Thursday, August 12, 2010

Subsidiarity in Rural America

“Subsidiarity” has long been a central concept in Christian thought on the relationship between individuals and society. Most clearly enunciated in Roman Catholic teaching from the late Nineteenth Century onward, subsidiarity is a principle which holds that “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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1883). In other words, every activity in society should be carried out at the smallest manageable level, starting within the family and moving up as necessary through various layers of non-governmental and, eventually, governmental strata.

Perhaps the most basic illustration of this idea is in the area of child-rearing. Few people in modern, Western culture would disagree that the best environment for a child to be raised is with his or her parents. Likewise, most people acknowledge that there are situations in which parents are unwilling or unable to provide a safe home of their children and that, in such cases, it is usually preferable to place the children with grandparents or other close family or friends. Generally, we consider declaring a child to be a “ward of the state” to be a last resort.

However, it is not unheard of—either in art or in life—for the opposite approach to child-rearing to be taken. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley describes shared nurseries in which children are raised by the State and, along the way, essentially brainwashed to accept their government’s complete control over their lives. Pamala Griset and Sue Mahan, in Terrorism in Perspective, point out that “real-life” totalitarian regimes have followed similar programs, including experiments during much of the existence of the Soviet Union in removing children from the homes of their parents and raising them in communal houses.

The contrast between these two approaches highlights the underlying premise of the principle of subsidiarity, which is that each individual human person is made in the image and likeness of God and has free will (autonomy) and inherent dignity. Put another way, all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” As such, social groupings such as governments ought to exist to serve the human person, rather than—as in the case of Huxley’s vision above—the person existing to serve the government.

Lest subsidiarity be confused with a philosophy of dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself individualism, it is important to remember that the idea is nearly always paired in Church teaching with the principle of solidarity. Pope John Paul II described solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” With the two principles combined, the basic idea is that each human individual is mutually responsible for protecting the dignity of each other human individual.

Frontier Interdependence

From the first days of colonization until the major expansion of the trans-continental system of rail travel near the end of the Nineteenth Century, many people in what would become the United States lived weeks away from sources of governmental oversight—or assistance. Frontier communities proved through both their successes and their grim failures the truth of what a much later, fictional character named Jack Shephard would turn into a rallying cry: “If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.”

Isolation was, and still is in some respects, a great engine of creative cooperation. Where I live, watering stations can still be found from a century ago, when outlying ranchers would have to stop periodically to let horses and cattle drink on the long trip into town. While these cisterns were on private land, they were essentially communal resources available for anyone who needed them. As I understand it, the first telephone signals in the area were carried through the barbed wire fences of various land owners until reaching the central operator, each private property owner voluntarily allowing the use for the mutual benefit of all. (Even today, isolation is something of a blessing for towns that are far enough away from larger communities, in that they often have more local businesses in a greater variety of services than like-sized towns closer to “civilization.”)

Jefferson County, Kansas District Attorney Caleb Stegall writes that his home state “has always been leavened by the Jeffersonian spirit of the small-hold freeman, the yeoman farmer, the independent small merchant, the frontiersman, the prairie populists, the lover of liberty who—with his sturdy virtues born of necessity and struggle and scarcity—became self-sufficient, caring and doing for himself, his family, and his community.” The same statement could be made about the country as a whole, and particularly about those areas still clinging to a rural lifestyle today.

The struggle to care “for himself, his family, and his community” has often led to the formation of the “associations” Alexis de Tocqueville described with such admiration in Democracy in America. “In every case, at the head of any new undertaking,” he wrote, “where in France you would find the government ... in the United States you are sure to find an association." This was as true of rural areas as anywhere, with the creation of such organizations as the Grange, farmers’ cooperatives, farm bureau groups, and Farmers Union. Many of those associations still play an important role in agricultural communities to this day.

From the late 1800s (when much of what is today the “breadbasket” of the country was first being settled) until the Great Depression, rural areas helped fuel a great flowering of the ideal of subsidiarity. However, when faced with a huge collective temptation, it was also rural residents who gave the federal government the opportunity to take on unprecedented levels of control over local (and even personal) activities.

A Faustian Bargain?

In describing the causes of the Great Depression, Milton Friedman stressed the importance of widespread failures of local banks in rural areas. Several factors precipitated these failures, including a “bubble” in land prices between 1910 and 1920, interest rates on loans skyrocketing in the 1920s, and—perhaps especially—prices for harvested crops that were too low for farmers to make their payments. In 1933 (followed by a 1938 “fix” of constitutional issues), Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) to address the last of these factors: agricultural commodity prices.

