Decentralism and Subsidiarity: Applications to Society and Culture

By Thomas Storck

There can be no such thing as a “global village.”  No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.  Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.

– Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

Es waren schöne glänzende Zeiten, wo Europa ein christliches Land war, wo Eine Christenheit diesen menschlich gestalteten Weltteil bewohnte; Ein grosses gemeinschaftliches Interesse verband die entlegensten Provinzen dieses weiten geistlichen Reiches.

– Novalis, Die Christenheit oder Europa

Although we may rightly criticize Protagoras for his dictum that “man is the measure of all things,” there is a sense in which that statement is true.  For although man’s ideas or dreams are not the measure of reality and he does not determine, but rather discovers, what is true, in the case of human institutions it is indeed man’s nature which must be the standard by which we measure the fittingness of things.  An institution that treats man as other than he really is, say, by ignoring some aspect of human nature, might rightly be called inhuman, a term of reproach that shows the value we still put on a correct correspondence with human nature.

If we value decentralism, we must do so because we hold that it corresponds well with that nature.  But looked at by itself the term decentralism might seem a little vague – after all, how decentralized is decentralism?  One formulation of the decentralist principle that gives a little more substance and shape to it is the principle of subsidiarity, a principle enunciated by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical letter, Quadragesimo Anno.  This principle offers a foundation for an appropriate decentralism in human institutions, one fitted to the exigencies of human nature.  Pope Pius stated it as follows:


…it is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.  So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies.  Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.1

This principle of subsidiarity has been widely applied to political and social matters, but less often to technology and the arts.  It seems to me that it applies equally well in these latter areas, and I propose to make a few remarks on some of its applications to each of these four aspects of human social life, the political, the economic, the technological and the artistic.  I will end with some remarks on education and the foundation upon which it rests or should rest.

Subsidiarity is based ultimately on the foundation of the human person.  A human being quite obviously can be in only one place at a time.  And if we are in a place we begin to form a myriad of relations with those around us, relations of family, friendship, work, civic and religious ties, and ties even with the physical environment around us.  Such relationships are not only necessary for human well-being, both of body and soul, but play a large part in making us what we are.  The various human cultures consist chiefly in such complex human inter-relations and relations with the environment about us, and the fact that cultures differ from each other highlights their varying influences on individual human development.

One cannot be a human person without being formed by some culture, and although no particular culture is necessary for human life, clearly the existence of man as a body/soul composite demands the existence of cultures.  But every culture in its fullness must be a local culture.  By this I mean that only in a particular place can the many relationships that constitute a culture exist and thrive as they should.  However much electronics have made human communication of a sort easier, can we say that Facebook, for example, could ever take the place of a real culture or even of a real face to face conversation?  But if this is the case, then the political, economic, technological and artistic aspects of human life ought to conform to this cultural necessity, rather than forcing us to adapt to some rule whose basis does not lie in human nature and its needs.



With this brief introduction, let me begin by considering the political.  Readers of the Federalist Papers may recall the discussion, especially in no. 14, of the question of centralization and decentralization in the proposed new government for the 13 original states, hitherto linked by the extremely decentralized Articles of Confederation.  Regardless of what one thinks of Madison’s arguments and conclusions here, he and his collaborators were surely right in thinking the structure of the political entity more important than simply its size.  If we can call the Holy Roman Empire a political community, then despite its size, it embodied more of the principle of subsidiarity or decentralization than do many modern states much smaller in extent.

If decentralism as expressed in the principle of subsidiarity is to be one of the main principles in a particular political community, then its fundamental law must acknowledge that in some way or another, and incidentally accept what doubtless seem to most moderns as inconveniences or irrational restrictions.  The U.S. Constitution, for example, despite some decentralist aspects, explicitly assumes the free movement of people and capital across state boundaries, and facilitates this by its uniform commercial regulation at the federal level, for example, with regard to judicial judgments and even coinage and weights and measures.  Thus one can argue that whatever of decentralism or subsidiarity it contains, is undercut by the solvent of free economic movement.  Mobility of population, and especially of capital, not only erodes local attachments, but lead to legal and economic entanglements that make an increasing uniformity and centralization inevitable.  Smaller and more local bodies can take care of such matters, but only if we are prepared to accept an economy largely satisfied with local markets and local possibilities.

We must carefully choose whether we want law and custom to come down on the side of centralism or decentralism, and if we choose the latter, then we must be prepared to accept what comes with it.  For any other overarching principle, for example, the principle of human or economic mobility, will erode and eventually destroy the primacy of the local and smaller entities.  If we attempt to balance our commitment to decentralism with an equal commitment to other things, e.g., economic growth, then decentralism will always come up the loser.



