Why subsidiarity doesn’t happen

Jim Kalb asks why subsidiarity isn’t practiced more at Crisis Magazine (It’s a reprint from somewhere else less popular, heh).

His conclusions are simple, but as is common in the dissident right, too abstract.  His conclusion is that subsidiarity isn’t practiced because liberals value fake equality (in the form of levelling bureaucracies) and conservatives value fake efficiency (in the form of cronyism labelled “free-market policies”).

This is yet another example of recasting first principles and thinking that is going to be meaningful.  The real reason we don’t have subsidiarity is because people are lazy and selfish.  Conservatives won’t support the local seamstress because it means owning fewer clothes and how can they prove their frugality is AWESOME without giant piles of clothes?  Liberals won’t support small local businesses that make real profits because that exposes their personal failures to make it big and they’d rather hide behind the illusory righteousness of a government sinecure working for “the people”.

Kalb’s essay is of a piece with all his writing on this topic, a refusal to get down and dirty and be clear about the myriad tiny selfish patterns we’ve all fallen into out of ridiculous, nearly unfathomable prosperity and how very hard it is to be broken of them, for Our Lord.

I will reveal my total nerd nature here and note that Cordwainer Smith, a sci-fi writer and CIA expert, understood this problem well though he was writing in the pre-60s for the most part.  He had a race of superwealthy people called the Norstrilians, who sold the elixir of long life.  Their way of coping with wealth was to tax themselves senseless and live an agrarian life, complete with employees and bosses.  They recognized the risks of prosperity and had their own clear strategy for dealing with it.  Those who wanted to enjoy the money could leave, but they could never return on pain of death.

Now we don’t all live on a planet in the far reaches of outer space where sick sheep produce a substance that can grant near-eternal life, but we could take a lesson from those Norstrilians and accept real, difficult trade-offs regarding our prosperity before we have certain trade-offs forced upon us by the changing winds of circumstance and time.

Specificity is crucial because without it, people can dismiss an abstract notion that “conservatives are too free-market friendly” as balderdash and make no changes in their lifestyles.  But admitting that slave labor allows you to have what you consider necessities?  People would have to confront that reality.  Kalb’s soft abstraction makes it easy to never do the work or take the risk and go live a subsidiarist life.

Anyway that is why we haven’t got a subsidiarist nation-state of awesome.  I come back to the clothing example a lot because the textile situation globally is REALLY REALLY HORRIBLE.  Secondary markets (thrifting) are still part of the problem, just a much smaller part than buying new (even if with discounts and the like).

That’s all for right now.


4 thoughts on “Why subsidiarity doesn’t happen

  1. The problem with many conservatives and even with people like Kalb, is that they tend to mix libertarian notions in with their definition of subsidiarity. Thus we often here “subsidiarity” invoked as a rallying cry in “traditionalist” polemics against statism. This is not what the Catholic Church means by subsidiarity. In Catholic political thought one could have a universal empire (See Dante), and such an empire would not per se violate the principle of subsidiarity. The Popes explicitly taught that the state could justly intervene into the society and economy to protect the social order and that such interventions were not per se violations of the principle of subsidiarity. I realize you are not Catholic, but your ideas and commentary come much closer to a lot of traditional Catholic thinking as opposed to the 1950s nostalgia,that sadly dominates the discussions of culture and “family life” among most traditionalists but especially a lot of traditionalist women.


    • Come on now, you’re not being fair to Mr. Kalb. He’s definitely at least an honorary illiberal Catholic.

      On the OP, people are lazy and selfish, so stop wasting pixels? Look, theory may not always precede practice, but theory almost certainly will precede change on the order of what is needed (if it is to be voluntary; probably past that possibility, but despair is a sin).

      Also, the lazy and selfish explanation is deficient in that it tends to encourage one to despise the neighbors. Americans benefit from labor exploitation in far away lands not because they are lazy, but because the arrangement is profitable for someone. Eliminate economic competition with exploited overseas labor and you will see local tailoring become a viable option again.


      • Local tailoring and American textile manufacturing is already returning to the states.

        Criticism isn’t despising. That is also lazy, to think that’s the only outcome of pointing out tradeoffs. It is lazy to rely on cheap socks instead of buying higher quality ones that need to be darned. But the cost is that your time isn’t spent chasing bargains, but spent…darning.

        You sound like a libertarian. I used to be a libertarian. It seemed like a great idea to make claims about the market that didn’t consider moral factors, but it was stupid and wrong. Not that the cluelessness of male distributists is a perfect alternative, but you work with what’s there, not what you wish to be there.


  2. Right on the money, as usual! I’m guilty myself of buying “made in China, Bangladesh…and so forth” of course, but I’m trying to buy less stuff for the children and more of the organically and locally produced variety and for myself more secod-hand items or clothes made in Europe at least.


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