Much Ado About Subsidiarity

Much Ado About Subsidiarity June 4, 2012

In the wake of Paul Ryan’s woeful misunderstanding of the wonderful and profound principle of subsidiarity, a number of experts have – thankfully – weighed in. Here are five really good ones (some might date before Ryan’s most recent bout of foot-in-mouth disease,  but no matter). All are worth reading, and don’t require much comment from me.

First – Steve Schneck. Second – Vince Miller. Third, Gerald Beyer. Fourth, Peter Brown. Fifth, James Barasel.

On the last one, the authors lists 11 essential points associated with subsidiarity that I think are worth repeating in full:

1. Subsidiarity is a communitarian philosophy.

2. Because subsidiarity claims that human nature is communal the same doctrine claims that our obligations to the community are imposed by nature, rather than by free agreement.

3. According to subsidiarity the good is to be pursued communally under the direction of and, if necessary, compulsion by the government.

4. The doctrine of subsidiarity holds that the common good has priority over individual freedom.

5. Subsidiarity understands relations between human persons, between the individual and the community, primarily in terms of moral obligations and secondarily in terms of rights.

6. Subsidiarity argues that the route to the common good should be left to the most local or smallest level of society that can effectively look after the common good.

7. Subsidiarity recognizes that there are cases in which more government, even more centralized government, can be necessary for the common good.

8. Subsidiarity is suspicious of centralized big business even more than it is suspicious of centralized big government.

9. For subsidiarity, freedom is primarily freedom to live a Catholic and moral life, to pursue authentic cultural goods and to live in a community of life with one’s family, friends and neighbors. Economic freedom is of relatively low priority.

10. Subsidiarity holds government and authority, and our subordination to it, to be fundamentally good even while affirming the value of a high degree of freedom and whole recognizing that there can be excessive and tyrannous government control.

11. Finally, subsidiarity sees human relations primarily as cooperative.

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  • tausign

    I guess if we are going to hold Rep. Ryan to account vis a vis a clarified view of subsidiarity we should ponder some of the wider implications that go beyond the size of government debate.

    Look, if we can require consent that is non-freely given then we’re opening up a real can of worms. The notion of compelling adherence to principles not internalized is a loser from the start. At a bare minimum this requires an evangelized culture that embraces the gospel life. Otherwise, this is sure to take us into a realm of selective policies to achieve ‘the common good’. Even more worrisome is that the points outlined above could easily be co-opted by rival ideologies (secular or theocratic).

    Is it hard to imagine the eleven principles above being used to restrict divorce among spouses or criminalize abortion? Aren’t these the true libertarian issues? Actually, if you think about it such restrictions would be in full compliance with CST which is why the Church promotes it. How certain are we that policies that promote economic justice and income redistribution would ‘leapfrog’ to the fore over so called ‘family issues’?

    My point is, why would we expect that this could be viewed only in terms of taxation, redistribution and size of government, while sidestepping some of the most obvious enemies of solidarity and subsidiarity, namely the breakdown of the family?

    • tausign

      …one last thought I neglected to mention above. The principles above easily lend themselves to growth in war making capacity including the mandating of conscripts for service to ‘the common good’.

  • Kurt

    What is often overlooked is how well many liberal social initiatives honor the principle of subsidiary. SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) allow persons in need to purchase food at local, retail level food stores, giving dignity to the beneficiary and keeping the transaction at the lowest level. Outreach for SNAP is largely by community based organizations, administration is by the states and little more than financing is at the federal level.

    The Dodd-Frank law as well as the Truth in Lending law gives depositors and investors the information and consumer protection they need to make financial decisions at the personal level rather than leave all control with large and distant banks, securities houses and big financial corporations.

    Of course, collective bargaining is the example of subsidarity most mentioned by the Church along with herself and the family. Unionization allows workers and bosses to make decisions about wages, benefits and working conditions at the shop floor level rather than have these unilaterally imposed at higher levels by corporate executives in far off headquarters.

    The Republican agenda, on the other hand, is full of examples of moving decisions to a higher level. What they call Tort Reform is really the federal government imposing tort standards, something that is currently a state function. The same with the often heard call to allow health insurance to be sold across state lines. This is the federal government telling states they cannot regulate certain insurance products within their own boundaries. And then there is the GOP call for federal pre-emption of state banking consumer protections.

  • Julia Smucker

    I think tausign is right in pointing out that government compulsion is a two-headed beast, which may (as the 10th point recognizes) serve to promote justice or tyrrany. For this reason I would question the merit of making definitive claims, as in point 8, as to whether “big business” or “big government” (the respective boogeymen of the Democratic and Republican parties) is more worthy of suspicion. Wouldn’t it be better to simply say that subsidiarity is suspicious of both? That and the precedence of the common good over the autonomy of the individual are why the principle of subsidiarity, not to mention CST on the whole, cannot be fully at home in any party platform.

