Subsidiarity is a basic principle of Catholic social teaching. Like other such principles, it is praised more than practiced, because it is at cross purposes with the outlook that now governs our public life.
It springs from concern for man in all his dimensions. Each of us participates in the human nature that is common to all. Each of us also has his own will and destiny, and knows who he is through a social identity that includes local and particular connections. So we are at once universal, individual, and socially situated, and become what we are through active participation in a complex of networks and institutions.
Concern with that aspect of human life puts Catholic social teaching at odds with the understandings of social life now dominant, which take equality and efficiency as their concern, and consequently want to reduce society to a sort of machine run from the top down for simple purposes. Such understandings make man less than he is, and end up treating him at bottom as an employee, voter, and consumer: someone who holds a position in a system of production and distribution designed and run by other people, periodically registers his assent to that system and how it is governed, and otherwise is free to amuse himself however he wants, as long as he doesn’t interfere with other people or the smooth operation of the system.
Dissent from that vision puts Catholic social teaching at cross purposes with every other political ideal now prominent. Catholic teaching wants man to be an effective participant in his world, so it wants the center of gravity of social life to be within his reach. For that reason it insists, in the face of the modern tendency toward the industrialization of social relations, on making the business of society as local as reasonably possible. It therefore asserts the principle of subsidiarity, which insists that lower-level groups such as families and local communities are not tools in the hands of higher-ups but have their own life and integrity that must be respected.
Subsidiarity rejects all forms of tyranny. It makes hierarchy more a matter of enabling those in the middle and bottom to carry on their lives than giving those at the top the power to plan out what is wanted and see to its achievement. It rejects the conception of social justice most common today, which emphasizes equality and universality and thus a comprehensive system of supervision and control. Instead, it stands for the Catholic and classical conception of social justice, a state of affairs in which each part of the social order receives its due so it can carry out its proper function.
More generally, it rejects present-day liberalism, the attempt to turn the social order into a technically rational contrivance for maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences. It opposes it not only in its leftist or progressive form, which emphasizes expertise and equality, and prefers to act through neutral bureaucracies and international authorities, but also in its rightist or conservative form, which emphasizes energy and efficiency, and prefers global markets and the exercise of national power. So it is ill at ease with both the politically-correct welfare state and such aspects of present-day capitalism as outsourcing, big box stores, the penetration of commercial relations into all aspects of life, and the bottom line as the final standard for business decisions.
It nonetheless accepts certain tendencies often identified as conservative or liberal. It generally favors family values, distributed powers, federalism, local control, and freedom of enterprise and association, all of which now count as conservative causes. It also favors causes that count as liberal, such as grassroots democracy, limitations on big business as well as big government, and certain kinds of unionism. It favors neighborliness and an active civil society, which everyone says he likes, and maintenance of borders and limits on globalization, which our major parties along with the whole of our ruling class now reject.
The life of the Church provides a concrete example of why subsidiarity makes sense and how it works. The point of the formal structure of the Church, her hierarchy, sacraments, disciplines, and subordinate bodies, is to help the faithful become what God intended them to be. That purpose can’t be legislated, administered, or forced on anyone, but it can be aided, and that is the point of what the Church does as an organized community. As the saying goes, salus animarum suprema lex (“the salvation of souls is the supreme law”).
To that end, the aspects of the life of the Church that normally matter most—parish life, the availability of the sacraments, and the religious life of the believer and his network of family and friends—are necessarily local. Some things, such as doctrine, have to be determined universally, because doctrine is the necessary background for Catholic life, and if it is true for anyone it is true for everyone. Others, such as particular devotions and apostolates, may become widespread, but they depend on local needs and initiatives. They normally aren’t begun by councils, popes, or ecclesiastical bureaucracies, but by individual believers, and grow through acceptance by those who find they suit their spiritual needs.
What is true of religious life is also largely true of secular life. Man is not a domestic animal to be tended and used but an agent and participant to be aided, persuaded, and sometimes restrained. Some aspects of social life, like dealing with military threats, normally require a strong element of force, unity, and central control. Others, like educating the young, and cultural life in general, are much more local, varying, personal, and difficult to run centrally. Each level depends on the others: national defense depends on individual patriotism, and education and personal culture on the overall state of social and public life. The final standard, however, is not national power, gross domestic product, or the efficiency and rationality of the system, but what kind of people the citizens become and what kind of lives they lead. For that reason the local level is normally the main center of concern. It is at that level that people live.
It’s important to note that concern for matters other than equality and efficiency does not mean that subsidiarity injures those things compared to centralized initiative and control, especially in the long run. Centralized systems are inherently grossly unequal because they concentrate power in so few hands. And subsidiarity promotes functionality by giving implicit local knowledge—the kind of knowledge you only have if you’ve been there—a place to develop, accumulate, and find application. The common-sense observation that the instruction manual can’t cover everything, and if you simply obey rules nothing worthwhile ever happens, applies to all aspects of society, and our approach to social life must take it seriously. Thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Michael Oakeshott became famous by emphasizing the limitations of central control and the importance of the local development of understandings and practices that become generally accepted and therefore traditional because they have been found helpful.
It is also worth noting that biology and urban design theory tell us that resilient and adaptable systems need exactly the features that subsidiarity favors with its emphasis on local initiative and relative autonomy: diversity and redundancy, inter-connected networks, structures on all scales of size and complexity, and the capacity of the system and its components to self-adapt and self-organize. On that line of thought, subsidiarity is not so much a good idea as a necessity for any system that combines great complexity with enduring functionality. If you want to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, it seems, you need to decentralize.
A final point that brings us back to the general system of Catholic social teaching has to do with subsidiarity and solidarity. The two are often thought to be at odds, but in fact are complementary. Subsidiarity is an essential part of the good society solidarity aims to promote for all. We do not show solidarity by asking higher-ups to make people’s efforts irrelevant to their own well-being, or turn those who face difficulties into perpetual dependents. Similarly, we do not advance subsidiarity by getting rid of the subsidium—the assistance lent by one level to another—that gives the principle its name. Hierarchies may often be oppressive, but they are needed. In any normal situation, eliminating all checks on local activities will not make them more functional, and getting government out of family law will not promote family life. We depend on each other, and barring extraordinary circumstances that feature of our nature must be reflected in law as well as custom. Man is complex, and law and social order must be equally so.