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Left and Right (Again!)

On individualism and subsidiarity.

by James Leroy Wilson
September 2, 2004

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A full-age ad in the September issue of Liberty magazine promoted three libertarian Catholic books*. It begins, “Libertarians and Roman Catholics share one basic teaching, the Doctrine of Subsidiarity. It teaches that all problems should be solved at the lowest possible level.”

This defies the stereotype, which holds that the Pope holds all the power in the Church. But as I heard one person on the radio say, “I was once asked if I believe in organized religion. I said of course not; I’m a Roman Catholic!”

I think the confusion is that on matters of faith, doctrine and conduct, the “lowest possible level” is actually the universal level - hence Papal decrees, encyclicals that instruct all people in the worldwide church. But certainly the application of the universal doctrines to unique circumstances may be very different. For example, some communities may have long been ethnically homogeneous, while others have had histories of racial tension. The way a parish or diocese may operate is to best minister to the people where they’re at, and not presume a one-size fits all solution. Just as the ministry of the apostles of the New Testament may have varied between predominantly Jewish Christian churches and predominantly Gentile ones.

Presbyterians similarly have complex hierarchies, though of a very different form. In fact, few denominational hierarchies I’m aware of exercise very much control or oversight over local congregations and individual members. But essentially, all of them, not just the Roman Catholics, often pass resolutions or authoritative statements on matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct. Some problems can only be solved at this, the broadest of levels. These go to the very heart and purpose of the denomination. If you call yourself an adherent to Church A, you must affirm Body of Doctrines b. If you don’t believe in b, you’re not really a member of A, even if you say you are, show up for Church every Sunday, and receive communion. At this fundamental level of the very identity of a Church, the “lowest possible level” is the highest. Nobody alive invented Roman Catholic dogma, or Lutheran theology, or the Reformed Faith, and nobody is free to redefine such traditions, or any other traditions, and use the same name. For example, if the Southern Baptist Convention ever resolved to permit infant baptism, how could they be Baptist anymore? If a Presbyterian denomination decided to use the congregational form of church government, how could they be Presbyterian?

We can’t just make things up as we go along. I can’t say, “I’m a Darwinist who believes in the literal six-day creation account of Genesis.” At some point, you are lying to yourself and deceiving others if the identity you proclaim is vastly different from your beliefs and actions. That’s why on matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct, the doctrine of subsidiarity calls for the resolution of problems at the highest level of the Church hierarchy.

The same could be said for law. In a democratic republic, the general laws are passed by elected representatives in state legislatures, but the enforcement and administration is the responsibility of county officials - who are themselves elected. Maybe not every can become President, but anyone can become sheriff. The sheriff doesn’t write the laws, which are general throughout the state, but it is his responsibility to enforce them in his county.

How does he do this? It depends on the problems facing the county. If corruption is rampant, perhaps that will invite a “new sheriff in town” to clean things up. If the state has laws against, say, gambling and prostitution, that are not being enforced to the dismay of a conservative community, maybe the sheriff will crack down on those.

My personal favorite is Bill Masters, a Libertarian sheriff in Colorado. The state has so many thousands of laws on the books, but his budget is limited, so Masters decides that his priority would be investigating violent crime.

This is what subsidiarity is really about: addressing local problems locally. More than anything else, it is what links libertarians philosophically with the “paleo” conservatives.

Philosophically, there can be just two ethical political options. The first is individualism and subsidiarity. The second is socialism and a World Government. The substance of political theory and science is the study of the in-between, the nation-states and other political units as they already are. But when making an ethical case for or against a particular policy, our own country or other political unit is not really the question. The substance of the argument is going to go one way, or the other. Toward individualism and subsidiarity, or toward socialism and world government. Maybe in tiny degrees, but it is still there. If we say that the USA has some sort of obligation to feed the world’s poor and to overthrow foreign tyrants, then the argument leans to socialism and world government. Because it is not the principle that the USA must do it, but that somebody must do it.

Likewise, to advocate that the United States withdraw from the United Nations is not really an argument that only the United States should withdraw, but rather that there should be no United Nations. This is an argument for individualism and subsidiarity.

[As an aside: Yes, there are the nationalists. Cultural nationalists and economic nationalists. Political theory can analyze nationalism and “State interest” but ultimately, the nationalist is not making an argument for what is right or wrong, good or bad, but only what is in the best interests for “America” and its people. Their arguments are not ethical arguments because, by elevating the interests of the American people at the possible expense of other people, they are analyzing politics through the lens of power and national competition, whereas ethical arguments imply some universality in its principles, that right and wrong is not compromised by State interest. Nationalism may carry a strong sense of loyalty and sentimental attachment, but to cheer for the American athlete at the Olympics, to mourn the American death in a war, or to be outraged at the American losing his job, is what it is: nationalism. It’s a separate discussion from ethical discourse.]

Another example would be the Supreme Court striking down sodomy laws. Whereas the libertarian position is that there shouldn’t be such laws, the broader picture sees the Supreme Court overthrowing the principle of subsidiarity. The people can not be trusted to make good laws; only a centralized, top-down solution for all of the United States is the answer. That many states had repealed their own sodomy laws, or never enforced them, seems lost on the Supreme Court. Like abortion before it, the Supreme Court nationalized an issue in the name of “liberty” that, by destroying the principle of subsidiarity, actually destroyed one of the safeguards of liberty. It is this same principle, a central “cure” of all evil, that led to federal judges forcing children to be bused to far-away schools, and to impose taxes on local communities to pay for the judge’s own integration plans. To defend the federal judiciary’s destruction of subsidiarity, is to advance the cause of socialism and world government because it is the same ethical principle: Human problems and human evil are universal and mandate universal cures. The solution lies is proper principles, planning, and coordination - and certainly not in individual freedom and local oversight.

This is the difference between the “ground up” politics, and “top down” politics. Between the Right, and the Left. While most politically-interested Americans are nationalists, the substance of this can mean different things. They can be nationalists in that they want the same laws and programs for everyone in the country, regardless of any principle of federalism. They would move the country leftward, favoring the ethical principle of socialism. Or, they could be nationalists in that they believe in national sovereignty as opposed to world government, and that the USA should not fight another country’s battles. In that case, these nationalists would tend toward subsidiarity, at least on that issue.

This idea of “individualism and subsidiarity” on the right, and “socialism and world government” on the left, isn’t designed to explain every difference between left and right, or between liberals and conservatives. But on the primary issue of politics - how do we go about addressing common human problems - this goes a long way toward explaining the fundamentally different values and ways of thinking. World government is the logical conclusion of socialism, just as individualism is the logical conclusion to believers in subsidiarity.

Fortunately, more and more major media figures are now beginning to tell the difference between the neo-conservatives who dominate the Bush Administration, and the “paleo-conservatives” and libertarians who have traditionally been identified with the Republican Party. The neo-cons are Leftists, through and through. If you believe in the power of war and central planning to make the world a better place, than you are a leftist. George W. Bush is a leftist.

The only right-wingers anymore are many libertarians, plus a bunch of secessionists, Constitutionalists, and isolationists. They have a more nuanced view of political authority than that of the two major parties, both of whom believe that the President is the world’s Messiah who can bring peace and prosperity to everyone. The practical and moral necessity to advance the cause of individualism and subsidiarity has never been greater than today.

*Out of fairness to Williams E. Adams, whose ad doesn’t provide a website, I will mention the books: New Road to Rome, Crats!, and All the World is a Stage. Old Drum Publishing, Box 401, Portersville, PA 16051. Phone: 800-653-3786. Fax: 724-368-9357.

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