Subsidiarity: Why is It Praised More than It is Practiced?

Subsidiarity is a basic principle of Catholic social teaching. Like other such principles, it is praised more than practiced, because it is at cross purposes with the outlook that now governs our public life.

It springs from concern for man in all his dimensions. Each of us participates in the human nature that is common to all. Each of us also has his own will and destiny, and knows who he is through a social identity that includes local and particular connections. So we are at once universal, individual, and socially situated, and become what we are through active participation in a complex of networks and institutions.

Concern with that aspect of human life puts Catholic social teaching at odds with the understandings of social life now dominant, which take equality and efficiency as their concern, and consequently want to reduce society to a sort of machine run from the top down for simple purposes. Such understandings make man less than he is, and end up treating him at bottom as an employee, voter, and consumer: someone who holds a position in a system of production and distribution designed and run by other people, periodically registers his assent to that system and how it is governed, and otherwise is free to amuse himself however he wants, as long as he doesn’t interfere with other people or the smooth operation of the system.

Dissent from that vision puts Catholic social teaching at cross purposes with every other political ideal now prominent. Catholic teaching wants man to be an effective participant in his world, so it wants the center of gravity of social life to be within his reach. For that reason it insists, in the face of the modern tendency toward the industrialization of social relations, on making the business of society as local as reasonably possible. It therefore asserts the principle of subsidiarity, which insists that lower-level groups such as families and local communities are not tools in the hands of higher-ups but have their own life and integrity that must be respected.

Subsidiarity rejects all forms of tyranny. It makes hierarchy more a matter of enabling those in the middle and bottom to carry on their lives than giving those at the top the power to plan out what is wanted and see to its achievement. It rejects the conception of social justice most common today, which emphasizes equality and universality and thus a comprehensive system of supervision and control. Instead, it stands for the Catholic and classical conception of social justice, a state of affairs in which each part of the social order receives its due so it can carry out its proper function.

More generally, it rejects present-day liberalism, the attempt to turn the social order into a technically rational contrivance for maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences. It opposes it not only in its leftist or progressive form, which emphasizes expertise and equality, and prefers to act through neutral bureaucracies and international authorities, but also in its rightist or conservative form, which emphasizes energy and efficiency, and prefers global markets and the exercise of national power. So it is ill at ease with both the politically-correct welfare state and such aspects of present-day capitalism as outsourcing, big box stores, the penetration of commercial relations into all aspects of life, and the bottom line as the final standard for business decisions.

It nonetheless accepts certain tendencies often identified as conservative or liberal. It generally favors family values, distributed powers, federalism, local control, and freedom of enterprise and association, all of which now count as conservative causes. It also favors causes that count as liberal, such as grassroots democracy, limitations on big business as well as big government, and certain kinds of unionism. It favors neighborliness and an active civil society, which everyone says he likes, and maintenance of borders and limits on globalization, which our major parties along with the whole of our ruling class now reject.

The life of the Church provides a concrete example of why subsidiarity makes sense and how it works. The point of the formal structure of the Church, her hierarchy, sacraments, disciplines, and subordinate bodies, is to help the faithful become what God intended them to be. That purpose can’t be legislated, administered, or forced on anyone, but it can be aided, and that is the point of what the Church does as an organized community. As the saying goes, salus animarum suprema lex (“the salvation of souls is the supreme law”).

To that end, the aspects of the life of the Church that normally matter most—parish life, the availability of the sacraments, and the religious life of the believer and his network of family and friends—are necessarily local. Some things, such as doctrine, have to be determined universally, because doctrine is the necessary background for Catholic life, and if it is true for anyone it is true for everyone. Others, such as particular devotions and apostolates, may become widespread, but they depend on local needs and initiatives. They normally aren’t begun by councils, popes, or ecclesiastical bureaucracies, but by individual believers, and grow through acceptance by those who find they suit their spiritual needs.

What is true of religious life is also largely true of secular life. Man is not a domestic animal to be tended and used but an agent and participant to be aided, persuaded, and sometimes restrained. Some aspects of social life, like dealing with military threats, normally require a strong element of force, unity, and central control. Others, like educating the young, and cultural life in general, are much more local, varying, personal, and difficult to run centrally. Each level depends on the others: national defense depends on individual patriotism, and education and personal culture on the overall state of social and public life. The final standard, however, is not national power, gross domestic product, or the efficiency and rationality of the system, but what kind of people the citizens become and what kind of lives they lead. For that reason the local level is normally the main center of concern. It is at that level that people live.

It’s important to note that concern for matters other than equality and efficiency does not mean that subsidiarity injures those things compared to centralized initiative and control, especially in the long run. Centralized systems are inherently grossly unequal because they concentrate power in so few hands. And subsidiarity promotes functionality by giving implicit local knowledge—the kind of knowledge you only have if you’ve been there—a place to develop, accumulate, and find application. The common-sense observation that the instruction manual can’t cover everything, and if you simply obey rules nothing worthwhile ever happens, applies to all aspects of society, and our approach to social life must take it seriously. Thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Michael Oakeshott became famous by emphasizing the limitations of central control and the importance of the local development of understandings and practices that become generally accepted and therefore traditional because they have been found helpful.

It is also worth noting that biology and urban design theory tell us that resilient and adaptable systems need exactly the features that subsidiarity favors with its emphasis on local initiative and relative autonomy: diversity and redundancy, inter-connected networks, structures on all scales of size and complexity, and the capacity of the system and its components to self-adapt and self-organize. On that line of thought, subsidiarity is not so much a good idea as a necessity for any system that combines great complexity with enduring functionality. If you want to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, it seems, you need to decentralize.

