Saving Subsidiarity: Why it is not about small government
Subsidiarity, though hardly the most exciting element of Catholic social doctrine, has been much in the news lately. It was invoked in the Republican primaries and its praises have been sung in The Wall Street Journal.
In April, Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, invoked subsidiarity to justify what can only be termed a radical budget, promptly passed by the House. He would cut 22 percent from Medicaid and 17 percent from food stamps over the next 10 years and convert Medicare to a voucher program that partially supports premiums for private insurance. Despite claims that this is a serious response to the deficit, Ryan’s budget squanders these cruel savings on an extension of the Bush tax cuts and massive new tax cuts for high earners.
Critics of the Ryan budget have argued that solidarity—the virtue that impels us to active concern for the needs of others—must be used to balance subsidiarity. While this argument is true, it gives too much away, for subsidiarity is an application of solidarity, not its opposite. Subsidiarity is not a principle of small government. It is a two-edged sword. Subsidiarity warns against the overbearing action of any large social actors and also demands that they render assistance, subsidium, when problems are too large to be handled by smaller, local actors.
Subsidiarity envisions not a small government, but a strong, limited one that encourages intermediate bodies and organizations (families, community groups, unions, businesses) to contribute to the common good. It envisions a strong government that protects individuals and small intermediate bodies from the actions of large organizations—not just the state but corporations as well.
That Representative Ryan could publicly change his allegiance from Ayn Rand to Catholic social doctrine without changing his policies suggests something is terribly amiss. His confusion is the fruit of decades of work by Catholic thinkers serving in neoliberal (so-called “conservative”) think tanks of Washington, D.C., aiming to conscript Catholic social doctrine as an ally in their libertarian economic agenda. The debate around the Ryan budget shows they have effectively transformed the concept of subsidiarity into a principle of small government.
This reduction of Catholic social doctrine is evident in that most successful act of public dissent, the 1984 report Toward the Future, by Michael Novak and a self-appointed committee of lay Catholics. Drafted to counter the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” it not only challenged the bishops, but distorted papal teaching as well. As the author Lew Daly has noted, it invoked Pope John Paul II’s discussion of “intermediate bodies” but changed their context from the common good to the free-market economy. In their words, “Only an open, free market allows such intermediate bodies economic breathing space.”
Ironically, they lifted the quotation concerning intermediate bodies from a sentence in the encyclical “On Human Work” (1981) in which Pope John Paul II discussed the need for new forms of industrial ownership that associate “labor with ownership of capital as far as possible.” The entirety of the paragraph displays the full breadth of the principle of subsidiarity. Both Marxist collectivism and “rigid capitalism” are criticized and new political and economic structuresare contemplated.
A review of the history of Catholic social thought confirms that John Paul’s account is the authentic one and helps us see the full challenge presented by the principle of subsidiarity.
A Response to Two Revolutions
Catholic social thought was born of twin revolutions—one political, the other economic. The modern secular states in France and Germany stripped the church of its property, limited its role in education and marriage and created the modern citizen, equal and alone before the state.
These political revolutions followed upon and accelerated an economic one: the ongoing churning revolution of early capitalism that developed into the Industrial Revolution. Peasants were evicted from estates as agricultural land was turned to more profitable uses.
These twin revolutions stripped away the complex of relationships, affiliations and obligations that constituted medieval and early modern society. Feudal systems of support and obligation were replaced with the wage contract. The peasantry was transformed into a deeply insecure working class. Economic forces left families and communities bereft of support beyond parents’ inadequate and unreliable wages.
Catholic social thought and the papal social doctrine that built upon it emerged in response to these two revolutions. For that reason, Catholic social thought has always been directed simultaneously against both excessive state power and unrestrained economic power.
Subsidiarity was born of the long struggle to replace the structures that had been swept away in these revolutions. Catholic laity, religious and clergy struggled to build and support charitable organizations, Christian factories, mutual aid societies, schools for laborers, etc. Indeed, social ministries were a major part of the effervescence of new religious orders in the 19th-century Catholic revival. These formed the precursors to both modern social welfare structures and labor unions.
