The revival of Roman Catholic social teaching in the late nineteenth century introduced the word subsidiarity into the English language. Although the word itself was something of a neologism, the concept it signifies extends back to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, eventually finding its way into the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John Paul II.
Subsidiarity has its etymological roots in the Latin word subsidium, meaning help or assistance, from whence comes our word subsidy. If a government offers farmers a subsidy to support agricultural production, it is helping them out to compensate for, say, low prices at the marketplace.
In the Catholic tradition, subsidiarity is a principle with broad societal implications. Society is conceived as a hierarchy, ranging from God and His church at and near the top, down through state and non-state communal formations with individuals at the base. Each level of the hierarchy aims at the good intrinsic to that level. Individuals pursue their own goods and those of their families. Businesses pursue economic goods appropriate to their tasks. The state pursues the common good of an entire political community. The church seeks the supernatural common good of human beings insofar as they are spiritual beings oriented to their highest, divinely-ordained end.
However, although this hierarchical arrangement of institutions and individuals would appear conducive to an autocratic top-down relationship, subsidiarity presupposes considerable vitality at each level. Individuals pursue their own goods insofar as they are able, free from interference from the higher levels. Businesses, schools, labour unions, and museum boards continue to fulfil the tasks for which they are best suited, without direct intervention from government. Government in turn pursues the common good without the meddling of ecclesiastical authorities.
However, in the real world, individuals and communities sometimes fall short in the fulfilment of their responsibilities. At such times, they need help. Such help is properly available at the next level up in the social hierarchy. If a business is polluting the environment, mistreating its workers, or manufacturing products that endanger consumers, the state has an obligation to step in to set matters aright. Such intervention should be only temporary, until the business in question has successfully put its house in order. Once this has occurred, the state properly withdraws and allows it to function in normal fashion.
Philosopher Yves R. Simon calls this the “principle of autonomy,” signifying that lower communities have a certain autonomous status vis-a-vis the authority of the higher communities. Without this principle of subsidiarity or autonomy, the social hierarchy risks becoming an excessively top-down affair, with the lower communities doing little more than following orders from the top.
One of the genuine difficulties with subsidiarity, however, is that it is less than fully able to account for the differences among various kinds of things, particularly those that are not obviously hierarchically related. To assert that the state pursues the common good may not get us very far, simply because every community, insofar as it is a community, pursues a common good of some sort.
What we need to know, then, is that the state pursues a common political good, as distinct from other common goods. To understand this, we will need to look beyond subsidiarity to find something better able to distinguish between what is political and what is not, which is a topic for another day.
However, if subsidiarity has its limitations as a general social principle, it is nevertheless useful in facilitating an understanding of the relations between levels of a federal system. Federalism is a form of government dividing political authority among two or more levels, usually with a written constitutional document detailing the division of powers among these levels. There are few genuine federal systems in the world today; those existing have a number of common characteristics, including a large land mass and internal cultural or religious diversity.
It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the largest countries in the world, such as Canada, the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Mexico, organize their governments along federal lines. If all policy decisions were to emanate from a distant capital city, irrespective of the divergent needs of local populations, such a country would come to resemble nothing more than a highly centralized empire, whose every action would likely engender alienation outside the capital itself.
Federalism is an institutional means of recognizing the need for local communities to rule themselves in accordance with their own perceived interests. Here is where subsidiarity properly plays a significant role. Although not mentioned in so many words, this principle is embodied in the tenth amendment of the United States Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” The intention of the founders was to allow the component states of the new federal union to retain much, if not most, of their powers, excepting those explicitly assigned to the union.
Similarly, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty incorporated the principle of subsidiarity within the institutions of the European Union (EU). The brevity characterizing the tenth amendment is here replaced by a fuller definition:
The Community shall act within the limit of the powers conferred upon it by this Treaty and of the objectives assigned to it therein. In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community. Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.
This provision was intended to address the concerns of “Eurosceptics,” such as those in the United Kingdom (or, perhaps more properly, England), who feared an overweening Brussels bureaucracy continually second-guessing London and impugning the cherished constitutional principle of parliamentary sovereignty.
Despite the best of intentions, however, there has been a historic tendency for federal systems to become progressively more centralized, irrespective of what is written in a constitutional document. In the United States, the twin issues of slavery and civil rights for racial minorities effectively discredited the old constitutional doctrines of state sovereignty and states’ rights, which were henceforth viewed as little more than pretexts for maintaining institutionalized racism, particularly in the American south. It was, after all, the federal government that undertook to protect black Americans against the vicious policies of racial segregation mandated in the southern states.
Subsidiarity would support such intervention on behalf of beleaguered citizens—but only as a temporary measure. Once the injustice was rectified, the federal government should presumably withdraw and allow the states to pursue their own political interests as their voting citizens—now expanded to encompass the previously disenfranchised—would have come to understand them. However, despite the theory to the contrary, Washington has generally maintained its pre-eminence over the state governments, although there have been occasional moves to reverse the process. This trend has been amplified since September 11, 2001, as the federal government has arrogated to itself more powers to fight terrorism. Eurosceptics are only too well aware of developments across the pond, and it colours ongoing debates over the further integration of the EU.
Hope may be found, however, in the persistence of social diversity itself. A country characterized by pronounced, regionally-based cleavages arguably has a better chance of avoiding excessive political centralization than a more homogeneous country or one whose cleavages are non-territorial. Switzerland’s four languages, two religions, and 23 cantons have successfully prevented the federal government in Berne from becoming a Washington or a Paris. The presence of French-`speaking Quebec within Canada has effectively decentralized this country beyond the intentions of many of the Fathers of Confederation. The presence of 25 member states and 20 official languages in the EU could work to strengthen the hand of Brussels to counteract the fissiparous tendencies of such diversity, or it could serve to diminish its ability to make decisions for the lower levels, which are far different from each other than are the 10 Canadian provinces or the 50 American states.
If subsidiarity is to survive within the world’s existing federal systems, it will ultimately be due to the determination of citizens to maintain the vitality of their local communities and to nurture their regional governments’ capacity to do justice. It may further require a redefinition of the very concept in a more reciprocal direction: if regional and local governments prove healthier and more vital than the federal government, then a less hierarchical subsidiarity may require the former to help the latter to fulfil its own task within the larger constitutional framework.