A final point that brings us back to the general system of Catholic social teaching has to do with subsidiarity and solidarity. The two are often thought to be at odds, but in fact are complementary. Subsidiarity is an essential part of the good society solidarity aims to promote for all. We do not show solidarity by asking higher-ups to make people’s efforts irrelevant to their own well-being, or turn those who face difficulties into perpetual dependents. Similarly, we do not advance subsidiarity by getting rid of the subsidium—the assistance lent by one level to another—that gives the principle its name. Hierarchies may often be oppressive, but they are needed. In any normal situation, eliminating all checks on local activities will not make them more functional, and getting government out of family law will not promote family life. We depend on each other, and barring extraordinary circumstances that feature of our nature must be reflected in law as well as custom. Man is complex, and law and social order must be equally so.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 9, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Science and Charity” painted by Picasso at age 15 in 1897.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • intempore

    flourishing owes a great deal to the supporting architecture of
    collective life. This debt, however, can’t be repaid by deference to
    third parties convinced that human nature can be transformed using a
    Byzantine array of threats and incentives consistent with a mechanistic
    understanding of reality. Or, more bluntly, problems arising from the
    limits of a political system are not, in logic, political problems. And
    to deny such renders government action prone to becoming part of the
    disease government purports to be curing. The social contract must, at
    some point, become self-executing, its sublime goals achieved by
    elevating the liberty of personal conscience above the vanity of
    instrumental politics, however righteous or pressing the lingering

    Read more:

  • NormChouinard

    “The final standard, however, is not national power, gross domestic product, or the efficiency and rationality of the system, but what kind of people the citizens become and what kind of lives they lead.” Well said!

  • Dorset Rambler

    Living in England, I’ve found this an extremely useful article to clarify my thinking both about our local and domestic politics and the EU.


  • Vinnie

    Twilight Zone – 1961 – “The Obsolete Man.”

    • Adam__Baum

      Should be required watching. Of course in June 1961, Fritz Weaver’s uniform spoke volumes to the vast majority of viewers that understood, through hard experience the dangers signified by such attire.

  • AcceptingReality

    James, I love your articles and this one is no exception. However, I disagree with a couple of assertions made here. That is that grass roots democracy and limitations on big government are causes that are counted as liberal. Ever hear of The Tea Party? That movement is as grassroots and in favor of limiting big government as a movement can get. And it’s Conservative! Strongly recommended reading is “The Tea Party Catholic” by Samuel Gregg.

    • Mark Hirsch

      Please stop lying. The Tea Party is NOT grass roots. It was started by right-wing crazies Koch Brothers.

      • Art Deco

        If it helps you get through the day.

        • Mark Hirsch

          Are you really going to deny this? Read the evidence. It’s clear you’ve been duped by the rich and powerful. The Tea Party is everything that’s wrong with American politics and society in general. It also stands against everything the Catholic Church stands for.

          • Art Deco

            Sir, hundreds of thousands of people do not appear at well ordered public demonstrations because they have been Jedi-mind tricked by the Koch brothers. Nor can the Koch brothers orchestrate historic once-in-a-generation electoral reversals either.

            Look, there must be websites devoted to Kennedy assassination lore or 9/11 truther discourse that appeal to someone with your quality of mind. Can you leave us all alone?

            • Mark Hirsch

              I’m currently going through RCIA classes so I be brought in by the One True Church. However, if I keep coming across pompous Catholics such as yourself, I may reconsider my decision.

              • Mark Hirsch

                I mean so I can be brought in.

                • Henry

                  Mark – you’ll need some thicker skin to be a traditional and faithful Catholic. Liberals will hate you because you follow Humanae Vitae and Conservatives will hate you because you follow Rerum Novarum. Stay the course!!

                  • Mark Hirsch

                    Certainly. So many parts of the Catholic Church do not fit into any part of American politics or society. I sometimes feel like the Catholic Church in America is trying to fit a round circle into a square peg.

              • Adam__Baum

                You don’t enter the Church because of the existence or prevalence of people you find politically agreeable and you don’t threaten to pass on entry because of the absence or scarcity of people you find politically agreeable.

              • WSquared

                Mr. Hirsch, the One True Church is the One True Church by virtue of her belonging to, and being built up through, with, and in Christ. Her being the One True Church is not contingent upon the sins of any of her all-too-human adherents.

                She is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. That you find people in the Church who are sinners, some of them terrible, who are certainly not yet saints, and whom you find disagreeable, should therefore not surprise you.

                I think our Lord said something about praying for our enemies. Enjoy RCIA, and may the Lord bless you and keep you.

          • Adam__Baum

            Are you as equally irate with Soros, Buffett, Gates and the rest of the uber-rich and their foundations that regularly fund left wing causes?

            Just because Occupy was a centrally directed astroturfed movement, whose adherents went back to living in Mom’s basement when their masters no longer found them useful, doesn’t mean everything is organized in the same way.

            If you knew anything about the people that are attracted to the Tea Party outside what you read on the Puff-Ho, you’d realize trying to centrally direct them would be like herding cats.

            • Mark Hirsch

              Geesh. Have some respect. I’m not some person posting who hasn’t done their research. Don’t be like Art Deco and pass judgement on my intellect without really knowing who I am.

              I’m suspicious of anyone who is rich and powerful, regardless of political party.

              I guess Catholics can be judgeful just as much as Protestants. I guess I’m screwed either way.

              • Art Deco

                Don’t be like Art Deco and pass judgement on my intellect without really knowing who I am.

                Mark, the film maker Oliver Stone was about 20 years ago promoting the idea that the military-industrial complex contrived to assassinate President Kennedy by subcontracting the job to a claque of French Quarter homosexuals. The John Birch Society used to promote the idea that the Communist Party was actually a subsidiary of a shadowy international conspiracy (“Bilderbergers”) of which the Council on Foreign Relations was the American chapter. There is an economist formerly employed by one of our more recent Republican administrations and by the National Center for Policy Analysis who fancies those airplanes which hit the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 were actually Cessnas and it was all a big hoax. We had a commenter a while back here who’s got the idea in his head that the avalanche of testimony documenting John F. Kennedy’s satyriasis is somehow imaginary.

                You say appallingly stupid things and people are not interested in spending too much time contemplating what’s under the rock.

                • Mark Hirsch

                  What did I write that is so “appallingly stupid”? If considering the misgivings of the Tea Party is stupid, then I guess I’m really stupid.

