Government is difficult. How can anyone run other people’s lives when he likely has trouble running his own?
A basic difficulty is the old problem of the one and the many. In philosophy that problem is both unavoidable and insoluble, and politics is no different. On the one hand rulers must keep overall perspectives and general principles in mind, and on the other they must allow full scope to local knowledge and the modifications particular cases demand. Slighting either can mean disaster, and the situation becomes even more difficult when there is a need to govern extensive territories with large and diverse populations.
Catholic social teaching proposes subsidiarity as a way of managing the issue. As Pope Leo XIII observed, “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” Instead, the Catechism tells us the higher should “support [the lower association] 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.” So the Church favors decentralization unless something else is needed—whatever that means.
The Church observes that principle in her own government. The pope is ultimately ruler over all, each bishop is king within his diocese, various institutes and orders have some degree of autonomy, and parishes and lay associations are generally allowed considerable practical freedom to carry on their activities as they think best. Many expect “synodality” to further a tendency toward a more locally autonomous Church. We shall see.
America isn’t Catholic, but subsidiarity has nonetheless been basic to her federal structure of government, as well as to her traditional emphasis on local government, private property, religious freedom, family responsibility, and voluntary association. Even the EU favors it in theory, officially ruling out central intervention when an issue can be dealt with effectively at a lower level.
So everyone seems to agree that local is better, unless there is a definite advantage to be gained from centralization. But how exactly do you apply the principle? How much intervention from the center is beneficial, and for what purposes?
Some instances of action by higher authorities seem obvious. National defense is normally centralized, and it guards a safe space within which local associations can carry on their activities. Family law, when it respects natural law, is a government activity that supports the independent life of families. Providing legal forms such as trusts and not-for-profit corporations fosters the activity of voluntary associations for public ends. And in the Church, truth here is truth there, so doctrine is not subject to local option.
But other situations are more ambiguous, and in recent times difficulties have multiplied.
Better communications have made it possible to micromanage or even tyrannize over local activities from the center. To pick extreme examples, the Soviet and Nazi regimes would have been impossible without the telephone and motor transport. How do you get people to do such horrible things on such a vast scale unless you can keep after them?
More generally, when technology makes something possible someone is going to want to do it. The technical possibility of micromanagement leads those at the top to like the idea. After all, if I’m one of the people at the top, and everyone I talk to shares that perspective, why wouldn’t we all believe that we should run everything because we know better? Why let a bunch of provincial know-nothings do whatever they feel like doing?
That impulse eventually takes ideological form. Justice, for example, calls for equality, at least to the extent of similar treatment for similar cases. How can that be achieved without overall central control? So it’s obviously more just for the people at the top to run everything!
But the center can’t know much about the rewards and difficulties of day-to-day life in all the situations found in a diverse and extensive society. As a result, centralization means an emphasis on abstract standards and goals, like comprehensive equality and the dollar value of overall output, that are not specially prominent at a local level at which concrete issues like crime or highway repair seem more pressing. Those at the top eventually come to believe that their concerns are what truly matter, and attribute local slackness on such issues to ignorance, ineptitude, bigotry, and corruption.
The Church herself has lent some support to such tendencies, although caveats and her native caution permit sensible restraint. For example, in Mater et Magistra 54, Saint John XXIII tells us that
The present advance in scientific knowledge and productive technology clearly puts it within the power of the public authority to a much greater degree than ever before to reduce imbalances which may exist between different branches of the economy or between different regions within the same country or even between the different peoples of the world.
So global authority is going to attack global inequality. The UN or whoever is going to mitigate the imbalances between Syria and Singapore, North Korea and North Dakota. Some measures in that direction could make sense, averting war and facilitating transfers of know-how for example, but it’s a grandiose goal, and local problems stubbornly resist outside solution. That’s part of what it means to say that man is free.
That encyclical was published in 1961, when postwar confidence in social policy was at its peak, just before the sixties destroyed much of the basis for that confidence. The collapse of socialism toward the end of the last century was another chastening event. Even so, today electronic communications and the power of spin and propaganda have destroyed the connection between public discussion and reality, and brought back the view that government can do anything. Wokeness, for example, requires reconstruction of all social relations by higher authorities answerable only to each other. How well is that likely to work?
A further problem is that social functions are increasingly carried on through shifting economic and communications networks that span the globe. In such a setting everything between the very top and the very bottom becomes transitory and insubstantial. So it seems that all responsibility and authority must be placed at one of those extreme levels. Radical individualism and radical centralization seem the alternatives.
Thus, in the Church the local bishop, the parish priest, and local established custom have lost influence. Instead, we have the Pope on one side, individual believers on the other, and between them shifting internet and other journalistic presences that range from leftwards of Fr. James Martin to rightwards of Taylor Marshall.
In secular government, we have the federal government deciding how college men and women should deal with each other, and what procedures doctors should treat as ethical. Centralization and radical individualism even seem to merge. So we have the Supreme Court telling the whole country that if two men think their relationship is marriage it’s marriage, and the mother’s decision determines whether a baby is a baby.
So the right relation between the pluribus and the unum seems farther away than ever. The world nonetheless bumbles on, usually (but not always) avoiding absolute calamity, and providing a setting in which good things sometimes happen. As the old statesman wrote to his son, a young diplomat feeling his inexperience, “An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?” (“Do you not know, my son, with how very little wisdom the world is governed?”)
The comment may seem a bit cynical, but it was worldly-wise, and can comfort us by showing us that political stupidity, delusion, and occasional downright evil are not modern inventions, and life goes on in spite of them. That situation is likely to continue as long as human society itself. People are deeply imperfect, and all we can do is pray for guidance, forgiveness, and undeserved good fortune. And after that we should try to do our best—citizens and rulers alike. How it turns out is in God’s hands.
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