Subsidiarity, Foreign and Domestic

We Americans like to think of our political arrangements as permanent and unchangeable. The Constitution displayed in temple-like fashion in the National Archives is the very document adopted in 1789 that gave rise to our Republic. But permanence is not a principle of justice.

France is on its fifth republic since that year. Germany in the last century shot from Kaiser, to Weimar Republic, to National Socialism, to democracy and reunification. Orthodox Russia lurched from tsar to atheistic communism to oligarchy (with democratic ornamentation along the way). Both external conquest and internal dissent drive such changes, which are the norm in history.

The U. S. Constitution has been amended and reinterpreted, sometimes dramatically, as we were reminded again on the anniversary of Roe v Wade. The results have been significant over the years – as in the growth of the power and resources of the central government – but gradual.

But that gradualism has come to endanger the fundamental principle of subsidiarity.

There’s a lesson in another country with a record of relative stability in recent centuries: the United Kingdom. Britain has often stood apart from political jostlings and cultural flings across the English Channel.

When the European Coal and Steel Community was formed shortly after World War II, its key leaders were Catholics: Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Robert Schuman of France, and Alcide de Gasperi of Italy (all of whom have been proposed for beatification). They sought to integrate the economic power of Germany into a structure that would open the way to long-term peace and prosperity for all of Europe, without centralizing power dangerously.

The United Kingdom chose not to join, preferring its traditional distance from things continental. But as the European common market grew, the British rethought their position for fear of being left out of economic growth. After an initial rebuff from France, Britain eventually became a member of the European Communities in 1973.

Still, ambivalence remained. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was dubious about the growing role of Brussels and famously obtained a rebate for British contributions to the E.C. (now the E.U.). with the demand, “We are simply asking to have our own money back.” 

The persistence of that view has just forced Prime Minister David Cameron to promise a referendum on Britain’s E.U. membership by 2017, if his Conservative Party retains power through the expected 2015 elections. In the meantime, he hopes to negotiate new terms with other E.U. members for British participation that would change the minds of the half of U.K. voters who say they would like to exit the E.U. 

Cameron has updated the image of his Tories, but many see him as an unprincipled opportunist.  He is certainly one of the few recent Western politicians to mention moral relativism repeatedly as a cultural, and thus political, problem for his country, though he does not seem to have a solution.

           Prime Minister Cameron depicted as a mad bomber in the European press

His announcement of the referendum drew objections from Germany and other staunchly pro-E.U. governments, including the Obama administration.

But still, other countries also have doubts. The Finns have put Eurosceptic forces in power recently. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has angered many pro-E.U. commentators with a new constitution that some see as undemocratic. Such criticism is partly justified, and Orban’s government has introduced changes to respond. 

Yet the volume of vitriol aimed at Orban seems to stem in part from his open rejection of the dominance of Brussels. That rejection brings charges of nationalism (and he indeed attracts some unsavory, right-wing populist supporters as well). 

Some of the reaction to Orban outside Hungary may be sharpened by the reference to Christian roots in the new constitution’s preamble – a striking contrast to the refusal of the drafters of the failed E.U. constitution a few years back to include Christianity among the sources of contemporary Europe. 

The core principle at stake is that of subsidiarity. According to this vital Catholic teaching, all questions should be decided at the lowest possible level of community. This assuredly does not rule out national governments and international organizations.  It accepts the need for higher authority (for example, a pope) where local entities cannot competently handle a problem.  But it constrains impositions from above, and the European Union claims to accept the principle. 

The reaction to the growth of E.U. authority in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is, in effect, an assertion that subsidiarity is being violated.  “We are simply asking to have our own rightful power back,” many people seem to be saying.

This debate suggests that as strong as the elite-driven centralizing forces have been in the E.U. for decades, there are strong decentralizing forces at work today.

This holds lessons for the United States. The American Founders, through arduous compromise, devised a system of federal government strong enough to do what was necessary for the common good while reserving many powers to the states – in its way, a system of sensible, prudent subsidiarity. That balance has changed substantially, especially since the beginning of the progressive era with Teddy Roosevelt and, in a different vein, Woodrow Wilson. 

The founders knew from study of democratic experiments since ancient times that their arrangements were fragile, vulnerable to all the dangers by which ordered liberty might give way to oligarchy and mobocracy.

As is happening in Europe, considerations of subsidiarity in this country can force a critical discussion of the basic purposes and forms of government.

We cannot go back to the very different place that was the United States of 1789.  But a modern centralized state that rejects subsidiarity is unjust. That injustice should move us to restore subsidiarity to our political arrangements.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.