                  • Adam__Baum

                    “Do you want a medal? I bet you’re white, upper-middle class or rich; am I correct?”

                    “I guess Catholics can be judgeful just as much as Protestants. I guess I’m screwed either way.”

                  • Art Deco


                    You said that a highly decentralized and inchoate protest
                    movement was an artifact of the Koch brothers, who are a pair of
                    resource processing magnates who undertake some political philanthropy
                    (founding the Cato Institute, for example). The link you cited as
                    ‘evidence’ was a bollocks article at the Huffington Post that offered a precis of a different article which this fellow DeMelle renders as a daisy chain of associations (this agency is descended from that agency which once co-operated with the Tobacco Institute thirty years ago….). It is just silly. As for the author, he is a professional propagandist. He is 37 years old and that’s what he’s done with his adult life.


                    • Adam__Baum

                      Hmmm.. is that Troll I smell roasting for New Years Day?

                • tamsin

                  I’m currently developing a conspiracy theory which holds that Art is bored and is playing the part of Mark Hirsch… 😉

                  give me time. I think I’m going to include freemasonry.

                  • Adam__Baum

                    If you mix in some aspersions of Calvinism, you can get a more robust, albeit slightly more bitter mix.

            • Henry

              Adam – I’ve read your comments here and I see no argument, no facts, no persuasion, only name calling, and hyperbole. I hope you take the advice that’s been offered here and actually become familiar and aware of the important writings surrounding the issue of Catholic economic teaching. Crisis Magazine is better than comments filled with exaggeration – the kind commonly found at Huffington Post.

              • Adam__Baum


          • jagnote

            Mark, I have a doctorate in chemistry, am a lifelong Catholic and a member of the TEA party. If you get your premises from a current blog or publication you are starting off on the wrong foot. Talk to some TEA party members and you’ll soon get the truth. We believe in the dignity of the individual. We don’t want to live in a government controlled society. We believe that the government exists to protect our individual God given rights. We believe that our hard earned money (yes, most of us actually work for a living!) should not be taken by a government that does not respect our most basic beliefs and then fritters the money away on abortions, “propagandized” education, support of groups illegally residing in our country, and the general undermining of the family, the work ethic and the basic truths of the natural law. This article, in outstanding clarity, explains the subsidiarity that both the TEA party and the Catholic Church embrace. The Catholic Church is about revealing the Father to mankind, about the salvation from sin brought by his Son and the knowledge that everyone of us, rich and poor, are destined for eternal worship of the Trinity. Don’t replace or confuse the plan of salvation with social services for the poor….we must show compassion and care for the poor but they are not the objective of the salvation which is offered to everyone.

            • Mark Hirsch

              Congrats on your doctorate in Chemistry. Do you want a medal? I bet you’re white, upper-middle class or rich; am I correct?

              The Tea Party manipulates and invokes history and historical actors for their political intentions (Just like leftist groups do). The key word though is manipulates. Quit honestly you don’t know how seventeenth century elites (that is the founding fathers) would react to twenty-first century political and economic issues. Such as the debt, foreign policy, ObamaCare, etc. But it’s fun to pretend you know how they would react, isn’t it?

              • Adam__Baum

                “Congrats on your doctorate in Chemistry. Do you want a medal?”

                “Geesh. Have some respect.”

                • Mark Hirsch

                  I have my academic credentials as well, but what does that have to do with the argument?

                  • Adam__Baum

                    More than your speculation of being “white, upper-middle class or rich;”

                    • Mark Hirsch

                      Two things that bother most about the Tea Party:

                      1. The notion that it is a grass roots organization. I’ve provided clear evidence from an academic study that states that it isn’t. If you can provide evidence to the contrary, I would love to see it.

                      2. The misuse of history. No one can know what seventeenth century elites would think about twentyfirst century political and social issues.

                    • Adam__Baum

                      Since, you’ve already reached and published your conclusion, there’s no evidence you’ll consider.When confronted with the direct testimony of a Tea Party member here, you responded with derision and dismissal.
                      Of course, if what you offered was a genuine concern, you’d be citing the massive intellectual and financial elitism of the left, something known since at least the 1950’s.

                      If “seventeenth century elites”, have nothing to offer, then no deceased person does, including the patron saints of the left that are regularly quoted. Nineteenth and Twentieth century elites are just as irrelevant.

              • slainte

                You wrote, “…. I bet you’re white, upper-middle class or rich….”

                Luke 10:27
                And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

                Those whom you marginalize ….the white, upper middle class, or rich…..are also children of God made in His likeness and image. They are the Neighbors whom you are also called to love.
                It is not easy being a Catholic.

                • Adam__Baum

                  “It is not easy being a Catholic.”

                  But It’s so easy to say you are. There’s a reason they speak of the practice of the Faith.

                  • slainte

                    And I am grateful for the sacrament of Confession for when I royally screw up…,which is quite often.

                    • Adam__Baum

                      Me too.

              • jagnote

                Did I touch a nerve there, Mark? No medal, thanks anyway. I just wanted to clarify that Tea party patriots are not the knuckle dragging neanderthals from the hinterland they are made out to be. I must admit that I was confused as to which characteristic was most offensive to you: white, upper-middle class or rich. And you forgot to include racist and bigot….I hate to have any of my Tea party characteristics omitted. About your political and economic issues…there would be no debt if the government was small and didn’t support 50% of the population, foreign policy is not a problem with a competent president and Obamacare shouldn’t exist in the first place. Americans want to make their own decisions about health care. What the private market can’t take care of can and is handled by charity. The founding fathers were not fools…they didn’t try to solve all the problems. They let individuals handle them singly or joined with others. But never mind the arguments….remember that we Catholics love all liberal progressive trolls just as the Lord commanded us to do.

                • Adam__Baum

                  “Americans want to make their own decisions about health care.”

                  And their light bulbs and toilets and….

