The Principle of Subsidiarity

By: Jeff Deist
city hall

Leftwing Vox.com recently published a welcome and thoughtful piece on the virtues of devolving political and legal power away from the federal government toward states and localities. This is exactly the kind of conversation honest Americans need to have if we are serious about preventing the escalation of political violence. One overriding feature of the culture wars is each sides’ justifiable fear that the other will impose its way of living through a winner takes all political system.

The political class makes its living from centralized power and the attendant division it causes. But why should ordinary Americans succumb to this, when the obvious solution is staring us in the face? Breaking up politically is far more practical.

Written by a conservative who apparently supported Evan McMullin in the 2016 election, the article raises two pressing questions: first, whether centralized governance is desirable in a vast country of 320 million people, and more importantly whether it’s even possible. Are overarching political solutions workable, or does politics simply enrich Washington DC while feeding the rapidly deteriorating culture war?

There are several excellent passages:

…decentralization of power requires more than just devolution of a few powers here or there, but a society-wide commitment to transferring power, authority, and responsibility back down the totem pole. A diverse society can sustain itself peacefully when its members are committed to solving problems as locally as possible, involving higher levels of government only when absolutely necessary.

The author even tackles the intractable issue of abortion:

Where things get much trickier is where a more fundamental issue like abortion is concerned. On this issue in particular, many progressives and conservatives alike hope to achieve a victory that is far more total — more sweeping and national — than I think likely or desirable. That is, conservatives and progressives both seem to think that we need a federal rule about abortion. But we don’t, and indeed such a rule poisons the well of national politics. The reason is blindingly obvious: There is no federal agreement about abortion.

Ideologues on both sides will assert that, where highly charged moral issues are concerned, federalism is terrible: If abortion is wrong, it’s wrong everywhere. If same-sex marriage is right, it’s right everywhere. This is true in abstract moral terms, but it is not true in political terms, and the two are not the same, because it is immoral to compel a people to accept a set of laws with which they do not agree and which they cannot readily change.

Devolving political power is the first step toward making government smaller and less powerful in our lives. National and even supra-national governments are the biggest threats to human liberty and flourishing because they control the critical weapons of mass destruction: armies, nuclear missiles, central banks, sanctions, and tariffs. These are the elements of systemic contagion that should terrify us.

Your local city council may be dumb as a box of rocks or even evil, but at the very least it is far more accessible to you. Its damage is likely to be contained, and your ability to flee its jurisdiction may require nothing more than a cross-town U-Haul.

Subsidiarity is the most realistic and pragmatic approach to creating more freedom in our lifetimes. Winning 51% support for supposedly universalist political principles is a daunting challenge, especially for minority libertarians. We would do well to consider the Swiss federal model, which champions the subsidiarity principle:

Powers are allocated to the Confederation, the cantons and the communes in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.

The Confederation only undertakes tasks that the cantons are unable to perform or which require uniform regulation by the Confederation.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, nothing that can be done at a lower political level should be done at a higher level.

Imagine Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump campaigning on this idea in the US: “I can’t claim to know what’s best for Des Moines or Bangor or Anchorage or Phoenix in every situation. We should leave most things up to the people who live there. Vote for me if you agree.”

Subsidiarity is not perfect, just better. Freedom, in the political sense of the word, means the ability to live without government coercion (anarchists and minarchists debate whether all government is inherently coercive). It does not mean the ability to live under broadly agreed-upon liberal norms, simply because truly universalist political norms are so elusive. Free societies don’t attempt to impose themselves politically on a minority electorate, but rather to unyoke people politically in the name of peace.

The world is moving toward decentralization, flattening from hierarchies into networks with fewer hubs. Libertarians should work to move politics and government in the same direction. Subsidiary is real diversity in practice.

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