    Context is key. Given the ways in which certain fears are being played to politically in the United States these days, it makes sense in this time and place to emphasize the aspects of subsidiarity that Ryan is missing by trying to fit it into a Republican mold, including the legitimate role of centralized government in promoting the common good. Other situations may call for a very different kind of counterweight – and even in our current one, as we’ve seen in a number of chilling actions defended by our commander-in-chief in the name of “national security”, an overreach of government power can be very dangerous indeed. Therefore, while we can stand to reminded, contra Ryan et al, that “more government” should not be automatically anathematized, we need to be cautious of overly universalizing its necessity, as we never know when such an interpretation may come back to bite us.

    • Mark Gordon

      Context is key, and when partisan political allegiance is part of the context it becomes impossible for partisans to admit and confront the evils represented by their “side.” Which is why I view all admonitions to “get involved in the political process” by joining a town committee or running for office on a party slate as equivalent to the invitation to offer just a small, insignificant pinch of incense to Caesar. After all, what could it hurt?

      • Julia Smucker

        Mark, I take it you’re advocating the avoidance of party affiliation rather than complete political withdrawal. You’re speaking my language in any case; the Mennonite in me is inclined to agree with just about anything that’s set against the offering of incense to Caesar. The question that all Christians must continue to wrestle with is, how do we get involved in the process without bowing to Caesar?

        • Mark Gordon

          That is the key question, and it depends on what we mean by “politics.” In the most expansive sense everything we do is political because our acts either reinforce or undermine the sinful structures of worldly power. No one can avoid entanglement in politics at this level, where receiving the Eucharist worthily is probably the most subversive political act possible. A narrower definition of politics is active engagement with the permanent apparatus of government, from town hall to the Social Security Administration. We can’t avoid that entanglement either unless we choose to live as outlaws. Then there is the electoral process, which is what is commonly meant by “politics.” Here I make a crucial distinction. I am all for people voting and running for office as individuals because I find nothing inherently corrupt in the basic mechanisms of a democratic republic. But I am fundamentally opposed to the American party system, which in my opinion is the graveyard of Christian conscience. And I enlist no lesser figures than John Adams and George Washington to make my point for me:

          “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” – John Adams

          “ …the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign [today he might have written ‘corporate’] influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.” George Washington

        • Julia Smucker

          Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mark!

    • Kurt

      I would question the merit of making definitive claims, as in point 8, as to whether “big business” or “big government” (the respective boogeymen of the Democratic and Republican parties) is more worthy of suspicion. Wouldn’t it be better to simply say that subsidiarity is suspicious of both?

      Suspicious of both? Yes, but not always equally suspicious. The principle of subsidiarity is to bring institutions closer to the people. Opportunities for participation, not just the size of the institution, are part of the measure. The government of a dictatorship and a corporation might be the same. Democracy, even large democracies, allow particpation unlike corporations. Measuring just by size is not a proper understanding of subsidiarity.

      • Julia Smucker

        Right, not always equally suspicious. As I said, it depends on the circumstances, and in the United States at the present time, corporate greed is a more immediate danger than government expansion (draconian security policies aside). But this is not necessarily the case always and everywhere.

        I think your broader point here is a good one, that participation is a more significant factor than size.

    • Pinky

      Very good point.

      The original article doesn’t list 11 essentials of subsidiarity; it lists 11 differences between subsidiarity and libertarianism. These items need to be read in that light.

      A political philosophy grounded in subsidiarity will be more suspicious of business than a political philosophy grounded in libertarianism. Fair enough. But to describe subsidiarity as more or less suspicious of different things is nonsensical. It’s an anthropomorphic.

  • dominic1955

    Amen to what both Tau-sign and Julia have said. I’d also add that I think what Pius XI had in mind (just for example) was more organic rather than imposed. When I hear “The doctrine of subsidiarity holds that the common good has priority over individual freedom” I cringe, though I certainly agree in ivory tower prinicple and in concrete and straight forward practical applications that do not admit for much interpretation. That is because who is going to be determining what is the common good? Outside of some utopian Catholic society which does not exist (certainly not in the USA), I’d much rather have what we have now, thank you very much.

  • Sean O

    Paul Ryan has an agenda. Ayn Rand drives it entirely. Any talk from him using Catholic terminology is just idle chat to make his nasty goals sound better. Bishop Dolan coaxed this change in tone.

    Until Paul Ryan changes the substance of his thought I think it is a waste of time to take his new tone seriously. He is not engaging in honest debate. I don’t believe he or many of his cohorts any interest in doing so.

  • Jordan

    A wise relative of mine once pointed out, “Marxism only works in a community of about a hundred people.”