                • Mark Hirsch

                  I do apologize for judging you. I sincerely apologize for that. However, I’m not a liberal. In fact the more I read abut the Catholic Church’s teachings the more I realize I can’t consciously vote for either party. I can’t vote for Democrats because of their stance on abortion, nor can I vote for Republicans because of lack of compassion for the poor. I read or heard someone say that the Catholic Church has a liberal heart and a conservative mind. From what I have read the Church’s social teachings don’t really fit well with either conservative nor liberal American ideas.

                  I am a historian however, and I nothing irks me more than when groups or individuals whether conservative or liberal misuse history. You simply cannot know what TJ, Franklin, or any of the founders would say about current issues.

                  I think it this is my last post on Crisis. I’ll become Catholic regardless of what anyone on this site writes, but it certainly is not encouraging when I see posts that degrading others. It’s amazing to see such hateful things written among so called Christians, and I’m particularly discouraged to so many attack Pope Frances; a great leader who has encouraged me to live a more humble life.

                  • jagnote

                    Apology accepted, Mark. I’m delighted to know that you will continue to investigate the Church with the intention of becoming a Catholic. I hope you will find an outstanding RCIA instructor who can answer your insightful questions. This is one of the best sites on the web, but comments don’t really allow for full explanations. Come here to learn.
                    Just a couple of points before we part ways:
                    1. Don’t try to fit the Catholic Church within the confines of United States policies and politics. The Church holds the treasure of universal salvation and the eschatology of mankind.
                    2 What is poverty?
                    3. If we raise a person out of poverty so that s/he has every material thing needed will we insure his salvation?
                    4. If the Church has a “preferential option” for the poor, who has a preferential option for the wealthy? Are their souls not worth saving?
                    5. Two thoughts from scripture: the poor you will always have with you, those who will not work should not eat.
                    Finally, the best advice I can give a person searching for the Truth in the Catholic Church is to read everything you can find that was written by Benedict XVI. This man stands atop a mountain and knows where we are going. His article in Communio entitled “Eschatology and Utopia” might interest you.
                    God bless you and all the best for 2014.

                  • Paul

                    The message Pope Francis is sending out at the moment is a confusing one. He promotes the Church as one for the poor , but poverty can be understood on a multitude of levels and not just materialistic impoverishment. Sadly, in today’s society spiritual impoverishment is the greatest affront to Christ and is the cause of all societal ills – and Pope Francis has done little to remedy this affliction.

      • Adam__Baum

        Once you start using the puffington host, you show yourself..

      • Paul

        Anything the Huffington Post churns out has to be taken with a truck load of salt, and might as well be quoting from Das Kapital or the Communist manifesto. No, I am not white of upper middleclass , just a humble Catholic who strives to live a frugal life.

    • Liberals say they favor such things, along with limitations on big business, and many people concede the point to them, so I think the statement is correct as it stands.

  • Charles_Martel

    I think the article makes some good points but miss the biggest reasons subsidiarity is not practiced — it reduces the ability to control others and it requires the assumption of personal responsibility for the welfare of others. All societies, but ours in particular, seek to change people “for their own good” and if they are paying for something, they have a right to insist that the other person use it “responsibly.” Subsidiarity provides assistance to help others, but carries no such dictatorial power. Giving money to the government to care for the poor or downtrodden provides the illusion of caring for our fellow man absolving us of responsibility — hey, we already gave — no matter that the government program was inefficient and ineffective. I’m surprised that the Bishops don’t understand subsidiarity and the perniciousness of the alternative.

    • Art Deco

      Sir, you either have to reconcile yourself to widespread Dickensian misery or you have to concede some ground to common provision by public authorities. Pick one.

      • Adam__Baum

        Poppycock. You want to see “widespread Dickensian misery’, wait until the world tires of our incessant Treasury auctions.

      • Charles_Martel

        I disagree. I would point to the failed public policies that have destroyed families and opportunities in the ghetto as Dickensian misery which was brought on by our public authorities. The large amount of charity that we provide in the US is more effective and more efficient than any government program. If our government wasn’t trying to kill charities so that it can assume their function for social engineering purposes (see the exit of Catholic adoption agencies who do not allow adoption by same-sex “couples” or restrictions on ministering in programs which receive even nominal public funds) we could put that money to better use preventing Dickensian suffering. We launder our tax money through a bureaucracy that takes anywhere from 50-90% out for their own overhead then complains that they are not funded well enough to “help the poor.” If we took care of our neighbors at the local level and got big government out of it, we could solve the problem. Seems like that’s what the Church should be advocating, but the Bishops are in love with government solutions which they mistakenly interpret as charity. It is no coincidence that the most generous givers to charity are in the states with the least taxes and government programs — compare NYC with Alabama sometime — Imagine what we in the Church could do if that tax money came to the social programs that actually helped people.

      • Charles_Martel

        No, relying on government programs reconciles us to Dickensian misery. Look at Detroit, LA, NY, Chicago,…..Relying on ourselves prevents that misery. I pick helping people, not assuaging our conscience by giving to government programs that have shown themselves incapable of producing positive results.

  • hombre111

    In the hands of conservatives, subsidiarity becomes a code word for doing nothing about human misery that has come to exist on a massive scale in our class based society, leaving it to the lowest level, which has neither the resources nor the will to make a difference in ruined and endangered lives that are accumulating into the millions upon millions.

    • Is that just, Father? See, for example,

      There is a difference in point of view. People with a strong sense of transcendent and personal connection–religious people, married people, etc.–tend to think of themselves as participants in the midst of things, and consequently become both conservative and generous. They’re accustomed to doing their part, and feel themselves obligated to do so.

      People who lack that sense tend to be at once more liberal and less generous personally. They tend to think of social order and obligation as something external, so the idea of a big system that looks after everything makes sense to them. That’s all that makes sense to them, so people who reject that idea seem to them simply indifferent to social obligation.

      • Henry

        When subsidiarity means unbridled capitalism, the comment is completely just. There was a sign at Walmart two weeks ago asking for shoppers make donations in order for the Walmart associates to enjoy Christmas.

        This is the wage slavery described by Chesterton and is no less evil than the state controlled Soviet economy.

        • Art Deco

          This is the wage slavery described by Chesterton and is no less evil than the state controlled Soviet economy.

