Acton Institute Powerblog

Subsidiarity in New Jersey

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A little while ago, and in the context of the health care reform debate, Sam Gregg observed in this space that the American Catholic hierarchy had, to the detriment of church and country, neglected the importance of subsidiarity.

Now, Deal Hudson at argues that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is practically going about what the bishops have theoretically ignored. Of course Christie doesn’t invoke the principle explicitly, but Hudson sees the idea of subsidiarity at work in the governor’s proposals to, among other things, privatize state parks and outsource worker’s comp and pension systems.

I’m inclined to agree with Hudson (besides, I already admired Christie for his courage in taking on teachers’ unions). But there’s an interesting discussion in the comments section at the bottom of Hudson’s article, where readers are debating the meaning of subsidiarity and making some accurate qualifications: for example, “privatization” is not necessarily a synonym for subsidiarity.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • Neal Lang

    “But there’s an interesting discussion in the comments section at the bottom of Hudson’s article, where readers are debating the meaning of subsidiarity and making some accurate qualifications: for example, ‘privatization’ is not necessarily a synonym for subsidiarity.”

    Exactly! Privatization is about effciency and cost, and not about whether the function being privatized should be a governmental function at all.

    “SUBSIDIARITY, THE PRINCIPLE OF: A principle from Catholic Social Teaching but with correspondences to American federalism (see Limited Government) and the Dutch Calvinist concept of sphere sovereignty (see Sphere Sovereignty) which views society as comprised of various networks of natural mediating institutions (such as family, neighborhoods, churches, voluntary organizations, the free press, among others). Each of these institutions has natural functions, responsibilities, and obligations. For example, families raise children, churches provide moral and spiritual guidance, and so on.

    “Subsidiarity teaches that the higher or more complex social structures (such as government) should not interfere unnecessarily in the affairs of the lower social structures (such as the family). Unnecessary interference from the higher structures robs the lower structures of their natural functions. Over time this interference can cause the breakdown of the mediating institutions in a society. If breakdown occurs politics will replace private association as the infrastructure of society.

    “Subsidiarity does allow for the interference of higher institutions in the affairs of lower ones in situations of crisis, emergency, or when they are not capable of being self-sufficient. However, when such interference occurs it should be specifically focused, limited, temporary, and seek to reestablish the institution’s self-sufficiency.”

    When considered in conjunction with:

    “SPHERE SOVEREIGNTY: A principle of Reformed Christian social ethics, usually associated with the thought of Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper*, that identifies a number of God-ordained creational spheres, which include the family, the state, culture, and the church. These spheres each have their own organizing and ruling ordinances, and each maintains a measure of authority relative to the others. Just social and political structures, therefore, should be ordered so that the authority of each sphere is preserved (see Limited Government and Subsidiarity, The Principle of).”


    “LIMITED GOVERNMENT: The idea that government is not all-competent. Government is one social institution among others having its own distinct sphere of responsibility and authority. The tendency of government is to assert regulatory authority beyond its proper bounds. Limited government was an essential idea undergirding the founding of the American republic. The framers of the Constitution, who had experienced first-hand the tyranny (see Tyranny) of the British monarchy, reckoned that it was imprudent to endow one branch of government with supreme power. They reasoned that unless authority was distributed equally among different branches of government, fallen human nature would eventually cause leaders to become tyrants. As Lord Acton wrote nearly a century later, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Key thinkers include John Jay*, James Madison*, Alexander Hamilton*, Thomas Jefferson*, and John Adams*.”

    “TYRANNY: A form of government where a single ruler is vested with absolute power. The defective version of monarchy (see Monarchy, Statism, and Totalitarianism). Any absolute and oppressive power. Infamous tyrants include Mao Tse-Tung*, Adolf Hitler*, and Joseph Stalin*.”

    “MONARCHY: Literally government by a monarch or sovereign, such as a king or emperor, who has supreme power over a realm. Key contemporary advocates include Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn*.”

    “STATISM: Generally, a program or viewpoint that looks to the state for resolution of social and moral problems, rather than to individual effort. Specifically, a condition where the nongovernmental institutions of a society develop an overextended and unhealthy reliance upon political structures for the solution of problems. Statism stands in direct violation of the principle of subsidiarity (see Subsidiarity, The Principle of) and sphere sovereignty (see Sphere Sovereignty). Statists believe that the resolution to social problems should be obtained through legislative measures.”

    “TOTALITARIANISM: This is the view that any institutional separation between the state and nongovernmental organizations (such as churches, private hospitals, civic groups, charities, etc.) must be eliminated. Totalitarians insist that all the major institutions of society should be directed by the state (see Statism). Key political movements include Italian Fascism, Nazism, and Communism.”

    All Definition From: “Dictionary of Terms for Free and Virtuous Society” * = RIP

    Today we have lost the concept of Limited Government so any hope of Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty have all but disappeared from the United States. It is easy to determine how this transformation occurred. Beginning in the early 1900s, there has been an eroding of first morality which necessarily eroded the family. Government insured this situation by lacking laws impacting community standards and than making divorce and illegimacy easier. Once the the family was eroded, than so was the Church and the local neighbor. Finally this spread to the community – village, town, and city. Eventually, the State and finally the Federal Government started to provide the necessary institutions which had once been closest to “the People.”