    Before I say anything else, let me emphatically say that subsidiarity is not Marxism. When properly practiced, subsidiarity protects individual and communal morality. However, any collectivism (and especially Marxism, with its exaltation of material-class dialectic over morality) has a great potential to promote anti-life actions. If the “state” is estimated as the lowest and highest level of subsidiarity, then, as tausign and Julia Smucker have noted, the individual and political will, regardless of morality, can be distorted to appear as socially just.

    While I’d love to live in a community run completely on CST principles (consistent life ethic, living wage, charitable volunteerism as a way of life), inevitably even a community founded on CST would eventually encounter resistance from greater and greater numbers of residents. The levy of taxes would be a first flashpoint: eventually the materialism which pervades much of American politics would also pervade an ideal CST community. How many times have we heard individuals say, “are my tax dollars paying for that?” Ideally, true subsidiarity would alleviate the pressure of materialism through a communalism which demonstrates justice through a basis in morality. In practice, most people only know the distance between situational ethics and their wallet.

    Even the selection of one hundred committed Catholic men and women could not establish a just and prosperous society based on CST. Even in the best circumstances, individuals will fall prey to materialism and contingent ethics or morality as soon as the community grows beyond a small number. In actuality, we Americans are forced to cooperate in a highly unstable duopoly (a severe state-level corruption of subsidiarity) which serves few if any justly.

  • Tausign writes, “The notion of compelling adherence to principles not internalized is a loser from the start.”

    Every form of government does that to someone. The question is not whether it’s to be done, it’s to whom it’s to be done and for what purpose.

  • I think the eleven essential points confuse principles with philosophies, the latter being application of principles in conjunction with other principles. Subsidiarity, as such, simply does not have most of this, because it is just a principle, not a philosophy; and the principle of subsidiary function simply says that organizations or societies of more encompassing jurisdictions should assist rather than absorb the intermediate organizations by which people effectively pursue common good, by stimulating, regulating, and correcting them as appropriate. This tells us nothing about what we should be more suspicious of — that will be a matter of empirical fact and judgment, namely, which organizations and societies show themselves to be most inclined to abuse their powers — and it tells us nothing about what kinds of freedom are of highest priority — that is determined by common good itself, which in broader terms is the friendship, peace, and happiness of the actual people in the actual society, and thus will naturally vary according to circumstances. It does tell us, which is more important, that it is the people themselves who pursue the common good, not the government, which is just there to back them up; and it does tell us that they do so through organizations and institutions, so that to think solely in terms of individuals and the government is an egregious error. But it doesn’t give us a full political philosophy, much less a communitarian philosophy in the proper sense of the term, which is just a post-60s reaction to Rawlsian liberalism.

    I think most of the responses to Ryan misdiagnose his mistake because they make the same mistake themselves. They want to refute Ryan in a high-handed a priori way; but Ryan’s mistake is precisely in proceeding at this level. Since subsidiarity is about what contributes to the actual common good, and this is the good of actual persons insofar as they are members of actual societies, one can never assess whether something fulfills the principle of subsidiarity until one has looked in detail at the harms and benefits for people in their pursuit of common good — not theoretical or hypothetical or in-principle harms and benefits for people, but actual harms and actual benefits for actual people, given the actual institutions in place. It’s an eminently practical principle, because it is essentially a summary of civic prudence. In order to assess whether anything is consistent with subsidiarity, you have to get out of an in-principle mindset and get completely practical: what is actually happening, what are the real needs, what are the real values and responsibilities of real intermediate organizations. Only when you’ve done that can you say anything about subsidiary function. Subsidiarity is about actual help; no one determine what’s actually helpful until they’ve assessed where help is needed, and of what kind.

    • Julia Smucker

      Very well said. Being personally prone to abstract thinking (which I find myself having to defend a lot), I wouldn’t go so far as to decry “an in-principle mindset”; principles inform practices and thus the theory cannot simply be dismissed. On the other hand, I completely agree on the necessity of looking at the practical situation – “what is actually happening, what are the real needs, what are the real values and responsibilities of real intermediate organizations”, as well as “which organizations and societies show themselves to be most inclined to abuse their powers” – in order to determine how the principles apply.

    • tausign

      Brandon, I think you have truly hit the mark. Thank you for your insight.

  • If the claim is going to be made that communitarian principle leads to more authoritarianism and less freedom, we should probably go to the trouble of critically evaluating the claim. I don’t think the claim is obviously true, and in fact I think the claim is wrong. More is of course a comparative term, and the implicit assumption is that we are making a comparison with libertarianism or laissez faire. The plain truth is that American and English history have been more aligned with laissez faire and both histories have shown massive subjugations of peoples, numerous wars, and general hegemony.

