Brexit and the Principle of Subsidiarity

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It’s final. Britain is exiting the European Union. I am inclined to think that leaving the EU will be one of the best decisions Britain could make—even while admitting that I could be wrong. But such is the way with politics and the prudential decisions it involves: there are so many contingencies in human political life that accurate predictions of success are usually made only in hindsight.

That’s why it is clarifying to shift our attention from trying to make accurate predictions about Britain’s future, to a consideration of principles that are more enduring than opinion polls and media pundits. In this instance, we should be looking at the most Catholic principle of subsidiarity, one which favors Brexit.

From the Catechism (1883-1885), which is itself quoting from St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (48).

Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘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 co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.’”

God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence.

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

There are a few points well worth making here.

To begin with, the dual problem with the modern state is that its overwhelming historical tendency has been to absorb “power” from below, and to impose secular agendas from above. The modern state thereby violates the principle of subsidiarity in two ways: (1) by taking away legitimate “power” from more fundamental social, moral, and economic levels of human communities, such as the family, the neighborhood, and the village, and (2) by harnessing that stolen power to secular ideas and policies that destroy these more fundamental social, moral, and economic levels, and the faith along with it.

Modern nation states are bad enough in this regard, but adding over and above that a European super-state, the European Union, and the violation of subsidiarity is even more egregious: not just the family, neighborhood, and village get subsumed into the higher order community, but now also the nation.

Given what’s at stake, we would do well to understand a little more clearly and deeply the dangers involved in thus violating the principle of subsidiarity. The more concentrated power becomes at the top, the easier it is for a smaller number of people to control the levers of that power, thereby making it possible for a very few to lord it over an ever greater number of people.  In the US, political power has been sucked up from the local and state level to Washington DC, and gathered into the Supreme Court. It’s that concentration of power at the top that allowed for the imposition of abortion and the gay marriage…and whatever is coming next. The danger of such concentration of political power is all the more evident in the case of the European Union. That’s why LGBT activists climbed immediately to the highest political rung, using the EU to impose its wish list upon the nations under its dictatorial shadow, and hence why LGBT activists generally opposed Brexit. Check out the European Parliament’s position on the LGBT agenda, if you’ve got any doubts.

But it isn’t just the family and the fundamental moral order that gets quashed from above. When political power concentrates at the top, it makes it far, far easier for Goliathan economic powers to seize control, and manipulate the economic order to their own enormous advantage. In the US, we know that concentration of power in the national Congress has meant that Big Banks end up defining public policy by giving Big Money to Congress. It’s easier and cheaper to buy a handful of congressmen in influential committees than it is to bribe a far greater number of people on the state and local level. All the more so with EU’s absorption of national power into the uber-state. It’s no accident that one of the main opponents of Brexit was Goldman Sachs.

That’s why I’m inclined to think that Britain exiting the EU will be a good thing—not without its difficulties, but on the whole, a good thing.

And it isn’t just about fighting off the radical secular agenda or the machinations of the Big Banks. Europe for all too long has been enamored by some version of state socialism/collectivism, where Big Government takes all the social, moral, and economic burdens on itself, thereby “relieving” families and local communities from taking care of themselves as is their God-given moral duty. With the EU, Europe embraced super-state socialism.

But socialism violates the principle of subsidiarity at its theological heart. As the Catechism says, “God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature.” It is not the state’s job to provide for my family; it is mine, as a husband and father. It is not the state’s job to ensure that our communities are clean, safe, and healthy; it’s the duty of those in the local communities to care for their own. It’s not the state’s job to manage the entire economy, nor is it the domain that should be ruled by Big Banks; it is our duty, we on the local level, to sustain and build up our own economy.

God has not willed that the super-state should reserve all exercise of power to itself, rather it must entrust to families and local communities the functions appropriate to their more fundamental levels. In Britain removing itself from the overweening tentacles of the EU, it might just allow space for the families and local communities in Britain to wean themselves off their own welfare state.