Monday, May 14, 2012


The etymological rootings of that phrase rest on what has become an obsolete verb, to terve, meaning to turn something upside down. When things are properly arranged, turning them upside down produces chaos. We live in topsy-turvy times.

About a year ago now I had some entries on the old LaMarotte comparing social security and health programs in this country and in Europe. One post (link) featured the Germans’ principles underlying their social insurance policies. One of those is the principle of self-government, derived from the “subsidiarity principle.” It states that common goals must be achieved at the lowest appropriate level of society. That principle is old but articulated for modern times in the papal encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, §79, issued in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. Here is the relevant quote again:

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.

In §80 the same document refers to the “principle of ‘subsidiary function’” from which, first in German, then translated into English, we get the subsidiarity principle.

Now this principle suggests that government should not reach down and micromanage what various subsidiary levels (as seen from above) must do on their own; but its natural corollary is that the lower levels should not reach up and try to dictate policy one, two, or several levels above the place where they have their natural sphere of action. The ideal implementation of this idea is representative government—in which the lowest levels elect representatives, those elected then select, by vote, the next level up, and so on. In that system the president would be elected by Congress, not by the public. Indeed the Constitution still, if in practice only technically, describes one such method—the election of electors—whose names we never see on ballots.

Ideas like this are utterly weird in the modern context—and precisely because they are, while the reason alive within us finds them logical and right, is why we live now in topsy-turvy times. Just think. Once upon a time the Federal government was funded by a levy on the states—not by the income tax. A curious by-product of violating the subsidiarity principle in governance is rise of politics to the first rank among public preoccupations and the universal flowering of a vast and bewildering ecology of activism—the leaders and members of which, quite a random, as it were, thus as in Nature, attempt to gather masses and, by agitating publicly and in the media, to shape decisions in narrow and in wide regions of policy.

When power has been concentrated very high up, as it has these days, the natural and logical distribution of powers and of responsibilities has been so deformed that chaos reigns—and reigns so totally now that one cannot imagine its reform unless we start all over again. No wonder I have delighted nightmares about Emperor Napoleon.

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