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Subsidarity: What it Really Means

May 12, 2009

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.

First and foremost. It is harder to conceptualize this in modern America because here, 90% of the people think of themselves as ‘middle class’, from janitors to doctors. But class tensions still exist, if not in the sharp, clear, political sense as they might in Europe. They exist all the more due to the economic crisis and the near universal corruption on Wall Street.

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).

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18 Comments
  1. jonathanjones02 permalink
    May 12, 2009 4:29 pm

    Both parties are liberal. This abstraction, which runs very deep since the rise of industrial capialism, makes discussing subsidarity difficult. But I am glad you do so.

    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.

    Yet this is a valid criticism. The hammer of the large domestic state, like the hammer of the military state and the hammer of the ‘police’ state, can still harm. On this, the Democrats are at the very “best” at least as bad as the Republicans – Obama’s massive spending (deficits about 9 times larger than Bush’s in just one budget) should make this obvious. ‘States rights’ is an awkward frame, but the sentiment strikes me as correct.

    It should also be considered how in these discussions that there can be a clash of ideologies and sentiments. Take open borders – and then you want high social capital and social trust, a bedrock of subsidarity? Completely incompatiable in my view, with quite a lot of “real world” evidence.

    Regarding QA – Pius XI highlighted for us the dangers of the erros of collectivism and indivudualism. We need reminders of the social and public character of our rights and duties! The utopia of libertarians is the same as the utopia of collectivists – humans are messy and complex, and we need each other and the social world that we are born into. Neither do we “stand alone” nor take comfort in synthetic, unorganic unity.

  2. May 12, 2009 4:32 pm

    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).

    If I believed that such a party could actually wield influence in the country, I’d be a charter member, Joe. As a practical matter, however, it is hard to see how we get from here to there. I say this because the Big Two have pretty much an lock on the levers of power, both electorally and in terms of who sets the agenda and generates news for discussion. I guess this is beyond the scope of your post, but at some point I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

  3. jonathanjones02 permalink
    May 12, 2009 4:33 pm

    Concerning right of center arguments: there is very clearly an uneasy relationship concerning postwar Western conservatism and Catholic social teaching. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul stated that the Church has no political or economic model.

    The category error that often occurs is not viewing a political system in this way – that is, by not recognizing that models come from the framework of historical situations. Libertarians (the Right broadly defined made a Cold War alliance with them, and properly so) are particularly bad on that score.

  4. jonathanjones02 permalink
    May 12, 2009 4:55 pm

    OK – it seems clear enough that some sort of “market economy” is the best arrangement yet devised for the creation of wealth and the extension of such wealth to various classes, including those not gifted with high-scale cognitive abilities.

    Yet such processes can also be clearly destructive. By this I mean the undermining of social / environmental foundations. What to do ?

    I’ve been getting into Roepke recently.

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2008/10/happy-birthday-wilhelm-roepke.html

  5. May 12, 2009 5:43 pm

    Sign me up

  6. Joe Hargrave permalink
    May 12, 2009 5:49 pm

    Regarding a third party, I don’t know, maybe its goal shouldn’t be national power. Libertarians and Greens get elected at local levels. If they didn’t waste time and money on fruitless national campaigns, who knows, they might be able to accomplish more at a local level. If I were going to build a third party, I would never, ever run a candidate for president, senator, governor or even congressman until I had established a presence on city councils and state legislatures.

    The point being, a political party need not be a national party, or even if it is a national party, it need not compete for power at the national level. A party is just a group of people united on a common political platform.

    As for economic models, to me the contest is not between “markets” and something else, but between economic democracy and oligarchy/autocracy. The thing about ‘free market capitalism’ as an ideology (it doesn’t actually exist anywhere) is that it is in many ways a child of the Protestant rebellion, which had as much to do with economics as it did theology. The Church presided over a social and economic order that, in spite of its flaws, was better for the vast majority of humanity than the nightmare unleashed by ‘capitalism’ (if we want to call it that for now).

    If it weren’t for labor movements, which always had strong support from the Church, apologists for the Industrial Revolution like Thomas Woods Jr. wouldn’t be able to make a case for it. There was nothing inherent to industrial capitalism that ever made it a humane or desirable system, only outside pressures that brought it to heel.

