“Subsidiarity” is a basic concept of Catholic social teaching. according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” Catholic social teaching, some interpretations of social justice to the contrary notwithstanding, promotes decentralization. The idea, it seems, is that man is active, moral and social. It follows that his good in society can only be achieved through various reciprocal social relations that require everyone’s active participation if the good is to be achieved. While formal public authority has a role to play, it’s not primary either in the construction of society or in the establishment of good order. If you want good order there’s no substitute for good people: to say otherwise would deny the dignity of man. (Here are quotes and cites that give an idea of what subsidiarity is about.)
All of which sounds wonderful, but how is it to be applied? Naturally, the tendency is to bring the abstract principle in line with other goals and preconceptions and say Catholic social teaching properly understood really means whatever you want anyway:
- If you like, you can say subsidiarity means laissez-faire capitalism, on the theory that the best way for public authority to coordinate activities is to recognize property rights and establish procedures to vindicate them, allow free contract, suppress force and fraud, and let people and freely-formed associations have the responsibility for choosing the goods they will pursue so the common good can emerge from their dealings with each other. It’s likely many people will mess things up, but public authorities are no less human so it’s equally likely they’ll mess things up, and private messups are more self-limiting than public messups.
- On the other hand, you can bring subsidiarity in line with what is in effect centralized bureaucratic socialism simply by saying that when the lower-order communities don’t do things right, and there will always be serious fault with what many of them do, then “coordination” means the higher-level authority steps in and insists that things be put in proper order. The end result is that the top-level authority determines and enforces everything that matters, and everybody else either goes along voluntarily or gets forced to go along. The lower-level authorities become in effect state instrumentalities allowed more or less autonomy as seems most efficient in view of ultimate goals. That is why the EU can claim subsidiarity as one of its principles, and a Catholic theologian can (at least seemingly) say that subsidiarity means that after we’ve set the amount of money people should be allowed to keep for themselves at some moderate figure the government should wait to see if they’ll give the excess away for a sufficiently good purpose before it moves in to take it away from them.
All of which shows—I’m not quite sure. For starters it shows that good faith is an absolute necessity, and in an age of clashing institutional interests and spin, when everything seems up for grabs, it’s hard to come by and even harder to be confident it’s really there. You end up with a low standard of discussion, and the issues never really get joined. It also shows, I believe, that in advanced technological society, in which people believe it possible to reconfigure anything into anything else, subsidiarity—which requires a settled balance of legitimate authority with the local and particular—doesn’t seem to make sense. A conception of natural social order preceding the state becomes impossible to maintain, and what we’re left with is either radical individualism or the state as creator of all order and thus in effect God on earth. Hence the immense importance of family issues to a Catholic understanding of society. If natural social order is to be found anywhere it’s in the natural family, and if even that goes then there’s no escape from society as pure artifice and in the end no alternative to an eternal struggle between chaos and tyranny.