In political discussions that occur both among friends and over the internet, I keep hearing conservative Catholics bring up the principle of subsidiarity. While I welcome the prominence the principle is getting in our country, I am frustrated by the one-sided use of its negative aspect ("no public agency should do what a private agency can do better, and that no higher-level public agency should attempt to do what a lower-level agency can do better – that to the degree the principle of subsidiarity is violated, first local government, the state government, and then federal government wax in inefficiency" - Reid Buckley), without due attention to its positive aspect: that there actually exists a level of community that really ought to accomplish these functions, and that community is not "whatever club I decide I want to belong to."
In order to be a real community that accomplishes real good and distributes real justice, a subsidiary community must have the following characteristics:
- It must have moral authority. The members of the subsidiary community must understand that a refusal to fulfill their duty to such a community makes them "bad" people. All law is, in the end, a moral appeal. The anti-littering statutes work not primarily because people are afraid of being caught by the cops throwing McDonald's wrappers out their car windows, but rather because nearly everyone understands that littering is a bad thing, and the law is there to restrain the small percentage of people who, for one reason or another, have decided to ignore the moral reality. A law unsupported by a common moral judgment quickly becomes a dead letter.
- It must be capable of fulfilling real human needs. If it lacks the ability to enable its members to live decent human lives and truly receive justice from fellow members, then it is not a community, and its members will quickly conclude that it has no reason for existence.
- It must have the ability to appropriately enforce its distribution of justice. We would like to believe that either, (a) everyone would voluntarily do whatever is to the common good (devotees of Marx), or (b) that everything everyone did would just automatically turn out to be for the common good (devotees of Smith). But this is fantasy. People are occasionally wicked, and any community must have a way of dealing with its members who transgress against their neighbors.
- The people that comprise it must have a common understanding of a good life, at least to the extent of the functions of the community. The members must by-and-large agree on what they need from the community.
- It must have a good, working knowledge of the people that comprise it. Without knowledge, how can you distribute justice?
- It must have an understanding of the limits of its authority. At what point must the next highest community take over the distribution of justice?
- It must have a way of resisting the encroachments on its authority by larger, outside powers, whether governmental, private, or corporate.