Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Frustration with Subsidiarity and the Common Good

Human society, if it is going to work in harmony, needs to have means of guiding people to, or, occasionally, punishing those who work against, the common good. These means are not exclusively violent (i.e. of the sword, as in St Paul's teaching that government rightly possesses the power of the sword to punish evildoers). Many smaller and differently constituted communities have the ability to punish violators of the common good in other ways. These ways may be economic (a refusal to patronize the violator's business), social (shunning a neighborhood jerk), religious (I know a lady who was excommunicated from her church for unrepentant adultery and who ended up coming back and being reconciled), or local-governmental (the local planning board doesn't let you start a pig farm in the middle of a residential neighborhood).

The techniques that these smaller, more local, and more particular human societies have available to them for enforcing the common good are often more incisive and accurate than the sword at enforcing real justice. Nevertheless, they only work as long as they have real power over people. If I own all the shops in town, people can't refuse to patronize my business; if it doesn't matter to me where I live or whom I associate with, being shunned by my neighbors will mean nothing; if my identity isn't significantly tied to a particular church (if not a particular congregation), I'll just go down the street to a different church or start my own "New Testament" house-church in my living room; and if I'm rich enough to buy the planning board, I can tell the town to go to hell.

Nearly all the social phenomena of the last 100 years or so has been towards eviscerating the authority and power of any of these smaller, subsidiary, communities, and conservatives have been complicit in this destruction just as much as liberals. Our contribution to this phenomenon has usually been economic, but we've occasionally been enamored of things like "the marketplace of ideas", in which individuals choose those churches and institutions which fit their own taste, instead of submitting in any way to the wisdom and authority of some community greater than themselves.

Thus we've gradually disabled any subsidiary community from inculcating its values and enforcing justice, and what is left? The only organization left with any power and authority whatsoever: the nation-state. Its tools are large and clumsy: it wields a broadsword or an axe when what is needed is a scalpel, but people who are desperately crying out for justice will take what they can get.

I am very sympathetic to the argument that power granted the government could easily - almost inevitably - be used tyrannously. But I have little sympathy with people who with economic tools destroy subsidiary communities' ability to work for the common good, then complain when people try to work for any possible common good with the only tools left available.