Acton Institute Powerblog

Budziszewski on Subsidiarity

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Following up on yesterday’s entry about Ronald Aronson’s call for a renewed socialism in American politics, I offer this paragraph from J. Budziszewski’s book, What We Can’t Not Know.

Discussing the principle of subsidiarity as first explicitly articulated by Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Budziszewski writes,

As Pius explained, what pushed the principle of subsidiarity to the forefront was the crisis in civil society brought about by the industrial revolution. For a time it seemed as though the middle rungs of the ladder might be crippled or destroyed, leaving nothing but the vaunting state at the top of the social scale and the solitary self at the bottom. Collectivists and individualists made strange alliance to cheer this holocaust of the little platoons. The principle of subsidiarity reaffirms the social design of the species, corrects both its individualist denial and its collectivist perversion, and champions the rights and dignity of all those in-between associations which, if only allowed, will take root and flourish, filling the valley between State and Self with fruit and color.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Clare Krishan

    So-called “intermediate institutions” have been a vital feature of subsidiarity for aons – trade guilds weren’t called things like “Worshipful Company of Carpenters” merely to enforce moral integrity and quality of workmanship by peer-pressure, but rather, pre-universal emancipation, to facilate collective bargaining of chantry stipends for memorial masses for dead confreres. Unlike the landed gentry who bequethed title to surplus parcels of land to provide earnings to finance their private monastic chantries, guilds established mutual funds/ foundations to build almshouses for widows and orphans of members and offer public masses for the deceased at local parish churches. Home insurance began in a similar fashion after the Great Fire in London, as a social welfare net for those unable to recover from catastrophic losses.

    Indeed Amy Wellborn’s OpenBook blog features comments from Bishop Murphy of Rockville Center, in an article on immigration in Newsday, on such valid features of what you may call “socialism”:

    Godspeed Clare

  • Clare, thanks for the informative note. I’m strongly in favor of a vigorous and healthy set of “intermediate institutions.” My problem with Aronson is that he conflates the functions of the private spheres of civil society into the government.

    A dictionary definition of socialism is “1: a political theory advocating state ownership of industry 2: an economic system based on state ownership of capital.” I don’t see how you can get around the statist elements of socialism. If that’s not what Aronson or others mean by “socialism,” then the problem isn’t in resurrecting the word, but needing to find a new one.

    At times Aronson does seem to simply be advocating for intermediate institutions, but if you read his piece in its entirety, I think he is at best ambiguous and at worst rather clearly statist.

  • Charles Davis

    May I add a translation of what are two useful blogs (and J.B.’s succinct conceptual note itself), to extend their utility to those intelligent readers who aren’t necessarily up on current or past political theory–and may not be reading Acton’s PowerBlog? The response by Clare is also helpful to me, but I’d like to reach some friends who may not read up on the subject, in a succinctly topical way:

    So, J.B. and Jordan offer a short but incisive insight on the political principle that is notably and miraculously enshrined in the 1st Amendment’s right to *free assembly*
    • a la de Tocqueville’s praise for mediating social groups (or voluntary associations like churches, bowling leagues, scouting groups, drinking buddies, even political groups),
    • the mediating force which binds free individuals into communities and different communities into one nation,
    • and which limits the moral authority and effective power of any central authority (whether king or CEO, high priest or famous scientist, charismatic revolutionary leader or powerful news anchor),
    • which principle of ‘subsidiarity’ is driving the American social and economic alternative to the dualistic understanding of politics in modern “left-liberal” or Euro-socialism.
    • *Subsidiarity* is also an important constraint on the radical individualism that is so tempting to modern egoes, including the burgeoning socio-economic and independent political movement of *Libertarianism* (as articulated in James Glassman’s often insightful internet forum for social commentary, _Tech_ _Central_ _Station_).