  7. Kurt permalink
    May 12, 2009 7:38 pm

    1.American conservatives seem to forget that when the Church says subsidarity, she is not referring (exclusively) to lower levels of government, but non-governmental associations. Nothing would be more in the spirit of the Church’s call for subsidarity than for workers and employers to solve matters through collective bargaining rather than legislation. Of course, that would require workers to have some forum to democratically express themselves. Those associations are generally known as ……

    2. DEATH TO THIRD PARTIES. Okay, that might be extreme.

    The two major parites are open and democratic. Both easily allow any political movement to exercize its proper influence within them. It simply requires such a movement’s followers to involve themselves.

    Remember, democracy is not a spectator sport.

  8. May 12, 2009 10:31 pm

    Great post! These are distinctions that I have not thought of before, and I appreciate your making them.

    As for the third party business, perhaps the first step is building the guilds. Most of us spend most of our waking hours at work. Well, are there other Catholics there or in the same professional field with which to build community?

    Yes it is true that a national party would not be possible for perhaps even a generation.

  9. ron chandonia permalink
    May 13, 2009 9:01 am

    It seems to me that conservative proponents of “subsidiarity” forget about the “subsidium” part–the idea that the State should give community-based groups the help they need to address social problems at a grass-roots level. But there may be good reasons for distrusting government agencies bearing gifts.

    The War on Poverty, for example, too often ignored existing efforts at community improvement as it established local branches of government bureaucracies. As a result, genuine community participation dwindled, as did grass-roots commitment to social improvement. I think it’s legitimate to ask today whether government-funded “community organizers” are actually seeking to reawaken that commitment rather than to enlist troops for more projects that may be remote from the needs and the best interests of the communities where they take place.

  10. May 13, 2009 9:07 am

    I wonder if there might be a difference here between how things developed in the United States versus how they developed in Europe. In Democracy in America Tocqueville goes on and on about America’s thriving associations and how these associations handled many things that in Europe were handled by the aristocracy. If that’s right, and given that the 19th and early 20th century saw a massive decrease in the power of the aristocracy in Europe I could see how what Pius says might be more true of Europe than of the U.S. (though, given the experience of Bismark in Germany, I don’t think the idea of State as victim is totally true even in Europe).

  11. May 13, 2009 9:43 am

    I think the modern nation state is the greatest enemy of subsidiarity in history. It demands the unique allegiance of individuals, and indeed, it does not recognize the many overlapping loyalties and allegiances that existed prior to its creation.

    As for the pseudo-conservatives in America, it’s a little ironic that they (ab)use the notion of subsidiarity to push free markets, while at the same time (i) having no problem with the enormous military of the nation state; (ii) doing their best to crush the power of unions, which are the ideal subdidiary mediating institutions in the current economic structure.

  12. John Zmirak permalink
    May 13, 2009 11:11 am

    Joe’s ideas for the structure of a future society, in which a Catholic-inspired State promotes cooperatives and other innovative arrangements for promoting economic distributism are worthwhile. They are not, however, live options right now. To try to work with the CURRENT secularist regime, and first infuse it with tertiary implications of Catholic teaching such as distributist economic principles, in the hope that later it will accept basic, fundamental teachings such as the sanctity of life and of the family, is hopelessly Quixotic. It’s akin to trying to take the current Chinese government’s sexual conservatism, and use it as a starting point for cooperation, in the hope that later we can evangelize them on the whole atheism/totalitarianism/materialism thing. We must FIRST resist the increasingly totalitarian instincts of our own atheist government, fight on the basic issues, evangelize society, work for economic fairness through voluntarist organizations, and THEN work with an evangelized State to implement the more secondary and tertiary aspects of Church teaching.

  13. May 13, 2009 1:01 pm

    Good post, Joe. Going back to the point you make at the start of the post, I think it remains true that some Catholics advocate positions which serve to increase the power of the state while weakening communities… the fact that other Catholics “misemploy” subsidiarity as a counterargument doesn’t change the fact that the latter’s concern is warranted.

  14. May 13, 2009 1:26 pm

    I first learned of subsidiarity in the sections of Canon Lwa dealing with education.

    Certainly, the Holy Fathers say we need to balance subsidiarity with common good–but they also leave up to us how we see them best balanced.

    The key that you are missing is that subsidiarity emphasizes the *family*. Every formulation of subsidiarity I’ve read, in the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, Mater et Magistra, etc., emphasizes that the family is the fundamental unit of society, and that government exists to protect the family.

    That would be the proper formulation of all Catholic social teaching, showing *how* subsidiarity, solidarity and Natural Law should be balanced: in a fashion that best ennobles the family.

