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?”
Cosmic Order and the Ways of Friendship
Though all too often, as Hamlet put it, “more honor’d in the breach than the observance,” the guiding ethical principle of premodern Western politics was that power should be used for the common good, with a clear understanding of what that good meant.22xPope John Paul II, Redemptor hominis [Encyclical Letter at the Beginning of His Papacy], sec. 17, “Human Rights: ‘Letter’ or ‘Spirit,’” Holy See, March 4, 1979, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis.html. In this, his first encyclical, John Paul II wrote, “The Church has always taught the duty to act for the common good…she has always taught that the fundamental duty of power is solicitude for the common good of society; this is what gives power its fundamental rights.” Today, however, confusion abounds over that meaning, largely because liberalism tends to translate common good as the mere summing up of the “happiness” of all individuals—or at least the good of the majority or the good of the “better” people, or something along those lines. Such familiar liberal formulations consider human beings in isolation first, then take society to be only a collection of these individuals. For optimistic moderns (think John Locke, Adam Smith, and their followers), individuals come together for the purpose of maximizing their survival and pursuit of happiness. For pessimistic moderns (think Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and their followers), society comes together as certain individuals seek to profit through the domination of other individuals. But it doesn’t matter which type of liberal (or, indeed, postmodern critical thinker) we are talking about. All tend to begin with the assumption of competition or tension between the individual and the collective. Liberal politics, in short, consists of fighting over the optimal relationship between the two.
But the traditional notion of the common good stands well apart from the terms of that liberal dilemma. It rests, rather, on different anthropological and, indeed, metaphysical presuppositions that see the world as a complex, dynamic unity. Genesis 2:5 describes a purposive cosmology when it explains that God had not yet created plants because he “had not yet made it rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.” The things of the cosmos are not individual entities or creatures that are later assembled into a collectivity. Rather, as created, they are already bound up together.33xPope Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World], sec. 14, Holy See, December 7, 1965, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html. This is the basis for the classic cosmology of the hierarchy of being, which asserts that everything is what it is in relation to what everything else is, and that everything is moving toward the same end, which is the unity of each with each and of each with the source—God, who is pure act. In these metaphysical terms, the good of the cosmos, then, is a truly common good because it is a good that can only be had when it is had in common.44xOn man’s integration into this cosmic order and his task within it, see Pope John Paul II, Laborem exercens [Encyclical Letter on Human Work on the Ninetieth Anniversary of Rerum novarum], Holy See, September 14, 1981, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html. See also Pope Francis I, Laudato sì [Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home], Holy See, May 24, 2015, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
There are anthropological implications to this cosmic picture. After all, human beings grow into themselves over time, as their potentialities are drawn out by other persons. Only through education—broadly considered—can one realize one’s potential, one’s perfection. Happy children are those who are developing into and through their childhood, while happy adults are those who have moved past this relatively imperfect perfection into a relatively more perfect perfection. In this sense, we might say that persons are their history. The happiness they achieve necessarily bears the image of the total temporal process, their social history. Human beings become themselves only in relation to other human beings.
At the center of the social order I am describing is friendship. What makes a person happy is participation in the happy life of another person—loving another for who that person is and being loved by that person in return—to build a home for us, as friends, through mutual influence, mutual “education.”55x“For no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2019), 141 (1155a.5). True friendship, we might say, simply is the common good—which forms the ground of all just societies. Aristotle, with Cicero and Aquinas following him, explains that out of friends’ discourses, out of their conversations concerning true and false, just and unjust, useful and un-useful (that is, their mutually involved pursuit of virtue through the construction of culture), there emerge first households and then cities.66xThomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, trans. Richard J. Regan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007), 17. As in the case of the child and the family, in such social reasoning, each person develops as a rational being only within a socialized world that is being dynamically reasoned and discussed into existence. One becomes oneself in a stream of discursive truth and participates in that stream, making it ever more perfect exactly as a movement that intrinsically includes oneself.77xThomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, vol. 3 (London, England: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1924), 180 (3.147): “Also to him is given the use of speech, so that by making use of it, one who has conceived the truth in his mind, may be able to impart it to another: so that men may thus assist one another in the knowledge of truth, even as in other necessaries of life, since man is by nature a social animal.” The friends’ shared space of communication becomes richer and more beautiful as more is integrated into it, more knowledge, more experience, more personalities, more truth. Groupings of friends, then, grow. Like the plants in Genesis 2, they reach down to initiate new members even as they reach up, seeking initiation into higher orders. The common good, then, has a trajectory. It is an activity, not a condition, or an outcome. And activity (or change), is always, in the classical understanding, the product of hierarchy (e.g., water, plants, man). This is what I mean by the assertion that all power ought to be aimed at the common good. All relative power differentials, even the ever-shifting power dynamics of intimate friendship, make the fulfillment of happiness possible because they are the conditions of possibility for gift-giving, for a love that freely elevates its object into greater perfection and is itself changed in so doing.
