"A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good." — Pope John Paul II
The principle described in this quotation is called subsidiarity, and it is a crucial element of distributism. When we speak of these orders of community, we are trying to define the very structure of society. The orders of community are the levels of the societal structure. These communities are institutions like the family, social communities, religious communities, work communities, and the different levels of government. The purpose of this article is not to define the proper function of each of these levels, but rather to discuss the basis for determining what those functions would be. In respect of those bases, variation due to culture and circumstances is legitimate; yet the principles remain universal. How is society defined? Why do different orders of community exist within a society? Why does this hierarchy matter when we are discussing economics?
The answer to that last question was actually addressed in the previous articles of this series about socialism and capitalism. The economic order of society exists to fulfill the needs and wants of the families within it. Government is necessarily involved in protecting that economic order by implementing laws consistent with it. The laws concerning economic matters in capitalist, Keynesian, and socialist societies are based on those economic views. The laws concerning economic matters in a distributist society would have to be consistent with the economic view of distributism. It is therefore necessary to understand the functions of the different orders of each community within a society in order to understand when one is improperly usurping the function of any of them. Because government plays a role in protecting the economic environment of a society, subsidiarity carries implications concerning how that role is to be fulfilled in economic legislation. Understanding subsidiarity will help us to understand what types of economic laws are properly the jurisdiction of the different orders of community.
In the distributist view, the family is the fundamental community in any society. If you imagine the society as the different orders of community stacked on top of one another, the family would be at the bottom, not because it is beneath or of less importance than the other orders, but because it is the foundation and support of the others. It is the basic community that the others exist to serve.
In the distributist view, higher orders of communities in a society only exist to fulfill social needs that cannot be sufficiently met by the family. The same is true as you move up the the order of communities; each higher order only exists to fulfill needs that cannot be sufficiently met by the lower order. Thus, even though the higher orders are necessarily "above" the lower ones in a certain sense, the scope of authority narrows as one ascends the hierarchy of these orders.
An important difference between subsidiarity and the view more commonly accepted in our society is that according to subsidiarity, the "higher" institutional levels don't derive their authority from the lower levels; what authority they possess is intrinsic to them. This distinction is important because it is the basis for a sound view of what some people call "limited government." Our nation was founded on the principle that the lowest order (by which the Founders meant individual citizens) grants power to the higher ones as part of some social contract. This view grounds the principle that those citizens can also retract power from the higher order.
The problem with this view is twofold. First, it means that the people could potentially take away the authority that a community of a higher order needs in order to fulfill its true function. Second, it means that lower orders can voluntarily "give" what are naturally their functions over to the care of the higher orders.
In the first case, one could potentially end up with a state that does not have the authority to provide national defense. I realize that this is not likely, but it is the logical conclusion of the position. Saying that higher levels of the social order derive their authority from the lower levels means that authority can be revoked.
In the second case, one could end up with a state that has totalitarian powers simply because a majority of the people decided to give it that power. The state could end up with the power to decide what jobs one may hold, how many children one may have, how those children must be educated and what they will be taught, what kind of car one may drive, and almost anything else. The state could have the power to take one's children away simply because one believed something different than the majority. The state could even say that one must purchase something one doesn't want because the state thinks it best for society as a whole. This is also the logical conclusion of the position.
We live and interact in communities naturally. If humans automatically and always acted with charity and justice toward each other, government wouldn't be necessary. However, because we don't do this automatically and always, we need a form of government in order to preserve the common good of the communities in which we live. This principle applies to all levels of community within a society, including the family. Parents govern the family for the common good of all its members. The authority of the governance of each order of community is not granted to it from its members. Just as children do not establish the governance of their parents or grant their parents' authority, members of a higher order of community do not establish its governance or grant its authority.
