02 January, 2014

Distributism Basics: The Nature and Roles of Government

"A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good."
- Pope John Paul II

The principle is called subsidiarity, and it is a crucial element of distributism. When we speak of these orders of community, we are trying to define the very structure of society. The orders of community are the levels of the societal structure. These communities are things like the family, social communities, religious communities, work communities, and the different levels of government. The purpose of this article is not to try and define the proper function of each of these levels, it is to discuss the basis for determining what those functions are. There can be some variation based on culture and circumstances, but the principles are universal. How is society defined? Why do different orders of community exist within a society? Why does this matter when we are discussing economics?

The answer to that last question was actually addressed in the previous articles of this series about socialism and capitalism. The economic order of society exists to fulfill the needs and wants of the families within it. Government is necessarily involved in protecting that economic order by implementing laws consistent with it. The laws concerning economic matters in capitalist, Keynesian, and socialist societies are based on those economic views. The laws concerning economic matters in a distributist society would have to be consistent with the economic view of distributism. It is therefore necessary to understand the functions of the different orders of community within a society to understand when one is improperly usurping the function of another. Because government has a role in protecting the economic environment of a society, subsidiarity has implications on how that role is to be fulfilled in economic legislation. Understanding subsidiarity will help us to understand what types of economic laws are properly the jurisdiction of the different orders of community.

In the distributist view, the family is the fundamental community in any society. If you imagine the society as the different orders of community stacked on top of one another, the family would be at the bottom, not because it is beneath or of less importance than the other orders, but because it is the foundation and support of the others. It is the basic community which the others exist to serve.

In the distributist view, higher orders of communities in a society only exist to fulfill social needs that cannot be sufficiently met by the family. The same is true as you move up the the order of communities, each higher order only exists to fulfill needs that cannot be sufficiently met by the lower order. Because of this, even though the higher orders are necessarily over the lower ones, the scope of authority gets narrower as you move up the levels of these orders. In other words, if you were to picture these orders stacked one upon the other, they would look like a pyramid.
An important difference between subsidiarity and the view more commonly accepted in our society is that the higher levels don't get their authority from the lower levels. What authority they have is natural to them by their existence. This distinction is important because it is the basis for a true view of what some people call "limited government." Our society was founded on the idea that the lowest order (by which they mean individual citizens) grants power to the higher ones as part of some social contract. This is also the basis for believing they can also take power away from the higher order. The problem with this view is two-fold. First, it means that the people could potentially take away the authority a community of a higher order needs to fulfill its true function. Second, it means that lower orders can give what are naturally their own functions to the higher orders.

In the first case, you could potentially end up with a state that does not have the authority to provide national defense. I realize that this is not likely, but it is the logical conclusion of the position. Saying that higher levels of the social order get their authority from the lower levels means the authority can be revoked.

In the second case, you could end up with a state that has totalitarian powers simply because a majority of the people decided to give it that power. The state could end up with the power to decide what jobs you may have, how many children you may have, how those children must be educated and what they will be taught, what kind of car you may drive, and almost anything else. The state could have the power to take your children away from you simply because you believed something different than the majority. The state could even say that you must purchase something you don't want because it thinks that is best for society as a whole. This is also the logical conclusion of the position.

We live and interact in communities because that is our nature. If humans automatically and always acted with charity and justice toward each other, government wouldn't be necessary. However, because we don't do this automatically and always, we need a form of government in order to preserve the common good of the communities in which we live. This applies to all levels of community within a society, including the family. Parents govern the family for the common good of all its members. The point I'm trying to make here is that the authority of the government of each order of community is not granted to it from its members. Just as children do not establish the government of their parents or grant their authority, members of a higher order of community do not establish its government or grant its authority.

The government of a community exists by virtue of the community's existence, and its authority is over precisely those things which deal with preserving the common good of each member and the totality of its members in matters that go beyond their own authority. For example, because one family does not have a natural authority over another family, it cannot dictate on which side of the road cars should be driven, or how fast those cars should be allowed to drive in areas where children are commonly present and at play. However the common good requires that such rules exist because we must all act with due respect for the lives and safety of those children. The very act of living in community necessitates some form of government to deal with such matters.

This is not to say that the members of the higher order have no choice in their government. Even if the choice of leaders and the precise definition of laws involves the choice of its members, the existence and authority of a community's government is by its nature, by the needs it exists to fulfill to preserve the common good. Therefore, neither the higher, nor the lower, orders of community may usurp the roles and authorities that are part of the internal life of any given community. This applies regardless of the form of government. It applies equally to a monarchy, a republic, or any other form. Subsidiarity, therefore, takes an older view of the "social contract" idea, where the "contract" may establish the form of government and who will hold the positions of government, but is limited in terms of establishing the functions of government. It isn't simply a matter of "majority rule" or amending a constitution.

