Subsidiarity and conservatism

I’ve written about conservatism several times and haven’t ever connected it to subsidiarity. I feel like that’s something I should remedy, at least in part.

I stand by the way I’ve written about conservatism before, which is almost utterly disconnected from subsidiarity. Conservatism is the impulse that says, let’s not change what we’ve got, because in all likelihood we will end up with something worse, at least in the short term – it if we need to change things, let’s change them slowly. That is, what conservatism means will depend on the context. If your context is eighteenth century England, that’s what conservatives will be trying to preserve. If you’re in China just after the death of Mao, the people who are correctly called the conservatives, opposed to the liberals, are the Maoists – Marxist conservatives. That’s how I speak of conservatism, and I think it’s just the right way, or the clearest way, to use the term.

However, what many people mean by conservatism is something quite different, and it is an intelligible and interesting usage as well, and that is conservatism as a synonym for the defence or promotion of subsidiarity as a guiding principle.

What is subsidiarity? Most people speak of it as the idea that power, or authority to govern, should devolve to the “lowest” possible level, the level closest to individuals. On this model, the family should have as much authority as possible, second to which might be the neighbourhood or local associations, and higher up the chain, local or municipal governments should have more power than provincial or state governments, which in turn should have more power than federal governments, etc. The central thinking is that the closer an authority is to the person being governed, the better that authority will be at choosing and enacting wisely what is best for the person in question. Secondarily, there are other considerations, such as these: a bad person operating on a smaller scale can do less harm than a bad person operating on a larger scale with the same powers; centralizing power too much serves to prevent people more broadly from having the opportunity to exercise power in a way that is natural and desirable for people more broadly; tyranny, the worst possible political outcome, is practically impossible if subsidiarity is respected and if people are willing to fight efforts to take away the authority they ought to have. For all these reasons and more, it is said to be important that higher levels of government not take away for themselves authority that can be responsibly exercised by a lower level. Higher levels of government ought to do only those things that are all but impossible to lower levels (e.g., it would be much harder for each neighbourhood to pave its own streets than for the city to do it, and much harder for each city to have a military to defend itself from outside forces than for a centralized government to fund and organize a military).

This is a fine way of speaking about subsidiarity. More precisely or technically, the term actually refers to the need for higher levels of government to provide support for lower levels of government. By a different etymological path, the word “subsidiarity” derives from the same Latin root as our word “subsidy.” This may seem like a minor point, but people who miss this will often end up with a warped sense of how subsidiarity ought to work, in my experience. Such people might think that a centralized government that takes tax money and distributes it to lower levels of government, for instance, is contrary to subsidiarity, when in many cases it might be much closer to the essence of subsidiarity.

When people start talking about conservative principles and then say things that don’t sound at all like preserving the way we have historically actually done things, something like this tends to be what they have in mind, in my experience.

I happen to be a big fan of subsidiarity. To me, it represents a beautiful vision. I especially appreciate it when conservatives of this sort apply their subsidiarity not only to the political realm but also to the economic, alleging that it is bad for big business to have too much power just as truly as it is bad for big government to have too much power. This happens pretty rarely, but it does appear unexpectedly at times, and I am always overjoyed to see it when it does. I heard that one Canadian conservative fellow who recently became an MP, Jamil(?), say something along these lines in an interview years ago, and I still remember how happy it made me to hear it, given how often Canadian conservatives have been the party of untrammelled big business.

I am attracted to the vision of localism, of each community having a say in its own governance, of each particular place having its own traditions and aesthetics and character that is not absorbed into the mundane universality of “mass culture,” of people taking pride in their own homes and trying to make what is their own as good as it can be, of people having a sort of patriotism that connects not to some symbols of a giant country but to their own peculiar place.

I think it can be confusing to speak of it as conservatism, or even to think of it as something that is the particular province of the ideological right, since there are versions of the left that can have a very similar vision. There is much that subsidiarity has in common with libertarianism, but I think it is important to distinguish those two concepts as well. It doesn’t necessarily fit particularly well at any one point on the spectrum of political ideologies, but it is an important idea, and one which ought to be respected as well as it can wherever we might reside on that spectrum.

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