Subsidiarity is the principle that responsibility for decisions ought to rest at the lowest rung of the organizational ladder. When possible, individuals ought to make their own decisions. When necessary, heads of households must decide. When households must make joint decisions, perhaps a village counsel or other small group or a mayor must assume responsibility. According to this principle, the national, continental or world government should assume only those responsibilities that absolutely cannot be assumed by a lower level of organization.
Along with its corollary Solidarity (to be discussed in a future article) it was developed as part of the Church’s response to the abuses of the industrial revolution and the ideologies it inspired: laissez faire capitalism, fascism in all its forms, and Marxist communism.*
Is it infallible teaching of the Church? Is it part of the deposit of faith? I don’t know. Nonetheless, it attracts my interest because it comes from the one true Church established by Jesus Christ and given to the care of St. Peter (the “Rock”) and his successors, and because the Church has so often been right on a multitude of issues about which many supremely confident intellectuals have been abysmally wrong.
Secular Supporters of Subsidiarity
Besides the fathers of the Church, who have been the most admirable champions of subsidiarity? I propose: the founding fathers of the United States of America, a band of thoughtful, well-educated, brave individuals dedicated to creating a prosperous nation in which tyranny would be unlikely who created the most prosperous, democratic, generous, high-minded nation-state the world had ever seen. Their design was superb. Its sole glaring flaw was its initial acceptance of human slavery – a moral abomination that nearly killed it and that left lasting scars, but that it eventually rejected and survived.
They designed a national government severely limited to a handful of functions that could not be performed at the state, local, community or family level. Then they limited its power by dividing it into three branches, each of which was answerable to different constituency, and created a two-part legislature in which one part would be dominated by more populous states and the other would be dominated by the more numerous but less populous states. Then they explicitly limited its power to acquire additional power by adding the tenth amendment to the Bill of Rights.
Without explicitly using the term “subsidiarity” the founders repeatedly expressed their support for the concept as a guiding principle of good government and social organization. At the time state governments were relatively small and exercised limited powers by today’s standards. Accordingly, they were not a source of concern for the founders.
Secular Opponents of Subsidiarity
Who are the most aggressive opponents of subsidiarity? The contest ends in a two-way tie between: (1) the authoritarian regimes of the Right: fascists, including but not limited to Nazis; and (2) the authoritarian regimes of the Left: Marxist communists from all corners of the globe. They agree on little else but the two ends of our political spectrum are unified in their desire to maximize the centralization of power and decision-making.
Following political extremists of any stripe in any direction takes us along a slippery slope to the edge of the same cliff. The solution is not to abandon subsidiarity and camp on the edge but to cling to subsidiarity and build a society upon the level and fruitful plain offering both freedom and personal responsibility.
The traditional teachings of the Church is right again, as it always is.