(Sorry for the two week intermission on this topic. In case you forgot where we were, here is the index. I intend to devote most of my efforts (with some interruptions) to wrapping this series up fairly soon.)
I ended the last post by asking the following questions:
But where do the morals and values come from that are so critical to both government and economy doing the maximum good? Where is the human will shaped?
To answer to this question effectively we need to introduce the idea of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity views society as a set of interwoven institutions. These institutions can be viewed as existing in a set of concentric circles. At the center is the most elemental of institutions, the family. At the outside of the concentric circles is the national government. (We could likely put international institutions as ring even beyond this.) Emanating outward from the family are a variety of intermediate institutions with each succeeding ring being more distant in personal involvement and knowledge of individuals and families. Close in to the family might be congregations, schools, or voluntary associations. More removed might be local government and Universities. Still more removed might be corporations and state governments.
Subsidiarity holds that each institution from family, to intermediate institutions, to national government, have important roles to play but each institution should only undertake initiatives which are beyond the capacity of private individuals and families, or lower order institutions in addressing their concerns. The concept is explicitly present in a number of institutions, not the least of which is US Constitution:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The Presbyterian Church USA has as part of its Constitution:
The jurisdiction of each governing body is limited by the express provisions of the Constitution, with powers not mentioned being reserved to the presbyteries, and with the acts of each subject to review by the next higher governing body. (Book of Order, G-9.0103)
One of the most influential articulations of subsidarity came from Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. The Pope was wrestling with totalitarian impulses of laissez-faire capitalism and rising socialism. The one led to the total domination of life by the economic institutions and the other to the domination of life by the government. It was argued the family and the individual, along with their voluntary intermediate institutions, have primacy. The more macro institutions exist in support of them. Individuals and families do not exist at the pleasure of, or in service to, the state or the economy. Higher level institutions are expected to maintain safe boundaries for lower order institutions and they are to interfere with more elemental institutions only when the lower level institutions become broken, always with the objective of restoring them to health.
Implicit in the idea of subsidiarity is the idea that the family, supported by its voluntary associations, is the primary place for moral instruction and shaping of the individual’s will. Why? Because the family is the institution most intimately in relationship with the individual. It is made up of the people who know a child the best and are most likely to have the child’s best interests at heart. They are the ones who are most likely to be able to bend the child’s will toward virtuous behavior through loving relationships.
“But families are imperfect and many are not healthy” the critic complains. This is true. In some cases, intervention by higher order institutions is necessary to safeguard individuals from unhealthy families. However, let us remember that with each succeeding ring we move away from the individual and family in our circles of institutions, we move to institutions who will view the individual less and less intimately and be more prone to view individuals as abstract realities. These institutions often have interests that are contrary to any given individual’s best interest. Sin is every bit as much present in other institutions as it is in individuals and families. Yet, as the maxim says “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is a profound tendency for institutions with power to try to extend that power into arenas that are nor their responsibility. Witness the common thread from Stalin, to Hitler, to Mao, to Pol Pot, to any number of utopian government schemes that have as a common theme the elimination of family structures so that the state can have unfettered access to the formation of individuals.
Subsidiarity demands respect of boundaries for various institutions but it also recognizes the human inclination to corruption. As Christians, we also recognize that the family is the only institution established by God prior to the fall. The idea of exercising dominion over the earth would seem to anticipate the creation of human structures to achieve these ends but these all emanate from the enviable institution of the family. The family is the default locus of moral instruction and internalization of virtue. When families generate people with internalized virtue, the virtue is then amplified through the exceptional mechanisms of democracy and free markets. When families generate people without virtue, their values are amplified just as well.