Friday, August 28, 2009

The Real Subsidiarity

Some bloggers are asking about the "real" subsidiarity. Fortunately, I used Subsidiarity to design a system - which I built and supported and cared for and studied - a system comprised of both machinery and human workers, which ran for over five years and performed an important business function for a major company - and then wrote books about it. (I am sorry I have not yet found a publisher, but perhaps my mention of this issue will lead to that.) I have posted the introduction here, and I also have a fictional story which gives a more human insight into the project.

Subsidiarity is too important an issue to permit any degeneration into whining by some admirers of the branch of philosophy called "Catholic Social Teaching" - but the first thing necessary is to distinguish, once and for all, that the issue called "distributism" is not related to "Subsidiarity".

Subsidiarity is an organizational method - a meta-system, which applies to all forms of human and even mechanical (and mixed) organizations. Distributism is a perfection or desideratum regarding a matter of economics called "widespread ownership of the means of production". However, Subsidiarity has nothing to say about property. Subsidiarity applies to such diverse economic variants as communism, capitalism and even the property-less system of the angelic hierarchy - and, yes, to distributism.

Part of the problem arises because Subsidiarity (as presented in the social encyclicals) is very abstract - it has to be, since it is most general concept about the organization of a system - and so it feels to many like other complex abstractions - like (let us say) algebra. However, one cannot simply invoke "algebra" and expect "algebra" to solve a given word problem. The term "algebra" consists of detailed structures and rules and methods, and we apply them to each specific case in order to arrive at a solution.

The same is true with Subsidiarity - which is why the encyclicals can only take us so far. Not that I mean the encyclicals are "wrong"! The CRC "Handbook of Mathematics" gives the basic facts, and not the exemplars which assist a student. Moreover, the generalizations are so brilliant and so broadly stated that they can be a distraction when one begins to apply them to a complex case for the first time. One can learn more by applying them to simpler cases, and seeing how their power applies, how they are used, then work up to the larger, more complex cases.

I suggest that the interested reader attempt to design a system - a club, a social group, a portion of a business - relying on the concept of Subsidiarity, and then implement it in the real world. After watching it run for five years, night and day, and handling all its special cases, its successes and especially its failures, I think one will have a much greater insight into the issue.

Otherwise, it is an abstraction that sounds nice - and nothing more.

But that disdainful view is no longer possible - for I have myself done this. Subsidiarity works, is practical, is efficient, is effective. Subsidiarity applies to all systems, and they succeed to the extent Subsidiarity is applied - and they fail to the extent Subsidiarity is ignored.


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