In Praise of "Subsidiarity"

     Subsidiarity. A principle in social organization: functions which subordinate or local organizations perform effectively belong more properly to them than to a dominant central organization. Merriam Webster.

    Across the political spectrum there is an increased feeling that the Establishment does not represent their interests. In political terms this usually involves the questions of how large the public sector should be, and what policies it should pursue. Equally relevant in terms of “powerlessness” is the question of where decisions should be made in a multi-layer government. Some of today’s dissatisfaction is that over time the answer has migrated to the federal level, with Barack Obama even preferring the international level on some important questions.

Some years ago I was intrigued when a Tea Party friend advocated unsuccessfully for the inclusion of “subsidiarity” as a guiding principle for the San Francisco GOP. More recently, Governor Jerry Brown has included “subsidiarity” as a principle for the distribution of state K-12 education funding, with funds from numerous programs consolidated into “block grants”, allowing  local school districts to set their own priorities.  Left and Right may not be able to agree on the size of government, but there may be room to agree on where decisions should be made.

Despite the inexorable migration of decision making authority to central bureaucrats and elected officials, there are two virtues of subsidiarity: decisions better reflect the real circumstances where they are applied; those affected by the decisions are more likely to support them if they are part of the process.

Let’s take a leap. There is a common thread between the support for Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and Brexit. All four reflect the angst which comes from being powerless in the face of uncaring authority. In Trump’s case it is the middle class workers who have been sacrificed for Free Trade and open immigration; in Bernie’s case it is those who feel outside of the Establishment with a rigged system; in Black Lives Matter it is a feeling of powerlessness which manifests itself against the symbol of Establishment power, the police; in Brexit it is the bureaucrats in Brussels deciding what crops can be planted and where fishermen can fish.

Lets look at a few instances where the tide is running for or against against “Subsidiarity”.

– Obamacare has a lot of problems, not the least of which is the pressure on insurance companies to adopt underwriting standards which result in financial losses. The problem is, however, unnecessarily compounded by establishment of federal requirements on what must be included in policies, rather than allowing local employers and employees to determine what features best meet their needs.

– Environmentalists oppose “subsidiarity” with religious fervor. State or federal mandated environmental study requirements are a much-abused tool to prevent local developers and planning authorities from determining what their communities should look like.  At the upper end, “climate change” agreements from the 1992 United Nations Conventionon Climate Change to the 2015 Paris Agreement are used – without formal Congressional approval – to set policies which destroy US industries, determine transportation priorities, and (at least in the case of the Bay Area) form the basis for non-elected bureaucrats to determine housing, transportation, and business development patterns.

– The constitutional preeminence of civil rights is propelling the federal government to play an increased role in the management of local police departments. What is needed is agreement by the experts on “best practices” – hiring, training, equipment, procedures, oversight – and an emphasis on “community policing” to develop interactive partnerships with stakeholders to solve problems and develop trust.

– An important, under-reported plan of Barack Obama to transfer control of the agency which manages the plumbing of the Internet  from a US entity to an international group including Russia and China, will go forward in October.  Maybe this was inevitable, but it does represent a decrease of American influence as power transitions to a higher level – and there is little evidence that the administration negotiated any benefits in return.

The Founding Fathers recognized “subsidiarity” in the Constitution with Article I’s discussion of “enumerated powers”, with the states retaining authority over everything else.  The 1942 Supreme Court Case in which Congress’ power to regulate Interstate Commerce was extended to include an Ohio farmer who grew wheat to feed his own cows represented a low point for those who would prefer to have the power of the government remain close and responsive to the needs and will of the people. Perhaps today’s reaction to powerlessness by those on the Left and the Right will represent a turning point – or a least slow down the rate of centralization.


This week’s video is Ted Cruz’ 2015 failed effort to block the transfer of the central administration of the Internet to an international organization.


www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 8/19/16