If you type the word “subsidiarity” on the computer, chances are it will be red-lined by the word-processor, signifying its non-recognition as a term.  The word is not listed in most dictionaries.  Yet, it appears extensively in the social teachings of the Catholic Church.  It is also a key concept in the European Union’s draft constitution.  A political idea of long-standing, subsidiarity has recently gained new prominence, chiefly as a core idea among advocates of federalism. What exactly does it mean?  Can Filipinos use it as a guide in the design of an alternative system of government?

Subsidiarity is a way of organizing social life on the basis of the principle that decisions affecting the community “should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen.” It is premised on the idea that our freedoms do not come from the sovereignty of the higher levels but from the autonomy of the lower levels.  Our rights are not gifts given to us by those who govern us.  They are products of the symbiotic relations we build with other human beings in whose neighborhood we find ourselves.  The local community, along with the families that constitute it, is the fulcrum of society.  The State must play only a subsidiary role – confining itself to those necessary tasks that the lower levels cannot themselves undertake.

The origin of the word offers a sharp understanding of the concept. It comes from the Latin word “subsidium” – referring to reserve troops that are mobilized to reinforce the regular forces when necessary. The reinforcement does not replace the regular army.  And so, similarly, the State must not replace the community by robbing it of initiative.  The State’s role must be to strengthen the capability of the local community to solve its problems, to reproduce itself, and to participate on equal terms at the higher levels of authority.

The principle of subsidiarity operates with a model of society that is founded on strong families and local effort.  The individual belongs, and is answerable, to a family in the first instance.  The head of the family, in turn, is answerable to the community.  The local community, through its leaders, is answerable to the higher levels in which it participates — the town, the province, the nation.  And vice-versa: the higher levels are accountable to each link in the chain.  In this set-up, the leader is positioned thus: “Superior to every member, he is inferior to the whole that he presides over, whose opinions are his obligations.”

One can see what attraction these core principles hold for federalists. The ideal society would be a federation of free communities that do not surrender their intrinsic vitality as organs of social life when they participate in the higher levels of society.  They guard their autonomy and, by federating with other communities, enhance their power to tackle complex problems that, by themselves, they would not be able to effectively handle.  At all times they retain their power to check the decision-makers at various levels.

The concept of subsidiarity is a powerful lens for examining Philippine society.  It allows us to view the extent to which ordinary Filipino citizens and their local communities have been excluded from the exercise of the sovereign power that is supposed to emanate from them.  Against the promise of an active citizenry that is fully engaged in the life of their communities, we are shown the desolation of families broken up by migration, of communities that have collapsed due to lack of local pride and initiative, and of disconnected individuals with no self-esteem or sense of identity.  Against the promise of a strong nation held together by symbiotic bonds chosen by a free people, we only see a demoralized mass of individuals ruled by a privileged few, all waiting to leave their dying neighborhoods at the first opportunity.

These are problems that are not solved by a mere change in administration.  Their roots are deeper than poverty, corruption, or incompetent government.  They strike at the very heart of what it means to establish the conditions of social life among free human beings under modern conditions.  This is the task of politics, says the 17th century writer Johannes Althusius, an early theorist of subsidiarity.  He defined politics as:  “The act of establishing, cultivating, and conserving among men the necessary, essential, and homogeneous conditions of social life.”

From this it is not difficult to see where our problem lies.  Our political leaders have disabled our people from participating meaningfully in social life by instilling in them all the contrary predispositions – despair, fear, inferiority, envy, parasitism, and dependence.  They have kept our people in a perpetual state of subjugation, reproducing the same conditions that allowed the colonial powers to enslave our ancestors.  These are almost integral to our culture today, but their origins are structural.  Our successive Constitutions state that sovereignty resides in the people, but the conditions that make this possible have not been developed.  The colonial state — a structure of subjugation — became the sovereign Philippine state after independence, without shedding its character as a tool of subjugation.

Subsidiarity challenges us to return to our local communities and help rebuild them as autonomous organs of decision-making.  It prods us to help our people become economically productive in the same communities where they raise their families, and to create paths to personal growth that do not diminish but enrich family and community life at the same time.

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