A Protestant Perspective on Privatization and Subsidiarity


Jordan J. Ballor

“Mount Nebo” by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène / Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

The doctrine of subsidiarity is most closely associated with modern Roman Catholic Social Teaching, particularly as codified in the social encyclicals Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Centesimus Annus (1991). In the latter document, Pope John Paul II defines subsidiarity as the principle that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (§48). The reality of subsidiarity, which can be distinguished from varied theories of that reality, is attested to by the larger history of Christian social teaching, with roots in the Reformation and medieval and patristic periods. Scripture reveals this aspect of the universal order, and subsidiarity is, in fact, woven into the fabric of the cosmos.

There are diverse theories and accounts of subsidiarity, and they can often (although not always) be understood as complementary. In what follows, I will sketch a brief biblical and historical account of subsidiarity, with special attention to Protestant sources, before concluding with some thoughts about the significance of this teaching for political philosophy and public policy, particularly as it relates to the legitimate scope of government authority and action in areas including the provision of public goods, (de)regulation, and privatization.

Subsidiarity in Scripture and History

A traditional sedes doctrinae for subsidiarity is the episode recorded in Exodus 18 between Moses and Jethro. The Israelites had just defeated the Amalekites, and as the text relates, “Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening.” Jethro sees the work Moses is doing and renders his own judgment: “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” Jethro provides some advice, directing Moses to set up a system of judges so that the easier and smaller cases can be decided by lesser authorities. As Jethro explains to Moses, the result would be that “every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.”

There are a number of important lessons to be gleaned from this narrative, not least of which is the wisdom that Jethro, a non-Israelite, is able to provide to God’s own prophet. This is an indication that the insights he provides are at least in part discoverable from the natural order itself and not entirely dependent on special revelation.

If the notion of solidarity in the Christian tradition is an answer to the why of offering help, subsidiarity gives some practical insight into the how of providing aid or relief.

The core of subsidiarity is found in its Latin root, subsidium, which means “help,” “relief,” or “aid” and from which we get English words like subsidy. Relief is in fact what, in a very practical way, Jethro’s advice gives to Moses. But besides acting in accord with subsidiarity by offering such aid, the substance of what Jethro offers is an insight and application of subsidiarity itself. If the notion of solidarity in the Christian tradition is an answer to the why of offering help, subsidiarity gives some practical insight into the how of providing aid or relief. It is a principle that respects the diversity and variegation of human beings, in our individuality as well as our sociality. In this way it can be understood as a corollary of the second great commandment and summary of the law, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). To love our neighbor, through concrete acts of aid and help, requires sensitivity to the particularities of our environment, including the individuality of each of our neighbors. In this way, subsidiarity also involves the complexities of proximity (the Latin for “neighbor” is proximus).

Protestant Sources of Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity is, in this way, an absolutely foundational principle for Christian social thought and has seen a variety of applications and theoretical explorations throughout the history of the church. In the Reformation era, it was consistently applied within the context of church order, notably in the Reformed synod of Emden in 1571 and later synods, which affirmed the basic equality of all congregations as well as the principle that synods would only take up matters that could not be decided at the local or regional level or which had significance for all churches. Everyone should have a say, whether through representation or some other means, in issues that impact everyone.

Even though it is commonly deployed in discussions about political ordering, whether ecclesial or civil, subsidiarity is in fact a principle and a reality that applies to all aspects of social life. It can be seen anywhere that the autonomy and dignity of individual persons or institutions is recognized and affirmed. It is what lies behind the classical Christian appreciation and recognition of the differing spheres and institutions of civil society, that each have their own mandate, purview, and purposes. Marriage, for instance, is identified in the Anglican tradition as having three fundamental purposes: 1) procreation; 2) the avoidance of sexual sin; and 3) the “mutual society, help, and comfort” of the spouses.

This robust understanding of subsidiarity as a social principle is recognized and explicated by later Protestant thinkers including the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper (1836-1920) and the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Kuyper’s extensive development of the concept is typically known as “sphere sovereignty” (soevereiniteit in eigen kring), while Bonhoeffer refers to the “relative autonomy” (relativen Eigengesetzlichkeit) of the mandates of family, society, church, and government.