          There is no such thing as wage slavery. And you would not know the Soviet economy from bingo.

          • Henry

            Art, I presume that you’re Catholic. I presume you’re pro life, you attend mass, go to confession, believe in traditional marriage, etc. But there’s more that, apparently you’re not aware of which is part of your Catholicism. So as not to be a cafeteria Catholic, I encourage you to read the papal encyclicals of the last 125 years about economics.

            • Art Deco

              I have read them. Catholic social teaching is a work in progress and there is little in those encyclicals which adjudicates extant disputes over political economy. Command economies would be ruled out and Social Darwinist or Objectivist systems would be ruled out, but not a great deal else. Also, much of what is said in those encyclicals would be difficult if not impossible to operationalize unless qualified or elaborated upon in some way. (Also, the status of social teaching is not terribly clear, so the appellation ‘cafeteria Catholic’ is most inappropriate).

              • Henry

                I’m responding to your restrictive understanding of “not a great deal else beside social Darwinism or Objectivism. Of course the Church stands against these evils, but likewise simple capitalism is condemned.

                To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the
                distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows,
                is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice. Pius XI, Quadragessemo Anno

                A remedy must be found for the misery….unjustly on the majority of the working class so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. Leo XIII Rerum Novarum.

                Our world also shows increasing evidence of another grave threat to
                peace: many individuals and indeed whole peoples are living today in
                conditions of extreme poverty. The gap between rich and poor has become more marked,
                even in the most economically developed nations. This is a problem
                which the conscience of humanity cannot ignore, since the conditions in
                which a great number of people are living are an insult to their innate
                dignity and as a result are a threat to the authentic and harmonious
                progress of the world community. (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Peace,
                There are many many more. If you’ve read them, please revisit them.

                • Art Deco

                  Why not come up with a definition of ‘simple capitalism’ and then tell me where it is ‘condemned’.


                  You are forgetting that Quadragessimo Anno was issued at a time when macroeconomic problems were exceptional;


                  The situation both popes describe correspond most precisely to an agrarian order dominated by latifundia. That is quite atypical even among middle-income countries, much less advanced societies.

                  And there are no ready boundary conditions articulated to guide the interested Catholic in these passages, nor any solutions suggested.

                  • Henry

                    I’ll turn to Chesterton’s definition: “That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists (like say Walmart or GM executives), roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.” This is pretty much the present condition of the US and the west.

                    The teaching is consistent throughout the past 125 years (developing post enlightenment and industrial revolution, that is) and does not coincide with any particular historical economic cycle. Quadragessimo Anno exemplifies writings from Leo to Francis.

                    Further, you’re only partly correct to suggest that a agrarian model is appropriate and has been posited in papal economic passages. While it certainly fits, the ‘driver’ of the socio-economic teaching is ownership of private property and thereby ownership of mean of production, thus releasing the ‘workers’ from the binds of the single (few, that is) capitalist and creating families themselves as capitalist entities not dependent on the state or corporations. This notion is centered on the dignity of the human person.

                    The Walmart worker has no potential for such dignity.

                    Please keep reading this type of material.

                    • Guest

                      Most of the population works for Walmart?

                    • Henry

                      Adam, Guest and Art. I’m guessing that your Catholic because you read this magazine. I’m also guessing that your allegiance is first to the Republican party and not the Church. I strongly encourage you to read Catholic social teaching relating to economics. You’ll find that each pope has consistently rejected both socialism and capitalism. You’ll discover that the primary focus of economic structure must be based on the dignity of the human person and the traditional family – and not bottom line profit taking.

                      Your faith will be far stronger when you are aligned fully with the Church. It’s okay to disagree with Fox News…really it is.

                    • Adam__Baum

                      “The Walmart worker has no potential for such dignity.”

                      Wow, what a crass and condescending statement. Trolls, you can always tell them by their peculiar obsessions (Walmart, Koch Bros, etc)

                    • Art Deco

                      “That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists (like
                      say Walmart or GM executives), roughly recognizable and relatively
                      small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to
                      necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those
                      capitalists for a wage.” This is pretty much the present condition of
                      the US and the west.

                      The majority of the workforce is employed in firms with fewer than 500 employees.

                      Good luck trying to run heavy industries with small business partnerships.

            • Adam__Baum

              This would be a much more convincingly sincere caution, if it were accompanied by a similar injunction to those who would give us socialism and eradicate private property.

        • Adam__Baum

          It might be “wage slavery”, but it’s not “unbridled capitalism”.

      • hombre111

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. But I respectfully suggest that you mis-state both the conservative and liberal position. Tocqueville noted the religiosity of Americans, but he also noted its individualism, which has gotten stronger over the generations. Both liberals and conservatives resist being held accountable to a larger reality. With liberals, it is a refusal to be accountable for sexual attitudes, abortion, and what they consider personal habits, like drugs. Conservatives refuse to be accountable for the economic side of life, or for the high-handed way America tries to control the world.
        Kennedy’s “ask what you can do for your country” drew a huge liberal response in the Peace Corps, with its sense of being part of a world-wide community. With conservatives, it is the military, with its sense of enforcing American interests. After 75 years of observation, I would say that religious conservatives feel like participants in a small reality, but have little sense of larger realities.
        Both sides are generous, but in different ways. I do not think liberals think of social order and obligation as something external, but in terms of a larger, orgainic whole. .

        • Adam__Baum

          Kennedy’s “ask what you can do for your country” drew a huge liberal response in the Peace Corps,

          Hey Padre, skip the hagiography. You write incessantly about excess wealth, and yet worship this monument to moral squalor.

        • I agree there are big problems with all the major parties and political movements today. They’re all based on fundamentally antisocial and inhuman assumptions. I think the liberals are more coherent about things, and more in line with the current thrust of history that you speak of, so they’re more consistently that way. That makes them more frightening (to me at least), but it also means conservatives can have a hard time saying sensible things about problems and overall tendencies.