The government of a community exists by virtue of the community's existence, and its authority is over precisely those things that deal with preserving the common good of each member and the totality of its members in matters that go beyond their own authority. For example, because one family does not have a natural authority over another family, it cannot dictate on which side of the road cars should be driven, or how fast those cars should be allowed to drive in areas where children are commonly present and at play. However the common good requires that such rules exist because we must all act with due respect for the lives and safety of those children. The very act of living in community necessitates some form of government to deal with such matters.
This is not to say that the members of the higher order have no choice in their government. Even if the choice of leaders and the precise definition of laws involve the consent of its order's members, the existence and authority of a community's government naturally fulfills certain needs and preserves the common good. Therefore, neither the higher, nor the lower, orders of community may usurp the roles and authorities that are part of the internal life of any given community, regardless of the form of government (monarchy, a republic, or any other form).
Subsidiarity, therefore, takes an older view of the "social contract" theory; on the subsidiarity view, while the "contract" may establish the form of government and establish the machinery whereby elected officials are selected, it is limited in terms of establishing the functions of government. It isn't simply a matter of "majority rule" or amending a constitution.
Our society is obsessed with the idea of rights. Unfortunately, the concept of "rights" has been warped almost to mean: whatever people want to do. Rights in society are not granted by the government, nor are they granted by the city, or by groups of people protesting some perceived injustice. Rights are not based on people's desires, feelings, or wants. Rights are based on natural obligations. There is no such thing as a right without an obligation to ground it. People think that freedom is achieved by protecting rights. In reality, freedom is achieved by protecting duties.
By having children, parents are obligated to care for, educate, and raise them to be virtuous people. Spouses also become obligated to support and care for one another, for the common good of each other, and the children they are obligated to raise. This is the basis of the idea of marriage as the establishment of a family, formally defining the obligations of its governing members toward each other and any children they may have.
A higher order of society may provide schools to assist parents with the education of children—it could even establish guidelines for education—but it cannot force parents to use them if parents wish to seek alternative means to educate their children. The attempt to impose educational guidelines would interfere with the internal life of the family. Even though the city or state might be said to have a vested interest in the education of children, the execution of projects advancing that interest is secondary to the decisions the parents and family. Likewise, a city by virtue of its establishment has the obligation to establish laws for the common good of those living in its jurisdiction. Even if the citizens of the city participate in determining what those laws should be, they do not have the authority to take that power away; it is a function and obligation of the city to establish and enforce those laws. It is only by acknowledging and protecting the inherent functions and duties of each order of community that true liberty can be established and protected in any society.
"... [B]ut rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good."
There will be times when the lower orders of community need help. Families can suffer tragedies that leave them in need of assistance. Cities or larger regions can suffer situations, like natural disasters, that leave the inhabitants in need of assistance from other communities. These disasters can be wide-spread and simultaneously impact multiple communities. Higher orders of community exist to fulfill the needs that the lower orders cannot fulfill on their own. These are examples of cases in which it is the duty of the higher orders (as well as other instances of the same or lower orders) to step in to support those in need.
However, examples of this vertical assistance need not be evoked by reference to disastrous scenarios. Consider the simple act of driving. It is necessary for public safety (a common good) that upon crossing a city border a driver not be required to suddenly change the side of the road on which he must drive. This does not mean that the higher order must necessarily dictate which side shall be used. It could conceivably coordinate with the cities to reach an agreement that would then be binding on all. (The old U.S. Route system worked similarly: The states met together to agree on the routes and how they would connect. This system worked very well and established sufficient and reliable means of transportation from state to state and connected many small communities within each state.)
People live in communities naturally. By living in community, people have natural obligations toward one another. Each order of community exists for a purpose consistent with human nature to protect the common good for its members. This is the basic principle underlying subsidiarity at all levels. It isn't one rule for one class and another rule for another class. It is one rule for everyone. Subsidiarity is the basis for a true understanding of the idea of limited government. Subsidiarity is the firm basis for establishing protections for the freedom of individuals and the freedom of each order of community within a society. Subsidiarity is the foundation of true liberty.