Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Limited Government II: Subsidiarity

In late November, I posted my thoughts on the necessity of limited government, government where powers are spelled out and no particular individual or branch of government has too much power. Defending limited government also means that there are major areas of life for citizens which are simply none of government’s concern: e.g., to Whom they pray if they pray at all, with whom we associate (except in matters of criminal investigation), what books we read, what we say to the local paper (unless it is a criminal threat). We are free to start a business, as long as the business itself is legal, or to join a union, apply to Masons or Elks, bet the ponies (as long as we continue to pay our bills and feed our families, the government can show no interest) or stand outside the track and pass out leaflets on why gambling is a sin, etc. We are free to make fun of our president or any other politician–or any religious leader. This may be childish, rude, or even, from some perspectives, blasphemous, but as long as no threat is given, it is not the concern of the government.

I contrasted this concern for limited government with a different philosophy that is popular in many conservative circles: small government. Small government may be limited in the sense that it simply doesn’t have the resources to address a problem, but it can still cover far too many areas of life. Limited government is not vested in any one size. But the growth of bureacracy can lead to inefficiency and a kind of tyranny, as Max Weber repeatedly warned his friend and fellow German political philosopher, Karl Marx. Marx’s dream of “the withering away of the state” when state-socialism finally achieved Communist utopia was foolish, Weber knew, because of the incredible growth of bureacracies–which would be even larger under a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” And so it proved. History is the laboratory of ideas and Marxism-Leninism failed in that lab–terribly inefficient bureacracies were its fatal weakness.

So, what is the answer? Here, I turn to modern Roman Catholic social teaching, not because I am Catholic (anyone reading this blog knows otherwise), but because Catholic social teaching has developed an articulate principle that speaks to this problem–and is fully consistent with the radical democratic vision of the Levellers that is the point of departure for this blog. The principle is called subsidiarity.

You can find several different definitions of subsidiarity in the papal social encyclicals of the last 100 years (See the education one gets when one is, for a couple of years, the sole Protestant faculty member of the religion and philosophy dept. of a small Catholic university?), but the basic idea is this: Social problems should be dealt with at the smallest or most local level possible. If a problem can be handled in a neighborhood, it doesn’t need and shouldn’t have a national or global solution.

This cuts down on bureacratic ‘red tape,’ although it doesn’t eliminate it. It also allows for flexibility instead of “one size fits all,” programs and it encourages local initiative and responsiveness in local governments to the citizens they see daily.

I can hear my conservative friends cheering. But not so fast. Unlike the anti-government types who want to “starve the beast,” so that it is small enough to be “drowned in a bathtub,” (Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-government, pro-capitalist group that opposes almost all taxation and government programs), subsidiarity realizes that not all problems can be solved on local levels. Some need statewide action, others national, or even global solutions. Take the problem of catastrophic climate change due to human-caused global warming: In the absence of coherent national and global work to reduce carbon emissions, local and state actions are commendable. But thousands of different approaches with different standards are finally not going to be sufficient. Tackling this problem will require coordinated efforts in the international community.

Further, and here my conservative friends will gasp, subsidiarity would seem to apply to corporations as well as governments: Communities should normally encourage local, small businesses over national and international ones. And since we are trying to block accumulations of unchecked power, sometimes it will take government power to block corporate power–the power of accumulated money and capital.

Balancing these interests is not easy. Democratic, limited government is a messy affair with many a failed experiment that needs scrapping. Sometimes we can find out only afterwords that a problem could have been handled better locally-or, contrariwise, needed a more macro approach beyond the local level. Sometimes what is needed is global or national programs with built-in flexibility for local and regional adaptation. Hammering such out is difficult–but worth the effort. Do we sometimes need to shrink government bureacracy? Often, and this is why I completely supported the Clinton administration’s “reinventing government” policy of cutting waste, carried out by VP Gore. That was the only administration in recent U.S. history that actually reduced government bureacracy–and got very little credit from conservatives for doing so. (By contrast, government has mushroomed in ill-advised ways under Bush. Some conservatives–and MANY liberals and progressives–have complained about this, but others only seem to be opposed to government growth when Democrats do it.)

Sometimes we need to add to government bureacracy. President Bush argued that creating one large Homeland Security Department that linked all emergency response and intelligence organizations together would be more efficient in protecting the nation. After several years in this experiment, I think it safe to say that it has also failed in the laboratory of history. It has been terribly inefficient, while restricting citizen freedoms in ways inconsistent with limited government.