When we speak of the economy, applications of the principle of subsidiarity are obvious.  Nationwide chains not only help destroy any regional character to our national life, but the very wealth and power of these chains make them a threat to local governments, which often lack the resources and knowledge to successfully oppose or regulate them.  The freedom of corporations to move across state lines and to be effectively free from state regulation had its roots in a series of Supreme Court decisions beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century and continuing to this day, as well as in the competition by states to offer the most favorable legal environment for incorporation.  Whatever one may say about the original intentions of those who wrote the Constitution and were involved, as supporters or opponents, in its ratification and early interpretation, by shortly after the Civil War any decentralized way of understanding or applying it was fast disappearing.  Once enforcement of the newly-invented federal rights and expansion of powers to regulate corporations had crowded out traditional state regulation during the late 19th century, the federal government became the only major political force capable of regulating the newly-empowered corporations. But this state of affairs need not have happened if an explicit understanding and commitment to subsidiarity and decentralism had been more established in the Constitution and, then, further embodied in legislation and court decisions and in public policy at both the state and federal levels.

Moreover, as I noted with regard to politics, localism implies certain kinds of limitations, and we must be aware that when we espouse subsidiarity we have to accept these limitations, whether economic or otherwise.  Had the individual states been able to retain the kind of supremacy they exercised under the Articles, and had the culture of the new nation supported this type of polity, subsequent history might have been unimaginably different.  But not necessarily everyone would have been pleased with the result.  For we cannot have the benefits of decentralism and at the same time the benefits, real or imagined, of economic mobility.



Now let us turn our attention to two areas in which the principle of subsidiarity is less often applied, the spheres of technology and of the arts.

We often think of technology as morally neutral.  That is, a tool or machine cannot do good or evil, only the user of a tool or a machine can do a good or an evil act.  But this is a limited understanding of things and ignores both the existence of original sin in humanity and the power of institutions and artifacts to shape our lives and cultures.  In the first place, to take an easy example, how many people have a TV but strictly limit it to a few hours a week of viewing?  Some few people do, of course, but for most its mere presence and the ease of turning it on offers an activity to our fallen human nature that is too difficult to resist.  Thus we have a nation addicted to sitting passively in front of their TV screens.  It is easy to say that we will use our technology only in moderation, but experience belies that, and thus we watch too much television and use our automobiles to travel distances that are easily walked or biked.

More important than this, however, is the fact that our technology shapes our lives and cultures into patterns that are increasingly hard to resist.  Because we so frequently use our cars, in some places there are no safe paths for bicycles or even sidewalks.  This, of course, reinforces even more the exclusive use of the car.  And when once a particular kind of technology becomes widespread, it usually spawns a host of associated technologies, all of whose vested interests are directed toward increasing and extending the technology they depend on.  Thus research and manufacturing and public policy are more and more oriented to support the type of technology in place, whether that was originally good or bad.

Take farming, for example.  Today huge industrial establishments, factories not really farms, increasingly dominate food production. Can anyone think that the requirements of these establishments do not determine the allocation of research for agricultural technology? But if we had a real commitment to the family farm, then our agricultural research would take a very different direction, since the needs and priorities of small farmers are not those of industrial food producers.  Likewise the subsidiary industries which grow up to serve industrial food production are different from those that would grow up to serve farming communities adjusted to a true human scale.  There would be different institutions of rural life, in fact a different type of rural culture.  But in order to create such a decentralized and truly rural culture it is not enough simply to change people’s outlook – itself a gargantuan task – but we would have to uproot an entrenched complex of economic and technological interests, and a way of life that arose in response to them and in turn helps to perpetuate them.



The final area where we can fruitfully apply the principle of subsidiarity is the arts.  We are accustomed to make a distinction between popular culture and high culture.  I suggest this is inexact.  In fact, popular culture in the true sense hardly exists anymore.  What we have is mass culture and high culture.  Mass culture is a centralized culture, dependent on technology, and largely divorced from any real cultural roots.  It is a sad product of industrial civilization.

Popular culture was always local, and changed imperceptibly from one village or valley to the next.  High culture, on the other hand, always had a certain universality to it, and thus the dissemination of high cultural products via electronic media is not a threat to the very nature of that culture.  But such electronic dissemination has all but destroyed popular culture, or left it a relic, preserved by the dedicated labors of folklorists and appreciated, to be sure, by many still, but no longer a living and organic thing.  While high culture and popular culture should exist in a friendly and healthy symbiosis, mass culture is the enemy of both.  An explicit effort, it seems to me, would have to be made in order to weaken the hold of mass culture and, if possible, to begin to create a popular culture again.

This discussion of popular and high culture naturally leads to the topic of education.  Education is often equated with schooling, but this is hardly correct.  We may liken the informal education that begins at a baby’s birth, possibly even before birth, with popular culture.  Such education teaches a multitude of skills, most notably the knowledge of one’s mother tongue and other cognitive and manual abilities too numerous to mention.

