Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Note on Subsidiarity and Social Justice


Some people define the concept of subsidiarity as the State doing whatever the individual cannot do for him- or herself.  More accurately, the Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary (a supporting, rather than subordinate) function.  The central authority thereby performs only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

Closer, but no cigar or e-cigarette.  Subsidiarity, properly understood, is that each “level” of the common good, that vast network of institutions within which people realize their individual goods, carries out the functions most appropriate to that level.

When institutions or even entire levels of the common good do not function properly or, in some cases, at all, the people within the affected institution, or that level of the common good, organize to reform the internal or local system so that it once again fulfills its proper function.  As Pope Pius XI explained, using the wage system as his example, “It happens all too frequently, however, under the salary system, that individual employers are helpless to ensure justice unless, with a view to its practice, they organize institutions the object of which is to prevent competition incompatible with fair treatment for the workers.” (Divini Redemptoris, § 53.)  This is the act of social justice.

Thus, the “job” of the “higher” institutions or levels of the common good is to assist the “lower” institutions or levels of the common good when the “lower” institutions or levels of the common good are unable to reform the system through their own efforts.  This assistance can take two forms:

One, the “higher” institution or level provides individual goods on an emergency basis until the institutional or systemic structure of the “lower” level is reformed and people and “lower” institutions or levels of the common good can meet their own needs and carry out their own functions without the assistance of the “higher” institutions or levels of the common good.  This is not, strictly speaking, social justice, but an expedient permitted under the principle of double effect.

Two (and this is social justice), the institutions of the common good at the affected level of the common good are restructured to conform to principles of natural law and fulfill their proper function of assisting individuals, families, and other institutions in meeting their own wants and needs through their own efforts.

Thus, the demands that the State take care of people as an application of the principle of subsidiarity in social justice are neither subsidiarity nor social justice.  It is, rather, an example of creeping (or, in some cases, galloping) totalitarianism.

Confusion over the principle of subsidiarity and the act of social justice could be avoided if people would remember that they, not the State, are sovereign: “Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.” (Divini Redemptoris, § 29.)  Consequently, the State only has such rights as “We, the People” grant it.

The State’s role, therefore, is properly limited to maintaining the common good. Only as an expedient in an emergency is the State justified in providing (or mandating) individual goods, such as food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and so on.

The State should make it possible for people to take care of themselves through their own efforts, only regulating behavior if it causes harm. This is the principle of subsidiarity and the act of social justice.

This helps us understand that Catholic social teaching has two “prongs.” One: take care of people now by all legitimate means. Two (the “prong” people tend to forget in light of increasingly dire immediate needs, but that cannot be ignored): restructure the institutions of the social order to make it possible for people to take care of themselves by their own efforts.

Unfortunately, by viewing the first prong as the solution rather than as a way of buying time to get to a solution, people are getting themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. People cannot continue to consume without producing; they must be given the opportunity and means to become productive through capital, labor, or (preferably) both. That, not trying to take care of or mandate individual goods, is the role of the State.

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