(Sort of) thrilled to see ‘subsidiarity’ mentioned

You sort of have to be a member, or former member, of The State‘s editorial board to get what this means to me, but I was excited to see that, in a column in yesterday’s WSJ, Daniel Henninger made repeated references to the concept of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity is a concept I first ran across, and was intrigued by, in the communitarian classic The Good Society by Robert Bellah, et al.

In the years after I first read about it, I was enough of a bore about the concept in the editorial suite of The State that one April 1st, at the instigation of then-Publisher Ann Caulkins, my colleagues played a truly elaborate April Fool’s prank on me that was entirely based on some supposed new research debunking subsidiarity. It was probably the most esoteric, nerdy prank ever played on anyone in South Carolina history. The sort of thing the geeks on “The Big Bang” might play on each other, only with them it would be about physics instead of political philosophy — some knee-slapper having to do with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, perhaps.

The Bellah book, and other references I have seen since, defined the concept this way:

As you can see, the idea is sorta, kinda related to what conservatives in the early 90s used to call “devolution” — the concept of moving governmental functions down to lower, more local levels. And yes, subsidiarity generally demands that. But it can also work the other way when you consider the duty “of the larger unit being to support and assist the local body in carrying out its tasks.” Also, the smallest unit isn’t necessarily the best; you look for the smallest unit “at which decisions might reasonably be made.”

While I haven’t used the word much over the years, if you peruse my work, you’ll see the influence of the concept in, for instance, my constant battles with the Legislative State to let local governments make the decisions that are properly left to the governments closest to the people. (I know of no state in the union more reluctant to allow that than South Carolina.) You also see it in my occasional mentions that the federal government has no business trying to run public schools. But then you see it work the other way, too — I’ve realized that many of the poor, small districts in South Carolina are unable to govern themselves effectively, and have a need for the state to “support and assist” them (by, for starters, consolidating many of them).

Anyway, so I was at first pleased to see Henninger mention “subsidiarity” — not once, but three times! But as I read the way he and Paul Ryan defined it, I grew confused:

Subsidiarity—an awful but important word—attempts to discover where the limits lie in the demands a state can make on its people. Identifying that limit was at the center of the Supreme Court’s mandate arguments.

Huh? I hadn’t run across that before. It’s a concept I’ve certainly encountered thousands of times in the WSJ, but I’d never heard it called “subsidiarity.”

But he’s not completely out of line. Sure enough, the Wikipedia entry on the Catholic social teaching (forgive me for citing such a plebeian source, but I’m too tired on a Friday evening to go poring through papal encyclicals) does mention this:

The principle of subsidiarity was developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning.[2] His work influenced the social teaching of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno and holds that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently.

Of course, it does so after citing the more general definition that I have always understood:

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority. [1] The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching.

So forgive me if I continue to believe that the concept is about the proper relationships between the biggest entity for making societal decisions (the federal government, the United Nations) and the smaller units (municipal government, neighborhood associations, the family — and taken to an extreme, the individual, although it seems to me that any concept of social structures sort of needs two or more to be present), and not yet another way of speaking of the monotonous, never-ending political battle between public and private, which is a different sort of dynamic altogether.

When, I wondered, did emphasis on the word’s meaning shift from the idea that things should be handled on the most local competent level, and become a servant of the libertarian concept of freeing the individual from the supposed “tyranny” of government, a mere matter of asserting the superiority of private over public?

Again, Wikipedia helps me out:

Subsidiarity is also a tenet of some forms of conservative or libertarian thought. For example, conservative author Reid Buckley writes:

Will the American people never learn that, as a principle, to expect swift response and efficiency from government is fatuous? Will we never heed the principle of subsidiarity (in which our fathers were bred), namely that no public agency should do what a private agency can do better, and that no higher-level public agency should attempt to do what a lower-level agency can do better – that to the degree the principle of subsidiarity is violated, first local government, the state government, and then federal government wax in inefficiency? Moreover, the more powers that are invested in government, and the more powers that are wielded by government, the less well does government discharge its primary responsibilities, which are (1) defense of the commonwealth, (2) protection of the rights of citizens, and (3) support of just order.[2]

Aha! Suddenly, I realize that the editorial board of The State was not the only entity in South Carolina given to pulling pranks regarding the concept of subsidiarity. Reid Buckley runs The Buckley School of Public Speaking right up the road in Camden.

