Big Government and Big Business too often sap the individual of both freedom and responsibility. A big welfare state supports the individual–sapping him of personal freedom by making him reliant on a handout. As his personal freedom is drained, so is his need for personal responsibility. The entitlement culture prevails, and poverty is exacerbated rather than cured. Similarly, big business too often saps personal freedom. As welfare recipients become dependent on big government, so the employee can become dependent on the employer to provide everything for him and the more he becomes dependent the more his own freedom is sapped, and as his freedom is drained, so his need to take responsibility for himself is drained. Big business can force financial decisions (lower wages-higher prices) which negatively impact the individual and therefore deprive him of freedom and responsibility.
The principle of subsidiarity moves us always (whether in government or business) to look for the small, local solution to the problem. Allow health care and insurance to be provided at the state or even the local level. Expect businesses to devolve decision making and responsibility to the lowest level possible. If we did this we would not only have cheaper solutions, but we would have a built in system of check and balances. It is much more difficult for graft, corruption and insider trading to go on at a local level than at a huge corporate or governmental level. It is much easier to encourage entrepreneurship, customer service and hard work when business is done at a local level.
The beauty of subsidiarity (as with every Catholic solution) is that it totally steers around the conventional models of ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ with their built in conflict laden Hegelian mentality of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The idea that small is beautiful and the solution is local should play well with both Republicans and Democrats–left wing and right wing. The ‘power to the people’ folks on the left should be pleased because subsidiarity really does demand that power is devolved to the people, while the “less government is more” people on the right wing should also be happy. Those who want to help the poor and achieve justice can see real results when they work on the local level. Those who want to encourage free enterprise, initiative and reward hard work will find it easier to do on the local level.
This is a principle that both Democrats and Republicans should embrace, and Catholics should use principles like this as a way to test whether the person they want to vote for is standing for the best principles for the common good.
The principle of subsidiarity is balanced in Catholic social thought by the principle of “solidarity”. Solidarity recognizes that there is a proper need for the appropriate level of social organization and government. Not everything should be handed down to the lowest possible level. We need good government to make the right decisions for the common good. We live together in families, in communities, in parishes, in schools and in cities, states and countries. Therefore these organizations also need to be structured and empowered at a proper level. Subsidiarity calls for power to be handed down to the lowest level while Solidarity recognizes that some power needs to be held at a higher level–but for the good and at the service of the lower level.
The principle of solidarity is also rooted in Catholic theology. God may have created individuals, but he also put them into social groups. From the beginning God made man and woman and told them to multiply. Therefore God made the family as part of the natural order. The family is therefore the basic structure within Catholic social teaching. The family is the first location of the principle of solidarity, and other organizations build from that and are there to serve the family. So the school, the local community, the church and the government are extended families and the they exist to nurture the individual family and the whole human family. The Church itself is understood as the family of God and exists at a domestic, local, national and global level. As a family we have a responsibility for one another. We care for the needy, the disabled, the unemployed, the sick and suffering as we would with any family member, and to whom much is given much is required. Therefore, within the church we have enshrined the idea of what might be called ‘a hierarchy of service’ or to use an older term noblesse oblige–the idea that the higher the individual in the power and wealth stakes, the more he is obliged to serve those below.
Economics and politics that are enlightened by these balanced principles of subsidiarity and solidarity should produce intelligent, humane, compassionate and realistic solutions to the problems our nation and world face.
Let’s hope Ryan represents a new generation of politicians on both sides of the divide who will think these things through and come up with a positive new approach for politics.