The Catholic Thing
Subsidiarity: A Primer Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Sunday, 05 July 2009

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):

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. Put another way: the national government ought only to do what the states cannot; the states only what communities cannot; communities only what families cannot; families only what individuals cannot. This is not to suggest that Catholic social theory (especially as read in papal encyclicals) is always in favor of the minimalist state. John XXIII in Pacem in Terris (1963), while affirming the doctrine of subsidiarity, called for publicly funded health and unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and government support for the arts. Still, it is clear that “a planned economy . . . violates the principle of subsidiarity . . .” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1965). Read: R.J. Neuhaus, Doing Well and Doing Good (1992). “Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private enterprise and endeavor can accomplish, so it is likewise unjust and a gravely harmful disturbance of right order to turn over to a greater society of higher rank functions and services which can be performed by lesser bodies on a lower plane.” –Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931)

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.”

Timely truths.

Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and author of The Compleat Gentleman.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
Cui Bono?
written by Willie, July 06, 2009
Great article! An accurate picture of the present regime, which has interjected its control into areas that ought to be controlled by the American citiizen. It is no coincidence that most of this presidents picks for public office are very much pro-abortion people. Anyone who thinks this man is ready for compromise on life issues is blinded by lofty rhetoric. Cars, banks and health care are one thing, but I would worry about control in the moral arena. Wiil the next appointee be a moral czar?
written by Richard A, July 06, 2009
The principle of subsidiarity was better incarnated in the US Constitution in the original organization of the Senate as representatives of the respective state governments, as the House were representatives of the states' people. This was overthrown by the 17th amendment to the Constitution, and with senators approving all appointments to the Federal judiciary, and with senators no longer beholden to their state governments, we have judges who no longer respect the laws of lower jurisdictions.
written by Chris Manion, July 06, 2009
For the US, this interpretation encourages mischief.

Subsidiarity aside, The 9th and 10th Amendments deny the federal government all powers not expressly given it in the Constitution. Only a state may address issues like health, education, and family - these are outside the federal government's **limited** power -- period.

Problems have solutions. Conditions don't. Confusion there constitutes the most powerful temptation -- and excuse -- for the feds to invade.

Please don't encourage them!
Realistic capitalist
written by Pio, July 06, 2009
It is both sinful and stupid to idolize markets: they are not self-correcting, by nature prone to excess, and often don't deliver the Catholic "goods" (eg, health care). In this case, massive federal intervention, begun under Bush's regime, prevented the total collapse of the global economy, so subsidiarity was not violated (ie, only the federal gov had the power to prevent financial catastrophe). As bad as things are now, a global tidal wave of human suffering was probably avoided.
written by Willie, July 06, 2009
Chris-Nice to see you on TCT.
Will's Dad
written by Bob Bollini, July 06, 2009
The 9th is an empty proviso; or perhaps better, one too full. It points to a residue, or reservoir of the public will not yet exercised or made lawful. Specify some portion of it and it becomes a matter for legal draftsmen and the legislature, presumably Congress, since the ninth is a caution to Congress, not the local jurisdictions.
written by Dust, July 07, 2009
Are you a Democrat Party operative assigned to this site? The more I read your comments, the more convinced I am that you are.
written by Brad Miner, July 07, 2009
I doubt there's any confusion, but just to be sure: the Bradley of the comments is not the author of the column, who in any case is a Bradford.
With apologies
written by Dust, July 07, 2009
Apologies to the author if my comment appeared to be directed at you, sir. Great column today.
written by Bradley, July 07, 2009
Last Fall, Bishop Murphy (USCCB) wrote: "Subsidiarity places a responsibility on the private actors and institutions to accept their own obligations. If they do not do so, then the larger entities, including the government, will have to step in to do what private institutions will have failed to do." The failure occurred under the watch/policies of POTUS43, who also brought us AIG, Fannie/Freddie, TALF, TARP, loans to the Big 3, government ownership of banks, prescription drugs, etc.
Who am I?
written by Bradley, July 07, 2009
I am not a Democratic operative. I am a lay Catholic who is faithful to our church. If I appear to be one-sided in my commentary, it is to remind my brothers and sisters in Christ that a robust exchange of ideas is an integral part of Catholic tradition and that, apart from a few issues like abortion, most issues are not easily boiled down to black-and-white. Please highlight any of my comments that are outside of the boundaries of traditional Catholic thought.
bottom up
written by Adam, July 07, 2009
I would suggest a subsequent article about the demands of subsidiarity on the individual, the family, the extended family, the neighborhood, and the community. Often (it seems) I and others wield the notion of subsidiarity as a corrective to government overreach. But if this be the case, then such a principle requires much of me, my family, my business, my neighborhood, etc. Subsidiarity is not individualism, rather it calls us fulfill real moral obligations.

Keep up the excellent work!
written by Carol E. Dodd, July 07, 2009
Indeed, The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic Commentary, Their article on Subsidiarity is to be praised.
It was frightening to read, but true and even backed by the 17th Amendent as they quote!
I wonder, does the Present Presidential Regime, know how close they are getting to actually violating the Constitution of the United States of America??
written by Dust, July 07, 2009
In identifying yourself as a "lay Catholic who is faithful to our church" and claiming your fidelity to traditional Catholic thought does nothing to negate the partisan political overtones of your comment at #7.
written by elle, March 13, 2010
small numbers create excellence

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