The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism


Subsidiarity is the term used to describe the principle that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, beginning with the individual, through the family, local voluntary associations, and then to government (local, national, and global). This decision-making approach has been characterized as decentralist or bottom–up. The principle has both libertarian and collectivist interpretations. The origins of the doctrine can be found in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and it was most developed in Roman Catholic social doctrine. The idea was formally documented as “a most weighty principle” in article 79 of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.

The libertarian case for decentralism is predicated on the principle that if a decision cannot be taken by the individual (e.g., when rights are claimed to be violated), the lower the level of decision making, the better. First, the individual is sovereign and may delegate responsibilities upward, in contrast to national sovereignty, which places sovereignty in the hands of government. Second, subsidiarity provides for competition between jurisdictions, rather than monopolies at each jurisdictional level. Competition leads to greater efficiency. Third, fragmented decision-making structures provide an opportunity to leave an unwelcome jurisdiction in favor of another, more conducive to one’s values. Fourth, subsidiarity provides for the existence of a wide variety of communities, which can be closest to the diverse preferences of individuals. Fifth, subsidiarity provides for a system of checks and balances against what would otherwise be the overwhelming power of any jurisdiction. Finally, it recognizes that efficiency is not always the most important value and might be regarded by many as subsidiary to liberty.

The collectivist or republican interpretation emphasizes the values of effectiveness, efficiency, and the common good. It draws sustenance from article 80 of Pius XI’s encyclical that “the State will more freely, powerfully and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.” Although the lower level may be the best for all three values, it is not always. In these circumstances, the higher body has the legitimacy to act.

The idea of subsidiarity plays a central role in the debate over the European Union (EU). That the principle of subsidiarity should be formally incorporated in the treaties by which states acceded to the EU is a reflection of the fear some Europeans felt regarding the overcentralization of power. The resistance was led by Bavaria, which was Catholic, localist, and fearful that its powers as a constituent German state would be usurped by the EU. The notion was then embraced by Anti-Federalist governments, among them the United Kingdom. However, collectivists claimed that the nation-state was unable to carry out a number of its legitimate functions in an increasingly complex Europe, such as protection of the environment or security, and that these decisions should be relocated at the higher pan-European level.

This concern led to the adoption in the Treaty of European Union of 1992 of this ambiguous statement:

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 insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States.

Although the inclusion of this principle was perceived as a victory for the decentralists, the actual wording favored a collectivist interpretation. The criteria for the allocation of powers were to be determined by whether the objectives were perceived as being achieved (i.e., by their apparent effectiveness). The statement contained no reference to the values of liberty or to the strength of subsidiary institutions, both of which are central to the doctrine.

Whenever the principle of subsidiarity is invoked, it is vital to note whether it is based on libertarian values—the individual, liberty, voluntary association, and decentralism—or on collectivist claims of effectiveness, efficiency, and the common good.


Further Readings

Beabout Gregory R. “The Principle of Subsidiarity and Freedom in the Family, Church, Market, and Government.” Journal of Markets and Morality 1 no. 2 (October 1998).

Begg, David, ed. Making Sense of Subsidiarity: How Much Centralization for Europe? London: Center for Economic Policy Research, 1993.

de Noriega, Antonio Estella. The EU Principle of Subsidiarity and Its Critique. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Pope Pius XI. Quadragesimo anno: On the Reconstitution of the Social Order. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1931.

Originally published .