On the progressive side, many, including myself, argue for a national health care system that is run by the government and “single payer,” that is, paid for by taxes rather than private insurance programs. Conservatives fear a bureacratic nightmare and lowering of health care standards, but we already have that under the current system–and thousands who cannot afford healthcare on top of that. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has long estimated that the costs of starting up such a system (in reality, expanding Medicaid and Medicare to universal coverage) would be offset by the savings in paperwork from the current inefficient system. Subsidiarity suggests that since local solutions have proven inadequate, a national plan with much local flexibility would be best–and there are already several successful models in the national health plans of other nations, such as Canada. Considering that health care costs are the single largest labor expense of many troubled U.S. industries, including the auto and airlines industries, a national healthcare system would also be a boon to business–allowing U.S. businesses to compete on a more even field with nations whose companies do not have that labor expense because of national health systems.

Subsidiarity is a principle that can help us weigh the different problems of bureacracy, commitment to limited government, and yet problems that cannot be tackled either by market forces alone, nor simply on local levels.


January 6, 2007 - Posted by | government, politics


  1. Hey Michael, great post. I too agree with you that democracy, for the most part, needs to be done on the local level. I think the federal government should be much smaller, and even state governments, with local governments having some of the responsibilities. I am not a fan of the minimum wage, but I think at the very least it should be done on a state level, as each state’s economic climate varies widely, and states can learn from each other concerning proper rate w/respect to other factors, and how fast to increase the rate.

    I also like how you distinguish small government from limitedgovernment. Our system of checks and balances is indeed a good one, but as anyone from any party can agree, tyranny of the majority must be averted, so thankfully we have a Bill of Rights. People like myself believe powers should be enumerated and freedoms not, but it seems like so many believe freedoms are what are enumerated.

    I do agree that sometimes the federal government is needed to tackle problems, for instance military and the environment, as the environment can be, many times, a national issue. I do think the compilation of intelligence among agencies was a good idea, but merging emergency response, as you said, may not have been a good idea.

    I do disagree with a national health care system, not because of reasons of philosophy. If a national health care system would work I could give a crap about “redistribution of income” and all the stuff you often hear libertarians and myself say, it’s just that I think a more market-oriented system would work (with some government assistance thrown in for those who can’t afford it). I think a tiered health care system in which you could pay bucks for the M.D. or pay less for a Physicians assistant would greatly help, in which gov’t is not so involved. Again, great post.

    Comment by Chance | January 9, 2007

  2. Chance, you are amazing, friend. You compliment my post and then draw almost the opposite conclusions! I don’t claim that the federal government “should be much smaller.” I would have to see specific arguments on specific programs. Nor do I EVER say that minimum wages should be settled on each locality. To the contrary, I think that is a last ditch solution when the federal govt. fails to do its job right.
    I think the minimum wage should be indexed for inflation across the nation.
    You say, “IF a national healthcare system would work,” you’d depart from the libertarians. But have several examples of succesful systems, already–and both Medicaid and Medicare are very efficient–just not universal. So, the “IF” seems taken care of, for me.
    The question of universal healthcare involves more than subsidiarity–all that I could talk about in this post. I think quality healthcare is a RIGHT and that healthcare for profit is obscene. So, I want to remove it from the market system because market distribution of healthcare is immoral–like market distribution of sex! Doctors have an oath because medicine is a CALLING–not a job for the highest bidder. Money corrupts outside its proper sphere and money has corrupted medicine.
    The only loser in national healthcare would be insurance companies–and I could care less.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 9, 2007

  3. Hmm, for some reason my comment didn’t make it. Let’s try again.

    I may have been to generous in my comments, generous in the sense that I was just trying to find common points of agreement. When you say “Social problems should be dealt with at the smallest or most local level possible. If a problem can be handled in a neighborhood, it doesn’t need and shouldn’t have a national or global solution.”, that leads me to believe that you would favor less action on the federal gov’t level, hence my comments about a small federal government. I think it’s great that you point out the local gov’t should tackle problems, but I do have to wonder if there are any economic interventions by the federal government that you would not support.

    I know you think a minimum wage is a great idea, and let’s say for the sake of argument it is. The problem is, by giving the feds power to make good economic policy, they also have the power to make bad economic policy. By distributing power to the states, bad decisions are mitigated, and good decisions can be spread, as states learn from each other. Even if that is being too optimistic, I think it is incredibly optimistic to think that those with concentrated power will always make good decisions.