Subsidiarity thus bears this positive imperative to preserve, protect and create new effective mediating structures in society. Yes, subsidiarity guided the church’s embrace of social democracy, but it also moved the National Catholic Rural Life Conference to embrace the cooperative movement in the 1940s. Its logic is evident in the church’s embrace of community organizing through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. It influenced the faith-based charitable funding embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Subsidiarity inspired Catholic rethinking of the economic order as well. The Jesuit economist Heinrich Pesch proposed a “solidarist social order,” in which workers and employers collectively oversee their industries for the common good. Distributists like G. K. Chesterton argued for local economies and small-scale firms. Pope John XXIII judged that no matter how much wealth is produced, the structure of industry must allow workers to “express” themselves and to perfect their “own being” in their work and “have their say in, and make their own contribution to the efficient running and development of enterprise”—a theme John Paul II would develop at length in his labor encyclical.
In “Quadragesimo Anno” (1931), Pius XI provided the classic formulation of subsidiarity. That document is worth revisiting because its teaching is often distorted by being quoted with insufficient context.
The first lines of the paragraph on subsidiarity, which are almost never quoted, alert us that Pius was not simply discussing state power:
As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations.
Then follows the now classic definition:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also 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.
This is not yet a discussion of the state; it is a general principle for all social actors. “For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help [subsidium] to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” Early translations used the term “corporation” to translate the Latin consociatio.Msgr. John A. Ryan’s initial review of the encyclical in the July 1931 Ecclesi-astical Review made the connection, declaring control of industry by large corporations to be “as bad as socialism.”
In his next paragraph, Pius explicitly addressed the state. The “public authority” should “let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance” so that it may more “freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.”
This is not the same thing as federalism, as Congressman Ryan has claimed. Pius is not speaking of different levels of government but of the public authority’s relationship to other dimensions of society (families, community groups, unions, businesses), all of which are bound by the principle of subsidiarity. Although the state’s role is limited, Pius is by no means calling for small government. The state serves the overarching common good by balancing the various subordinate organizations “powerfully and effectively.”
In this vision, government must be scaled to the size of the societies and economies being overseen. For this reason, every pope since John XXIII has called for a political authority adequate to the challenge of the global common good. Most recently, in “Charity in Truth” (2009), Benedict XVI called for “a true world political authority” that could “manage the global economy,” protect the environment, regulate migration and encourage solidarity.
This is a vision very different from the small government ideology pedaled by Washington think tanks that aims merely to get government out of the way so that the market can work free from moral and political interference. On this matter Pius was shockingly explicit; he denounced that economic vision as a “poisoned spring”.
The church has never condemned market economics, but it has likewise never accepted an unregulated market overseen by a minimalist state. In Benedict XVI’s words, “Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility.”
Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, Pius had only to look about him to see the destructive outcomes of these views. The free market had produced a massive concentration of both “wealth” and “power and might” resulting in a “despotic economic dictatorship...consolidated in the hands of a few.”
Our Present Crises
Amid an economic crisis that may yet be remembered as another depression, we, like Pius XI, have but to look around to see the powerful economic actors that threaten to usurp the power of families, communities and local and national politics. As the economist Emmanuel Saez has shown, income inequality in the United States has exceeded 1929 levels. The protective regulations on financial institutions enacted in the wake of the Great Depression have been undone with catastrophic results. No politician seems to possess sufficient will or power to re-enact them.
The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has granted individuals and corporations unlimited spending to influence elections. Billionaires have already spent lavishly in the primaries; our fragile republic braces for the deluge that will accompany the general election. Labor unions, those historically crucial mediating bodies, are now the target of multiple, seemingly coordinated, legislative attacks undertaken by the very politicians most given to warnings of government tyranny.
Families and communities are subject to the corrosive instabilities of the market. Unemployment is desperately high, especially among the young. Life plans are radically shaken as hardworking adults lose their jobs in the permanent turmoil of the global economy.
Local communities are profoundly disempowered. Whereas once technological and economic constraints bound corporations to place, now the mobility of capital frees them from attachment to and concern for the local. Factories can be moved at will. Localities are pitted against each other in a race to the bottom, offering tax breaks and other incentives to lure increasingly demanding employers while school budgets are slashed.