Unity in Difference
Subsidiarity is a social form in which higher levels of association are ordered toward the fulfillment of lower levels of association, ultimately to the fulfillment of the human person. In the common good, the bottom needs the top and the top subsists in the bottom.88x“The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life.” See Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sec. 168, Holy See, 2004, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html. States are for the fulfillment of cities, which are for the fulfillment of villages and neighborhoods, which are for the fulfillment of families, which are for the fulfillment of persons. This does not mean that the higher is somehow subservient to the lower. Rather, lower levels are fulfilled exactly through their reception of elevation into the higher levels—which is the perfection of those levels. Subsidiarity does not propose that the family is perfect on its own and everything bigger is just there to help it out. Rather, the family is made ever more perfect through the agency of higher levels of order, which themselves become more real and more perfect in the process because they subsist only in the families that make them up. A family can only be integrated into the life of a city through obedience to the actions of higher authorities, and such obedience is exactly what forms those authorities as authorities. It is through such authority—and, importantly, not through the coercive assertion of power—that each smaller order is integrated into the friendships that constitute the substance of the higher level of order. Siblings are friends as diverse persons because they are raised under the authority of the same parents and so share a family culture, which sharing constitutes the family as such. Towns come to love each other in their cultural differences because those differences are integrated into a larger cultural unity, such as a nation, that is real, with proper authority.99xThe Church, of course, has a great deal to say about the necessity of authority. See, for example, Pope Leo XIII, Diuturnum [Encyclical Letter on the Origin of Civil Power], Holy See, June 29, 1881, https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_29061881_diuturnum.html; and Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei [Encyclical Letter on the Christian Constitution of States], Holy See, November 1, 1885, https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_01111885_immortale-dei.html. Such a hierarchy of unity in diversity has potentially no ceiling, with the universal unity of humanity being realized only through a hierarchy that descends into ever more particular diversity, grounded at the bottom in the qualitative difference between unique persons—who are friends, who know each other’s names. Unity in difference is “peace,” what Augustine of Hippo called “the tranquility of order.”1010xAugustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods, intro. Thomas Merton (New York, NY: Modern Library, 1994), 690–91. First published 1950.
A hierarchy grounded in subsidiarity, then, is nothing like a sovereign hierarchy in which commands imposed from the top are delegated downward in a univocal manner. Rather, it is an analogical hierarchy of participation through which the most universal “law” is specified in a sort of pyramid of diversification. Each level, each part, bears within it the whole in a different, more particular mode; every person, in his or her uniqueness, is a microcosm, as is every city, as is every country, as is the world itself. The Christian tradition understands that, ultimately, God, as pure act, is imaged in each thing and is imaged more perfectly through the ever more diverse, dynamic, and yet unified whole, which means an ever more hierarchical whole, whose contingency and movement are an analogy, a moving image, of eternity.1111x“The social dimension of the human being also takes on another meaning: only the vast numbers and rich diversity of people can express something of the infinite richness of God. Finally, this dimension is meant to find its accomplishment in the Body of Christ which is the Church. This is why social life, in the variety of its forms and to the extent that it is in conformity with the divine law, constitutes a reflection of the glory of God in the world.” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, sec. 33, “Man’s Social Dimension and the Glory of God,” Holy See, March 22, 1986, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19860322_freedom-liberation_en.html. Far from a policy recommendation, subsidiarity is the form of social justice in which each level of association is at home in the whole; each is given what it needs to be itself even as it gives itself to each other level of association.1212xPope Pius XI, Divini redemptoris [Encyclical Letter on Atheistic Communism], sec. 51, Holy See, March 19, 1937, https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19370319_divini-redemptoris.html.