    I would think that after the Bush administration, liberals would start to embrace federalism, as they see what happens when the other side has large concentrated power in the federal government, with the marriage amendment and No Child Left Behind. No, not everyone needs to take the leap to libertarianism, but I would think that federalism would hold some appeal. The idea is that the people you like will not always be in charge. (You can only take federalism so far, for instance, I wouldn’t want individual states to determine if slavery was legal or not).

    Again, I admire your recognition that local gov’t should address problems as a first resort, but it seems that in the economic area – when you think that the feds should determine a minimum wage, I wonder if there is much you don’t think the feds should do when it comes to economic policy.

    Comment by Chance | January 10, 2007

  4. The feds already have the power to make bad economic policy, Chance. The entire philosophy of economic non-intervention rests on a mistake: markets need government even to exist. What is the bare minimum one needs for a market? Standardized weights and measures (guess who sets them?), money (can’t have just anybody printing it), contract enforcement, etc. All those and much more are the function of government–so one needs to have government to even HAVE a market. To get a stable market system requires MORE intervention.
    The questions of what type of intervention, when, how much, and at what level are all valid questions–and need to be answered on a case-by-case basis. But the idea of government non-interference in markets is a laissez-faire pipe dream not based on reality. There has never been such a market anywhere in the world AND COULDN’T BE ONE.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 10, 2007

  5. I’m all for those things that you mentioned being established, to some degree, as far as money standard and things like that. However, I’m not quite getting your logic. Your saying that government inaction (lack of intervention, laws, etc…) on the national level is bad, but government action on the national level is not. It sounds like you are saying that non-intervention from the federal level is bad policy. However, I disagree in many cases. Fed. Government over-action (action that is hurtful to markets) cannot be remedied by the state governments. However, let’s say that Fed. Government inaction or under-action (making up words now) is to the level that is harmful. States can accommodate for that, they can fill in the blanks where the fed. gov’t falls short.

    I could be wrong, but it sounds like you are saying that we cannot help it, that the federal government is already so closely tied to economic policy that all we can hope for is the best policy on the national level. But I disagree. Sure, the feds can determine currency, print money, etc.. But why can’t state governments each determine minimum wage? Why can’t their justice system enforce contracts ( I think they do in most cases), why can’t Colorado determine whether or not removing a tag from a pillow voids the warranty?

    I’m just not understanding your argument. I said I wanted to distribute more things to state/local governments, not all. If I said that each state should determine penalties for murder, that doesn’t mean that the feds should have no jurisdiction over espionage and national security issues. In the same way, if I support moving economic policies to the states, that doesn’t mean I believe in the dissolution of all federal controls

    Comment by Chance | January 10, 2007

  6. I’m not making a general rule–“government action is good” or “government action is bad.”I think that has to be settled on a case-by-case basis. But, society is now so complex that many things that once could be settled on a local or state level now need a national solution.

    My point about markets needing government to even exist to get rid of the crippling illusion that rules much conservative “free market” thinking: That one can have a wonderfully functioning market as long as “gasp” government leaves it alone. Whether and how much and what kind of “interference” is needed can only be decided case by case.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 10, 2007

  7. Could state government’s each determine a minimum wage? Sure. And, if they each could be counted on to index it for inflation in their state, that would be fine. But, what the laboratory of history has taught us is that some states will refuse to set a minimum wage EVER, some will revisit every 20 years, etc. A federal hike indexed to inflation prevents that. It’s an answer to states failing to do the right thing.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 10, 2007

  8. In other words, you support leaving certain things to the states, as long as they pass laws you like. Otherwise, you want the federal government to handle things.

    Maybe I’m not being fair. You talk about how the federal government needs to handle problems of a certain complexity, which is true. But it sounds like, in the balance of state power vs. federal power, you want the balance to shift whichever way means attaining your ideal society. That is, you’re fine with states running things until things go different from the way you want, then you want the fed gov’t to step in. I mean, do you find that the problems of complexity warranting federal intervention happen to be the areas that you want the most gov’t control?

    Comment by Chance | January 10, 2007

  9. I can see how I appear pretty unprincipled to you, Chance. I might need a third post in this series to clear things up. My decisions don’t JUST involve complexity and subsidiarity, but commitment to justice for everyone-and sometimes those principles are in tension.Can’t think about that, now. Iraq on the brain. Will return to this, however, when my mind is clearer. Thanks for keeping me honest.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 11, 2007

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