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Subsidiarity: A Primer

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 [1], 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, his gimlet eye twinkling: “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 is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.