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Subsidiarity: le mot du jour for 2019?

January 1, 2019

Subsidiarity is an obscure sounding word, but a simple, intuitive idea with huge resonance for the challenges we face.

Fancy labels obscure simple, intuitive ideas

Sometimes the simplicity of an idea is belied by the complexity of its name. Dialectical Materialism is just a fancy way to say that the interaction between competing economic interests changes societies; Wicked Problems are simply problems so complex we can’t fully grasp them; and Negative Capability simply means that good art does not have to strive for certainty. Ideas removed of their jargon carapace are not just simpler than they sound, they often seem intuitively to be right.

Such is the case for ‘subsidiarity’ – the impenetrably named, yet simple and intuitive idea that decisions should be taken, and tasks undertaken, at the lowest appropriate level, in political systems and large or complex organisations. Over the years, I’ve heard this principle proposed as part of the solution to many diverse challenges, including how to improve harmony across the European Union (EU), how to improve the performance of both a vast global corporation and a relatively small international charity; and I proposed it myself many years ago as part of the discussion about how to improve the international development agenda.

Despite its off-putting name, the subsidiarity principle offers clues to solutions for some of the challenges we currently face, making subsidiarity a strong candidate for political word of the year in 2019 and beyond. Climate change, poverty eradication, holding China together, finding a way forward on migration, addressing the abuse of vulnerable people in the Roman Catholic Church, and softening the harsh politics that have arisen in far too many countries of late: these and countless other challenges can be better understood and better met, if seen through a subsidiarity lens.

Delegating upwards

Subsidiarity is the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot or should not be performed more locally. Often confused with decentralization, which is about delegation from the centre, subsidiary can perhaps be better understood as delegation towards the centre. In other words, the central or higher levels of complex organisations are subsidiary to lower levels or peripheries. Subsidiarity is therefore integral to federal states, in which, for example, the federal government leads on foreign and defence policy, and on setting fundamental social norms (citizenship, basic rights and protections, currency, etc.) while states and other entities have primacy over local economic policy.

While it is no doubt a much older idea, the word itself was coined (probably in German as Subsidiarität) in the late Nineteenth Century by Roman Catholic thinkers in respect of Social Thought. In the words of Pope Pius XI, some four decades later:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, May 15, 1931,)

Subsidiarity has long been a niche idea, well known mainly to political scientists and the like. But it came to more popular attention in Europe when the EU Maastricht Treaty was being negotiated – and then sold to sometimes sceptical voters – in the early 1990s. The Treaty – then an important step in turning the EU from a primarily economic into a more political union – adopts subsidiarity as a principle of European law, under which the EU’s central institutions may only act where the action of individual countries is insufficient.

The beauty of subsidiarity – when it works – is that it implies and integrates:

  • Trust in diverse, local solutions to locally experienced challenges
  • The importance of maintaining and trusting a higher level set of norms, rules and functions which both empower and – where necessary – constrain local actions and solutions
  • The need and utility for issues to be addressed at a higher level or by a more central authority, when they are too large or complex for local solutions alone to suffice.

As such it is indeed a seductive and intuitive concept which when successfully applied, privileges efficiency, effectiveness, fairness and resilience, and nourishes both the individual and the wider society.

Applying subsidiarity to the challenges of today, and the challenges of tomorrow, today

It’s beyond the scope of this short article to explain in detail the mechanisms through which subsidiarity might help us discover solutions to our challenges as a society in 2019. But we can at least explore why it is relevant to a few examples.

Man-made climate change seems an obvious place to begin, since it is an issue which affects the whole world, but does so locally (i.e. where environmental changes impact on local lives), as a result of emissions which are often created in other localities far away. It also encapsulates the importance of intergenerational fairness: the need to heed the voices of the as-yet unborn. Mitigation measures – to reduce carbon and other warming emissions – need to be developed locally, but in a context of global rules. This is the only way to avoid a so-called tragedy of the commons, in which certain interests continue to benefit from polluting while others show restraint, and the global problem remains unresolved. Adaptation to environmental changes meanwhile must be locally designed, so that it takes account of diverse local realities, interests and needs, but within national policies which incorporate fairness and environmental and social sustainability. These policies in their turn need to reflect international agreements which translate fairness into a reasonable, practicable framework of financial transfers from wealthy, historically high-emitting countries, to poorer, lower-carbon economies.

Global poverty eradication took an important step forward with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. These outline the main fields of endeavour through which poverty can be reduced, so that poorer countries and communities gain improved access to voice, opportunity, services and sustained, sustainable progress. The SDGs represent the first time that we have achieved global agreement on what matters most for humanity, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But this high level agreement means little unless translated into actions at multiple levels: legislation by national parliaments, actions by national executives, businesses and civil society, and supportive frameworks put in place by international bodies, international donors and philanthropists. These cannot all be coordinated from ‘the centre’ – in any case there is no ‘centre’ from which to do so in this vast and messy world. So what’s needed is continued and increased local and national energy, where necessary delegating upwards with requested for supportive actions and frameworks – rather than a delegation downwards of the targets included in the SDGs, as some see it. In this context, the global framework, in the hand of the UN, remains a tool through which to measure and publicise the progress being made in different countries, and thus enable decision-makers to be held to account for their contribution.

