Sam Smith – Regular readers of the Review have likely observed that we are a strong believer in the rational devolution of power with some major exceptions such as human rights and voting laws that should be universal. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have single payer healthcare or public education, but that those at the top don’t become so obsessed with their power that they claim the right, say, to determine what goes on a kindergarten classroom or delivered into your arm.
This unfortunately, however, has been a major trend in government in recent decades and is an important – albeit largely unnoted – factor in the rise of problems such as the Trump campaign and Brexit.
The shift is not only ideological but cultural. A gradocracy of the advanced educated – in law, economics, and corporate values – has pretty much washed Washington clean of socially intelligent politicians and officials who knew how to deal with people as well as facts, communities as well as numbers, and cultural variations as well as indices. Thus we face immensely complex and culturally insensitive legislation dealing with issues that most Americans regard as personal, such as in healthcare and education.
The result, sadly, is a constituency for dealing with the problem in the least constructive manner – either turning it over to an egomaniac like Trump or coming up with a destructive solution like Brexit.
But the fact that these solutions are not the right ones does not mean the problem doesn’t exist. And that the answer lies not In choosing sides but in coming up with better ideas. For example, what if Britain and the EU negotiated an agreement in which it would participated in some but not all off the latter’s provisions as a sort of associate member of the union? What if the EU learned something from the mistakes that led to Brexit and changed its own character?
There’s a tremendous irony in all this that I stumbled upon in a 2007 issue of the Progressive Review, namely that the EU supposedly modeled itself in part on a long time Catholic devolutionary principle of subsidiarity that I have long supported, but – as with America’s federal government – decided eventually that repeatedly giving itself more power was the answer.
Here is a 2007 Wikipedia account describing subsidiarity and the EU’s use of it:
The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching. It is found in several constitutions around the world (see for example the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution).
It is presently best known as a fundamental principle of European Union law. According to this principle, the EU may only make laws where member states agree that action of individual countries is insufficient….
Subsidiarity was established in EU law by the Treaty of Maastricht, 1992. The present formulation:
“The Community shall act within the limits of the powers conferred upon it by this Treaty and of the objectives assigned to it therein. In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community. Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.”
This extraordinary description suggests how rapidly subsidiarity has been replaced in the European Union and helps to explain a similar phenomena in American politics in which the once devolutionary progresives of the 1960 have been replaced by a manic faith in regulations, process and institutions that make the values of community and culture irrelevant.
What follows are some items along these lines that might help in understanding factors in the unpleasant that conflicts we today.
Benjamin Wiker, New Catholic Register – It is clarifying to shift our attention from trying to make accurate predictions about Britain’s future, to a consideration of principles that are more enduring than opinion polls and media pundits. In this instance, we should be looking at the most Catholic principle of subsidiarity, one which favors Brexit.
From the Catechism (1883-1885), which is itself quoting from St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (48):
Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘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 co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.’
There are a few points well worth making here.
To begin with, the dual problem with the modern state is that its overwhelming historical tendency has been to absorb “power” from below, and to impose secular agendas from above. The modern state thereby violates the principle of subsidiarity in two ways: (1) by taking away legitimate “power” from more fundamental social, moral, and economic levels of human communities, such as the family, the neighborhood, and the village, and (2) by harnessing that stolen power to secular ideas and policies that destroy these more fundamental social, moral, and economic levels, and the faith along with it.
Modern nation states are bad enough in this regard, but adding over and above that a European super-state, the European Union, and the violation of subsidiarity is even more egregious: not just the family, neighborhood, and village get subsumed into the higher order community, but now also the nation.
… But it isn’t just the family and the fundamental moral order that gets quashed from above. When political power concentrates at the top, it makes it far, far easier for Goliathan economic powers to seize control, and manipulate the economic order to their own enormous advantage. In the US, we know that concentration of power in the national Congress has meant that Big Banks end up defining public policy by giving Big Money to Congress. It’s easier and cheaper to buy a handful of congressmen in influential committees than it is to bribe a far greater number of people on the state and local level. All the more so with EU’s absorption of national power into the uber-state. It’s no accident that one of the main opponents of Brexit was Goldman Sachs.
