A principle of social organization that originated in the Roman Catholic Church which holds that social problems should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level consistent with their solution. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary (that is, a supporting, rather than a subordinate) function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.


The principle of subsidiarity holds that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. Functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person.

Subsidiarity assumes that these human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, labor unions and other voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. "Positive subsidiarity," which is the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care, etc., is another important aspect of the subsidiarity principle.

The principle of subsidiarity was first formally developed in the encyclical Rerum novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other. The principle was further developed in Pope Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo anno of 1931, and Economic Justice for All by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The 10th Amendment to the Constitution of The United States championed Subsidiarity before the concept was developed by German Catholic theologian and aristocrat Oswald von Nell-Breuning 150 years later. It holds that privileges not reserved specifically in The Constitution for the federal government are the purview of the individual states.

Many social "reforms" taken on at the federal level are widely accepted as being able to be done better at a lower, more local level. From education to healthcare. welfare and social services, border protection, homelessness, poverty and many other societal ills, subsidiarity calls for the addressing and solving of these challenges at the most local level possible, because each problem is best known in its own community and the community knows best how to take care of its own specific brand of the problem.

Alexis de Tocqueville's classic study, Democracy in America, may be viewed as an examination of the operation of the principle of subsidiarity in early 19th century America. De Tocqueville noted that the French Revolution began with "a push towards decentralization... in the end, an extension of centralization." He wrote that "Decentralization has, not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will."

De Tocqueville spends quite a bot of time on a fine example of Subsidiaruty without even knowing it as he explains the function of the man in charge of repairing the roads in the smallest of towns, as well as the duties of the Sheriff.

Subsidiarity works hand-in-hand with another Great Idea for a ManHusbandDad, the principle of Distributism.

Learn more:

A Man explores as an honest skeptic. The links below will provide more in-depth information concerning the history, use of, and viability of Subsidiarity. Please do not assume the information given above is exhaustive, and do your own due diligence. Click on the title to be taken to these external resources.


Pope Pius XI - Quadragesimo Anno

Pope Pius XI's letter commemorating forty years of the influential "Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor" given by Pope Leo XII (and discussed under the principle of Distributism here). This document puts in words centuries' old practices of Subsidiarity that were fading away with the onslaught of centralized governments in the post-industrial age. An understanding of this document is essential to understanding Subsidiarity.

Alexis de Tocqueville - Democracy In America

This links to several formats of the free public domain first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville's must-read. This work shows subsidiarity in action during the Golden Age of the American Experiment. It shows in finite detail how all problems, issues and situations were handled at the lowest level possible out of necessity and desire. One cannot have a meaningful discussion or opinion about subsidiarity without absorbing de Tocqueville's perspective.

The Catechism - Paragraph 1883

One can get upset after finding out that smart, common-sense ideas have been kept away from them, whether purposefully or by accident. Don't be discouraged - few people know that subsidiarity is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and is a major social teaching.