          Liberals like to talk about overall tendencies. That’s one reason the generosity of liberals tends to take the form of support for overall structures to deal with problems. Hence the support for Kennedy’s initiatives, which seemed to point that way, and also the greater personal charitable involvement of conservatives who are more concerned with immediate connections and obligations (which was one of the findings of the book I referred you to).

          Married people and religious people are much more likely to be conservative. Hence my comment on transcendent and personal connectedness as associated with conservatism, even in individualistic America.

          When I read the compendium of social teaching it all sounded good to me, except an occasional tendency to speak in a way that sounds too trusting of the contemporary Western state, as if that state accepted anything like the Catholic vision of man and the human good.

          • hombre111

            Thanks. This discussion brought me back to “The Broken Covenant,” by Robert Bellah. The best I have ever seen on how we got where we are.

    • Art Deco

      which has neither the resources nor the will to make a difference in
      ruined and endangered lives that are accumulating into the millions upon

      1. The most salient cause of ruin is the common failure to respect norms of conduct essential to a certain sort of social architecture: the natural family. It is families that instruct their members, contain their bad behavior, and indemnify them against the vicissitudes of life. Centralization of economic decision-making does not do diddly/squat to arrest this. What the state can do is not structure legal norms, tax burdens, or common provision in such a way that the dissolution of families or their failure to form properly is promoted. None of that requires centralization.

      2. Another cause of ruin is street crime. Central co-ordination and control can be helpful in certain endeavours and some criminal activity is supra-local in its field of operation, but for the most part crime is an intensely local activity. It is a mistake to vest policing in municipal governments because metropolitan settlements are fragmented and there is considerable intra-metropolitan variation in the utility of police and in the tax base (and these factors are inversely related). County governments or multi-county authorities which encompass an entire metropolis will have the necessary tax base and be able to optimally deploy their available manpower). Because prisons draw their population from cities but are for security reasons and such placed in the countryside, prison administration is best placed with provincial governments. It is difficult to see how the involvement of the central government improves mundane law enforcement (and, indeed, the federal courts have tended to injure order maintenance).

      3. Another problem commonly addressed by common provision is schooling. Again, the skill set which is to be found in elementary schooling (unlike say, investment banking) is broadly distributed in the population at large and can be found in adequate concentrations just about anywhere. Secondary schooling is more rarefied, but crude descriptive statistics suggest there are ample supplies of it even in fairly low-order urban settlements. For decades, the state whose high school students have had the best raw scores on performance tests has been Iowa, a state where 60% of the population lives in small towns and rural areas and perhaps one in six live in cities which might be described as of middling size.

      4. Also addressed through common provision is long term care. There is not any provincial authority in this country which cannot with its own population set up an actuarial pool of adequate dimensions. Again, aides of various sorts, nurses of various sorts, and physicians in general practice are in ample supply in small cities if not non-metropolitan towns. A provincial authority which might have a deficit of providers (e.g. Wyoming) can form a pool with a neighboring state through inter-state compact. The federal government can offer a supplementary binder to cover a subject until they meet residency requirements for a state’s program.

      5. Also addressed is medical care. Again, provincial authorities encompass an adequate supply of households to form viable actuarial pools. Also, university hospitals and associated medical schools are nearly universal in metropolitan settlements exceeding 650,000 or so in population. Again, regional interstate compacts could suffice for those states which lack these service loci. The federal government can offer a supplementary binder to cover a
      subject until they meet residency requirements for a state’s program.

      6. The effects of state to state variation in the tax base (and county to county variation and municipality-to-municipality variation) can be ameliorated through a formulaic program of general revenue sharing – national government to states, states to counties, counties to municipalities. There is no need to constrain the discretion of local authorities. Just cut them a check and let them set their own priorities. If county boundaries are such that they leave metropolitan settlements fragmented or fail to encompass any service centers, there is nothing preventing one from salutary and selective consolidations. Ditto municipal boundaries.

      Unless you are tracking people over distances in time and space (as you are with Social Security benefits) or having a larger actuarial pool is a consideration (as it is with unemployment compensation), you do not benefit much from centralization and provincial and local programs are more likely to reflect the tapestry of dispositions people have toward common provision.

      • Adam__Baum

        national government to states, states to counties, counties to municipalities.

        No, no, no. This the exact opposite of subsidiarity.

        • Art Deco

          Moderate cross subsides of state and local governments (without conditionality) is not ‘the opposite of subsidiarity’. Stop being a crank.

          • Adam__Baum

            Redacted duplicate post.

          • Adam__Baum

            I had a similar opinion, before I worked in that apparatus and saw how it works. I think most readers who pay attention to such things and watched all the governors sell their states to Obamacare can guess who the crank is here.

            If you want to maintain a seventh-grades civics faith in how the feds treat the states, have at it.

      • hombre111

        Excellent. Thanks. Just one proviso: I believe in local control, but who controls the locals?

    • Adam__Baum

      In the hands of leftists, charity is a code word for theft that promises to end human misery, but worsens and deepens it.

      I give you Hombre111, who no doubt said “right on, man” when Lyndon Baines Johnson gave us the “War on Poverty”.

      Now like some Japanese infantryman living in some remote part of the South Pacific after August 1945, he’ll continue to refuse to believe the Empire was defeated and surrendered, but will dutifully tie the tattered rag with the risinng sun insignia into a headband and yell “Bonzai”.

      • hombre111

        Read my discussion with James Kalb, above, and see why you are not worth the time of day.

        • slainte

          He is made in the image and likeness of Our Lord and he is very much worth the time of day and more.

          Your words are cruel, cutting, and unbecoming a Catholic priest. Please recant.

          • Adam__Baum

            Thanks for the advocacy, Slainte.

            However, if you read Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals” you find out the hard left has two overwhelming characteristics.

            One, they don’t handle dispute well. They imagine their positions are indisputable, born of incorruptible and insuperable logic, and therefore any difference in judgment is evil, personal and emotional. That’s why it’s OK for him to sling his arrows, to vast amounts of people he’s never met and certainly doesn’t understand.

