The Fractured Republic: Part 3, Subsidiarity

As Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic, the middle, mediating institutions in America have weakened and evaporated leaving only two extremes, a mass of individuals on the one hand and a large, centralized state on the other.

In the last post we discussed how this situation impoverishes our social imagination and limits our ability to address social problems. When the state is the only actor on the stage our imaginations are limited to the state. The state is the only solution we can imagine. Or, at the very least, the state is only solution available to us. And to be sure, the state can address many of our problems. But some of the issues facing our neighborhoods require a more local and personal approach.

But with the loss of the middle, mediating institutions we lack the social infrastructure to address issues at a smaller, more local and personal, scales.

Thus Levin's recommendation: We need invest in and and empower these middle institutions.

Here's Levin (p. 5):
The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralization. Our political life need not consist of a recurring choice between having the federal government invade and occupy the middle layers of society or having isolated individuals break down the institutions that compose those layers. It can and should be an arena for attempting different ways of empowering those middle institutions to help our society confront its problems.
The recommendation here an ethic of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is an idea that comes from Catholic social teaching and is, per Wikipedia, "an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority." According to the principle of subsidiarity "political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority."

Levin goes on to point out that both liberals and conservatives share subsidiarity impulses. On the liberal side there are labor unions, community organizing, localist consumerism (from locavores to all the Wendell Berry-inspired lives and communities), the black church, to anarchical and communitarian groups (think: Catholic Worker and New Monastics). On the conservative side there are the emphases upon family, the local church and charitable enterprises. And both liberals and conservatives have a long history with local non-profits.

All that to say, both liberals and conservatives like subsidiarity, like the focus on localism. And Levin's argument is that, with the middle, mediating layers of society weakening, our goal should be to focus on, invest in and strengthen these institutions.

Now the problem here is that these institutions have been fading, they are weak or now non-existent. So a call for subsidiarity isn't for the federal government to simply roll back to let the local institutions handle things. Because when the federal government rolls back what will be left is a vacuum. And speaking as a liberal, this is the prospect I fear when conservatives tout the ability of the church to handle things like universal and comprehensive health care. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that socialized medicine is the solution to our health care problems (thought I suspect it might be), just that conservatives fail to recognize that churches and private benevolence aren't going to provide universal and comprehensive health care to all American citizens. So there remains a role for government in these instances.

So the call for subsidiarity isn't for the federal government to unilaterally roll back and push things back onto states, cities and neighborhoods. The goal, for Levin, is for the federal government to support and invest in these local institutions. Here's Levin making these points (p. 144):
If we do turn over more responsibility to the institutions of our civil society and local government, we will need to do so with the recognition that these institutions have been weakened in recent decades...It would be a mistake to imagine that they stand waiting, ready and strong, just beneath our liberal welfare state, so that we need only roll back that state and they will step up. That assumption would, for one thing, partake of a misleading fantasy of volunteerism that paints a partially distorted picture of America's past--as if all the things now done by our programs of public assistance were once done by church and fraternal organizations. And it would also ignore the erosion of families, communities, and civil society in our time. The mediating institutions do not just need to be unleashed--they need to be revived, reinforced, and empowered...
Of course, some might reject subsidiarity, thinking that Congress is the only and best solution to what ails us.

But my guess is that a lot of liberals and conservatives sense that local institutions--if assisted and empowered by the federal government, and that's a big if--are better situated to handle the complexities the problems that our cities and neighborhoods face.

And if that's the case, investing in subsidiarity may be a location of common ground for both liberals and conservatives.

For liberals especially, I'd like to make that case in the next post.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply