Thoughts on the Principle of Subsidiarity 

About three years ago during the GOP debates, Governor John Kasich (R-OH) came under fire from his fellow opponents regarding the controversial Medicaid expansion in his state that was tied to the Affordable Health Care law aka Obamacare. His challengers saw Obamacare as a huge overreach in federal expansion in the healthcare market, therefore they oppose any funding for the law.

The moderator asked John Kasich’s defense regarding the expansion, and he defended the move by clinging to the Church’s stance on social teaching. “But he [St. Peter] is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer, ’” is the counterclaim Governor Kasich provided against the ideology of small government his opponent’s defended for denying Medicaid.

Since then, I’ve always been amazed by that comment. Something about it definitely aligns with the “moral majority” or modern-day “social conservativism” but it also has deep ties to the philosophy of utilitarianism which says any action that results in a positive/good outcome and reduces consequences is deemed just. And in John Kasich’s point of view, the Medicaid expansion, he claimed, would’ve led to greater mental health services in prison to lower recidivism and prison rates. Both very good commendable ends.

As I reflect on the heart of the debate on this particular issue, I think what the debate since the beginning of America, but most importantly in the last 100 years, is: What is the proper role of government?”

Think back to the founding of the nation, there was the federalist vs anti-federalist. The former wanted a stronger central government, while the latter wanted to have more power to individual states. Fast forward we have former President Franklin Roosevelt; He engineered the movement of liberalism in America with his sweeping government reforms and social policies during the Great Depression. Today, the Tea Party has sought to decrease the government’s influence in matters of economics and domestic policy. All this to say that political parties have their own respective views of the role of government.

With respects to both political views on government, I think Catholicism gets it right when it stresses the principle of subsidiarity. This principle stresses the importance of allowing smaller more intimate institutions to handle tasks of society instead of larger institutions. This principle sees the closest community (local city, county, community agency, non-profit, or the individual) to the concern as best equipped to handle rather than the higher institution. Instead of seizing control, larger institutions should aid those communities in proximity to the task in question.

It’s almost if the Church advocates for government intervention if no other institution can best handle the task. I believe that’s a healthy approach to government. But that principle should be applied carefully since everything isn’t an intervening task.

The obvious benefits of decentralizing activity to the lowest level are that these institutions handle a situation better. Personally, there are a lot of things that the government does horribly wrong that could be done at a lower level more efficiently. For example, the postal service. At this point, the private sector (UPS, FedEx) has shown it can adequately do a job better than the United States Postal Service (USPS). Some years ago, I heard the USPS needed reform or bailout because of debt, which is another reason why larger institutions should avoid controlling tasks… it’s costly!

In addition, levels at the top tend to have a power-hungry grab of complete control over industries or communities rather than allowing healthy competition or respecting individual rights. A good example I think is in Houston. A few years ago, an ordinance was passed that banned feeding homeless people without the permission of the property owner.

Under Mayor Sylvester Turner’s leadership, the city is sponsoring an initiative called Meaningful Change that seeks to provide more direct service to the homeless in agencies and discourage public handouts. I personally feel that our local government is attempting to obliterate public charity and return more support to government-run services. Consequently, eroding the individual’s choice in the process.

Eventually, the failure of adhering to the principle of subsidiarity creates a system in which the larger institution is the supreme head dictating the actions of everyone else. As with a lot of federal government programs that already do this, The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 really assumed total control of school nutrition. Instead of turning power to local school boards and parents within the schools, the act fundamentally overhauled nutritional standards across the nation in public schools at the federal level.

When considering Governor Kasich’s remarks regarding the St. Peter principle, I think the federal government has had too much influence in the arena of criminal justice and law enforcement. I’d argue and say that the federal government should completely stay away from any attempt at advocating victims’ rights or mental health services. Primarily because of potential abuse from doctors overbilling the government and the fact that the principle of subsidiarity opens the possibility of a lesser institution that can perform the same function more efficiently.

If the government would like to assist non-profits or the private sector in addressing mental health than that’s great! If the government wants to work alongside the smaller levels to address those issues, that’s great too. Anything but complete government control!

We easily look to the government as the savior and forget that government intervention shouldn’t be the first response. It’s almost as if it’s a knee-jerk reaction.

When a social problem arises…government action is the only right course to take.

It’s impulsive for many to appeal to the government.

The Church has given us amazing social teaching to inform how individuals are to relate to society. The principle of subsidiarity goes directly against collectivism (CCC, 1885) which is commonly advocated in today’s world. As Christians, we should get back into the habit of being change agents where we influence our communities rather than allowing the government to assume our responsibility. We need to get back to the proper role of government, instead of one that’s powerful and wide-reaching like God thereby making government our God.

Follow me on Twitter @Menny_Thoughts

3 comments

  1. I agree with you.

    Another problem with the national government assuming responsibility for local problems, is that intermediate institutions between the national government and the individual are eliminated. This allows the government to become a tyranny. Local institutions like lodges, service clubs, unions and churches, not to mention families, fill an important role — or at least they used to. When non-government institutions can handle local problems, dependence on government is lessened. But when only government is deemed capable of dealing with problems, dependence on government is increased, to the point where the government runs everyone’s life, especially those of the poor.

    This gives the government too much power, especially considering that our government, in particular, is committed to a “separation of church and state”; meaning the government will not take moral and religious principles into consideration when deciding how to “help”. So you end up, in principle, with an all-powerful, irreligious and amoral government. For a Catholic, that can’t be a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All what you mention is true. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Christ the King and you mentioned separation of church and state which is very conflicted concept with Christ.

      When I think about subsidiarity, I see so many policies that go against the principle to an extent. Even some U.S. Bishops subscribe to collectivism at times when approaching social issues. Subsidiarity just like term “small government ” can be seen as inaction by the smaller institution, but I believe we should really take back what the term is and what it’s not. The tyranny of uncontrolled government is disastrous for individual liberty and social policy.

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  2. Subsidiarity, doing what’s right and doing what’s done for the right reasons – – – all sound simple, until we start thinking about how to apply the principles.

    I haven’t talked about subsidiarity. Not much, anyway. Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about the morality of human actions, starting around 1749. ( http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a4.htm#1749 )

    1761 says “There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”

    That’s fairly clear-cut. The problem as I see it is that a very great many actions and decisions aren’t basically bad. Like peeling an orange, for example. It might be “bad” if by peeling a specific orange I was depriving someone who needed it as food would not receive it.

    Or it might be good, if I was peeling so that someone who needed food but was not able to use his or her hands could receive and eat it.

    Or it might be not particularly good or bad, if I wasn’t desperately in need of food, but could reasonably eat an orange.

    That’s a trivial example, of course. What I’m trying to do is say why I’m not “for” or “against” local, state or national governments acting with the intent of supporting the common good of citizens. Or for individuals and private organizations doing the same thing.

    I’d make a terrible conservative, liberal, or fitting into any other political pigeonhole. I do, however, try to keep learning how to be a Catholic who lives as if I believe what i say I do.

    Thanks for raising this topic. Good thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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