Subsidiarity at Work

dilbert subsidiarity

Everyone here at the American Catholic hoped that you all have had a happy Labor Day weekend.

The principle of Subsidiarity states that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently.

Pope Leo XIII developed the principle in his AD 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.  The principle was further developed by Pope Pius XI in his AD 1931 encyclial Quadragesimo Anno.

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To learn more about Subsidiarity click here.

To read Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum click here.

To read Pope Pius XI‘s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno click here.

For more Dilbert funnies click here.

6 Responses to Subsidiarity at Work

  • Eric Brown says:

    I think the author of the first link oversimplifies the application of the principle — which is prudential in the first place — and makes something appear to be “obvious”.

    I’m actually very skeptical of the whole project of the Acton institute.

    If someone were a Catholic and told me they were a committed “liberal feminist Democrat” — I would inquire about their definitions of “liberal” and “feminist” before proceeding to make a judgment. If they were using authentically Catholic definitions for these relative terms, I’d have nothing else to say.

    If someone were a Catholic and told me they were an ardent laissez-faire free market capitalist, I’d ask as well what do those terms imply because while the philosophy is not in and of itself evil and it is certainly far from perfect — I would be interested as to how the Catholic reconciled their faith entirely with a philosophy largely born of the Enlightenment if there is no difference between the Catholic free market capitalist and other free market capitalists — it’d seem the philosophy transformed the Catholic not the other way around.

    While I think the Acton Institute does make extraordinary points at times, I find other things quite dubious. This is one of those points.

    I will go further into it, if time permits it later.

  • MacGregor says:

    I hope to learn more as well and look forward to your next post, Eric.

    The Welfare State is not one I want to live in, but I also would not want to have been an African American in Alabama waiting for my local community to let me in the front of the city bus.

    My own experience has been mixed, where sometimes the fed. government has gotten in the way of people taking on the socially responsible and moral challenges of the day, but more often the fed. govt. has had to come in when local authorities and communities for that matter have failed. And it is every so often a wonderful thing to feel a national sense of community when the federal government does something that we as a people want it to do: preserve Gettysburg and Yellowstone, develop the Apollo Program, help hurricane victims and give veterans health care benefits that are not dependent upon just local resources because they didn’t fight for their town, they fought for their country.

    Fr. Bosnich’s article makes some good points, but it also makes some surprising overstatements in my opinion:

    “The Bishops have not learned the key lessons of the 1980s: the success of free market economics and the failure of collectivism. The top-down, centralized planning of the Soviet system could not succeed because it contradicted the subsidiarity principle.”

    Yes, the Soviet system did not succeed, it was dehumanizing and it was cruel, but not because it was “collective” it failed because it was authoritarian and draconian and oppressed freedom of speech, thought, travel and of course the democratizing influence of market forces and personal wealth creation. But it is hard to claim that things like national reforms of health care are equivalent to the Soviet Union.

    Fr. Bosnich also wrote, “Consolidation is the weapon of tyranny, but the friend of liberty is particularism.” True, but the consolidation of money into 5 big banks and the consolidation of information into 5 big media companies and the consolidation of health care into a couple of insurance companies for each state and the consolidation of … well you get it. These all breed economic tyranny and yet these are the direct result of the laissez faire economic policies that I assume he would encourage. This begins to smack of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in which helping others or voting to help others leads directly to living for others and this destroys society.

    In another paragraph Fr. Bosnich say “Baum defines subsidiarity as “de-centralization” and socialization as “centralization”. In other words, in this view, Catholicism teaches the principle of de-centralization and the principle of centralization simultaneously!” I haven’t read Baum or anyone else that he quotes, except for de Tocqueville, so I don’t know. But it also seems apparent to me that Catholicism does teach individualism and collectivism simultaneously. I don’t see that as bad, I see it as realistic, natural and moral. The monastic tradition is the very embodiment of wrapping the two together in the most purposeful way possible. The Catholic Church is a rather singular example of a centralized hierarchy and I have to say with some sadness that the federalist and staunchly individualist tendencies of the Founding Fathers came more from the ancient Saxon, Iroquois and Protestant tradition (and Deism) than from Catholic tradition.

    It was during the Progressive Era in American history that began the last resurgence of the type of voluntary associations that de Tocqueville and the author would have praised. The Progressive Era was a time of strengthening communities, hundreds of clubs and the strengthening of labor unions and women’s suffrage. These traditions, some might say collectivistic tendencies, formed a particularly strong sense of rights and responsibilities.

    I think Fr. Bosnich gets caught up in the idea of statism and ignores even bigger issues – the we do not live in the 19th century anymore; that globalization is redefining what “local” and “national” really mean; that kids growing up today are thinking of themselves not as Idahoans or Atlantans, but as Americans or even world citizens; that we are not merely economic beings who only need protection from government price controls for aspirin; that humans are also ecologically tied to every other life form on Earth and that this bond has a spiritual nature as well.

    The principle of subsidiarity has at its heart the age-old conflicts of the individual vs. the group and rights vs. responsibility. Each is a balancing act and societies (especially American society) tend to teeter toter between each extreme rather than stay long at an equilibrium. As someone who most closely admires Jefferson and being from a relatively rural state, I certainly believe in that self reliance is a virtue and the least government being the best government. However I also believe that globalization and urbanization (not liberalism) have overwhelmingly placed most people in a position of compromised dependency – lots of people in big cities working service jobs and changing homes several times in their lives. We can pretend that smaller, simpler organizations will be able to take care of most of our needs, and in someways the internet and new urbanism is trying to do just that, but when large corporations drive the economy and when environmental degradation starts to cross borders and affect oceans, not just nearby valleys, then it is necessary for larger levels of governments to take a more active role and sometimes that role will be morally necessary, in my opinion.

  • MacGregor says:

    Oh I forgot to add to Fr. Bosnich’s view on the lesson of the 1980′s … Another lesson of the 1980′s is that top-down economics (trickle down, deregulated industries) also encourage unrestrained mergers, economic bubbles and the decoupling of Wall Street capital from Main street workers which lead to an economy that eventually collapsed in 2008. Maybe each local Elks Club in the country could have a bake sale and replace everyone’s 401k.

  • Kevin in Texas says:

    From your first post, you make some very good points, Macgregor, although I think you may be erring slightly in your 6th paragraph by conflating two separate issues in the Soviet Union, politics and economics.

    In no way do I disagree with your analysis of the draconian, authoritarian aspects of Soviet political rule, but that is not what Fr. Bosnich was referring to, if I’m reading him correctly, in describing purely the economic aspects of collectivism, i.e., the top-down government control of every aspect of the economy. In and of itself such a system can never work because it is the antithesis of subsidiarity and there is no way for the bureaucrats running central planning to respond quickly to changes in supply and demand at the local levels, so they end up simply imposing a “one size fits all” solution on a vast economy, leading to massive inefficiency, shortages, etc.

    It happens to be true that in many real-life governments the two systems often go hand in hand, political authoritarian regimes and collectivist, state-controlled economies (e.g., Cuba, Venezuela under Chavez, North Korea, etc.), but I think it’s important to be clear that collectivist economies, even in the absence of political authoritarianism, cannot function efficiently.

    Sorry for the minor quibble, but I think it’s (political vs. economic government control) a vital distinction to make in relation to the Catholic notion of subsidiarity, or at least my very limited understanding of the concept! ;-)

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