Recovering the Common Good in Economic Life
What does all this have to do with economics? Everything. Modern economics is almost universally at war with subsidiarity, and economics is modern politics. In his influential 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek recast human history as a struggle between economic individualism and economic collectivism. One was either on the side of liberalism or on the side of communism. The communists, of course, agreed. These rival economic ideologies were alike in denying the common good and the possibility of a just hierarchical order. The problem for the economists of left and right, however, is that while they might deny the existence of the common good, they cannot do away with its reality. Subsidiarity can be denied, but it can never be entirely destroyed—and so any war fought against it is fought within the real world it describes. Such struggle always manifests as a corruption of the common good exactly because that good, and the form of subsidiarity that flows from it, is metaphysical and not ideological.
The corruption of subsidiarity occurs when one level of a social order is made absolute—and favored above all others. This is the history of modern ideological movements. Marxists deconstructed any apparent peace between the classes, inserting conflict in its place. Racists, on the other hand, sowed discord between the races, asserting that such conflict was the deep truth all along. Individualists, as Hayek directly asserted, extended competition and contract into every nook and cranny of social life, voluntary exchanges being the only alternative to hegemonic domination. In all these cases, one instance of solidarity is singled out as the “true” one, while others are rejected or declared derivative—to ideologues, all social order flows from the cohesion of the class, the race, the nation, or the individual. All such moves assert the presence of an artificial “ceiling” to hierarchical order, moving the whole order into the construction project of the authorities who dominate at that level and who answer to no higher authority. This is the assertion that a microcosm is prior to the cosmos—it is, in the end, the assertion that certain men are gods. Because this is a falsification, pretending that the work of human hands is greater than nature itself, the end of an ideological order can never be finally achieved. The happiness it promises is always just out of reach because humans desire levels of solidarity that are both more particular and more transcendent than the ideology will allow. In ideological regimes, then, people are turned against themselves even as they are turned against their neighbors, occupying a world of tension and anxiety. The ideologically constructed world is a tyrannical regime that does not correspond to the deep structure of human nature. Living in such tyranny is the experience of unhappiness. As Augustine explained, the man hanging upside down by his foot experiences pain exactly because he remains always a right-side-up creature in a right-side-up universe.
The enemy of tyranny, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and so many others have asserted, is always real friendships, because real friendships construct levels of order made up of virtuous and brave people who seek integration into other orders of friendship, both smaller and larger: Real friendships always seek the form of subsidiarity. This means that the ideological privileging of any level of order above the whole always requires the replacement of personal relationships with impersonal relationships. As Hannah Arendt argued so well, the most extreme totalitarian regimes could be built only on the most atomized populations; only by destroying social hierarchies of friends, structures of solidarity, could all power, including power over truth itself, be concentrated at the center.1313xHannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973). First published 1951. In an ultimate irony, in order to build their centralized, formal rule, collectivists end up replacing structures of solidarity with a mass of self-interested individuals. And conversely, in order to build their society of self-interested individuals, liberals find themselves compelled to replace structures of solidarity with the centralized, formal rule of the administrative state.
From either direction, the hypothetical terminus is the same: a massive, impersonal structure of centralized economic and political power combined with a mass of homogeneous, lonely, selfish, and unhappy individuals animated by ideologies of perpetual struggle. The popes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have called this “Economic Dictatorship” when it comes from the direction of liberalism—that is, when economic interests predominate. And they have called it “State Capitalism” when it comes from the direction of socialism—when economic control is consolidated in a single-party state. Either way, it is the same social form visible to various degrees in contemporary China, Russia, Europe, and North America. The ancients simply called this combined economic and political form oligarchy.