    • Jordan

      One of Brandon Watson’s [June 5, 2012 1:03 pm] comments dovetails nicely with M.Z.’s criticism of libertarianism or laissez faire capitalism. As Brandon notes,

      “[…] and it [subsidiarity] does tell us that they do so through organizations and institutions, so that to think solely in terms of individuals and the government is an egregious error. But it [subsidiarity] doesn’t give us a full political philosophy, much less a communitarian philosophy in the proper sense of the term, which is just a post-60s reaction to Rawlsian liberalism.” [my additions, ellipsis in brackets]

      One might well say that laissez faire capitalism, for example, is the inevitable result of a hard dichotomy between “individual” and “state”. The individual is, in theory, a fully autonomous and “self-actuating” at-will participant in labor. His or her fortune rises or falls on his or her ability to generate wealth from manual or intellectual labor. In turn, the (falsehood) of meritocracy (which often degrades into oligarchy) nevertheless holds forth capital and political power as the reward for autonomy. However, I would be wary of characterizing capitalism, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, or Maoism (inter alia) as characteristic philosophies simply because each system has at one point or another guided the formation, rise, and decay of states. Even though an ideal subsidiarity state has not yet been realized, it reveals in stark contrast the dehumanization inherent in all the reified political systems just mentioned (and not just capitalism, whose faults M.Z. has amply outlined). Subsidiarity, as a theoretical political state, maintains just as much of a philosophical telos as political Hegelianism or Burkean economics.

  • tausign

    M.Z. I for one am not making the claim that communitaritan principle leads to more authority and less freedom. But I do think it’s fair to point out some of the dangers that lurk under this banner of ‘goodness in serving under compulsion’. Specifically, M.M. has taken his points from the most extreme writer of those mentioned above. Mr. Baresel (who drew up the eleven principles) made continuous claims that truly disparage democratic principles and laid the rule down for what amounts to a theocratic state. Truly, his approach was far more strident than need be to take on the misguided libertarians.

    My own counter to libertarianism would be to foster a Christocentric culture or to use an old fashioned term “to work to bring about the kingdom of God”. Why not work for conversion over compulsion? It is true that a just society can (must) confront individuals who destroy fraternal bonds. But I would be weary of a righteous few who seek to straighten out a wayward society by claiming… “the authority of the government comes from God and the natural law rather than the free consent of the governed. The people must obey whether they have consented or not.“, as Mr Baresel contends.

  • Anne

    Historically, what Catholicism brought to America’s political and economic ideals is this communitarian principle, a counterweight to the democratic liberalism or individualism so often equated with the American spirit. FDR brought the two opposing strains together in the New Deal, although each of the country’s political parties has tended to focus on one to the exclusion of the other. The irony is how, by the late 20th century, the two parties had virtually traded places, Republicans, the party that traditionally championed the rights of the individual (including, during the Civil War, slaves) opposing minority, immigrant and worker’s rights, and Democrats, the traditional champion of unions and collective bargaining, focusing on the individual rights of women, immigrants, and minorities.

    Again historically, the American bishiops have been notably faithful to this principle (contained in its concepts of subsidiarity AND solidarity) over the centuries, advocating unionization and collective bargaining for workers, the progressive income tax, universal health care and insurance for the elderly and unemployed. Ironically, while the popes stood for all these ideals, until after World War II the Church steadfastly opposed all appeals to what it called liberal individualism and “rights talk,” especially religious liberty, which today’s American bishops have embraced as a “first” concern.

    I sometimes wonder what this new-found interest in “rights talk” might mean in the long run.
    Is the American church going Paul Ryan’s way? It’s true that some members of the USCCB criticized the Ryan and his budget for not following the principles of traditional Catholic social doctrine, but those in the leadership, those most out front in the religious liberty campaign, were noticeably silent. Would it be odd for him to take that silence, along with the fairly loud criticism of Democrats for purportedly waging “a war on religion” as a sign that the Church itself is switching sides and adopting his point of view?

    • Anne

      It’s also worth remembering that social historians generally credit the communitarian ideal promoted by the Church for keeping America free from Communism, Socialism of the secular kind never having made inroads here because American workers had already organized in their own defense.

      • Kurt

        Anne writes: Is the American church going Paul Ryan’s way?


        It’s also worth remembering that social historians generally credit the communitarian ideal promoted by the Church for keeping America free from Communism

        Let me link her two comments in an undeveloped I’ve been pondering.

        As rich and meaningful as I find CST, maybe I’ve been played for a fool.

        Was the Church’s temporary alliance with workers just something done out of self-interest to prevent workers from going over to Communism or anti-clerical Socialism? With the downfall of Communism, has the Church lost interest in workers? There is a lot of evidence of this. Not just on policy matters but an increasing pastoral disregard of working class Catholics (or now ex-Catholics).