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The Principles Of Solidarity And Subsidiarity

John William Waterhouse. The crystal ball.
I'd love to have a crystal ball to find the golden mean
between subsidiarity and solidarity!
(John William Waterhouse. The crystal ball. Source)

1) Introduction

What is the Principle of Solidarity, and what is the Principle of Subsidiarity? Here is my best attempt at explaining what I've understood. (Among others see Paragraph 1883 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

A first approximation might be: "Two complementary principles that must be respected to have a good government". I guess you could also call them the "Principle of Appropriate Centralization" ("solidarity"), and the "Principle of Appropriate Decentralization" ("subsidiarity").

2) Two directions in which authority can be distributed

For the sake of the argument, let's say a "society" is something with some form of intelligence and free will. This includes ordinary citizens, but also any organized group of persons, like families, unions, corporations, municipalities, provinces, countries, etc., right up to all of mankind.

If those societies had no relationships with each other, we wouldn't need the Principles of Solidarity or Subsidiarity. But they do, since in a way mankind is a complex hierarchy of societies as we've defined them.

Since societies can either fix a problem themselves, or have that problem fixed by another society, we have two "directions" in which authority can be distributed. If authority is correctly "pushed down" to "lower" societies, it's the Principle of Subsidiarity, and if authority is correctly "lifted up" to a "higher" society, it's the Principle of Solidarity.

3) Some examples of these Principles


- parents let a child choose which clothes he will wear;
- a municipality lets homeowners decide whether they will heat their house with electricity or gas;
- a province lets its school boards choose which teachers will teach in which schools;
- a country lets a province decide what the speed limits are on its roads;
- etc...


- a father decides where his family with young kids will go on holidays (even though not all the kids like the destination);
- a municipality decides a name for a new street (even though some homeowners don't like that name);
- a professional body decides what fees every member lawyer must pay to practice law;
- a country decides how much money will be spent on health care (even though some citizens think that more money should be spent on wind turbines);
- etc...

4) When should we apply the Principle of Solidarity?

I guess we start with: "Whatever helps us reach the Common Good, because it's in the nature of that specific society to have such a responsibility".

Here are some situations where the Principle of Solidarity would tend to be required:

4.1) When a group of "inferior societies" must act in a coordinated way. For example, 10 families need a school, but none of them is rich enough to build one, and they all want the school to be in their back yard. Some "superior society" has to collect money from all those families, buy some land, build a school and administer it. It could be an association founded by those 10 families, but it must be something "above" them, and something "one", that is not as divided as those families.

4.2) When a group of "inferior societies" are trying to kill each other. If you read history, there are periods when Italy or Germany were a patchwork of small kingdoms constantly at war with each other. In much the same way, your city (hopefully) has one single police force, in charge of maintaining law and order. Why one single police force? Well, try doing without! When every citizen has to be his own police force, chaos normally follows.

4.3) When one rogue "inferior society" can ruin the efforts of all the others. Suppose there are 10 oil refineries in a country, and 9 of them decide to make investments to reduce pollution. This means their prices will rise. If one refinery decides to just pollute the atmosphere and keep its prices low, it will be able to put the 9 other refineries out of business, while simultaneously destroying everybody's health. If some "superior society" has the authority to punish refineries that don't comply, they will all have to decrease pollution and increase their prices, so none of them will lose any business (and we will all breath cleaner air!).

The same argument holds for conflicts between States. Suppose, for example, two sovereign countries are crossed by the same river. If the "upstream country" dumped chemicals into that river, just before the border with the "downstream country", and said: "What we do in our country is none of your business", that upstream country would be acting badly. The downstream country would be justified in complaining to a higher human authority, and that higher human authority should have the means necessary to force the upstream country to stop polluting the river (even though the pollution was occuring inside the sovereign borders of the upstream country).


5) When should we apply the Principle of Subsidiarity?

Now, here are some situations where the Principle of Subsidiarity would tend to be required:

5.1) When the "inferior society" is in a better position to make good decisions. Normally, some government located in Greenland will not easily appreciate the problems facing its citizens living in the Sahara Desert. In the same way, some big farmer's Union probably doesn't know which field is best to grow corn, and which is best to graze cows, on old McDonald's farm.

5.2) When the "inferior society" would be "infantilized" or oppressed if the "superior society" decided for them. For examples of oppression, any tyranny will do. For infantilization, any Welfare State will do.

5.3) When a very complex situation requires initiative and flexibility. I'm not an economist, but an example of a lack of subsidiarity could be the excessively centralized economic planning of the Soviet Union.

5.4) When a certain amount of redundancy gives a more robust system. The nightmare of any engineer is a "single point of failure". That's why aeronautical engineers will plan for two and even three independant hydraulic systems to move the ailerons, the rudder and the elevator on a big jumbo jet. In a human society, it's a bit the same thing. It's often preferable to avoid giving all powers to a single "superior society". That explains the division between legislative, executive and judicial powers, for example.

5.5) To avoid overloading the superior authority. For the principle of solidarity to work, the superior authority must not be bogged down! Letting inferior authorities handle the easy cases (subsidiarity) leaves the time and the energy to the superior authority so it can handle the more difficult and important cases (solidarity). See also [Ex 18:13-22].


6) Conclusion

Good government requires a correct balance between subsidiarity and solidarity. I'd love to have a crystal ball to know where that golden mean is!

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