            The second is how they see things like compassion and charity. As long as it’s directed to people in impersonal and abstract groups, they are fine. When dealing with flesh and blood, they suddenly change.

            I suspect he knows that the welfare state has been a disaster for the family, and that’s why he reacted as he did-summary dismissal is what you do when you can’t reasonable argue to the contrary.

            • slainte

              You both seek the same worthy end…the affirmation of the dignity of all human persons and alleviation of poverty and other adverse conditions which crushes the human spirit. You differ on the means to resolve the issue.
              Like you, I am wary of Statism which has historically resulted in tyranny and oppression of those it has falsely claimed to help. It enslaves men and women at the whim of its self appointed elites; it strips persons of individual initiative and dignity while redacting freedom in the name of greater “security”. It then juxtaposes the state in place of Our Lord while waging war against what its elite leadership perceives to be an enemy, the Roman Catholic Church.
              I believe Hombre wants the best for all God’ s people, especially those to whom he pastors and has dedicated most of his life and his holy ministry.
              I would respectfully suggest that the dignity of the human person is best served through a limited government as anticipated by the American founders; a dynamic Catholic Church whose clergy and lay parishioners are radically and locally engaged in corporal and spiritual works of mercy helping and serving their neighbors, and a Catholic community joined together in prayer at mass and in rosary and eucharistic processions which publicly attest to the importance of the faith and reverence of Our Lord.
              Merry Christmas to you and your family Adam_Baum. May 2014 bring you happiness, blessings and prosperity; Happy New Year.

              • Adam__Baum

                I agree with you in general except for one caveat. I expect mature adults to form their political opinions based upon sober reflection, not blind faith in government or the soaring rhetoric of politicians. When people like hombre post the pernicious bromides he’s fond of doing, it’s very clear that he’s among a great many erecting a golden calf and compelling us to worship it. He is constant ascribing the persona of Ebeneezer Scrooge to anybody who says “now wait a minute… I find him injudicious, at best.

                There’s an old saw among railroaders that “rulebooks are written in blood”. The same applies to statecraft.

                I became suspicious of political power when i was little kid and noticed the actions of Ramses, Herod and Pilate. It wasn’t political or economic writers that taught me temporal rulers aren’t to be trusted, but the Scriptures. I kept noticing the craven affection for power, the willingness to do anything to acquire and retain it. Even Biblical heroes (David) couldn’t be trusted to wield power justly.

                I don’t have to remind you of how distorted England became after Henry Tudor (sporting the Title “Fidei Defensor”) couldn’t prevail upon the Pope to grant a divorce. I wonder if it’s an accident that Anglicanism was the first Christian Church to accept contraception. We still haven’t seen the end of the effects of his break with Rome. I wonder if in 100 years, the

                Just as you don’t jump in the “right seat” (engineer’s seat) and reach for the throttle, you shouldn’t be reaching for the levers of government when you haven’t even given a thought how you are going to stop that train, let alone have acquired the skill and experience to do it.

                Likewise. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Slainte.

  • Henry

    Great article – I’m sharing it. But I’m disappointed with your citing Burke, Hayek, and Michael Oakeshott as “subsidiarists”. From the progressive sense, each of these fits the bill. However, none of these would, seemingly object to centralized corporate control.

    Leo XIII, Belloc and Chesterton are a far better fit for across the board consistency on this issue.

    For “conservative” Catholics (I guess I’m one), this is a challenge to recognize. And the recent Limbaugh/Fox News attacks against Pope Francis have brought this to a harsh light. Catholic social teaching is not aligned with the Republican free-market model (or Hayek’s). Likewise it’s equally opposed to Keynes and Galbraith. Catholic teaching is not centered between these models, it rises above them.

    • Art Deco

      Henry, John Maynard Keyes is known mostly as a promoter of certain models in macroeconomics. His theories are attractive to adherents to social democratic notions, but do not justify such measures nor does policy inspired by Keynesian theories require them bar ones which stabilize aggregate demand (e.g. unemployment compensation). Arnold Kling calls himself a “Keynesian libertarian”. There is no contradiction there; it is just an unusual juxtaposition.

      The most impassioned criticism of Pope Francis has originated with Latin traditionalists and people outside that matrix but sympathetic with their concerns. (And they have good reason to be alarmed).

    • I mention B, H, and O as theorists of tradition and distributed local knowledge, which is what the discussion required at that point. I don’t see any basis for what you say about B and O on corporate control. As to H I’ll let those who know more than I do about other aspects of his thought deal with the issue.

  • Art Deco

    but also in its rightist or conservative form, which emphasizes energy
    and efficiency, and prefers global markets and the exercise of national
    power. So it is ill at ease with both the politically-correct welfare
    state and such aspects of present-day capitalism as outsourcing, big box
    stores, the penetration of commercial relations into all aspects of
    life, and the bottom line as the final standard for business decisions.

    1. Businesses are businesses. The bottom line will be their standard. They do need to be making decisions in a regulatory matrix which reflects common understandings of ethical conduct and which contains costs imposed on third parties.

    2. I am not sure what your problem is with ‘outsourcing’. Any time a business purchases supply from a vendor or hires a law firm or an ad agency, they are ‘outsourcing’.

    3. Big box stores are aesthetically unappealing, but that is a failure of urban planning. Some of the advantages such retailers have can be ameliorated through public policy – e.g. programs to promote portable pensions and medical benefits, enactment of blue laws, annual assessments against incorporated enterprises (by state and federal authorities), and annual assessment against multi-state and multi-national enterprises (by the federal government) – but ultimately there are costs to be paid in the form of promoting rent-seeking behavior with every contrived advantage you give small enterprises.

    • 1. Business is a normal everyday human activity, and like any other it should reflect normal human standards and motivations. Not every business literally does everything they can get away with to extract as much and provide as little as they can in their dealings with employees, customers, and suppliers. So the bottom line is not an inevitable final standard.

      2. Aggressive fragmentation of the productive process and shipping the pieces to whatever place in the world is momentarily cheapest can be humanly disruptive. That can be and often is a problem.