In a true popular culture such informal education would conform to the local nature of the culture.  There would be little or no reason why it would need to have a wider basis, with the important exception which I will discuss below.  But formal education, or schooling, is something different.  Although schooling need not take place in an actual school and historically was often very effectively accomplished in the home by tutors – a kind of analog to today’s home schooling – it has a universal side to it that corresponds to the high culture that it usually attempts to transmit.  It cannot be merely the complexus of local customs and habits.  It aims to teach organized knowledge, the liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium, the sciences in the original meaning of that word, whose apexes were philosophy and theology.

Such knowledge is by its nature universal not local, much as high culture is more universal than popular culture.  But the fact that formal education is primarily universal does not mean that there cannot be considerable diversity in its mode of transmission.  I mentioned before the venerable practice of private tutors.  Similarly before the various national systems of education were created, a variety of schools, sponsored by bishops and religious orders, monarchs and town governments, guilds and others provided this type of education.  The mobility of university students and faculty in the Middle Ages, facilitated by the use of Latin as the language of instruction, helped to create a certain uniformity in this education, but there was no outside agency or body with the responsibility or authority to impose uniform standards.

I said above that there was one aspect of popular education which would need to have a broader foundation than simply the local culture.  What is this aspect?  All education, except perhaps the most technical, presupposes certain ultimate truths, in fact, a theology, even if that theology expresses itself as an anti-theology.  Thus in the Christian centuries the basis of both popular and high culture and education of all types throughout Europe was the Christian religion.  This religio-cultural basis was later brought to the new world of the Americas.  But the thing to note is that any religion claiming a divine revelation as its foundation must have certain universal aspects, although usually it exhibits considerable local variants in nonessentials.  Thus local cultures and popular education in Europe were Christian and embodied the same faith in their varying customs, methods and institutions.  Uniformity in these was not considered necessary, so long as uniformity in belief was maintained.  The correct balance between the universalism required by religion and the healthy flourishing of local cultures was never specified exactly.  But in fact, formal education was increasingly effected by local or national cultures—e.g., with the gradual displacement of Latin by the vernacular in schools and scholarly writings.  The important thing to note here is that the existence of the international Latin culture had never been a threat to the numerous local cultures and dialects.  These local and regional dialects suffered more from the uniformity imposed by national school systems which mandated standard French or Italian or German over the entire national territory than they ever did from the use of Latin as the medium of formal education and scholarly discourse.

The foregoing discussion, however, might justly be considered detached from the actual state of things as it exists in this country. We are not medieval Christendom.  Our nation assumes pluralism and has explicitly refrained from putting forth fundamental political principles in Aristotle’s sense of that word, principles that concern “the good and the chief good.”2  The First Amendment makes clear the federal government’s neutrality on such matters, and it has progressively been interpreted during the 20th Century, via incorporation through the 14th Amendment, to also apply to the states. On the one hand, this allows considerable freedom to pursue the good. On the other hand, the forcing states and localities to adhere to such liberal neutrality toward the good results in undermining pursuit of communal visions of the good.

Although the current American regime is certainly a mixed bag with such advantages and disadvantages, one thing is clear: generally speaking whatever decentralized institutions and practices we still have ought to be preserved.  The exemption, in most states, of non-public schools from many or all state standards is, under these circumstances, a good thing, as it allows those who do apprehend what is beneficial for the souls of their students to impart it without much interference from a government that does not espouse any ultimate truths at all.  This is likewise the case with control of public schools by state and local governments, despite any inconveniences or anomalies that might occur.



Decentralism, as articulated in the principle of subsidiarity, must rest upon the nature and genuine needs of human persons.  Thus decentralized polities and economies, and  popular culture and education adapted and formed according to the needs of each locality. But also, as we saw above, there are, and equally corresponding to human nature, are certain universals.  Human life and culture will flourish best when these two principles are seen as supporting one another and not in opposition.   The modern world, however, has in general followed neither of these principles.  For the most part we have centralized states which nevertheless purport to rest upon no fundamental view of human nature, let alone of theology.  As a result, if we are to build anew upon solid foundations, we proceed according to a more traditionalist path. We must pay explicit attention to the traditional first principles bequeathed to us by the culture of Christendom.  Nor will these be effective if compromised by adherence to other and competing ideas—e.g., today’s liberalism that has bracketed-out any consideration of traditional conceptions of the good. Today our liberal communities do ignore the first principles of more functional ages.  But if we are to make any progress toward restoring a healthy human society, we must first discern where we are, how and why we got there, and then find those means which we judge will bring us to where we want to go.



1. No. 79 in Paulist translation.

2. Ethics, I, 2 (Oxford translation).

Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

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