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Subsidiarity Contrasted with Libertarian “Small Government”

Not long ago I encountered two people who were arguing in favor of a libertarian presidential candidate and making the argument that his election would lead to greater subsidiarity in the United States. Neither of these individuals agreed with this candidate’s libertarian philosophy. Both, in fact, saw his philosophy as significantly flawed. Their only argument was that he would be the candidate who would most likely accomplish greater subsidiarity. My interlocutors may have been entirely correct on this point, though I have my doubts that subsidiarity would be a long-term effect of his presidency. There may be those who are confused and think that the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity is the same as libertarian or other “small government” doctrines common in the United States. I would like to highlight some of the differences between the two.

Some of the most significant of these include the following:

1) Subsidiarity is a communitarian philosophy. In this doctrine the human person cannot be understood apart from his communal nature and his communal existence. Subsidiarity claims that a communal, social and political existence is imposed on the human person by human nature, by the natural law and, ultimately, by God.

For the libertarian, by contrast, the human person is individualistic. The libertarian considers the communal, social and political aspects of human existence to be the result of human free choice and considers these aspects of human existence to be created by man rather than by God.

2) Because subsidiarity claims that human nature is communal the same doctrine claims that our obligations to the community are imposed by nature, rather than by free agreement. So, for example, the authority of the government comes from God and the natural law rather than the free consent of the governed. The people must obey whether they have consented or not. A just salary or wage is determined by the employee’s financial need (provided the employer has sufficient resources to pay an amount which meets this need and still have his own financial needs and the needs of sustaining his business met) rather than by a free agreement between employer and employee. We must contribute to the common good of the community (town, country, nation, etc.) in which we live. Even if we do not wish to do so, we can justly be compelled against our will to do so and the government can compel us to this even if we have never consented to the government’s existence or right to do so.

In contrast, the libertarian does not see the human person as under any obligation which he has not placed himself under. So, for example, the libertarian would argue that government must be based on the consent of the governed. Free agreement between employer and employee would be sufficient for a salary or wage to be just. We have no obligation to contribute to the good of the community unless we have first consented to contributing to that good or, at least, consented to the government’s existence.

3) According to subsidiarity the good is to be pursued communally under the direction of and, if necessary, compulsion by the government.

For libertarianism the good is to be pursued individually or by private organization that individuals have freely joined. Government exists merely to leave individuals free to pursue the good rather than direct them to do so.

4) The doctrine of subsidiarity holds that the common good has priority over individual freedom.

Individual freedom is part of the common good but it is neither the whole of the common good nor its most important part. The spiritual and moral well being of the community and its individual members is the greatest good and takes precedence over individual freedom. The material well being of the community also takes precedence over individual freedom. The overall order and proper functioning of society is of great importance. Freedom is a good within these limits. Although certain restrictions on freedom can themselves impede these higher goods being attained, and when freedom is restricted the good attained must be proportionate to its limitations of freedom, freedom is only a secondary and contextualized good. It is the duty of government to pursue and promote the common good as a whole.

In contrast, the libertarian holds individual freedom to be the highest good or, at the very least, the highest good which the government should protect and promote. For the libertarian, the pursuit of higher goods is to be a matter of individual free choice rather than of government compulsion and direction.

5) Subsidiarity understands relations between human persons, between the individual and the community, primarily in terms of moral obligations and secondarily in terms of rights. The role of government is to enforce obligations. The government must not simply restrict sins of commission (such as murder) but also present sins of omission (such as failing to contribute to the material support of the community) by compelling individuals into pertinent obligatory actions.

Libertarian doctrine understands relations between human persons and between the individual and the community in terms of rights and does not accept obligations aside from those who have been freely consented to. He or she understands the role of government as limited to the protection of rights. For this theory the government must only restrict sins of commission and must ignore sins of omission.

6) Subsidiarity argues that the route to the common good should be left to the most local or smallest level of society that can effectively look after the common good. To the extent that a town can look after the common good the county should leave matters alone. To the extent that a county can look after the common good the higher government of state, province or nation should not interfere. I can think of two major reasons for this.

The first is that particular situations and particular needs are unique and best addressed by those who are most competent to understand and respond to this uniqueness. Related to this point is that responses to problems must be “organic” rather than rationalistically conceived and uniform plans to impose utopia. In subsidiarity local government control perfects the real where modern big government centralization attempts to create a false ideal.

The second reason is that there should not be more government control and more restrictions on freedom than are necessary for the common good while freedom still remains essentially subordinate as already said.

The libertarian, on the other hand, wants to maximize freedom. He does not want more local government because it is more conducive to effective government control. The libertarian wants, rather, to minimize government control as such.

7) Subsidiarity recognizes that there are cases in which more government, even more centralized government, can be necessary for the common good. The common good is prioritized over localism even while it is held that localism is often more conducive to the common good.

In contrast, the libertarian is opposed to increases in government and increases in centralized government as such.

8) Subsidarity is suspicious of centralized big business even more than it is suspicious of centralized big government. Subsidiarity would, in fact, prefer an expansion of government to the expansion of big business. There are multiple reasons for this.

In the first place it is the nature of government to be concerned for the common good and to act in accord with public interest. Not every government or holder of government office does so but such is the basic nature of government. No doubt many of the worst examples of government result from misunderstanding the common good and public interest rather than from pure selfish concern. Business, by its nature, exists largely for private interest and it is the proper nature of business to be concerned for the common good, public interest, and employees as well as business owners. However, the case remains that government is, by its nature, solely concerned with the common good and public interest while private interest is, by the nature of business, a major concern of business.

In the second place it is inevitable that either government controls money or money controls government. Building on the above, government control of money is in the public interest as well as the interests of the common good. If business (“money”) controls government, it can capture the private good, and business, particularly big business, which is largely unregulated by government, will create a plutocracy/plutonomy. A proper economy is one in which there are strong government regulations of private business and of the market as opposed to both an unregulated market and a socialist command economy.