    The Church does not prescribe a particular political system as such. However, it is obvious that Bl. Pius IX, at least, favored the “states’ rights” conception of America, as he supported the Confederacy.

    What is *missing* in most of the 20th Century encyclicals, particularly post-Vatican II, is recognition of Original Sin. We’re told “God made everyone and everything good.” We’re toold to presume goodwill, which really goes against the most basic teaching of Christianity. Indeed, it goes against the various encyclicals condemning freemasonry on the grounds that freemasonry presumes goodwill of non-Catholics.

    And, yes, Republicans are just as bad. That’s why most pro-life homeschooling Catohlics I know vote third party.

  15. May 13, 2009 2:00 pm

    Interesting post, Joe.

    I guess speaking as a conservative, though, I don’t necessarily feel like I’m recognizing some of the failings you point out as my own. So for instance, while it’s true that you often see conservatives arguing that certain issues should be left to the states, you often don’t see them pushing for the states to do much either. Your characterization of conservatives wanting government at all levels to “leave us alone” is more along the right lines, I’d say. States rights is more of an incremental step along that path.

    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.

    I’m not sure if it sounds heretical, but it certainly is something I’d agree with. Modern individualist invests the state with responsibilities it cannot possibly fulfill.

    Now I guess the thing is, it seems to me that much of what the state needs to do is “leave us alone” so that we can regrow our subsidiary institutions. I take your point on “encouraging” their growth, but I would tend to think that one of the main things that the government might need to do in order to encourage the growth of subsidiary institutions is not provide for the needs which subsidiary institutions would otherwise cover.

    This also leaves us to ask how serious we are about wanting community rather than individualism. Human behavior would seem to indicate that many of us (possibly for sinful or anti-social reasons, but by desire nonetheless) do not want to rely on community rather than the state. Relying on community means getting along with others and knowing that if we offend them or are too different from them, they may not be there for us when we need them.

  16. Joe Hargrave permalink
    May 13, 2009 2:13 pm

    John

    Thanks for giving my piece a fair read.

    There is a reason, at the end, that I call for a third party, a Catholic party.

    Keep in mind that I do not believe that the goal of a third party must necessarily be to compete against, and defeat, either major party at the national or even state level.

    The goal could be to a) capture local authority, b) sponsor local initiatives, c) pressure/discipline the major parties. Perhaps you and others are satisfied with the current crop of third parties; me, not so much.

  17. Kurt permalink
    May 13, 2009 4:48 pm

    The War on Poverty, for example, too often ignored existing efforts at community improvement as it established local branches of government bureaucracies. As a result, genuine community participation dwindled, as did grass-roots commitment to social improvement.

    Actually, I think not. Under the able hand of Sargent Shriver (and please pray for him; he is quite ill) this was exactly the focus of the War on Poverty. It was under Nixon that the community action element came under attack. The Republicans were much more open to leaving alone the amount of tax dollars spent on the War on Poverty, it was the community action component that had their wrath, mostly because it actually DID empower people in their communities.

    For more background on this, read about the late Msgr. Geno Baroni.

  18. May 15, 2009 2:08 am

    Joe,

    I give everything you write a “fair read,” because we’re 99% in agreement philosophically, and only in disagreement on a couple particular issues.

    One of my biggest claims for years has been that, historically, we need the formation of a third party to solve our country’s problems. If you look at the antebellum Democrats and Whigs, they were pretty much the same as the Democrats and Republicans today. The Whigs were an uneasy coalition of Evangelicals and Northern Capitalists. The coalition broke up, and the Evangelicals formed the GOP.

    Bob Casey’s my ideal governor; Ron Paul’s my ideal president. *That* is where I believe the American state-federal system is perfectly suited to Catholic social teaching, but the dichotomous nature of our party system won’t allow most Catholics to accept it.

    I’ve always said that if I were successful in politics, I would run as a big-time socialist at the local level: push for mass transit, city recycling programs, decency laws, health care, etc., but breaking down the educational bureaucracy and putting more power in parents’ hands. Then a more modified social program at the state level. Then run for federal office as a strict constructionist libertarian.

    I imagined myself campaigning for Senate or president saying, “look at what I accomplished as Mayor and Governor! See what localities can do on their own? We don’t need the federal government involved!”

    Then I found a candidate who said that very thing–Mike Huckabee–and the GOP and Talk Radio labelled him a “socialist” and “too moralistic.”

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