Without the full critical power of subsidiarity, we risk misreading the threats of the present. The fate of the U.S. Postal Service should loom as large in our thinking as the Health and Human Services mandate. Cuts are being proposed for deliveries to rural communities deemed too costly. The promise of the national common good is being dismantled by market logic before our eyes. Those who spread fears of a neofascist state imposing euthanasia upon the elderly should contemplate generations growing old without guaranteed health coverage. If the Ryan budget passes, when age and illness push our premiums beyond what our vouchers can cover, no “death panel” will ordain our exit. We will be left to exercise all the freedom our poverty can buy. We will do so knowing that we stood idly by while millions of handicapped on Medicaid and hungry children relying on food stamps were similarly liberated from dependency.
Subsidiarity demands vigilance against both state and corporate power. It also demands, beyond mere limits on power, positive action to serve the common good by the state, business and the myriad groups that make up society.
Pius XI on Limited Free Enterprise
The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority.... But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life—a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated.
—“Quadragesimo Anno” (1931), No. 88.
Take for example the author's critique of the Citizens United decision. Mr Miller cites the potential problem of corporations and wealthy individuals and their unfettered ability to make political contributions, then contrasts them with labor unions, which he describes as "those historically crucial mediating bodies." If by historical he means in the dear dead days beyond recall, he has a point; if he means the last half century, he is describing an anacrhonism. In recent history unions such as the NEA are self-serving, monopolistic corporations acting in the interests of their dues-paying members, not the parents and the students they serve. Had the parents genuine choice, this would not be possible. There is a reason we have more than doubled the per student expenditures and wound up with poor results. Al Shankar, former head of a major educational union, described it: he served the interest of the dues-paying members, not the students. And so it goes around the country, where California cities declare bankruptcy and democratic mayors such as Rahm Emanuel and governors such as Cuomo of NY as well as Christie of New Jersey are forced to deal with the effects of crony union capitalism: totally unsustainable benefits packages foisted upon them by their representives they elected with big union bucks and union manpower that threaten the fiscal viability of their constituencies.
Solidarity here? As such union corporate power has resulted in very expensive and poorly performing inner city public schools, solidarity would involve allowing the parents the choice vouchers would provide. And the competition wouldn't hurt either.
That is a core problem with the post office that the article fails to address. The average cost of a post office worker, a valuable clerical worker or delivery man, is $83,000 a year. His private counterpart at UPS makes about $50,000. Is it an act of solidarity to pay a federal union worker 60% more than the marketplace determines that work is worth at the expense of all the taxpayers who are not so fortunate? That's a form of subsidy, not solidarity, and city after city and state after state is confronting these problems. Like any corporate monopoly gone unchecked too long, costs are high and service mediocre. It is a bubble that must pop.
Some of these issues are a matter of preference. I for one would like to have personal control of my life/death decisions, so I would rather attempt to make do with a voucher I could with limitations shape rather than a bureaucratic board making them for me according to some formula they devised. And Ayn Rand, no heroine of mine, has some points tangential to Christianity. Rand holds each of us responsible for our own actions. Christianity does too, only there the stakes are bigger: judgment day.
Now, to finish the rest of the article.
I like Dr. Miller’s statement: “Subsidiarity demands vigilance against both state and corporate power. It also demands, beyond mere limits on power, positive action to serve the common good by the state, business and the myriad groups that make up society.” I also like the statement “… solidarity—the virtue that impels us to active concern for the needs of others—must be used to balance subsidiarity. While this argument is true, it gives too much away, for subsidiarity is an application of solidarity, not its opposite.” I believe that St. Thomas would agree with finding virtue somewhere between the two.“The promise of the national common good is being dismantled by market logic before our eyes.”
Two questions with respect to this statement:First, what exactly do you perceive as the national common good? Clearly, we are not a theocracy. Therefore, the national common good is not related to our transcendent nature. It is therefore, some secular definition? What is it?
Secondly, “market logic” as used seems to imply a negative connotation. In reality, it is a good thing. Consider; “The notion of market logic is that the consumers are the ones who are in the decision making chair and they make these decisions under well informed circumstances, meaning that they understand the quality and the cost of the available goods Freidson (2001, p.1).” So it hardly seems to be a negative force. In fact, it combines the best of subsidiarity and solidarity.“Labor unions, those historically crucial mediating bodies, are now the target of multiple, seemingly coordinated, legislative attacks undertaken by the very politicians most given to warnings of government tyranny.” (What you label as “legislative attacks” is simply ‘market logic’. We can no longer fund pensions that exceed by far the just rewards of the achievers in the non-union sector. Achievement, value added and efforts achieved by the fourth and fifth quintiles should exceed under the principle of justice those of the lower quintiles even in a multivariate approach.)
