Subsidiarity: Two Interpretations

The Narrower Sense of Subsidiarity

The sources of the idea of subsidiarity are diverse. On the one hand, we have the philosophical tradition of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Althusius, Alexis de Tocqueville, etc. and, on the other hand, the medieval political practice, especially in German lands, where a relatively high degree of political independence and autonomy of lower-level political units within a larger
hierarchical, but loose, scheme of an empire was admitted¹. Later on, the idea and the principle of subsidiarity was revived in the social teaching of the Catholic Church, and in constitutional norms and practices of many countries, such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal or Poland. Since the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), the principle of subsidiarity has become one of the
fundamental principles of the European Union.

Some interpretations might suggest that the idea of subsidiarity is nothing more than the political principle that allows, and enjoins, higher-level agencies of a hierarchical political structure to assist lower-level agencies only when the need arises and in an adequate form and dimension; the second requirement is called the principle of proportionality. The need arises when the lower-level agency is not able to deal with its tasks and obligations, and it ceases, when, owing to the support of the higher-level agency, the lower-level agency regains its ability to cope with its problems. The principle of subsidiarity would be then a sort of efficiency principle and a barrier preventing the higher-level agencies from out-of-proportion interventions and combating their centralizing tendencies. That kind of interpretation is popular among politicians, officials, and social activists.

The Wider Sense of Subsidiarity

The wider conception of subsidiarity follows from the stance that if we reduce the principle of subsidiarity to a mere tool of distribution of competences, rights, and obligations of different levels of institutional governance, then we necessarily disregard some of the riches that inhere in the idea of subsidiarity.

Such authors as Arthur-Fridolin Utz, Wilhelm Bertrams, Roman Herzog, Oswald von Nell-Breuning, Günther Kuchenhoff or Chantal Millon-Delsol claim that, subsidiarity presupposes and, for its realization, requires the right understanding of some key notions. These notions are: the notion of the person and of the personal dignity, the notion of the structured society, and the notion of the common good².

The wider conception of subsidiarity assumes then that human being regarded as a person is, on the one hand, a subject that is free, sovereign, capable of acting and of bearing responsibility for his actions which gives him the possibility of developing his potentialities and of achieving happiness as he understands it. A human being is then, to a large extent, an independent agent deriving from his “agency” the sense of fulfillment and of dignity. On the other hand, human being is naturally social: he needs co-existence and cooperation with his fellow beings not only instrumentally as the active contacts with the others are necessary prerequisites of his becoming what he wants, and is able, to become. Therefore, the postulate of an environment in which different persons realize themselves and strive for differently defined happiness, that is an environment in which different social structures offer various possibilities of social activation of
the individuals follows from the very notion of the person. In other words, and briefly, the notion of the person entails the postulate of a richly structured society.

Hence the representatives of the wider interpretation of subsidiarity discover in the very notion of the person reasons for rejecting such organization of social and political life in which a lonely individual in need of some support has to confront a huge machinery of the state. Even if such an organization of social and political life would efficiently bring about complete satisfaction of the elementary needs and of the “higher” ones and would produce all the felicific experiences human beings usually desire, it would be contrary to social nature of man.

An important thesis concerning the notion of the common good follows. The common good is not only the sum of all the goods people need and of all felicific satisfactions. What counts is not only goals. Important are also: intensity, number, and quality of relations that persons establish among themselves when striving for these goals. The common good includes not only goals but also the way goals are achieved.

If the three notions – the notion of the person, the notion of the structured society and the notion of the common good are understood that way then it is clear that according to the wider interpretation of subsidiarity the principal reference is to the individual human being and his natural tendency to live and cooperate with the others that help him become an independent,
mature, and a responsible person capable of contributing to the common good.
The principle of subsidiarity is then not solely a tool for determining when, to what extent, and on what conditions the higher-level agency of some hierarchical political structure is summoned, and allowed, to assist a lower-level agency that is not able to perform its tasks. The scope of the subsidiarity principle’s applicability is much larger. The principle of subsidiarity applies, for example, to the relation between a teacher and his student, between a parent and his child, between different levels of an enterprise or local self-government. In each of these cases, assistance should be adequate and moderated by the sense of what in a concrete situation is expected and required given the needs of the addressee of the assisting actions. The assisting agent should always bear in mind the actual aim of any assisting action which is to enhance the development of mature persons able to derive from their lives satisfaction and sense of dignity.

1 On the history of the idea of subsidiarity, see: Chantal Millon-Delsol, Le principe de subsidiarité, PUF, Paris 1993.
2 Cf. Chantal Millon-Delsol, op.cit,, pp. 54-73 and L’Etat subsidiaire, PUF, Paris 1992, passim.

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