Natalie Nougayrède, Guardian – In 1992 Denmark rejected the Maastricht treaty with a 50.7% majority. That set its European partners scrambling for a solution: opt-outs were granted on economic and monetary issues, on common defence and security policy, on home and justice affairs, and on the question of European citizenship. The following year, after that package had been presented, another referendum was held, with this time a 56.7% yes answer. In 2001, Irish voters said no to the treaty of Nice (by 54%). EU statements were then made that Ireland needn’t join a common defence policy and could refrain from other enhanced cooperation. In 2002, a new Irish vote produced a 63% majority in favour. In 2008, again Ireland rejected (by 53%) a new European text, the Lisbon treaty. A special document called “the Irish guarantees” was then produced, allowing for a rerun of the Irish referendum in 2009, with this time 67% of the electorate approving. But what was possible then is not necessarily possible now.
David T Koyzis, First Things – In many respects this principle [of subsidiarity] corresponds to the tenth amendment to the United States Constitution which provides that “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.” It should be possible for local identities to survive within a larger federal union. The American founders certainly thought so and staked their country’s future on it.
Of course, it could be argued that Washington has moved well beyond the powers originally enumerated in Article 1, section 8, encroaching on the prerogatives of the several states in ways not intended by the founders. Across the pond we hear similar arguments that Brussels has violated the spirit of subsidiarity, with the larger dream of unity taking on a life of its own at the expense of the hugely diverse interests of the member states. Hence E.U. leaders were shocked when French and Dutch voters rejected their proposed European constitution just over a decade ago. And now they are similarly incredulous that any country would want out of the Union altogether, when its benefits seem so obvious to them.
Yet this tale of discontent need not be the whole story. It may well be that future federations will more resemble the Holy Roman Empire or the pre-1848 Swiss confederation than the United States of America or Australia. Canada and Spain have already led the way towards a more asymmetrical federalism in which provinces or regions relate to the federal or central government in different ways.
The notion that all component units of a federation must be treated the same is itself an abstraction that may be hindering just governance. If one of your children requires braces on her teeth, you wouldn’t think of getting braces for all of your children for the sake of equality of treatment. Similarly, if one state or province aspires to greater autonomy than the others in certain policy areas, granting this in no way undermines just governance and may in fact facilitate it. While formally possessing the same powers as the other provinces as set out in section 92 of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867, Québec in practice exercises certain powers, for example, over language, that the other provinces are content to leave to Ottawa. While Spain is formally a unitary state, Madrid has devolved powers unevenly to its regions, with Euskadi (the Basque region) and Catalunya retaining more autonomy than others.
If we abandon the peculiarly modern quest for strict equality of treatment, it should be possible for the E.U. to function with its member states unevenly integrated into the whole. A two- or three-tier Union would be the result. France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries might be the most tightly integrated federal core of the Union, with no internal border controls restricting the free movement of persons and goods. Other states could remain members of the Union but opt out of some of its integrating features, including the euro zone and the Schengen Agreement. These would retain greater autonomy vis-à-vis Brussels, keeping their own currencies and central banks, along with other markers of independent nationhood.
Such an arrangement may seem terribly untidy and chaotic, but the reality need not be so. If subsidiarity means that as many decisions as possible are made at the lowest levels closest to the people affected, then an unevenly decentralized European Union may, after all, best conform to this principle. If the British people prefer that London (or Edinburgh, Cardiff, or Belfast) take responsibility for matters that the core members prefer to delegate to Brussels, then there is no reason why this should not be permitted. Great Britain could remain part of the E.U. while, fully in accordance with subsidiarity, claiming as much independence as it needs and can handle.
A bare majority for Brexit is hardly a ringing endorsement of such a momentous move, which threatens to fragment the United Kingdom itself. Better, it seems to me, to opt for both independence and continued membership in the E.U., even if it means abandoning the artificial symmetry characterizing the classic modern constitutional federation.