“Those who spread fears of a neofascist state imposing euthanasia upon the elderly should contemplate generations growing old without guaranteed health coverage. If the Ryan budget passes, when age and illness push our premiums beyond what our vouchers can cover, no “death panel” will ordain our exit. (Are you lamenting the lack of “death-panels”?) We will be left to exercise all the freedom our poverty can buy. (Surely you jest, poverty for all as a result of fiscal sanity? Poverty will result from a debt that cannot be paid, see Greece, Italy and Spain) We will do so knowing that we stood idly by while millions of handicapped on Medicaid and hungry children relying on food stamps were similarly liberated from dependency.” (This last sentence has no basis, in reality. It is simply an unfounded unsupported assumption. It is fear mongering at best. First, it is not millions of handicapped on Medicaid. It is millions of people here illegally. Secondly, people on food stamps do not go hungry except through their own mismanagement of the stamps received. )The article refers to a “strong'” Vs “small" government. I am fairly clear as to what small government is. Even so, there is something ominous about “a strong government.” I seem to recall from history some strong governments; communist Russia, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge, Nazi Germany comes to mind.
I think that all would agree that it would be very difficult for the poor to be relied upon to care for the poor. And as Christ said you will always have the poor among you. Therefore, we need some in society who earn have and share wealth (under Dr. Miller’s observation on subsidiarity’s solidarity component. Therefore, we shouldn’t tax wealth away.Isn’t it also reasonable to realize that the government’s pot of money is not a self-replenishing pot? Margaret Thatcher identified the problem correctly with: "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money [to spend].
As an aside isn’t the juxtaposition of the three adjectives “historically crucial mediating bodies” just a bit prejudicial and bathetic?
A fossilized view of intermediate structures is no better than a fossilized view of the limits of small groups and when to turn things over to larger ones. The intellectual wellsprings of this article's position all seem to predate the information revolution with the ambiguous exception of Pope John Paul II.
I happen to believe in the power of these new tools to gather funds, direct virtual enterprises, and reinvigorate society. It's rather disappointing to see the Church with such a long history of supporting progress not seize the opportunity that Congressman Ryan and the rest of the small government brigade is handing Her.
Criticize it, yes, but not misrepresent it thoroughly. The latter is what those who support the Ryan budget proposals do by appealing to "subsidiarity," and this is what Miller corrects so aptly.
"Subsidiarity envisions not a small government, but a strong, limited one"
I am struggling with the fine distinction between “small” and “limited”. The reality is that capitalism has created a better standard of living for more people than any other system of economics in history. And yes capitalism rewards the hard working, risk taker more than the average worker. That is a natural by-product of capitalism; and it is the underlying principle that makes capitalism work. Is free market capitalism perfect? No. Is it the best system the world has seen yet? Yes. British author Gilbert K. Chesterton got it right when he said the problem with capitalism is not that there are “too many capitalists, but too few capitalists”. In other words, the best role of government is to create the opportunity for more people to start businesses, not make it more difficult. One of the prime motives in the Church for the theory of subsidiarity was to prevent socialist movements from attracting Christian laborers – and even priests – with its rhetoric of redistributing wealth. Sound familiar? Limited government is small government. It is a government that does not take all the capitol out of the economy to feed its unproductive programs. We live in a global marketplace. Capitalists will move to the locale that provides the greatest potential for profit. The economic future of our country requires that government shrink and free up capitol to create economic growth. To wish that this fundamental principle of capitalism were not true is extraordinarily naive. The truth is that the basic principle of subsidiarity is that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over. How you can make this simple idea into an argument for large government completely escapes me.
"A particular manifestation of charity and a guiding criterion for fraternal cooperation between believers and non-believers is undoubtedly the principle of subsidiarity, an expression of inalienable human freedom. 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." (Vatican website)
Subsidiarity is a manifestation of charity, not a way to demarcate where one's duties end, but a means to discover the best way to give the gift of self. When the lower community cannot or will not provide the necessary support regarding goods meeting basic human needs, then the next higher organization must take up the duty. It must be stated, however, that subsidiarity - like solidarity - is a spiritual good and its activities must retain this character.