      3. I agree there are costs as well as benefits

      • Art Deco

        Not every business literally does everything they can get away with to
        extract as much and provide as little as they can in their dealings with
        employees, customers, and suppliers. So the bottom line is not an
        inevitable final standard.

        Not ‘literally’, no. With the information set and decision making capacity they have, businesses tend to be satisficers rather than optimizers. Also, their dealings with various parties are iterative. They tend to be resistant to leaving a bad taste with customers and employees and suppliers because they have to deal with them again and decisions of that nature often cannot be readily reducible to quantified alternatives.

        • Your first point seems to be that approximations are necessary, so it’s difficult fully to achieve the goal of extracting as much and giving as little as possible. I agree, but the concession doesn’t seem to change much.

          Your second is that achieving that goal requires giving other people the impression that you care about things other than the bottom line, like integrity and fair dealing, and the latter sometimes take precedence for you. True enough. So do you think businessmen should give up on the bottom line as a final standard, because other things sometimes come first, or should they refine the arts of hypocrisy and dissimulation and pretend to put them first depending on their (admittedly inexact) estimate of relative discounted future cash flows?

          • Art Deco

            I am saying a few of things.

            1. The ‘bottom line’ is often a rough calculation of your interests based on the necessity of maintaining relationships of trust; and

            2. You can compel people to respect certain norms with the penal law, the common law of torts, contract law, the uniform commercial code, &c. Some of these will attempt to correct information imperfections and some to set standards of conduct which are imperative.


            3. If you expect people as a matter of course to run their businesses as if they were philanthropies (bar with regard to ancillary matters e.g. Mr. Fezziwig’s 3-4 pound sterling Christmas party), you are bound to be disappointed. And, of course, there would be some social costs in so doing.

            • 1. Do people involved in business have a personal interest, quite apart from likely financial effect, in being honorable and well-intentioned? If so, should business decisions take into account that interest of the participants?

              2. You seem to speak of norms as simply a matter of external compulsion. That doesn’t seem the way to get a system that works well.

              3. You seem to treat philanthropy and pure profit-seeking (taking into account the need to make approximations and appear to care about things other than profit) as alternatives, such that organized activity must pursue either one or the other. It seems to me that goals are more complicated. The function of conceptions like public spirit and honorable conduct, for example, is to enable people to pursue their practical interests with due regard for their other interests as human beings as well as those of other people.

      • Art Deco

        2. Aggressive fragmentation of the productive process and shipping the
        pieces to whatever place in the world is momentarily cheapest can be
        humanly disruptive. That can be and often is a problem.

        Again, I do not think decisions which require investment in plant and equipment are made with reference to ‘momentary’ considerations. (Also, this particular concern would apply only in manufacturing; 88% of the value added in the economy is elsewhere).

        • Decisions are complex, and they take into account capital investments, discounted income streams, etc. but your point seems to be that the essence of business is to look at the bottom line at the moment the decision is made and decide accordingly. The point of zero-based budgeting etc. is to do that sort of thing continually.

          I don’t see why the issue applies only to manufacturing. Services also involve a productive process that often involves outsourcing.

          • Art

            Indeed, much of the hand drawn animation work today and tech support work comes from countries other than the US even when the company is here.

          • Adam__Baum

            “The point of zero-based budgeting”

            “Zero-based budgeting was a term of art in government, where it was thought it could end the escalatory effect of budgeting based on last year plus. It is not a term that has ever had any significant meaning or usage in the private sector. You must mean something else.

              • Adam__Baum

                There’s nothing in that definition that disagrees with what I wrote.

                • There’s nothing that restricts it to the public sector. If you want the word “business” in the definition here’s an example:


                  • Adam__Baum

                    An attorney should know that a term of art has construction and context.

                    I’ve worked in public and private sector finance for over twenty years and I’ve never heard ZBB used in the private sector, mostly because in the private sector you aren’t dealing with a need for legislative authorization and appropriation. In the private sector, you are more concerned with “actual vs. plan”.

                    ZBB remains mostly an ideal without any substantial practice.

  • hombre111

    Mister Kalb,
    I just started to reread “‘The Broken Covenant,” 2nd. edition, by Robert Bellah. I would say that he takes a basically conservative position, but sidesteps the liberal/conservative dichotomy. This is one of the best commentaries on the historical roots of our present state of affairs that I have ever read.

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  • Joe Catholic

    Mr. Kalb,

    Thank you for this article. I am part of what I increasingly see as the new awakening of Catholics interested in practicing faithfully and maximizing our God-given potentials. This awakening has come from failures of both political and Church leaders as we had given them the benefit of the doubt–remaining disengaged only to wake to suddenly by the world around us that no longer seemed right. Articles such as yours will continue to challenge us to better know our faith, challenge those in authority to lead properly, and call us to live and lead like Christ.

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  • DG

    One salient problem with statism is that it gives the statists power to decide who and what will ‘benefit’ from government ‘compassion’. In that sense it is like the taxes that support it: it favors one putatively desirable outcome over another putatively desirable outcome.
    Often left in the lurch are considerations having priority importance to Christians, but not to the statists. Most significantly, the family is not only neglected by statists, but specifically targeted in harmful ways.
    What moral justification is there for confiscating via taxation income from a family that has legitimate needs for the money it earned, and giving that money as an entitlement to others?

    • Adam__Baum

      “Most significantly, the family is not only neglected by statists”

      Minor quibble:

      The easiest way for statists to advance is to contrive desire. They don’t neglect the family, they seek to destroy it, the Church and any other institution that acts as a mediator between the individual and the rest of the world.

      Alone and naked, the individual cries “save me” and doesn’t care how.

      • DG

        Yes, I agree the statists seek to destroy the family. But many
        welfare-supporting religious leaders don’t seem to get this. How does
        one prove the obvious to them? Or do they know but not much care? Surely they must by now realize that they have no hope to control the beast?
        And what’s the solution to being naked and alone? The state ever fails but ever seduces. Where is Catholic solidarity?

        • Adam__Baum

          Look at the impassioned exhortation to statism under the thread about Is the Church conservative.