Human society is composed of individuals. They form numerous associations for survival, companionship and every other human need. Whether the group is a family, a church or any other co-operative effort, every institution derives its purpose and original authority from its individual members. Society has an order that must be respected; an order than does not begin with the state.

Pope Leo XIII taught that “Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” Rerum Novarum ¶ 7.

Regarding the next societal level—the family—Leo wrote, “[T]he domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of community, and founded more immediately in nature.” RN ¶ 13. This natural ordering of society is known as the principle of subsidiarity.

Since subsidiarity favors life ordered at the lowest level possible, it prefers solutions at the individual and family levels first. Then comes the church and other voluntary associations, including private enterprise. If those levels can satisfactorily serve the common good, then there can be no moral justification to form coercive states.

Those who favor an authoritarian state will misuse the concept of subsidiarity by always pushing to broaden the scope of human activity that needs the guiding and violent hand of the state. This turns the principle of subsidiarity on its head, as if the central state preceded the town, the family and the individual.

There is no subsidiarity when some self-appointed sheriff rides into town to enforce rules and collect taxes. Any collective action for security or mutual cooperation must come from the bottom up. Individuals and the family can always unite voluntarily in larger organizations to accomplish those ends. No state aggression is essential in this hierarchy. Indeed, the coercive state is too dangerous to be given its head.

State violence is especially destructive because it usurps the responsibilities of the family, the church and other social institutions. In 1931, Pius XI lamented the “near extinction” of these intermediate institutions that left the individual standing alone before his master, the state; a state which is unfit and incompetent to take on the task.

Pius XI wrote that in the place of:

” . . . that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno,¶ 78-79.

John Paul II in his social encyclical, Centesimus Annus affirmed the principle of subsidiarity in the context of the welfare state:

“[E]xcesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991) ¶ 48.

Thus the Catholic principle of subsidiarity—in its ordering of society from the lowest levels possible—is very congenial to libertarian thought. There is no place here for busybodies who imagine they have the right to rule everyone else by force, when—in reality—their only skill is getting and holding office.

It’s time to consider a social order where voluntary solutions are preferable to coercive ones; a community where our neighbor is seen as another Christ and not simply as a tool for achieving the goals of others.


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