Thanks to Vincent Miller for his posts. I especially appreciate the mention of the lineage between Michael Novak et al.'s attempt to hijack "subsidiarity" back in the '80s and Rep. Ryan's efforts today.
Vincent J. Miller seems very balanced by ending on the note that subsidiarity demands vigilance against both state and corporate power. But corporate power exists only at the permission of the state. It is the state that lavishes monetary, fiscal, and regulatory advantages on ever-increasing capital concentration. How can the the state get away with this? Directly through legitimization at the voting booth from passive recipients of trickle-down advantages such as subsidized energy, housing, food, and health care. More relevant may be that the legalization of the centralized power of the state is simply beyond voter comprehension. That is why Miller’s last sentence calling for positive action to serve the common good is more a question than an answer. What is the common good after a leviathan government has staked its claim on the commons while allaying our fears with runaway spending on national and social security?
This paragaph defines subsidiarity as I have always understood it. The irony is that some would read it as a government according to the democratic party. When I read it, I envision a government more in line with a conservative vision of government. From the time I first learned about subsidiarity it has seem incompatible with American liberalism. There is nothing limited about government as the Obama administration is trying to build it.
There is also this sense that it should be the State that cares for those who struggle meeting basic needs. Back when Christians lived like Christians it was the Church, not state they saw to the needs of our fellow humans. The current administration seems bent on further replacing the Church. Perhaps if we spent more time sharing our time talent and treasure to help those in need instead of bickering about politics, discussions like this would be moot.
We have an obligation to achieve real results in addressing poverty, in solving poverty. It is not enough to just say we tried, or pretend that, if the private sector can't solve the problem of poverty by itself, that there is nothing left to do.
There is a history here which can't be ignored. The proposals of the GOP return us to the very set of conditions which precipitated the need for government intervention in the first place.
I also am concered that a "Catholic Magazine" run by the Jesuits (founded to be singularly faithful to the Chruch and the Pope) so often puts out articles in sharp contrast to what the Bishops and the Pope are obviously teaching. Yes, there are many "Catholic Professors" at "Catholic Universiies" pushing President Obama's agenda's. But the bottom line is rgarding life issues this administraton stridently pushes intrinsically evil agenda's.
If the Republicans are elected , at least we will be able to communciate with them and push for just policies where we feel they come up short. We are much more likely to get a fair hearing from them than we have from this adimisntration. And , yes, having a healthy economy will do a lot more for the poor and middle class thana government trying to redistribute wealth to all while it crushes the goose (geese?) that ultimately lay the golden eggs.
I knew after taking Rick Santorum apart on this subject last January, Mr. Miller would get around to taking Paul Ryan apart on the same subject. After an extremely distorted summery of his budget you then distort Paul Ryan positions with a reference to Ayn Rand - that because he admires one facet of her beliefs on rational self interest he must be only for complete selfish, anti-altruistic, laisez-faire capitalism (a lie) and now somehow trying to make us believe he cares about Catholic Social Justice. Then there is this great distortion that because some Catholics like Ryan believe in small federal government that they mean to negate any involvement of government in social justice against Catholic teaching - another lie. Of course as others have mentioned Miller’s reference to unions in the article is laughable. In his previous article from January of this year he stated: “ Families and communities are being profoundly disempowered in precisely the way subsidiarity cautions against, (by corporate power and industrial concentration) but not by government. “ Mr. Miller seems to think that while human run corporations and industry can get too big and powerful and become corrupt, power-preserving and greedy entities that hurt the poor somehow human run unions and government can’t become too big and powerful and become the same. Unions and government are run by the same fallible human beings Mr. Miller - they are not God-like and perfect and will be corrupted by power and money if you give them too much- which we have. These entities can no longer efficiently and effectively help the poor and neither will we when our economy is run into the ground by their policies. They waste money and cater to their special interests who keep them in power - and even worse trap many in entitlement, lowest common denominator life that they have no incentive or are too afraid to get out of. How dare you judge who cares about the poor and who doesn’t?? Having a different vision of how best to help the poor is actually the truth of what Paul Ryan is proposing and it is disgusting that you cannot honestly debate the issues of Catholic Social Justice without demonizing an opposing viewpoint instead. Yours is every bit a biased opinion as you accuse the “neo-liberals” of having.