Engaging Economic Subsidiarity: embracing the struggle between Freedom and Equality

(I edited this article which was originally written by Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, CP)

One’s perspective on issues determines what one sees.  Broader perspectives engulf more than narrower ones.  Retrieving the most fundamental perspective, at least for believers in God, entails acknowledgment that all is gift, all is grace.  This is a creation perspective.  Everything that we have and that we possess is a gift from God.

Taking gift/gratuity seriously plays significantly upon one’s sense of this world and all that is within it.  It points to the universal disposition of all earth’s bounty.  Ultimately, all of us are beneficiaries of God the gift-giver.  Furthermore, we are respondents to His command to till the earth and make it productive: we are to create wealth (Gn 1.28).  But, given its universal destination, this wealth is for distribution to all.  Here lies the basics of economics: to produce wealth and to distribute it.  Behind it, however, lies the sense of giftedness.

Corresponding to these two tasks are two values, one for each task: freedom to create wealth, equality of distribution to enjoy it.  Herein also lies the source of ancient problems: the freedom to produce is often affected by the inroads and requirements of its distribution, and equal access to these products is just as often impeded by an exercise of freedom that proves burdensome and restrictive.  Freedom and equality are not easy bed-fellows, despite the affirmation of our Declaration of Independence in upholding the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and a brief reflection on these ideals will reveal the inherent tension of this relationship. In a famous documentary on Thomas Jefferson by Ken Burns Professor Joseph Ellis offered this reflection on the uneasy relationship between these two values.

They are the essential words of the American creed. And part of Jefferson’s genius was to articulate at a sufficiently abstract level, these principles, these truths that we all want to believe in. The level is sufficiently abstract so that we don’t have to notice that these truths are at some level unattainable and at another level mutually exclusive. Perfect freedom doesn’t lead to perfect equality, it usually leads to inequality. But Jefferson’s genius is to assert them at a level of abstraction where they have a kind of rhapsodic inspirational quality. And we all agree not to notice, not to notice that they are unattainable and not to notice that they are mutually exclusive or contradictory.     

Because of distortions that have emerged in the course of history between freedom and equality, we have been further gifted by God, with an addition to His initial creation program.  There is a redemption follow-up designed to remedy what, in the course of time, had gotten out of hand.  The bible enshrines this phase two of God’s action in our history, by a number of correctives seeking to restore the original gift-quality of earth’s bountiful resources.  The jubilee year program announced in the book of Deuteronomy proposes that, every 50 years, the Israelites redistribute the goods that have accumulated during this time interval by the creative enterprise of some, so that the early ideal of equality can be restored, and freedom and equality can coexist once again (Dt 15).  In a later book of the bible, we hear Jesus addressing the situation of a poor man begging at the door of a rich man, manifesting a debilitating inequality that was to be rectified after death (Lk 16.19).  The ideal community where both freedom and equality prevailed seems to have been the early Christian community described in Acts (4.32-37).

But, despite God’s efforts at restoration in these matters, freedom and equality have continued to be victimized over the years: the remembrance that all is gift has faded with the passage of time.  There is an updated version of this whole scenario in the current economic systems and the governmental arrangements coexisting with them.  We are well acquainted with capitalism and socialism as economic examples that favor certain forms of governmental systems.  Capitalism emphasizes freedom of enterprise to produce wealth.  Socialism stresses equalizing the benefits of this wealth.  There is potential here for a happy relationship between production and distribution, but seldom has it happened in modern times.  But what has developed has been antagonism between those in the business community, promoting freedom to produce, within the business community, and the championing of equality in the governmental system.  Each takes exception to the performance of the other.

An aggravating feature in each instance is that of size.  Both business and government have grown to mammoth proportions.  We speak of big business and big government.  It would be idyllic if both of these ventures operated mindful of the original gift received at the time of creation. Then too they might refer for guidance to the parable of Jesus about the man freely bestowing talents on his servants, before going on a journey.  He was engaged in gift-giving, and expected an appropriate use of his endowments, upon his return (Mt 25.14-30).   Each servant was a beneficiary of this largesse, and each was equally treated.  But it was not a completely successful transaction.  One recipient did not handle his gift well, small though it was.

Today, freedom and equality tend to be submerged in the immensity of the business and governmental institutions.  Their size is the problem.  The church has responded to this situation when Pius XI articulated the principle of subsidiarity in 1931.  He sought to restore the role of freedom and equality by looking to the potential latent in smaller units of business enterprises and governing bodies.  Subsidiarity reinvigorates their activity by way of the smallest units of free enterprise and equal access to common goods, corresponding   to the original gifts at the time of creation.  It rejuvenates freedom and equality in enterprises that are compact and manageable.