Migration offers another interesting example of international action, in the recently agreed, and somewhat controversial Global Compact for Migration. This vast and sprawling document, agreed in Morocco last month, was the result of many months of international negotiation, facilitated by the UN and the International Organisation for Migration (IoM), in response to a sense of impotence and frustration felt by the citizens and governments of wealthy destination countries and poorer ‘sending’ countries alike. In a sense, through their frustration and recognition that no single state could fully address the issue, they ‘delegated upwards’ the task of articulating a new framework for migration. Despite the fact that some countries quit the process because they claimed it undermined state sovereignty, the Compact is in fact a fairly toothless declaration. But it sets out the principles of a global approach to migration that is fair to all: that respects the anxieties of citizens in destination countries and the aspirations of potential migrants, and treats everyone with dignity and protects vulnerable people. The next stage is to put this new Compact into action. But ‘implementing the Compact’ is probably an oxymoron, as it is not a plan, merely a framework. Nevertheless, it contains principles as well as practical suggestions for how communities, governments and international organisations can now proceed, and over time it is hoped that its guidelines will begin to shape doctrines and underpin a new set of accepted practices, much as the 1951 Refugee Convention did many years ago.

For the Chinese Communist Party success is ultimately defined in terms of maintaining its hold on power, as it believes that is the only way to achieve stability in such a vast and complex country, at least for now. One way it has done so, has been through the phenomenal leap forward of the past forty years. This has allowed hundreds of millions of citizens to emerge out of poverty, and has transformed China’s international status. But this has been at huge environmental and social cost. China has already begun the task of reversing the environmental degradation, not least as a way to reduce social discontent due to pollution and poor living conditions. But it still faces a herculean challenge keeping the country together, as demographic change, improved education and access to heterodox ideas threaten the social and economic models that have worked so far, and threaten to undermine citizens’ confidence in a governance over which they have limited influence. The scandalous mistreatment of millions of Muslim Uighurs in north-western China is but the latest high profile example of how the state is willing to trample over local and individual rights and preferences, for the greater good of the nation as defined by the state. Sooner or later, this will surely become unsustainable, and it is hard to seen any sustainable solution which does not move towards the principle of subsidiarity, and an environment of increased trust. A governance imbued with subsidiarity is by nature resilient, able to absorb pressures and tensions, and bounce back. Governance without subsidiarity, by contrast, is brittle, fragile, and liable to self-destruct.

Applying subsidiary to the Roman Catholic Church – the institution whence it emerged – is also instructive. The Church is reeling from the consequences of its failure to prevent and hold people accountable for the abuse of vulnerable people, often children, by priests and other office holders across the world. For years, it resisted internal and external pressure to change. More recently, the current Pope has made it clear that this must change. This problem demands a response that reflects subsidiarity. The Church leadership needs to set out in clear, unambiguous detail, the need for all its agents around the world to prevent further abuse as an absolute priority, and to collaborate humbly and completely with national law enforcement agencies, so that all people suspected of abuse are investigated without bias or prejudice, and held to account under the law if found guilty. To this end, it needs also to make available the necessary support and tools to its provinces around the world, reward church leaders who do the right thing, and sanction those who do not. Local action, supported by a global framework of norms and guidance: subsidiarity.

And finally – since I am writing this in Brexit Britain – to the question of how to respond to pernicious, populist politics. The EU project provides a neat scapegoat for the anxieties and concerns of many European citizens, for their own and their children’s futures. Brexit is a textbook example. Personally, I voted for the UK to remain in the EU. But that doesn’t mean I think the Brexiteers don’t have a point. Brexit – along with other currents of nationalism, nativism and populism being whipped up by often shrewd political entrepreneurs like Steve Bannon – does genuinely illustrate the need for our governance arrangements to be reviewed using a subsidiarity lens. During my lifetime, governments in Western Europe, as elsewhere, have signed up to an increasing number of international frameworks which constrain their ability to act politically at home. Mostly, these have been a good thing, whether taken individually or as a whole. Nevertheless, little by little, power and authority have seeped from where they once lay, to places further away, where citizen-voters can no longer see nor smell them. The cumulative effect over time has been to undermine subsidiarity: the combination of mutual trust in diverse, local solutions to locally experienced challenges, a higher level set of norms and functions which both empower and – where necessary – constrain local actions and solutions, and need for some issues to be addressed at a higher level or by a more central authority, when they are too large or complex for local solutions alone to suffice. Somehow or other, across the USA, Europe, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere, there’s a need to take another look at how to re-energise the social contract through a rebalancing of the subsidiarity web, ensuring that political acts are effected no further away from where citizens live and experience them, as they ought to be.

But it’s no panacea

In these examples I’ve tried to show why subsidiarity matters – perhaps more than ever – today. I don’t mean to imply any of this is easy. After all, subsidiarity has long been used by people on both the left and the right to justify their particular points of view. For libertarians and Tea Party activists, subsidiarity means limiting the power of government; for some on the Left, it means preventing local decision-making with which they might disagree. Pope Pius XI’s words quoted earlier should be understood in part as the Roman Catholic Church’s attempt to find a kind of third way, in response to the conflict stirred up by the powerful and various torrents of Nazism, Fascism, Communism, Liberalism and Capitalism meeting each other head-on in an already unstable political environment.

Applying a subsidiarity lens does not automatically provide a solution. What it does provide, however, is a lens through which to analyse the challenges we face, and a framework within which to discuss which kinds of actions and decision are needed, and will continue to be needed in the future. This, I hope, can help us develop or reinforce locally empowering competency and capability, within clearly articulated and enforced norms and protections for current and future generations.

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