.
I realize it’s a fancy word — six syllables! — and that the idea is somewhat subtle. It also doesn’t help that an initial search for a “definition” will likely yield some impenetrable scholastic formula still tinged with assumptions based on some medieval notion of the Great Chain of Being.
Those definitions will usually tell you that subsidiarity is a principle. That’s not wholly wrong, but it’s not particularly helpful either. To the extent that it’s a principle, it’s a principle derived from and applying a whole bunch of other principles — which is why, in practice, it’s more like a craft than like a rule. That’s why reading the definition is about as helpful as reading the definition of bricklaying or acting or knitting or gardening. To understand it requires practice, not definition.
My favorite description of subsidiarity — description, not definition — is the bit from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” that I included at the top of the previous post: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”
Everyone has a role to play in everything. All are responsible for all. Our roles and responsibilities differ — they may be direct or indirect, sometimes several steps removed. But everything is connected. If I abdicate my direct responsibilities, I will end up placing a heavier burden on those with indirect responsibilities — forcing them to play a more direct role. If I neglect my indirect responsibilities, I will end up placing a heavier burden on those who bear a more direct responsibility — possibly causing them to fall under the weight of it. This mutuality is, as King said, inescapable. Others affect me and I affect others, inescapably.
This mutuality and interconnectedness is the key to understanding the problems that arise when we see some failure anywhere within this vast network. Say, for example, there is a child going hungry. Where did the failure occur that allowed this injustice to happen? Well, first we should look at those closest to the problem — those most directly connected and directly responsible for feeding this child: the parents.
If a child is going hungry, that child’s parents have failed to meet their direct responsibility to feed the child. Absent any understanding of subsidiarity or mutuality, we may be tempted to stop there, place all the blame squarely on those parents and ask no further questions. Tsk, tsk, irresponsible parents, you should feed that child. The end.
That would almost always be stupid and cruel — not least because it doesn’t actually correct the problem and result in the child now being properly fed. And the insistence here is that the problem must be corrected, i.e., we are all responsible for ensuring that this child will be fed, now and going forward. The best way to do that would be to ensure that those most directly responsible — the parents — pick up the ball and do what they’re supposed to be doing here. We can imagine scenarios in which that might be accomplished by wagging our fingers and lecturing those irresponsible parents for failing to feed this child, and such imagined scenarios might even occasionally exist in the real world. But it is far likelier that these parents have failed in their direct responsibility because they are unable to feed their child. And if they are unable to do so, then the problem or problems that need to be corrected likely lie elsewhere — with the irresponsibility of those more indirectly responsible for this particular child.
It’s probable, in fact, that the failure of these particular parents to feed this particular child is the result of a whole host of irresponsible actions by dozens of different actors indirectly connected to this child’s wellbeing. It may be that these parents are doing everything humanly possible to feed their child, but that employers and job markets and housing markets and macro-economics and the king on his throne are making this almost impossible by denying and neglecting their indirect responsibilities. If they were playing their role properly, then the parents would be able to play their role as well. But when all those indirect actors fail to act responsibly, it becomes more difficult — or even impossible — for these parents to fulfill their more direct responsibility.
Those parents may then be forced to turn to other, more proximate but still indirect actors to assist them in carrying their now heavier burden. They may, in other words, turn to neighbors and relatives, churches and soup kitchens and food pantries and the whole nobly inadequate patchwork of private charities. Sometimes that may be enough to enable those directly responsible to bear a burden made heavier by dozens of other irresponsible indirect agents. So perhaps rather than just lecturing these parents to continue bearing their sole and exclusive direct responsibility, incalculably intensified by the refusal of the rest of the network to ease that burden, we could instead provide those parents with some assistance navigating the landscape of private charities that might assist them where the rest of society has refused to do so.
But it may be that when we go to find these parents to talk to them — whether to lecture them or to offer charitable support, or some combination of the two — we learn that they’re no longer around. This child is going hungry, it turns out, because the parents most directly responsible for feeding them have died.*
Orphans — the sad but undeniable fact of orphans — highlight the danger and cruel stupidity of ideologies that preach atomized, exclusive responsibility. Those who allow themselves to be trapped within such ideologies wind up confounded by the existence of orphans. Who is responsible for feeding a hungry child? The parents, they say — only and exclusively the parents. They don’t want to hear any of this “it takes a village” business. But all parents are mortal, and some die too soon, and an ideology which teaches that parents are exclusively and solely responsible for children is unable to know what to do when that happens.
This is particularly confounding for American ideologies of exclusive responsibility. These American ideologies are obsessed with crude, imaginary binaries — public vs. private, big vs. small, people vs. government — and those binaries are unable to provide anything other than ghastly “solutions” to the problem of orphans. Either/or they say. Either parents are solely and exclusively responsible for feeding their children or the State must be, in some crudely monolithic, centralized sense. Thus the alternative to responsible and capable living parents must be some federal orphanage run by faceless, heartless bureaucrats — some gigantic cinderblock structure, no doubt, with rows of identical bunks, bowls of USDA-surplus gruel, and children clothed in prison-surplus jumpsuits.
Happily, the false binaries and crude ideologies of our political rhetoric aren’t actually reflected in the way we deal with actual orphans here in America. Those ideologies and their binary thinking infect this system and make it run worse than it should, but to a surprising extent, America’s treatment of orphans is shaped by a high regard for subsidiarity.
This is enormously practical. Subsidiarity is practical because it helps us to look at the world the way it actually works, and thus to see what it is that isn’t working when some part of the whole isn’t working. It reminds us not to treat all the various interconnected parts of the world as isolated and disconnected. We’re thus able to see how the failure of one part of the whole may be the result of failures elsewhere, and that the solution may mean not just fixing one broken piece, but strengthening all the pieces around it whose weakness allowed it to break.
That frees us from false binaries and ideologies that suggest clumsy either/or solutions — either private or public, either individual or cooperative, either charity or government, etc. That’s especially important at this moment in American politics, where we’re dealing with a fiercely anti-government ideology — “small government!” and “the government is the problem” and “get governments hands out of my Medicare.” That ideology is based on a host of responsibility-denying binaries that lead, inexorably if ironically, to ever-larger, more monolithic, less efficient and less capable government involvement in everything.
There’s no surer path to Big Government than an ideology that rejects universal mutuality and refuses to allow the agent of last resort any responsibility or involvement until the last resort.
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* Here we see part of why subsidiarity has been such a big deal in Christian social teaching and Christian political thinking: because of orphans. Orphans are kind of important, biblically speaking. In the Bible, as in Dickens, the treatment and care of orphans is the bold line dividing the just from the unjust, the saved from the damned. It’s sadly not the case for the kinds of Christians who worship the Bible as a paper god, but for those Christians who actually read their book, orphans matter.