Every summer I take a group of high school students on a mission trip to El Salvador. Our hosts there come from the landowning class, and over lunch a woman I’ll call Rosa told me about her husband’s family. “They are very wealthy landowners,” she said. “They own a lot of land and run coffee plantations, but they have always been very devout Catholics. The people on their land always had everything they needed. My husband’s family built towns, schools, clinics, and provided the infrastructure that the workers needed for a good life. Our people were happy, and we had a good relationship with the families who worked for us. If only the other plantation owners had practiced their Catholic faith, we would not have had so many decades of revolution and bloodshed.”
Rosa was describing a feudalistic society — a society with a class system, where the ruling class owns most of the property and administers it to produce wealth, the benefits of which should be shared by all. While feudalism may have gone out with the Enlightenment, the idea of a ruling class looking after an underclass is still with us. For 25 years I lived in England, a country where feudalism has been replaced by socialism. An elected ruling class acts as nanny to a burgeoning underclass. The main difference is that, because of the oligarchical nature of the socialistic state, the ruling class (apart from election campaigns) never sees much of the underclass, and it certainly doesn’t live in a relationship with them.
As my friend Rosa pointed out, the lord of the manor lived with his dependents. He provided for them and regarded them as part of his extended family. When feudalism worked well, it was driven by the concept of noblesse oblige — that from those to whom much was given, much would be required. No such obligation exists for the socialist bureaucrat or politician. Lip service is given to the idea of the politician and bureaucrat as “public servant,” but the bureaucratic gravy train and the huge fortunes our politicians amass while in office give the lie to that noble concept.
At its most basic, the principle of noblesse oblige enshrines personal responsibility as an underlying value. The idea that one is responsible not only for oneself and one’s family but for others is central to Catholic social teaching. For this sense of responsibility to work, individuals need to practice personal piety. They must accept the principle of self-sacrifice and altruism. Furthermore, this sense of being responsible for others can only really work if it is acted out on the local level, where real people meet real problems and find real solutions.
That problems should be solved at the most basic level in society is another fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching. The principle of subsidiarity comes from the idea that problems can best be solved by the people closest to them. Big government — any kind of big government — is to be distrusted not only because power corrupts, but because no one is ultimately responsible; consequently, waste, corruption, and inefficiency become endemic. In other words, big government doesn’t work.
This principle of subsidiarity also builds community. Real problems and real projects are conducted by real people. This fosters enterprise, rewards the diligent, and encourages a sense of both individual and corporate responsibility. Corruption is less likely to occur, because such behavior directly hurts one’s family, one’s community, and one’s town. People take charge because they have ownership; they are not only motivated by virtue, but soon they see the positive results of qualities like hard work, honesty, and cooperation in problem-solving.
In this respect, the principle of subsidiarity fosters a natural growth in personal piety. Being virtuous is not simply an ethical theory or a list of rules to obey. Instead, when power is wielded at the local, personal level, individual people live virtuous lives that transform their own perspectives, their families, their communities, and their world.
Think of all the problems in our modern world and how they would be solved if individuals took personal responsibility at a local level. Would our world be in our current financial mess if finances were dealt with at a local level, where individuals could be held responsible, instead of at the level of international banking and finance, where anonymous thieves in suits with banks of lawyers are never held accountable for their decisions? Would the environment be threatened if individuals controlled what went on in their own backyard? Would our medical system be in meltdown if local doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and insurance companies worked at a local level?
The principle of subsidiarity very neatly cuts across all political and economic ideologies. That problems should be solved locally, at the lowest level, and by real people taking responsibility for their lives is a principle that would revolutionize not only government leadership — in socialist states and our own bloated and corrupt capitalistic system alike — but also the politics of leadership at lower levels as well. When neighborhoods, dioceses, parishes, and schools start to grow, and control become centralized and held by a few people at the top, they too should simplify, downscale, and hand money and power back to the people — because that is where it originated to begin with.