Our society is obsessed with the idea of rights. Unfortunately, the concept of "rights" has been warped almost to mean whatever people want to do. Rights in society are not granted by the government, nor are they granted by the city, or by groups of people protesting some perceived injustice. Rights are not based on people's desires, feelings, or wants. Rights are based on obligations which come from nature. There is no such thing as a right without an obligation to establish it. People think that freedom is achieved by protecting rights. In reality, freedom is achieved by protecting duties.

By having children, parents are obligated to care for, educate, and raise them to be virtuous people. They also become obligated to support and care for one another, for the common good of each other and the children they are obligated to raise. This is the basis of the idea of marriage as the establishment of a family, formally defining the obligations of its governing members toward each other and any children they may have. A higher order of society may provide schools to assist parents with the education of children, it could even establish guidelines for education, but it cannot force parents to use them if they want to seek another means to provide for that education. The attempt to do so would be interfering with the internal life of the family. Even though the city or state might be said to have a vested interest in the education of children, that interest is always secondary to that of the parents and family. Likewise, a city, by virtue of its establishment has the obligation to establish laws for the common good of those living in its jurisdiction. Even if the citizens of the city participate in determining what those laws should be, they do not have the authority to take that power away; it is a function and obligation of the city to establish and enforce those laws. It is only by acknowledging and protecting the inherent functions and duties of each order of community that true liberty can be established and protected in any society.

"... but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good."

There will be times when the lower orders of community need help. Families can suffer tragedy that leave them in need of assistance. Cities or larger regions can suffer situations, like natural disasters, that leave the inhabitants in need of assistance from other communities. These disasters can be wide-spread and simultaneously impact multiple communities. Higher orders of community exist to fulfill the needs that the lower orders cannot fulfill on their own. These are examples of cases where it is the duty of the higher orders (as well as other instances of the same or lower orders) to step in to support those in need. However, you need not envision disastrous scenarios to come up with examples. You can look at something as simple as driving on the roads. It is necessary for public safety (a common good) that upon crossing a city border a driver not be required to suddenly change the side of the road on which he must drive. This does not mean that the higher order must necessarily dictate which side shall be used. It could conceivably coordinate with the cities to reach an agreement which would then be binding on all. In the U.S., this is similar to how the old U.S. Route system worked. The states met together to agree on the routes and how they would connect. This system worked very well and established sufficient and reliable means of transportation from state to state and connected many small communities within each state.

People live in communities because that is human nature. By living in community, people have natural obligations toward one another. Each order of community exists for a purpose consistent with human nature to protect the common good for its members. This is the basic principle underlying subsidiarity at all levels. It isn't one rule for one class and another rule for another class. It is one rule for everyone. Subsidiarity is the basis for a true understanding of the idea of limited government. Subsidiarity is the firm basis for establishing protections for the freedom of individuals and the freedom of each order of community within a society. Subsidiarity is the foundation of true liberty.

Other articles in this series:

Distributist Economic Society


  1. Mr. Cooney: Thank you for this explanation of subsidiarity in relation to distributism. Is there anything you recommend that would go into the particulars of how a distributist state would involve itself in the matter of private business interests. I've had a capitalist make objections in that regard.

  2. ...Continuing my previous post... I would like to be able to reply to those objections.

    1. I have found that most capitalists tend to have an idealized, even Utopian, view of what capitalism has and can achieve. Ironically, they tend to think that we are the ones fantasizing about a system that has never actually worked in practice when, in truth, they tend to do precisely that regarding the system of Adam Smith. However, as the comments to the article linked show, some will respond to this fact by saying how great it would be if capitalism were really implemented.

      The reality is that distributism actually advocates very little government involvement in private business matters. The main problem with capitalism in this area is that, while capitalists would say everyone should be ethical, capitalism itself separates economics from ethics. This basic failure of human nature results in a system that doesn't account for what happens when people with a large amount of economic power choose to be unethical. Capitalism offers no defence and, because of that, not only will it always ultimately result in more government involvement than distributism, that involvement will always end up at the highest levels of government where the average citizen and small business has the least influence. Distributism would essentially enforce localism in every case where it can practically be enforced (some industries simply aren't practical at a local level), but distributism also places the authority to do so at the most local level where we have the greatest influence over government. Other than this, private businesses would be mostly self-regulated under distributism because we are strong advocates of the guild system.

      Capitalists (generally) would only limit government to protecting us from fraud and theft. In reality, there are many more ways that big businesses can create injustice in the economic environment. Since it is the role of government to protect justice for the common good, it needs to have the authority to do so. When saying this, it needs to be stressed that it is also for the common good that this authority be established according to the principles of subsidiarity.