Mis-Using Subsidiarity

Mis-Using Subsidiarity May 27, 2008

It happens all the time: Catholics will invoke the principle of subsidiarity to back up what is really an ideological attraction to free market principles and to “small government” (whatever that means). But subsidiarity has little to do with the liberty of the individual from state power; rather, it emphasizes the key role of mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the state. In short, subsidiarity means there must be respect for civil society, and that these institutions should not cede their functions to higher and more distant authorities. Fundamentally, it is about community, and how the common good is exercised. It is about personal relationships, how human bonds can be formed without sacrificing human dignity.

Subsidiarity is not a catch-all argument against the role of the government, even if that is often how it is used. There are, of course, some functions that are most appropriately undertaken by higher levels of the social order– this usually means the state in modern terms. And it is also no respect for subsidiarity to replace a large bureaucratic government with a large bureaucratic private entity. And yet those who call for “small government” often fail to make these distinctions. As an example, many will argue against single payer health care on grounds of subsidiarity. They rarely address such issues as: (i) it may be the best way to achieve universal health insurance, when health care is seen as a basic right under Catholic social teaching; (ii) risk pooling works best when the population is larger; (ii) the current system whereby impersonal insurance companies make money by denying coverage and denying claims is about as clear a violation of subsidiarity as is possible. Therefore, being serious about subsidiarity means going beyond blanket ideological statements. We can think about community-based risk pools. We can think of a system administered by the social partners. We can think about a system of primary care, with a personal relationship between individual and family doctor– exactly what the insurance-company driven health care does not deliver. 

Too often, then, the spectre of subsidiarity is used to ignore another key principle: solidarity. In fact, these principles must act in unison. As noted by Church teaching, while solidarity without subsidiarity can lead to the problems often associated with the welfare state (an overly-bureaucratic mindset, a distance from individual dignity), subsidiarity without solidarity can degenerate into “self-centered localism”. We need both. And should cannot invoke one of these principles to deny economic and social justice. If the welfare state is broke, fix it, don’t ignore poverty. If people are lacking adequate health care, fix it, don’t make false excuses.

But health care is only one example. At the beginning, I noted a lack of clarity over what “small government” means, a lack of clarity that feeds into the subsidiarity debate. Many think of it purely in terms of the size of government as an economic entity, rather than as an entity that uses coercive power to smother subsidiary mediating institutions. Why do the proponents of subsidiarity not speak out against the progressive weakening of unions over the past quarter century, when unions are an indispensable aspect of the social order? This is one of the most grave violations of subsidiarity in modern times.

Focusing on spending can also lead to incongruities. It is well-known that those most fervently opposed to the role of government make one very large exception: military spending. Now, one can perform ideological somersaults to justify cutting health care and education spending to buy more bombs, but what about subsidiarity? After all, there was a time when defense was assigned to subsidiary mediating institutions, with local ties. But the rise of the nation state has erased these competing loyalties and instead demands personal allegiance between every citizen and itself. This has incredibly important issues for subsidiarity, issues that never seem to be addressed (outside Vox Nova, that is!), issues of immense importance in a country the size of the United States.


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