A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good.
When a community of a higher order acts, it is always to do so with a view of the common good, but what exactly is the common good? Understanding this concept is fundamental to understanding subsidiarity. The family is the basic unit of society, and the purpose of those higher orders is to secure the common good for the lower orders all the way back down to the family.
There are four basic types of goods within society; private goods, public goods, common goods, and the common good. Private goods are things privately owned by individuals, family, or other societal groups that are not part of the government. Public goods are things owned by the government for public use. This would include things like parks and transit systems. Common goods (with an s) can easily be confused with public goods. Common goods are things owned by the government because they are needed to help secure the common good. Common goods include things like police cars, court houses, and city offices. The key distinction between common goods and public goods is their use to secure the common good rather than for public use. This would be the difference between a police car and a city bus.
The common good is a special category of things which exist simultaneously for the good of the individual and the good of the whole society. A city bus may exist for the good of all members of a society, but not all members of the society can share in that good simultaneously. Those things which constitute the common good are “perfectly divisible,” meaning that everyone can have an equal share of them. It doesn’t matter how many people there are, or how quickly their number increases or decreases. If a part of the common good is increased, it can be increased simultaneously for all without taking away from any. In other words, the common good only consists of immaterial things like peace, freedom, justice, and security. History clearly shows us that these things can be implemented in a way that does not benefit all members of a society, such as when freedom is not granted to all of the people, but freedom can be granted to more people without taking any away from those who already have it.
Another aspect of the common good is the roles each level of a society has within that society. These roles are based on the natural function of each of those levels. A natural role of parents is to raise and educate their children. A natural role of the Church is to teach the Faith and guide people to lead moral lives. A natural role of guilds is to set business practices that are beneficial for both their trades or crafts and for the communities in which they operate. A natural role of local government is to enforce the laws of its community. A natural role of the state government is to defend the state.
When government chooses to act, it always needs to do so with a view to the common good. Thus, when a higher order of society chooses to assist in the role of a lower one, it cannot usurp the lower order of its primary function in that role because that would be contrary to the common good. When a school is established, it cannot usurp the parents’ principal role as the educators of their children. Therefore, while a local government establishing a school system is compatible with subsidiarity, making attendance compulsory or otherwise interfering with the right of parents to direct their children’s education is not compatible with subsidiarity because it usurps a role that naturally belongs to the parent. The government may have a compelling interest in seeing that children are educated, but so do parents, and that of the parents is more compelling than that of the government because it is their natural role.
There will be times when it is necessary for the government to act. For example, when a natural disaster strikes, higher levels of government may be needed because they are capable of pulling together the resources necessary to address the needs of those affected. However, the ability for the lower levels of society to maintain their natural and proper roles is also part of the common good. Therefore, when a higher level of government steps in to support or coordinate the activities of the lower levels, it should not deprive them of their proper roles and functions by taking over. When assistance is provided to address a long-term problem that is appropriate for a lower level of government, the higher level should not only provide material or financial assistance to the lower level, but help it to take over the task of addressing the problem without the involvement of the higher level in the long run.
We can see from this that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act recently upheld by the Supreme Court in the USA violates this fundamental principle. It overrides the authority of every lower order of society and enforces its own vision of what should be done. It does not assist lower orders of society to establish ways of addressing the need to access health care. Its management of this plan is not intended to be temporary while the lower orders either decide to continue it at a local level or come up with their own alternatives. It does not allow the lower orders to choose what services should be provided according to their own judgment. Instead, it constitutes one more step on the road of an increasingly totalitarian government which tramples the natural order of society by absorbing those roles that naturally belong to the lower orders. It may be true that it does so in a sincere desire to serve society at large, but its method actually mortally wounds that society. It takes away freedom. It creates unrest because its method of “assistance” is fundamentally unjust. Some of the alternatives proposed by those who seek to overturn the law are better, but many of them still suffer from fundamental flaws because those who wrote them do not have a full understanding of the natural order of a just society.
By adhering to these principles of subsidiarity, the higher orders of society will not become overburdened or bloated because they will not assume roles and tasks that are not appropriate to their levels. The higher the order of society, the less its scope of authority. The lower orders will not be overwhelmed by disasters or other large problems because the higher orders are there to assist when necessary without usurping their authority. That is the ideal, but it is impossible to implement a social structure that is completely impervious to corruption. Therefore, by localizing authority according to the natural roles of each level of society, we protect each level by giving it the greatest ability to correct a corruption of the natural order when it does arise. This will also increase freedom for the citizens at large, because the level of government that will have the greatest impact on their daily lives will be the most local level—that level over which they have the greatest amount of influence and over which they have the greatest power to implement change. The principle of subsidiarity provides the family and individual the greatest ability to protect and defend their natural rights within society. It provides the same for every level of society. This protects the common good for society as a whole.