The libertarian does not oppose big business. In fact he or she often celebrates it. While subsidiarity favors localism in all aspects of life, the libertarian favors localism specifically in regard to government (public subsidiarity), but tends to reject localism in business (private subsidiarity). A libertarian may even go so far as to hold that the ability of business (“money”) to control the government is an example of human freedom taking priority over government control of peoples’ lives.

9) For subsidiarity, freedom is primarily freedom to live a Catholic and moral life, to pursue authentic cultural goods and to live in a community of life with one’s family, friends and neighbors. Economic freedom is of relatively low priority. Material wellbeing to pursue these higher goods is necessary and both this material wellbeing and the pursuit of these higher goods can necessitate placing restrictions on economic freedom.

Libertarians, on the other hand, are mostly preoccupied with economic freedom.

10) Subsidiarity holds government and authority, and our subordination to it, to be fundamentally good even while affirming the value of a high degree of freedom and whole recognizing that there can be excessive and tyrannous government control. Without subordinating either individuals or communities to the state, subsidiarity considers the existence of the state and of authority to be part of the common good (not merely means to the common good) and so, insofar as they are part of the common good, to be ends in themselves.

The libertarian holds that government, the state and authority are entirely means to the preservation of freedom and of individual rights and in no way as goods in themselves. They may even hold government to be “a necessary evil” rather than a positive good. Some even hope for a capitalistic withering away of the state.

11) Finally, subsidiarity sees human relations primarily as cooperative. Part of the communal nature of the human person is to live in charity, benevolence and mutual cooperation with others. This is not to deny that the effects of original sin often lead us to fail to live up to our nature in this regard. This is not to argue for a pure altruism and deny legitimate self-interest, even in some cases at the expense of others (as when two people compete for a job). But it is to affirm that cooperation rather than competition is the basic reality of human relations. The role of government is specifically to further and to enforce such cooperation for the sake of the common good.
Libertarianism understands human relationships in a basically competitive way. The market is seen as a ground of competition.

I do not see this list of difference as being exhaustive and I certainly have not been able to develop any of the points mentioned at the length. However, I hope this piece will be a useful summary of some of the major differences between the two doctrines and can aid and pinpoint why those who wish to implement and justify authentic localism and pursue the common good cannot turn to libertarian theories.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.


James Baresel has a BA in history from the University of Cincinnati (2005) and an MA in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville (2010). He also studied at the Franciscan Institute of Saint Bonaventure University.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.

  • noelfitz

    This is a great article. Congratulations and thanks.

  • Mark

    I disagree with your presentation on subsidiary. God gave us free will. No where in church teaching does it say that we can be forced to do good. this is contrary to Catholic teaching. Subsidiarity is one of the core principles of this teaching. This
    principle holds that human affairs are best handled at the lowest
    possible level, closest to the affected persons.This is pretty simple. Problems are best solved at the lowest level possible. It is not about forced government.

    • Paleo Thomist

      We can be forced to DO good but we can’t be forced to BE good. Positive law can command us to perform acts that are good in and of themselves whether we are inclined to the good action or not (e.g. “good samaritan” laws, yielding right-of-way to pedestrians, military service, etc.).

      As for the object of law, it is good to consider the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, especially in the Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 92, a. 1. It can be found here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2092.htm

      • Mark

        Yes, we have positive laws but a tax is forced upon us. It is saying that I am going to take your money and give it to the poor. Even though we are supposed to yield to pedestrians, I don’t have to. I don’t have to help someone at the side of the road. Yes, I would have to perform military service but only in a country that forced me to do so upon penalty of imprisonment. This author is saying that we should be forced to serve the poor and is using Catholic teaching to back it up. It is not Catholic teaching that we should be forced by law to serve the poor. There is no charity in being taxed and having my money given to the poor against my free will.

  • goral

    The author presents us with communal living at its best.
    The communities for retirees make the same pitch.
    This “cupcake” is glazed and sprinkled with references to God
    and selfless living.
    All very tasty until the gov’t gets a hold of it on a large scale.
    Communal very quickly turns to communism
    and the gov’t becomes god.
    So much for subsidiarity.

    I don’t want to reiterate point #8 but it’s pretty laughable and scary.
    Mr Beresel, now that the dems.have reinstated some sort of a god
    back in their platform, they would welcome this article.

  • Well said, Goral and Mark. The author supposes erroneously that Church doctrine teaches us the nature and form of government that God requires. This does not at all square with the doctrine of the preeminence of the laity in the political sphere. The latter pertains directly to “the consent of the governed” as enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence; which also speaks of the right of the people to alter or overthrow government, “and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

  • christustotus

    “So, for example, the authority of the government comes from God and the natural law rather than the free consent of the governed. The people must obey whether they have consented or not. ”

    This assumes to much that all government automatically gains “legitimate” authority.

    In Catholic teaching, authority firstly must demonstrate its legitimacy. Authority does not derive legitimacy from itself. It must not be derived via the violation of rights. The common concept of the State is clearly an institution whereby a certain group of individuals usurps the product of another’s labor (which rightly belongs to the laborer) without the laborer’s consent. This is a violation of the seventh commandment (disrespect for persons and their good), a morally illicit act. When authority employs morally ilicit means to attain itself, authority loses its moral legitimacy, and therefore deserve no obedience. St. Aquinas, St. Bellarmine, and Fransico Suarez agrees that authority comes from God, but this does not mean that authority is bestowed directly to *certain men* in exclusion to others. It directly belongs to the people *collectively*, and there is no natural necessity of authority being centralized to the hand of the few, as is the *common concept* of the State currently is.