Whatever Rick Santorum's
fate in the New Hampshire primary today, his near win in the Iowa caucuses
inspired columnists Michael Gerson and David Brooks to burnish the candidate's image not only as champion
of the family and conservative Christianity but as a political thinker.
Santorum, they argued, is shaped by Catholic social teachings and in particular
by the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity is a term
used by John Paul II and a string of Catholic thinkers--including G. K.
Chesterton--to argue that some
activities belong to subsidiary or local agencies rather than to a dominant
central organization. Subsidiarity means that the state should not try to take
over functions that are properly the concern of the family, school, church,
union, corporation or local government.
Subsidiarity is a fertile idea, though
more suggestive than prescriptive. It's hard to pin down what subsidiarity
actually means, apart from some extreme cases. (Yes, we can agree that the
federal government shouldn't decide what families eat for breakfast or when
neighborhoods hold their block parties or who should teach seventh grade.)
Most users of the term tend to forget
one crucial element of the subsidiarity principle: larger organizations are
always obligated to step in to coordinate or supplement the activities of
smaller organizations when such action is necessary to protect human rights and
serve the common good. John Paul II made this point explicitly when invoking subsidiarity
in his 1991 encyclicalCentesimus Annus:
The state has the right to intervene when
particular monopolies create delays or obstacles to development. In addition to
the tasks of harmonizing and guiding development [the state must also act] when
social sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way,
and are not equal to the task at hand.
In other words, the subsidiarity
principle is far from a slam-dunk argument against state intervention in
schools, corporations or families. It is, instead, an argument for appropriate
state intervention. So what's appropriate?
It can be argued regarding health
care, for example, that private companies have proven unequal to the task of
providing citizens with adequate health care and therefore it is
necessary--precisely on the basis of subsidiarity--to create a state-sponsored
national health insurance program. That's probably not the version of
subsidiarity Gerson and Brooks have in mind.
Subsidiarity has "liberal"
implications in other areas, too. For example, subsidiarity suggests that
people working in an office or factory are best equipped to make most decisions
about their workplace. Subsidiarity therefore entails strong support for
unions. (Think of John Paul's support for the Solidarity movement in Poland.)
And subsidiarity means that neighborhoods and regions are better equipped to
make decisions about what affects their local environment than are, say, the
multinational oil companies that want to drill there.
I doubt Santorum has thought much
about subsidiarity. And, as much as I like John Paul and Chesterton, I doubt
that the principle of subsidiarity does all that much to clarify ongoing social
and political arguments.