The usual reason offered for subsidiarity – but I am getting ahead of myself.  What is subsidiarity?  And why should you care?

Let me distinguish between the subsidiarist worldview and the subsidiarist rule.

The worldview of subsidiarity is that the society as a whole is not just a mass of individuals, nor is it a unitary sort of thing, but it is a partnership among many smaller partnerships in a good life – an alliance among forms of association such as families, friendships, churches, neighborhoods, business firms, craft unions, clubs, and so on.

The rule of subsidiarity is that “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 wording goes back to an encyclical of Pope Pius XI in 1931.  However, a very similar idea is found in Protestant social thought, where it is more often called “sphere sovereignty” -- and it is generally viewed not just as a “religious thing” but as an outgrowth of the classical natural law tradition.

On the negative side, subsidiarity implies that the forms of association which are greater in scale and power should never destroy, absorb, or take over the work of the forms of association lower down.  For example, the Church should not baptize children against the will of their parents (the Church agrees), and the public schools should not undermine parental teaching about sexuality (unfortunately, they do that).  On the positive side, subsidiarity implies that bigger and more powerful forms of association should be friendly and cooperative to the smaller and less powerful ones, protecting their ability to do their own jobs.  Thus, the government should let families raise kids -- but keep the streets safe for families.

Subsidiarity is pro-David, not pro-Goliath.  It roots for the little guy.  Most parents intuitively agree with it, even though most have never heard of it.  By contrast, today our bosses don’t.  In September 2023, a poll by Scott Rasmussen and RMG Associates,  comparing the views of different strata of Americans, found that only a little more than a third of the voting public thought educational professionals rather than parents should decide what children are taught, but that two thirds of elite respondents thought so. * 

Back to where I began this post.  The reason most often given for subsidiarity is that the whole panorama of smaller partnerships in the good life springs from the social nature of man, in such a way that each form of association has its own proper work – excluding perversions such as gangs of thieves, of course.  Parents should be allowed to raise their children because they are naturally adapted to raise them, and no one else can do the job better; the basis of parental right is not “lifestyle decisions,” but that every child needs its mom and dad.

What parents do for each other and for their children cannot be reassigned, nor can what friends or neighbors do for each other, or even what the members of chess clubs and craft unions do for each other.  Granted, the trade union is not a natural institution in the same sense that the family is:  Even so, trade unions can better maintain the standards of their crafts, and protect themselves from abuse and exploitation, than bureaucrats can.

I think all this is true, but we can say much more in favor of subsidiarity.  Practical wisdom is developed through experience.  It was Aristotle, I think, who first pointed out that just for this reason, political prudence, or wisdom in the affairs of the community, is much more rare than domestic prudence, or wisdom in the affairs of the home.  Almost everyone has experience directing his own affairs and those of his family; not many have experience directing matters on the largest scale.

But the rarity of political prudence is not just a matter of scale.  For not only can a man have domestic prudence and yet lack political prudence, but the converse is also true:  He can have a degree of political prudence – he can be good at encouraging all those little partnerships to remain in partnership and to refrain from invading each other’s domains -- and yet be inept to govern any single one of those little partnerships.

Thus, most decisions should be kept out of politics simply because they can’t be made well at that height.  This is not a recommendation for anarchy, for the state too has its proper work.  To continue with my Exhibit A, the family, laws are necessary to protect the peace which allows families to do their proper work; laws are necessary to protect families from others who might butt in on their proper work; and laws are even necessary to protect competent parents from intrusions on their proper work by the state itself.  But we need to get out of the habit of thinking, whenever something doesn’t please us, “There oughts be a law.”



* For purposes of the poll, elites were defined as people with postgraduate degrees who earn at least $150,000 annually and live in zipcodes of high population density.  “Them vs. Us:  The Two Americas and How the Nation’s Elite Is Out of Touch with Average Americans,”