1.3.7 The principle of subsidiarity

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Unit 1 Contents

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Whereas some of the other principles we just looked at can be studied more fully in Module A, the principle of subsidiarity is very important in this module.

The principle of subsidiarity is about justice because it insists that there are limits to the authority of central state institutions.  If a government breaches these limits, it causes injustice.

This principle draws attention to the fact some things are best not done by governments – for example, bringing up children and supplying ordinary goods and services through markets.  Children are best brought up in families, and goods and services are best supplied by businesses that have the relevant knowledge and skills.

This will seem a statement of common sense.  But it is really important because governments have power, and it can be very tempting and easy for people in power to take over areas of social life outside their proper remit.

The principle of subsidiarity says that this must not happen.  It comes from the Latin, subsidium, which means ‘help’.  The role of government in relation to areas of social life outside its direct competence is limited to providing help or assistance, for the sake of the common good.  But government must not absorb them into its own activity.

Rather, government should focus on the things that necessarily have to be done by governments.  Clear examples of these include: running an effective criminal justice system, and ensuring there are regulations that stop monopoly producers of goods abusing their position.

The principle of subsidiarity has a second dimension too.  As well as insisting that the state should not take over areas of social life outside its competence, it also opposes excessive centralization of state power at the national level, or, in Europe, at the EU level.  Rather, the principle of subsidiarity favours devolution of power to more local levels of government, wherever this is consistent with the common good.  In other words, it holds that state authority should be exercised at the most local level compatible with the common good, whether this is region, county, city, borough, district or parish.

In light of the above outline, spend 10 minutes reading the section about subsidiarity in the Compendium.

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Reading (3pp)

Compendium, ##185-188 (Chap 4, sec IV)

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It is really important to see that the principle of subsidiarity is about the difference between ‘civil society’ and the ‘state’, as the beginning of this reading brings out.  Civil society is the term used to refer to the associations and enterprises of many kinds which are formed freely in societies, not by government.  Examples are: marriages, families, businesses, orchestras, youth groups, schools, trade associations, sports clubs, mutual societies.  All of these kinds of association have their own aims and institutional forms.  Subsidiarity says: the state must respect civil society’s freedom and not suppress it.

This principle can be seen as required by both the common good and by human dignity.  In relation to the common good, a family, a business or a tennis club could not be all it is supposed to be if government tried to direct all its activities.  Such bodies couldn’t then play their part in generating the common good.  They need to be free to do this themselves.  If the state takes over such groups and associations, it in fact subverts them – they can no longer be good in the way the common good requires.

Second, human dignity and the possibility of human fulfilment also generate the need for subsidiarity. Given that we all have different abilities and roles in life, there needs to be a wide range of associations and institutions in which people can participate, because these give settings in which persons can become fully human.

As noted above, the principle of subsidiarity is very important for this module on ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’.  Therefore we shall give it more attention, especially in Unit 3.

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End of 1.3.7

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Module B outline

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