Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Thematic: Markets and the Good

Friendship and the Common Good

Rediscovering the metaphysics of subsidiarity.

Andrew Willard Jones

The ideal city as conceived by Piero della Francesca and Filarete; THR illustration (Shutterstock, Alamy).

The political right is in a state of upheaval. The old alliances have crumbled, and long-held truths have become empty truisms. The postwar conservatism of the Reagan administration and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” is dead. All of this is so obvious that it hardly merits pointing out. Those who favor the status quo—the neoconservatives and neoliberals, to paint with broad strokes—are largely defecting to what passes for the center-left, leaving populists, nationalists, postliberals, neopagan Nietzscheans, and even the occasional libertarian to hash out the future of the “New Right.” An increasingly common thread among those factions is a rejection of old conservative commitments to the free market and the concomitant distinction between the public and private realms. We find ourselves in a place where it is just as valid to assert that everything is politics as it is to say that everything is economics or that everything is religion—or propaganda or marketing. The old categorical distinctions won’t hold.

What is missing is an awareness of real alternatives to our dominant political-economic order. Yet alternatives do exist, and here I propose that we consider—or more accurately, reconsider—one that is called subsidiarity as a source of concepts for building a viable economic and political theory that would in turn underwrite a genuine conservatism. While subsidiarity is widely known among Christian democrats and Catholics of various stripes, its original meaning derives from an anthropology and a metaphysics that have largely been lost. As a result, the term subsidiarity is sometimes reduced by small-government fans to the simplistic axiom that “smaller is better”—or, alternatively, by big-government fans, to the principle that higher orders of government reserve the right to intervene in lower orders whenever they see fit.11xSee, for example, Adrian Vermeule, Common Good Constitutionalism (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2022), 154–158.

But subsidiarity is no mere axiom or principle of governance; it is an alternative social form with deep roots in the premodern Western tradition that includes biblical teaching, Greek thought, and medieval theology, a tradition that directly informs modern Catholic social teaching. While I write out of the specific Catholic formulation of this tradition, what I say corresponds broadly to other approaches to subsidiarity, all of which start with a fundamental question: “What is the common good?”

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).