Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Roots of Subsidiarity

By John Taylor; 2010 Sep 14, 'Izzat 04, 167 BE

The word "subsidiary" means to help, to perform an auxiliary function. As such, it is part of the principle of need or service already discussed. As a principle of federalism, subsidiarity is defined as "devolving decisions to the lowest practical level;" it was formalized in the tenth amendment of the American constitution, popularized by the Catholic Church and is now being extended and applied largely by the European Community. For the popes it is "a social doctrine 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." (<>) Although the word was not used, the idea of subsidiarity goes back as far as you want to look. In his seminal book on the nature of freedom, J.S. Mill suggested that robust local activity in diverse organizations acts as ballast for democracy,

"Without these habits and powers, a free constitution can neither be worked nor preserved, as is exemplified by the too-often transitory nature of political freedom in countries where it does not rest upon a sufficient basis of local liberties. The management of purely local business by the localities, and of the great enterprises of industry by the union of those who voluntarily supply the pecuniary means, is further recommended by all the advantages which have been set forth in this Essay as belonging to individuality of development, and diversity of modes of action." (J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 181)

The role of higher level institutions, Mill goes on to point out, is not to take over local operations but to broker their experience. Ideally, local activity is a creative investigation using the experimental method. Mistakes are made, but this leads to wisdom and experience. Without senior institutions, however, local experiments would take place in a vacuum and lose their value. Parochialism sets in and hard lessons learned in one place are lost to everywhere else.

"Government operations tend to be everywhere alike. With individuals and voluntary associations, on the contrary, there are varied experiments, and endless diversity of experience. What the State can usefully do, is to make itself a central depository, and active circulator and diffuser, of the experience resulting from many trials. Its business is to enable each experimentalist to benefit by the experiments of others, instead of tolerating no experiments but its own." (On Liberty, 181)

In view of the strides with social networking made on the Internet, extending and improving this brokering function of governance is becoming one of the great frontiers of human progress.

As a principle of governance, subsidiarity goes much further back than a few centuries. It started in Biblical times. Soon after Moses had freed his people from Egypt and led them into the wilderness, his son-in-law and former boss, Jethro, visited their encampment. Observing how Moses worked, Jethro advised him not to deal with every plaintiff but to delegate to "commanders of thousands," of hundreds and tens.

"Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you." (Ex 18:22, WEB)

Moses took Jethro's advice. He had higher-ups resolve the quandaries of those below them, with himself at the bottom, working only on the toughest, broadest problem solving. In its most basic form, then, subsidiarity is when a leader is wise enough to delegate not just work but also authority. Only when a sub-commander finds a matter problematic does the boss step in to help him deal with it.

Yet this story has broader implications than just good advice to managers. For one thing, even a prophet of God was willing to take advice from an experienced leader. But most importantly, it was only after Jethro's upside-down service hierarchy had been set up that the Ten Commandments were sent down to Moses. That way, subsidiarity became the groundwork for rule of law. When law rules and not personalities, power is no longer an absolute but a "shared load." This contrasts with the tyrant, who does the reverse; he subjects all under him directly to his whim, leaving nothing to the discretion of others.

The most ancient and still the best paradigm for subsidiarity comes from observing the unity in diversity in our own body, a metaphor known as the "body politic." We know a great deal more about human physiology today and it is increasingly apparent how apt its methods for understanding how to organize society. We know that every cell in the body has the same code in its nucleus made up of a double helix known as DNA. No matter what its specialized function may be, each cell is united with to every other cell in the body by this identical genome within. In the embryo tissue starts off as generalist stem cells, and gradually specializes according to where it happens to be in the body at the time. In other words, the units of the body are totally equal to one another. There is no aristocracy or meritocracy in biology. The better cells are not sorted out and sent to the brain, while incompetent ones are banished to the anus. Organs grow out of the creative subsidiarity that Mill described, from cells working in a local context, responding creatively to needs in their immediate surroundings.

Christian teaching points out several other operating principles derived from the body politic. The parable of the talents points to a duty of individuals to develop their latent capacities to the fullest extent possible. Similarly, the saying, "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off," points to the complement of subsidiarity, the principle that higher order requirements take priority over mundane utility. Even enlightenment comes second to life itself, since "if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out." That is not to say that enlightenment is unimportant though. Quite the reverse, since the eye is the "lamp of the body," and, as the parable of the lamp and the bushel stresses, its light must fill our whole being.

"No man, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar, nor under a basket, but on the stand, that they which enter in may see the light. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light ..." (Luke 11:33-36, WEB)

More on subsidiarity tomorrow...

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