Twenty years ago, the Soviet Union imploded. Since then, all sorts of reasons have been given for its collapse: Ronald Reagan’s defense policies, Mikhail Gorbachev’s foresight, Pope John Paul II’s charisma, the anemic Soviet economy, to name a few.
But one cause that seems most persuasive, a cause cited by Pope John Paul himself, is the Soviet failure to develop a civil society. The Soviet Union consisted of the all-powerful state and the powerless individual. Nothing in between.
What is a civil society? It is the accumulation, over centuries, of all sorts of institutions: economic, social, cultural, sports-oriented, recreational, professional and political.
Some thinkers have called such groups, “mediating institutions,” in that they come between government and the individual and protect the individual from the power of the state. The role of government is not to usurp the prerogative of these institutions but to support them.
It is the principle of subsidiarity that underlies the right of individuals to associate with other like-minded people and to organize themselves into groups, a right that was denied by the Soviet Union. This right is a natural right, a right that is not the government’s to extend but is the birthright of every human being. In the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “it is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for such groups.”
As a principle, it was first formulated in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Pope Pius XI issued a major social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, which took issue with the centralization of political and economic power at the time. He envisioned the practice of subsidiarity as the way to restore civil society.
“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community,” he wrote, “so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”
At the base of civil society is the family, the first and most natural institution. The family is where people learn to grow, to take responsibility. It is the first school of work, as any 12-year old who is asked to clean his room or mow the lawn can testify to. And most recently, during a time of economic upheaval, it is the one group that will take you in when you can’t find an affordable home.
The family may be civil society’s most basic institution, but society encompasses all sorts of institutions, from churches and schools to soccer and bowling leagues. In fact it was the decline of participation in bowling leagues over a 50-year period that inspired Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, to track a decline in America’s social capital. The number of Americans who bowl has increased, but the number who bowl in leagues has declined. People grow primarily through their relationships with others, and if Americans spend all their time alone with their computers or alone in the bowling alleys, America’s civil society, and Americans themselves, will suffer as a result.
Subsidiarity does not stand in opposition to government. Some political thinkers, Thomas Paine and Henry David Thoreau, to name two, subscribed to the theory that government which governs least governs best. That is not the intent of subsidiarity, which maintains that every problem should be handled by the institution most competent to deal with it, while giving priority to the institution that is closest to the problem. Moreover, subsidiarity requires that those who are affected by policies have a voice in developing those policies.
Subsidiarity is a principle that can benefit not only society but government itself. In fact, it probably helps to visualize this principle by thinking of the way the United States is governed. Washington shares power with the states, which in turn share power with counties, cities and towns. If you want to report a broken water main, it’s a whole lot more efficient to get a hold of your local public works agency than to inform an agency in Washington. On the other hand, some things need to be done by a national government, like diplomacy and national defense.
Government at all levels has responsibility for the common good, the conditions under which true civil society is fostered. When individuals or groups use their power to weaken the social fabric, it’s the role of government to step in. For example, presidents and congresses have used the power of the federal government to confront the power of both large corporations and large labor unions when they felt that the common good was being undermined. The Supreme Court has supported individuals when their rights were violated by state and local governments.
The Church’s social teaching, as related in the Compendium, maintains that all human beings have an equal dignity, and that government has a special responsibility for serving the needs of the poor and most vulnerable. But at the same time, the Church opposes “certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance” when they “lead to a loss of human energies” and “are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.”
Is there a golden mean between the helping hand of government and the heavy hand of government? Subsidiarity, rightly understood, is the Church’s answer.
But the principle, and the civil society it fosters, won’t flourish unless citizens participate in their communities. True subsidiarity depends on the willingness of people to become active participants in civil society, to engage with contemporary cultural and social issues, and to help order them according to God’s will.