So…  I see the libertarian ideologues have gone to messing with my pet concept, emphasizing one small consideration at the expense of the larger, more constructive idea, in their never-ending battle against the notion that we might ever dare to work together as a society to address concerns that are legitimately public.

Oh, well. At least I got to read the word in a general-circulation newspaper.

18 thoughts on “(Sort of) thrilled to see ‘subsidiarity’ mentioned

  1. `Kathryn Fenner

    I think the Civil Rights Act and the local politics that made it necessary did a number on the validity of subsidiarity. In general, I agree that subsidiarity is a good thing–why I support the council/ manager form of city government, where the individual districts get a stronger voice than the big money “regular businessmen” who can afford to influence a strong mayor, but find it harder to control the more retail level district elections and operations.

  2. Ralph Hightower

    Is that what the Free Times is doing now? The State didn’t and doesn’t have the staff or interest to pursue the Ken Ard allegations.

    I’m wanting to read reviews of SC Governot’s Nikki Haley’s fitional autobiography “Can’t is not an Option”.

  3. bud

    I see the libertarian ideologues have gone to messing with my pet concept, emphasizing one small consideration at the expense of the larger, more constructive idea, in their never-ending battle against the notion that we might ever dare to work together as a society to address concerns that are legitimately public.

    The operative phrase here is “legitimately public”. We all have a different idea of what that is so to call the libertarians “ideologues” for having a different notion of what is legitimate smacks of elitism.

  4. bud

    Mr. Reid doesn’t spell it out but his third point is pretty much left to one’s political philosophy. The “support of just order” could extend to just about anything. Libertarians would limit the Federal Government to the courts and a minimal military. Conservatives would encroach on peoples bodies. Communitarians would pretty much have government meddle in everything including clearly individual decisions like what to buy on Sunday. Not sure including a phrase subject to so much interpretation is helpful.

  5. Brad

    Kathryn, the problem with overemphasis on neighborhoods is the very thing that Bellah et al. warn against in the passage reproduced above — allowing hyperlocal, parochial interests to excercise a NIMBY veto that prevents actions by the larger community for the greater good.

    An example of that in Columbia would be the years of paralysis over locating a one-stop-shop for dealing with homelessness. One after another, neighborhoods killed viable proposals. Finally a private, ad hoc group was created to do what the city could not — because the city is too deferential to the wills of neighborhoods in such matters.

  6. Silence

    As someone who was intimately involved in the one-stop-shop activities, I think that Brad’s description of what happened is a little simplistic. Also, the use of the NIMBY phrase diminishes legitimate neighborhood concerns about an ill-conceived plan.

    It wasn’t “The Neighborhoods” who killed the plan. It was one person. Pure and simple. E.W. Cromartie prevented the permanent shelter from going at the site that was recommended by the “blue ribbon commission”. Council kowtowed to him and let him push them around.

    The “Private ad-hoc group” was created/funded and promoted by downtown businessmen who wanted to move the homeless north of downtown and off of their doorsteps. West would have put it in the Vista, obviously, East was blocked by E.W. and South was the University – who also didn’t want it on top of them.

    They were aided and abetted by the United Way of the Midlands, and the Salvation Army. The “Miami” model was held up as an example and model of what could/would be done, but wasn’t actually at all similar to what was actually planned. The Miami/Homestead model wasn’t near any residential neigborhoods, especially dense ones, and their facility resided on several acres, not one city block.

    The MHA – that is the “ad-hoc group” created to run the new homeless Mecca has pretty much run the tables with the neighborhoods. Their PR machine spun into gear very quickly, and of course they have said all along that they would work with the neigborhoods to be a good neighbor. They have not.
    They’ve attempted to minimize or avoid performing the background checks to make sure that wanted criminals and sex offenders aren’t housed there. The amount of litter (cans/bottles in paper sacks) has increased in our neighborhoods.
    Every day when people leave for work they are turning their clientele out into the neighborhoods. They loaf in the woods, and in vacant lots or the backyards of vacant houses. It’s very disconcerting.

