Subsidiarity: A PrimerBRAD MINER
Subsidiarity: A term (the Latin subsidium for aid, help) from Roman Catholic social philosophy which expresses the view that, whenever practicable, decisions ought to be made by those most affected by the decisions.
President Obama sincerely believes he and a legion of functionaries can efficiently direct America from the White House, which over several presidencies has come ever more to resemble Mount Olympus. He's not Zeus, but Mr. Obama is POTUS, a godlike acronym if ever there was one, and with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid, he has given national-government bureaucrats management of aspects of American life previously deemed constitutionally off limits: car companies, banks, medical care, even the very air we breathe -- it's a long and lengthening list. One can't deny Barack Obama's boldness or his proficiency, even if you question the prudence and propriety of his interventionism.
No doubt there will be legal challenges to the current direction of at least some of these new policies and programs. I'm not a lawyer, and, in any event, hypothetical cases don't interest me. But moral challenges should be made as well, and those do matter to me. Subsidiarity matters to me, and it's useful to recall this core principle of Catholic social teaching (and of American federalism), especially this week, as Benedict XVI releases his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate ("Charity in Truth"), which is expected to address the subsidiarity principle in the context of the global financial crisis.
Here's what I wrote about it a decade ago in my book, The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia, sandwiched between entries on Strauss, Leo (1899-1973) and Sumner, William Graham (1840-1910):
I might have mentioned that, although not derived from Catholic sources (the first formulation in an encyclical came in 1891 in Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, "Of New Things,"), subsidiarity forms the basis of our Tenth Amendment ("The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people"). It's even mentioned specifically in the more recent Maastricht Treaty (1992), which formed the European Union: "In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity . . ." The jury is out on whether or not EU bureaucrats will conclude that nothing, really, is beyond their competence.
Subsidiarity is an essential assumption behind the economic philosophy of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, distributism, a version of the free market in which ownership of the means of production is spread as widely as possible throughout society -- often termed a "middle way" between communism (state ownership) and capitalism (free but concentrated ownership). As GKC famously quipped: "Big Business and State Socialism are very much alike, especially Big Business."
That said, subsidiarity has always been more at home in free-market, capitalist societies than under the aegis of any form of socialism. John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (1991) that a welfare state "leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending."
And subsidiarity, by virtue of its emphasis on devolving power away from concentration among the few (whether bureaucrats or businessmen), encourages the sort of competition and diversity that may well be both the greatest help to the poor and the best guarantor of economic stability, and it promotes the kinds of checks and balances that provide efficient, sensible regulation.
The Catechism states: "The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order."
Brad Miner. "Subsidiarity: A Primer." The Catholic Thing (July 6, 2009).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Catholic thing -- the concrete historical reality of Catholicism -- is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which bring you an original column every day that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current situation along with other commentary, news, analysis, and -- yes -- even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Michael Novak, Ralph McInerny, Hadley Arkes, Michael Uhlmann, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.
Copyright © 2009 The Catholic Thing
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.