Smaller business ventures and governmental units are equal to the task of exchanging and managing gifts (the common goods) in a free and equitable manner, and are preferable to larger institutional expressions of these values because they safeguard and preserve participation and transparency in their performance.  Neighborhood establishments, for example, whether business or governmental, tend to involve the locals, and are known operations familiar to those with access to them.  In recent times, participation and transparency have come to the fore as socially desirable features of enterprises, whether economic or legal.

More strikingly, the principle of subsidiarity introduces a third element into the social fabric that is dominated by business and government: the many other features of society itself.  There is more to society than business and governmental institutions.  There is a large social segment comprising education, entertainment, communication, church activities, recreational pursuits, and these constitute significant cultural components that support the values of freedom and equality. This element has been defined by the Church and others as the involvement of civil society and Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the involvement of civil society in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate where he suggests that this social unit can give us an economic model based on value of distributing the gift package that God offers us through resources of his own creation.

My predecessor John Paul II drew attention to this question in Centesimus Annus, when he spoke of the need for a system with three subjects: the market, the State and civil society. He saw civil society as the most natural setting for an economy of gratuitousness and fraternity. …In the global era, economic activity cannot prescind from gratuitousness, which fosters and disseminates solidarity and responsibility for justice and the common good among the different economic players. It is clearly a specific and profound form of economic democracy. #38

What is more, civil society also contribute what extremely large segments of society cannot provide: participation and transparency.  Or, in other terms, they preserve the personal component that tends to get lost in the bureaucratic compartmentalization that accompanies bigness, much as the immense size of the ancient dinosaur spelled its extinction before the demands of change and adaptation to which it could not readily respond. Benedict XVI reminds us in this same encyclical that contemporary social institutions, designed to facilitate access to the common goods of society in a free and equitable manner, have fallen victim to inflexible and impersonal bureaucracies lacking feeling and awareness.  Participation and transparency fall between the cracks in the operations of large institutional establishments.

Happily, other types of social units, apart from business and government as usual, have responded creatively to the requirements of freedom and equality in smaller but promising ways.  Even as Pius XI was articulating the principle of subsidiarity, Hilaire Belloc, with the help of G.K. Chesterton, was formulating the principle of Distributism, which locates the exercise of freedom in the personal possession of property by everyone.  Local coops developed in city neighborhoods, and among farmers, facilitating smaller financial transactions as well as the planting, harvesting and marketing of food products, and local repair and crafts shops, comparable to the neighborhood offices of ward committeemen.  The Israeli kibbutz has successfully exhibited a communal style of living where participants share the fruits of their labor, along with the benefits of education, housing, banking, etc.  Following the devastating Spanish Civil war, the Mandragon system got underway, especially in the Basque country, featuring a successful and large business enterprise in areas close to home, that competes well (with its employee base of 90,000 persons), manufacturing the kinds and quality of goods that participants need and want.  It features democratic organization, participatory management, and education, among other things.  The Focolare movement, under the guidance of Chiara Lubbich, has instituted The Economy of Communion among 800 companies that agree to distribute their profits among the needy, training programs for workers, and reinvestment of a certain amount back into the growth and development of the company.  Micro-credit agencies have emerged, engaging in extremely modest loans to small entrepreneurs in poverty-stricken parts of the world, who in turn have turned an adequate profit, part of which repays the loan, with the remainder reinvested in a budding enterprise.

While some of these are experimental ventures providing alternatives to the systems of enterprise and government under which we currently operate, they show that we need not be locked into just one way of advancing freedom and equality.  Our Catholic tradition (and some of the above examples are Catholic inspired) is a rich resource for pursuing these basic values.  Above all, the above examples suggest the contribution the principle of subsidiarity makes to the enterprises of business and governing by keeping them close to the lives of those engaging in them.  It elevates the significance of often overlooked segments of society itself as rich resources that encourage participation, that provide transparency and understanding, and, above all, that preserve the personal element in the impersonal era of big business and big government.


About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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1 Response to Engaging Economic Subsidiarity: embracing the struggle between Freedom and Equality

  1. Pingback: Federal Budget Choices Must Protect Poor, Vulnerable People, Says U.S. Bishops’ Conference | The Reluctant Prophet

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