    The neighborhoods were offered board seats on the MHA board, at which time an executive board was formed, relegating the MHA board to non-decision making status. They wanted our neighborhood reps to sign non-disclosure agreements, and to swear a loyalty oath to the MHA – which would have negated the reason they were put on the MHA board by the neighborhoods to begin with.

    I hear that now the Transitions shelter has a reputation of being infested with drugs, and that they won’t consent to searches. Just a rumor, but hardly being a good neighbor to us.

    The other thing that occurred when a private group stepped in was that an agglomeration of homeless people was created. Basically, their population was concentrated along Elmwood Avenue. Rev. Jim Jones runs a place their as well, and so does the Elmwood Avenue Church of God (several halfway houses on Bull St.) It’s basically unfair to allow undesirable effects to concentrate in one area, there’s a social justice issue.

    Also, the $12M that was spent building a brand new homeless shelter could have helped out a lot of needy people. The city has been very successful with its Housing First efforts, and with its winter shelter on much less money. Basically, they created a nuisance, and a monument to homelessness at a key intersection of the city.

    I could go on all day, but there’s a reason that the neighborhoods opposed the location. It wasn’t merely NIMBY.

  7. Brad

    I forgot to tell y’all yesterday — for the first time in my life, I actually heard subsidiarity mentioned on the RADIO!

    Of course, it was on NPR, and it was presented in the misleading way that Paul Ryan uses it, and it was part of a really silly piece on the topic of “Was Jesus for small government?”

    But still. I heard it on the radio.

  8. Brad

    My concern, now that there is a remote chance that “subsidiarity” could become a mainstream word, is that this limited, misleading definition embraced by Ryan could become the way the public understands it.

    Sort of like the way a generation grew up thinking “chauvinist” meant “sexist pig.” A chauvinist CAN be a sexist pig, just as subsidiarity CAN mean what Ryan says it means, but both words mean so many other things as well.

    I mean, if the word enters the popular lexicon meaning the wrong thing, it might as well not enter the lexicon…

  9. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Brad–Neighborhoods didn’t kill the homeless center, a certain now-former councilmember and owner of properties nearby did. My neighborhood, wine-and-cheesiness aside, would have welcomed it, but no one asked us. I actively lobbied for the Woman’s Club across the street from me to be used.

    Details matter, and we notice the details more when we are close in.

  10. Brad

    Kathryn, I think you and Silence are focusing on a particular instance — correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’m focusing on a longer-term pattern, which kept a center from opening on Shop Road, at the old Cooperative Ministry site, at the Bull Street property, and (nearly) at the place where the MHA finally put it. And there were probably other ideas floated that I’m forgetting…

  11. `Kathryn Fenner

    Shop Road was opposed by providers because it shipped the homeless out to where they would be out of sight out of mind and on the fringes of our beleaguered transit system. The Taylor Street site was opposed by EW Cromartie. The Elmwood site was opposed by some neighborhoods who felt that they already pay more than their fair share, not without justification.

    Details matter.

  12. Brad

    Details do indeed matter. Which is why I assert that, aside from the considerations you mention, there was a backlash from some neighbors (but not The State) to the Shop Road site.

    I may not recall names or particulars at this date, but I do remember that arising as a factor.

  13. Brad

    I don’t recall what we wrote about it, but here’s the way I remember our internal discussions of that site — it was indeed not the optimal place for the reasons you mentioned, but we weren’t going to be part of a NIMBY reaction to it. If that’s where the community as a whole decided to put it, we’d have welcomed it.

  14. Silence

    @’Kathryn – agreed on the details of the failed efforts to properly plan and locate a homeless shelter. The same neighborhoods that opposed a permanent site for it at the Bull St. property got pretty much hosed by the MHA.

    I always found it funny that The State Newspaper who had moved out of the city limits felt entitled to tell us how to spend our tax money.
    I also found it funny that the same State Newspaper who moved their offices and presses into a flood zone where they occassionaly flooded felt qualified to provide input on urban planning and site location! I guess that’s the difference between the business side and the editorial side….

    I don’t think The State opposed Shop Road, I think that was the developers at the time who were building all of the football condos and student apartments over there. Developers tend to swing a lot more weight than neighborhoods around this town. Probably everywhere.


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