Subsidiarity, Privatization, and the Proper Role of Government

In this Christian tradition, including Protestantism, subsidiarity is a principle of social order oriented at respecting the diversity and autonomy (relative to divine authority) of human beings and social institutions. God has ordained various institutions with the aim of producing various social goods. Through marriage, future generations come into being; through businesses, goods and services are produced; through schools, children are formed and educated; through churches, the gospel is proclaimed; and through government, the integrity of society itself and its individual citizens, associations, and institutions are protected.

In this Christian tradition, including Protestantism, subsidiarity is a principle of social order oriented at respecting the diversity and autonomy (relative to divine authority) of human beings and social institutions.

Abraham Kuyper developed perhaps the most fertile and robust vision of modern Reformed social thought, and he identified his program with the broad “Christian historical” approach to social life, affirming the great variety of social structures and individual liberties and responsibilities that God deigns to grace humankind with. He contrasted this approach with that of the humanistic and secularistic spirit of the French Revolution, which is why this perspective is more commonly known as “antirevolutionary.” For Kuyper, the revolutionary worldview trapped the human person in an ahistorical, materialistic, and deterministic binary between the individual and the collectivist state. The antirevolutionary perspective, by contrast, views the human person as a child of God born within the organic bonds of a family within a neighborhood, community, nation, and church.

Debates about privatization of activities currently undertaken by different levels of civil government can thus be helpfully informed by subsidiarity, which focuses on the proper functions and scope of authority for the entirety of social life in an organic and complex unity. Private associations, like parochial schools, for example, produce public goods. Indeed, some public goods are best, or in some cases, only realizable in the context of private associations or non-governmental institutions. As subsidiarity teaches, there are authorities, rights, and responsibilities that, according to the order of nature, precede the authority of civil government. “Just as we speak of a moral world, a world of science, a world of business, an art world,” writes Kuyper in his speech on sphere sovereignty appearing in the forthcoming anthology On Charity & Justice, “so we speak still more properly of a sphere of morality, a family sphere, a sphere of socio-economic life, each having its own domain. And because each forms a distinct domain, each sphere has its own sovereign within the bounds of that domain.”

The state too has its own sovereign sphere and particular responsibility: “The state is there to enable the various spheres, insofar as they manifest themselves visibly, to interact in a healthy way and to keep each of them within the confines of justice. And since one’s personal life can be suppressed by the group in which one lives, the state is also there to shield the individual from overbearance by his own group.” When a particular institution is corrupted or fails in its task, it may well be legitimate, and even incumbent, upon the government to step in. But such interventions must always be a last resort (moving from more local to more distant) and be aimed at restoring proper function to make ongoing aid redundant and obsolete.

From Revolutionary Contractualism to Covenantal Subsidiarity

Our age is characterized by a long, and by now quite advanced, march of revolutionary theory and practice through social institutions and associational life, with a corresponding predominance of the artifice of narrow contractualism over the more robust moral, covenantal, organic, and sacramental bonds of both solidarity and subsidiarity. This imbalance leads to social disorder, which is perhaps why we see the state on the one hand eager to hand over activities that it has traditionally been responsible for, such as policing, to private entities, and on the other hand often zealous to dominate areas that have long been outside its primary purview, such as education and material provision of goods and services.

Privatization — a term which seems already to favor a particular conception of state authority — is a question that has to be explored within a larger framework of the proper function and interrelationship between different social spheres. Where the government has taken over functions and activities that are properly the responsibility of other institutions, then it should seek to return those duties to their rightful stewards. At the same time, the government ought not abandon its own primary responsibilities to, as Kuyper puts it in his speech on sphere sovereignty, “make it possible for each of the spheres to live and move freely within its own domain.”

The great ideological debate we have largely inherited from the revolutionary era leaves us with an image of government either as a parasitical tyrant with no legitimate authority or as an all-powerful and all-encompassing immanent deity. The Christian understanding of subsidiarity helps provide a corrective to these extremes, acknowledging a legitimate but limited role for the government to protect liberty and promote justice in the autonomous life of society under God. ♦


Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty and a postdoctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam working on the Moral Markets project.