The Meaning of Subsidiarity

Creation seems to be delegation through and through. [God] will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures.—C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

In this passage, where Lewis is asserting the importance of human free will, I was reminded of the old concept of “subsidiarity.” This is the idea that matters should be handled by the competent authority at the lowest possible level and that only a handful of tasks should be assigned to the central power, which cannot be effectively dealt with otherwise.

The idea of subsidiarity lies at the core of American federalism (as originally envisioned) and in the older concept of Christian social justice. Unfortunately for many the term subsidiarity seems to be confused with “subsidizing.” Hilaire Belloc was one of the most important advocates of this view. The thesis of his classic The Servile State (1911) is an interesting one, and it earned the respect of such diverse thinkers as George Orwell and Friedrich Hayek. Belloc held that collusion between capitalism and big government would result in a new form of economic slavery. Many of his observations certainly ring true in our age. The problem is that like others of his generation, he took socialist assumptions for granted even as he criticized them. People have condemned “capitalism” without really defining it.

The market, as a mechanism for trade, is not an ideological structure (like socialism) and is ethically neutral. For example, Stephen Forbes and George Soros may both be “capitalists,” but their politics are poles apart. The Christian does not judge how a man earns his money—so long as it is does not involve theft or fraud—but he may criticize what a man does with that wealth. Even then, he does not attempt to penalize stupidity, only outright criminality.

Belloc and similar proponents of “social justice” err when they think that we must subsidize small businesses and force the market in one direction, in a top-down fashion, even as socialists seek to force it in a different direction. Some conservatives embrace populism, believing that we should adopt big government but use it “wisely and efficiently, for the right ends.” The result, however, is a dangerous paradox. You cannot empower the small businessman by giving ultimate control to the most dangerous monopoly—a lumbering and intrusive central regime. The statist approach quashes economic independence through progressive taxation and regulation while leaving all the loopholes for those with deep pockets and political influence. The fact is that wherever state subsidies have been used, as in agriculture, they have been detrimental because they upset the natural operations of the market.

Freedom implies risks, both theologically and socially. Attempts to eliminate every possible hazard in life only result in the diminishment of liberty, usually to the benefit of those who are too rich and powerful to care about the consequences.

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