One of the often misunderstood transformations wrought by modern politics, then, is the usurpation of the art of politics—that architectonic craft possible only through legislative prudence—by economists and the technocratic tinkerers who implement their conclusions as public policy. The influential libertarian journalist Henry Hazlitt said as much in his 1946 book Economics in One Lesson: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups” (emphasis in the original).1414xHenry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics (New York, NY: Currency, 1979), 17. First published 1946. Classically, of course, what Hazlitt was describing would have been called the art of rulership, and so we must conclude that only economists are fit to rule. Similarly, the recent trend of “behavioral economics” is for the most part just the realization that power is real and efficacious, and people with power are therefore what University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein call “choice architects.” The tradition would call “choice architects” rulers. The idea that rulers shape, both externally and internally, the lives of those over whom they rule used to be a matter of common sense, the basis of the notion of authority discussed above. Now, the idea wins the Nobel Prize in economics. My point, though, is that the “science of human action,” which the tradition used to discuss under the label “politics,” is now most-often discussed under the label “economics.” This is a shift from the philosophical to the ideological. Politics as economics is the politics of oligarchies, classically understood—“A society where it is wealth that counts, in which political power is in the hands of the rich and the poor have no share in it.”1515xPlato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, 2nd ed. (London, England: Penguin Classics, 2003), 284 (550c). But this is not merely some sort of top-down imposition. Rather, truth remains bound up in culture, and human persons remain persons formed by those cultures. For example, in a society that has come to believe that happiness is to be found only in the material gratification of the sovereign individual, no alternative seems possible. That is one reason so many of us now desire liberation from the lingering structures of gender, family, community, class, religion, nation, etc. Alienation and conflict become the very structure of the world in which individuals are formed as self-interested persons—formed, that is, to expend what power they have not for the common good but for their own good—a condition John Paul II called “consumerism.” As the tradition understood well, the moral failings of oligarchs spread down and through the whole social order exactly because such tyrannical regimes must subsist parasitically on a deeper, obscured hierarchical order. As disorder spreads, oligarchic tyrannies tend to fall to populist tyrannies, which in turn fall to demagogic tyrannies. As the form shifts, ideology shifts accordingly: Economic ideology gives way to identitarian ideology, which gives way to imperial ideology. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, of course, went through these shifts quickly and with horrendous consequences.
The American Century was broadly liberal, and a genuine understanding of subsidiarity helps us see the failure of our liberal ambitions to create a world of self-constructing individuals who find happiness in seeking whatever ends they happen to find amicable. The liberal tradition from Locke to Rawls predicted that liberal society would become a pluralistic tapestry of diversity. What has emerged instead is a stifling regime of centralized power and conformity, a regime of mind-numbing homogeneity occupied by people who feel anything but free but don’t understand why. This has occurred because the liberal drive for “individual utility maximization” must continuously contend with the reality that society, to the extent that it holds together, is constituted of myriad levels of order that are not driven by self-interested individuals in negotiated contractual relationships; it is constituted of associations that constrain or exclude such relationships. Such associative institutions include not only explicit associations but also such things as morality, religions, family structures, community or regional loyalty, manners, and even language itself. Liberalism must seek to undermine these associations and replace them with economic and, therefore, formal relations. The problem, though, as the economist Karl Polanyi pointed out decades ago, is that society is constantly attempting to defend its happiness by rebuilding solidarity in other directions.1616xKarl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001). First published 1944. The historical trajectory of liberalism has therefore been toward the acceleration of the centralization of power under the guise of “progress” in an increasingly desperate battle to finish the job of atomizing humankind. Final atomization would, of course, be the simultaneous realization of liberal ideology and the construction of a perfect tyranny. Neither of which, luckily, are possible, and so the struggle for liberation must go on.
