WSJ: Three cheers for subsidiarity!

posted at 7:21 pm on October 13, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

The Washington Post endorsed Hillary Clinton today. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board endorsed subsidiarity. Guess which sounded more coherent? (Oh, let’s not always see the same hands …) Calling the reveal about progressives’ hostility toward the Catholic Church “a window into the intolerant secular soul of the Democratic establishment,” the WSJ advises them to learn a little more about subsidiarity, for the sake of their own souls:

This is a window into the intolerant secular soul of the Democratic establishment and perhaps explains why it has done so little to accommodate requests for religious liberty from the Little Sisters of the Poor. Team Clinton apparently views religion merely as a justification people adopt for their views on politics and gender. Don’t Clinton campaign advisers think it’s at least possible that a person might be motivated by sincere belief?

Mr. Halpin’s response to Ms. Palmieri was: “Excellent point. They can throw around ‘Thomistic’ thought and ‘subsidiarity’ and sound sophisticated because no one knows what the hell they’re talking about.”

We’ll leave Thomism to the theologians, but subsidiarity is a concept that the left would do well to consider. It is the idea that social problems are best addressed by the nearest and smallest competent authority, rather than by a faraway state. Individual acts of charity can be highly effective, but the Clinton platform sees virtue only in a centralized bureaucracy sending out welfare checks regardless of results.

See — it’s not so difficult to understand subsidiarity, is it? (Thomism, as I pointed out yesterday, is a different matter, and the editors wisely leave it to the experts.) Subsidiarity is a key component of Catholic teaching, but like many other points, it’s also common sense. It’s such a widely held approach that federalism incorporates subsidiarity, specifically in the US Constitution. The ninth and tenth amendments specifically relate to subsidiarity and the need to have power devolved to the lowest practical level.

However, it’s also important to remember that subsidiarity in Catholic teaching exists in combination with solidarity — in one sense the need to organize more complex structures in order to effect the greatest good, but in the broader sense the need to unify into the Body of Christ for the purposes of salvation. To some, solidarity gives entrée to the use of government institutions to effect good, especially when created within the framework of self-governance. Thus, the argument within Catholic circles has tended to look at the subsidiarity/solidarity question as a balance of private engagement vs government programs.

That, however, misses the point. Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this misconception in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Solidarity does not mean outsourcing one’s commitment to the poor to government institutions — solidarity means working together actively in voluntary arrangements that promote social responsibility rather than pass it off to others (paragraph 11):

The second truth is that authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension. Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him. In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity’s right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature

On the other hand, Benedict also saw trade unions as a key toward solidarity, and wasn’t necessarily opposed to government programs that oriented themselves as support for workers and the poor, as long as it maintained their dignity and freedom (para 25):

From the social point of view, systems of protection and welfare, already present in many countries in Paul VI’s day, are finding it hard and could find it even harder in the future to pursue their goals of true social justice in today’s profoundly changed environment. … These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers’ associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome.

But Benedict underscored the key reasons why subsidiarity has to be part of those equations as well, in ways that appeal to the American experience (pp 57,58):

Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state. It is able to take account both of the manifold articulation of plans — and therefore of the plurality of subjects — as well as the coordination of those plans. Hence the principle of subsidiarity is particularly well-suited to managing globalization and directing it towards authentic human development. In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. …

The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.

Caritas in Veritate explains this yin-yang tension well, perhaps in the easiest terms for comprehension. The problem, as Dr. Jeff Mirius wrote five years ago at Catholic Culture, is that too many people — especially progressives — see government as the ultimate expression of solidarity:

It is necessary to emphasize this point: Human development involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity. Yet this free assumption of responsibility in solidarity is precisely what is lacking when we turn to government to implement broad social solutions. …

Societies characterized by subsidiarity are necessarily characterized by a rich and varied social organization, rather than by the common modern organization of the atomized individual on the one hand and the enormous power of the state on the other. In other words, the principle of subsidiarity necessarily results in the development of intermediary institutions which enrich the social order and, through their own corporate (i.e., consolidated group) influence, provide a bulwark against the abuse of State power.

Manifestly, then, the principle of subsidiarity is essential to the assumption of widespread responsibility, just as an instinctive, ill-considered turn to the State implies precisely the opposite. The reflexive turn to the State actually involves an abdication of true responsibility, generally hidden beneath the claim that we have acted responsibly (in fact, we have seized the moral high ground!) merely by voting for “the right program”. Thus, in most cases, the invocation of the power of the State diminishes personal responsibility. We like this only if we mistakenly think it gets us off the hook.

Government cannot be the ultimate form of solidarity; it is the ultimate form of legal compulsion rather than freedom of action. The ultimate expression of solidarity — and the one that most respects subsidiarity — is the Church itself. Those who act under the banner of solidarity while attempting to undermine Christian faith are going in the wrong direction. That’s what makes the reference to subsidiarity in the John Halpin-Jennifer Palmieri e-mail chain so ironic, and the reference to attacking the leadership of the Catholic Church in the John Podesta-Sandy Newman e-mail chain so revealing.

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