The purpose of the AAA was to raise and stabilize the value of crops by restricting production. To accomplish this, farmers were paid subsidies by the federal government not to raise as many acres of crops or head of livestock as they were capable of. This idea was controversial on a number of levels, not least because many people in the country were going hungry while crops in the field and hundreds of thousands of cattle and pigs were being destroyed. In fact, the first version of the AAA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1936. The, in 1942, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the 1938 version of the law in a case that would become one of the most influential cases in American history: Wickard v. Filburn.

Roscoe Filburn was a dairy and wheat farmer in Ohio who had planted more wheat than allowed under the quota imposed by the AAA, then sued to avoid the penalty imposed as a result. His primary argument was that the federal government lacked the authority under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution (the “commerce clause”) to regulate local crop production that may not be sold to buyers in another state, thereby failing to be “Commerce... among the several states,” in the language of the clause.

The Court ruled that Commerce Clause permitted federal regulation of any activity, regardless of the the nature of the activity itself, as long as “it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce.” This clearly is a subjective standard, and subsequent rulings have used this precedent to expand the Commerce Clause power virtually ad infinitum.

Part of this expansion of top-down power came as a result of one of Filburn’s secondary arguments, which was that he was being deprived of his property (his wheat) without due process of the law as required by the Fifth Amendment. The Court stated in response, “It is hardly lack of due process for the Government to regulate that which it subsidizes.” Put another way, the Court enshrined into case law the dictum, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

Somewhat lost in all this is the fact that, under the AAA, the government was required to ask the farmers impacted by the imposition of a quota for an upcoming year to approve it... and, during the year in which Filburn grew his excessive wheat, the farmers impacted voted in favor of it by a margin of 81 percent to 19 percent. Attorney Jeffrey Snyder characterizes this decision as American farmers selling out their freedom to make decisions locally:

The quotas on wheat production that Filburn contested, then, were not mandated by a socialist Washington bureaucracy eager to bestow the benefits of a centrally planned economy on the nation’s farmers, treading upon the hallowed freedom and independence of those “sturdy yeomen” whom Jefferson praised and idealized. Far from it: the nation’s farmers eagerly approved the restrictions, happily trading their freedom and independence for the government’s promise of a few dollars more.
Today, nearly three-quarters of a century after the first major efforts by the federal government to subsidize (and, thus, regulate) crop production decisions, “service centers” for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are a fixture in nearly every rural community and are major channels of federal money—and influence—into them.

Other such channels include our local schools which, despite being funded primarily with locally-generated property taxes, are subject to the pushes and pulls of state and federal requirements including, notably, the George W. Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program—a funding “competition” among states for which many states are performing legislative contortions. Also looming is the massive new federal involvement in health care often referred to as “Obamacare.”

During the national debate leading up to this health care legislation, several Catholic bishops specifically referred to the principle of subsidiarity in voicing their opposition. Bishop Samuel Aquila, of Fargo, North Dakota wrote:

States, towns, fraternal organizations, businesses, cooperatives, parishes and especially the family have not only legitimate freedom to provide the goods they are rightly capable of supplying, but often times do so with far greater efficiency, less bureaucracy and, most importantly, with personalized care and love.
The bishop went on to add that he can “see this truth vividly” in rural areas, in particular. While we in these areas may have allowed some of our freedom of self-determination to slip away, our commitment to subsidiarity (often, perhaps, without really even knowing its name) is still evident to observers such as Aquila.

Hope on the High Plains

At one point, this reflection was entitled “The Rise and Fall of Subsidiarity in Rural America.” In addition to sounding pedantic, I was also unhappy with the finality the term “fall” seemed to imply. Americans, and perhaps rural Americans more than most, still generally value the ideas that make up the principle of subsidiarity: freedom, self-determination, love of neighbor, civic participation. The seeds of another flowering of the ideal are planted, but in a culture of entitlement, dependency, and apathy, it will take concerted effort to bring it about. Following are a few possible places to start.

GET TO CHURCH: Have you ever noticed how many more churches per person small towns seem to have? I think there is more behind this than simply greater religiosity. Church is a great way to connect with other members of a community, to build common bonds and share common experiences. Ideally, you will find a house of worship that closely matches your personal philosophy and values, but it may be worth taking a chance on one you’re not sure of, just for the fellowship. If several people you trust and admire for their principles all attend one church, check it out. Working out faith in the details may come with time.

GET INVOLVED: The “associations” referred to by de Tocqueville are still highly important to American society. They can provide a focused way to contribute to your community, and are another excellent way to connect with people who share your goals and values. Organizations like the Elks and Lions clubs, organizations associated with churches, and even informal groups like book clubs help build the bonds between neighbors that are so important. I am involved with the Knights of Columbus; my older daughter is in the early stages of becoming a Girl Scout. Both groups focus heavily on serving God, country, and neighbors.