Many postliberals have recognized this liberal trajectory. Take, for example, those aligned with Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule, who see our late-modern economic form as an oligarchy that hides behind the fiction of the “private” in order to profit from the destruction of the public goods of family and community. Yet to rectify this “economic” injustice, these postliberals propose using the very late-modern political form built and maintained by the oligarchs, the centralized, socially-engineering, administrative state. In doing so, they simultaneously deconstruct the distinction between public and private and redeploy it, paradoxically relying exactly on that distinction in order to combat it: The solution, it seems, to the tyranny of politically active economic actors is the reassertion of a politics uncompromised by economics that can regulate economic actors and keep them out of politics. And so we find ourselves with the troubling conclusion that postliberalism amounts to what Vermeule might call liberalism “working itself pure”—the achievement of liberal ends through non-liberal means.1717xAdrian Vermeule, Law’s Abnegation: From Law’s Empire to the Administrative State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 2. The old liberals, accordingly, were wrong. The public-private distinction is unnatural, so the postliberals must force into being a politics that is not also an economics, must force into being an oligarchy turned against itself. This doesn’t get them very far. Indeed, some in this group, Sohrab Ahmari among them, have come to the less-than-encouraging conclusion that the New Right should become the Old Left, New Deal Democrats, the idea being that the boomer conservatives were wrong to idealize the 1950s when, it turns out, it was the 1930s that got things right.
A path toward a genuine alternative to modern politics lies in rescuing the economic from the distortions of State Capitalism and Economic Dictatorship—and putting markets in their proper place, embedded within the levels of a subsidiary order. This is difficult to imagine only because we have been trained in the ideological thinking of liberalism and socialism. I’m not sure what policies might be useful in building such an order, in part because its construction will not be the result of technocratic policies of either the economic or social variety—neither property confiscation and redistribution nor pro-family policies will do the job. Neither the elimination of the administrative state nor the commandeering of it will bring about the common good.
While the integration of economic activity into the ethical pursuit of the common good could take any number of culturally and historically contingent shapes, there are some markers, I think, that point us in the direction of the common good. The wide distribution of productive property (capital) is desirable. A society is healthy when ownership of productive property is proportionate to the importance of particular levels of social order. This means, for one thing, that families should control the majority of productive property and massive corporations little of it. This is not some novel notion. Aristotle asserted that the most just regime would have a large, politically dominant middle class, while Thomas Jefferson famously said that the backbone of a just republic was the property-owning small farmer.
But scale is not the only consideration. Most of our work should not be paid. This is another way of saying that in a healthy society, most of our social activity would not be commercialized. Activities that used to have nothing to do with money and which now do—sports, entertainment, socializing, family time, childcare, cooking, holidays and celebrations, caring for the elderly, education, home maintenance, even agriculture—are now dominated by commercial interests. Our world increasingly appears to be a giant marketplace. Instead, when we look out at our world, we should see mostly a shared space, a socially constructed world within which private spaces have a limited but important place and commercial spaces are relatively rare. This would, no doubt, mean getting poorer according to the metrics of economists, but the common good is measured in happiness, not wealth.
As for wealth, the pursuit of money as an end should be looked down upon. When kids talk about getting rich, we should correct them, not praise them. When grownups talk about their investment returns, we should shake our heads at their faux pas, not ask about their financial adviser. We should, rather, praise a person who displays a love of family, city, region, country, and humanity—in that order. The ancients called this piety; we might call it patriotism. The point is that an honorable person knows the proper importance of levels of order for the attainment of the common good, knows where he stands in that order, and directs his powers accordingly. This is the ethical posture which produces the distribution of power that corresponds to an order of subsidiarity. In such a distribution, authorities toward the top of the social order are appropriately obeyed by, even as they are appropriately afraid of, persons toward the bottom, where the power really lies.
Finally, ideological thinking should be treated as repugnant and, well, sometimes a bit silly. When it comes to appropriate political action in pursuit of the common good, almost everything is on the table because politics is a prudential art. Aristotle asserted that you could identify a free man because he is the one who will not endure tyranny—he will not serve it and he will not betray his friends to it. We should be a society of free people, whose freedom is secured, in the end, by friendship. Friendship is the reason for our lives. Nothing is more important.