Debate with a right-of-center Catholic long enough, and the word “subsidiarity” will eventually come up. Parties such as the Democratic Party, we are told, violate the principle of subsidiarity by wanting the federal government to take on more responsibilities instead of leaving to the states what is their proper domain. Subsidiarity is recast as a ‘states rights’ ideology.
There are a number of things wrong with the general idea. The first is that the GOP has presided over the expansion of government as well, and the GOP has admitted it, time and again – lamenting electoral losses with frank admissions of having done the exact opposite of what they were sent to Washington to do. The second is that “subsidiarity” is not a synonym for anarchism, privatization, or ‘states rights’, nor does it justify any of these things.
Subsidiarity concerns itself not with the particulars of the relationship between city, county, state and federal government, but rather with the relation between the individual, the community, and the state.
The most relevant social encyclical we have today, in my opinion, is Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. It was written at the start of the Great Depression, in 1931, and so it contains a set of reflections on economic crises, and economic ideologies, that remain indispensable for Catholics during the present crisis.
In QA Pius develops the principle of subsidiarity, beyond Leo XIII’s initial presentation. He does so within the context of all of the other social teachings of the Church. Subsidiarity without solidarity, charity, and a number of other ideas is just a dead limb. It is also done in the context of an absolutely crystal-clear condemnation of laissez-faire economics and individualism.
In the view of Pius, the expansion of the state was not merely the result of inherently evil bureaucrats and politicians grasping for power, but rather the utter breakdown of intermediate social institutions that had taken place unabated for centuries since the Protestant rebellion against the socio-economic order of the Church.
In a passage all Catholics ought to memorize, Pius writes,
When we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind, not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed “individualism” that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore. the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.
Does it not sound heretical in modern America to hear the State spoken of as a victim of the corrosive influence of individualism? More important, however, is the observation that “there remain virtually only individuals and the State.” Clearly, this is not a good thing.
It turns out that man’s liberty is not rooted solely in his individual being, but as a member of a community. So it then turns out that the role of the state is not simply to ‘get out of the way’, as the rhetoric of the Gipper might have it, but to enable people to do for themselves through positive, and not negative policies. This brings us back to Pius.
Concerned as Leo was with the tension between classes – something often missing from pure neoclassical or neoliberal economic models and projections – Pius writes,
First and foremost, the State and every good citizen ought to look to and strive toward this end: that the conflict between the hostile classes be abolished and harmonious cooperation of the Industries and Professions be encouraged and promoted.
Abolishing class conflict does not mean violent suppression of unrest, let alone the just and legitimate demands of workers (a la fascism); it means pursuing policies that will actually serve as a long term solution, in this case, Pius’ proposal of the Industries and Professions. The point is, the State has to do something, and that something has to go beyond repression when the propertly-less plebs finally reach their breaking point.
That point should never exist. The State should be playing in active role in promoting community life, even while respecting fully the right to private property. The basic idea of the Industries and Professions is stated in the following way:
For under nature’s guidance it comes to pass that just as those who are joined together by nearness of habitation establish towns, so those who follow the same industry or profession – whether in the economic or other field – form guilds or associations, so that many are wont to consider these self-governing organizations, if not essential, at least natural to civil society.
It sounds like we’re getting dangerously close to economic democracy; I can’t see any other shape a modern guild system would take.
Keeping in mind all that we have seen from Pius thus far, now we can consider the true meaning of Subsidiarity:
Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.
Of course, one possible counter-argument is that the State can hardly be expected to do that which would lead to its own increasing irrelevance. But then, that same argument can be made about the GOP, given the fruits of its labor. It is the judgment the GOP cast upon itself in despair; Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. all presided over massive expansions of government, not only in fiscal terms – they increased the powers of the police state as well.
Perhaps we need a third party that is Catholic, something along the lines of a Catholic Labor Party that fully respects the teaching of the Church in all matters. The primary aim of this party would be to promote the rebuilding of hundreds of shattered communities across the United States in accordance with the true principles of subsidiarity. It could do so through providing incentives to establish cooperative economic enterprises and any number of projects that would help recreate the natural and organic buffer between the individual and the might of the State; his community (the core of which is family, friends, neighbors, parish and place of business).