RECONNECT WITH FAMILY: In our era of mobility, people are willing to move further and further away from where they were brought up in pursuit of work. For a time, my two sisters lived on opposite coasts, with one in Washington state and one in Washington, D.C. (with the rest of us still in “flyover country”). At times, the greater abundance of career opportunities “away from home” is at least implicitly valued more highly than proximity to family. This is a change from the way most people have lived for most of human history. While it is clearly not always wrong for people to live far away from extended family, there is certainly something to be said for—if we can think of subsidiarity as concentric rings going further and further out from our self and our immediate family—another “ring” of support and love.

RAISE YOUR OWN CHILDREN: If you have children, seriously consider making arrangements that allow for at least one parent to be home with them full-time, at least while they are very young. If this is not possible, try to find extended family or close friends who can provide child care. Think again of concentric rings: try to go out the fewest number of rings before planning a course of action. Many professional daycare providers are good, caring people... but each child can only be raised once. You only get one chance to instill the kind of values you care about in them, and I believe that is too important to entrust to a stranger.

In the same vein, I believe it is vital for parents to get more involved in the education of their children. Again, most teachers and school administrators genuinely care about the children they teach and want them to be good people. But they can’t love your kids the way you do, and they have to work with many children at once. In addition, teachers in public schools are limited in the kinds of conversations they can have with children about values, particularly in relation to religious faith. My wife and I have chosen to homeschool our children, at least in the early years. I realize this is not possible (or even advisable) for everyone, but I encourage all parents to consider it or other alternatives to passive acceptance of the status quo.

EXPECT MORE OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS: One such alternative is to exert pressure on local school board members (or to become one yourself) in order to make your children’s education the best that it can be. Likewise, stay as informed as possible on what the various levels of government are doing, and whether these decisions are consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Demand better candidates for public office. Consider becoming such a candidate yourself. Our communities and our country need good men and women to provide leadership at all levels of government. The political process is like a computerized data analysis: if all we keep putting into it is garbage, then garbage will be all that we ever get out of it.

I believe subsidiarity is vital to the future of our country, if we hope to continue to be a paragon of “liberty and justice for all.” Freedom is something that, once given up—even for the best of intentions—is frightfully difficult to regain. The good news, though, is that people seem to intuitively know that smaller and more personal solutions to problems are more efficient and often less ethically dubious. In natural law parlance, it is a truth “written on the human heart and knowable by human reason.”

People living in urban and suburban areas have this same knowledge, however hidden it may seem in some cases, and may be pursuing such actions as I have described above. However, we citizens of the rural republic are probably, as a whole, in a better position to follow through on many of them because many of us were raised with similar thoughts in mind (and possibly for as practical a reason as lower cost-of-living). Because of this, I have hope that the next generation of people to “mutually pledge to each other [their] lives, [their] fortunes, and [their] sacred honor in the name of freedom will come from places like my home town. It is our duty to nurture this and to do our part along the way.


  1. I can't help but think of an illustration that I use with other parents when reading this. I once read that it is almost a violent experience when you watch a butterfly leave its cocoon. The butterfly appears to be struggling greatly and those with great compassion may feel obligated to 'help' the butterfly out by removing the cocoon. The problem with that is that the butterfly develops strength in its wings when leaving its cocoon. If you remove the cocoon for the butterfly, the butterfly will not have the ability to fly because its wings are too weak. As parents, we desire them to have it easier than we had it. However, this in no way should create a generation of 'The Hills'. It is not healthy as a parent to pamper your child in such a manner that they do not have to grow. If you give your child the impression that they are the center of the universe, where does that leave room for our Almighty Creator?

    I see this also, in a sense, with the government. Compassion-filled people (aka: 'pampering parents') wish to bail out the banking industry, car industry (aka: spoiled-rotten kids) in the attempts to prevent pain and consequence. No struggle is quickly turning into no lesson learned and the hole we are digging is getting deeper and deeper and is no committing the next generation to bail them out. Thus, big government is removing the cocoon from the people and in a sense taking away our ability to fly.

  2. I like your analogy. It reminds me of "helicopter parents" I know who, even with their kids well over 30 years old, swoop in and save them from the natural consequences of their screw-ups. Every time. I think this completely cripples people, if for no other reason than that they never develop the need to get by on their own just as a point of pride.

    When Congress was debating whether to extend unemployment benefits to 99 weeks, I heard several employers on the radio saying the jobs they have offered people are being turned down explicitly because the people are making more money from their unemployment benefits. One person on the other end of the equation said he's turned down nearly a dozen jobs for the same reason. I feel for people who legitimately can't find work, but to give them nearly two years to "live on the fat of the land" is insane. I'm afraid these people are going to have a rude awakening if and when they ever have to re-learn some independence.