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Liberalism, Socialism, Feudalism - IV

The Principle of Subsidiarity

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

We ended our last article asking how the Catholic Church would respond to the modern dilemma of Liberalism and Socialism.

Catholic Doctrine has a principle that was employed often in the Middle Ages with the best results. Gradually, however, its practice was abandoned. It is the principle of subsidiarity.

The root of the word subsidiarity is the Latin subsiduum, the same root for subsidy, which is an assistance given to someone in need. For example, a city gives a subsidy to the Holy House of Mercy to help it build a new wing on its hospital so that it can continue to perform the good work it does for the sick and the poor. It offers financial help or assistance.

children and adult children with the family at home

In the past it was common for adult children to remain in the home
The principle of subsidiarity could be called the principle of assistance. It is based on the fact that each man should do everything he can by himself, that is, he should provide for himself and his family. But there are things that an individual cannot do alone. In these matters he must be assisted, he must be subsidiated - if I may call it such - by the social or political  institution above him, the family, guild, university, city, etc.

I will provide some examples to make this principle easier to understand.

A family has many children who grow up, but do not marry. Until they marry, they live in their parent’s house, even though they are of age and hold jobs. They do this in order to save their salaries and have some capital. Later, they can use it to start a family, launch a business or invest in the father’s business, which is, let us suppose, raising horses on his ranch.

Instead of all the children being scattered out, each one living by himself, paying for rent, food, etc, they continue to live with their parents. The parents are assisting them to form a first capital, which otherwise they would never have. The parents are applying the principle of subsidiarity with their children.

What happens at the level of a family normally takes place also on a larger scale: Several families live around a church, for example. Each family has the duty to care for its own property. But as other families join the group and that tiny urban cell grows larger, they need to elect a mayor who will take care of the public streets, sidewalks, lighting, water supply for houses without their own well, etc.

A village council

Villagers have a limited sphere of action, above which they need a superior to help
To carry out these works, a tax must be collected from each family. This is to provide for the common good of that sprouting village, for services that no single family could have by itself. So, the municipality provides them to the families. This is the principle of subsidiarity.

In its turn, the city can rely on another institution higher up the scale. Let us say that several municipalities in an area meet and decide to form a State or Province in order to provide for common interests that regard them all. They need a well-maintained road to link their villages and allow goods to reach the other markets; they need to establish an efficient postal service for easy communication; if these villages are near a water route, they need to purchase ships to export their merchandises to other places.

Further up the scale, this principle applies as well to the country. Several States have particular needs they cannot meet individually. So they unite to constitute a Federation: This is why our country is called the United States of Brazil, the US is called the United States of America, etc. The country ensures to the States benefits that they cannot have by themselves: a powerful Army, Navy and Air Force, efficient foreign relations with other countries, etc. The Federation is intended to assist each State in the things it cannot do alone.

From here we take elements to help us define the principle of subsidiarity:
  • The State is not a compact homogenous block, but is constituted of living members;

  • Normally speaking, these members should be self-sufficient in providing for themselves;

  • Such self-sufficiency has certain limits;

  • This leads to constituting a society in a pyramid form, where there is a careful balance between liberty and authority: Each member should do all that he can by himself; when he cannot do something, he can turn to the next higher step on the pyramid, which should come to his aid.
Therefore, the principle is to have as much liberty as possible at the base and as much authority as needed traveling up the scale. In this way, liberty and authority are harmonized.

Is this principle different from Liberalism? According to the basic notion of Liberalism, the authority is instituted principally to prevent crime, as we saw in the first article of this series. Only in a second development does Liberalism admit the authority to maintain a government, foreign relations, an army, etc. It is not created with the primary aim of assisting the social or economic life of the lower bodies of society. The principle of subsidiarity, on the contrary, is essentially turned toward this goal.

A Grapes market

Vineyard owners want to offer their crops to other markets
How is subsidiarity different from Socialism? In the socialist regime, everyone is dependent on the State for everything. On the contrary, according to the principle of subsidiarity, each one is as free as possible, at the same time giving the obedience that he owes to his superiors. It is a perfectly balanced position.

This is the principle of subsidiarity, which leads to neither Liberalism nor Socialism.

This position is so balanced that we cannot understand how anyone can be against it. This is why the revolutionaries do not speak about it. The socialists and the liberals discuss solutions to social problems among themselves as if this principle did not exist.

In the encyclicals of the Popes it is taught, Pius XII being its strongest defender. Some good Catholic sociologists also study this principle. But in practice it is almost universally ignored, even though it could resolve most of the social problems that afflict contemporary man.

Were subsidiarity to be applied, it would correct the errors of both Liberalism and Socialism. It leads to neither the complete liberty nor the total equality preached by the French Revolution, because this principle supposes a hierarchy, a scale. It also places natural limits on the use of authority. By thus taming both liberty and authority, it surpasses both regimes.

It is curious that there is not more interest in it. I have noted that when educated persons are discussing social and political regimes, they pretend not to hear if someone raises the principle of subsidiarity as the solution. This is how the Revolution tries to ostracize this principle.

The principle of subsidiarity, however, was broadly applied in the Middle Ages and yielded good fruit. We will address this topic in our next article.



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Posted May 2, 2012

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