Friday, November 5, 2010

Subsidiarity and First Things

Subsidiarity is a principle of sanity. It says something about where things should be done.

You are sitting behind the steering wheel of a car, for instance, and it is your responsibility to drive. The back-seat passenger, in spite of whatever anxious inclination he may feel at the moment, is not the driver. He should not be driving from the back seat. You can take this principle--that there is an appropriate context for action--and apply it to economics, or to politics, or to business, or to religion. That is subsidiarity in a nutshell.

Subsidiarity stops nonsense in its tracks. Yesterday I came across a bit of propaganda comparing terrorism with health care reform (or the lack thereof). The advertisement was presented in the following way: At the top of the poster there is depicted an enormous pile of little skulls--a veritable field of death--representing all of the people, we are told, who died because they did not have health insurance. Down at the bottom is one little skull apart from the others, and that one tiny bit of death represents all of the people killed by the terrorists.

This reveals a great mystery. The demise of Homo erectus, for example, is now perfectly understood. No insurance! It is a miracle that our species has survived. My upper-paleolithic ancestors of the Aurignacian culture surely knew the life preserving secrets of the primitive HMO. Along with cave paintings, we can now confidently count health-plan technology among the tools of the ancients. If people die because they don't have health insurance, then it is only logical to infer that the cavemen who survived to pass on their genes must have had it.

This is stupidity, of course. People don't die because they lack health insurance. They die because of great age, injury, violence, or illness. People are not made older, injured, murdered, or sickened by lack of insurance. Thus, if we want to make claims that are at least reasonable and sane, we must admit that death comes about through nature, ignorance, or misfortune. With this knowledge, we can then plan appropriately to improve our chances at life by addressing, as directly as possible, the root causes of the problem we wish to avoid. Then we can focus on a much smaller secondary problem: how to get out of a scrape. That is what subsidiarity helps us accomplish.

It isn't so simple, though. I struggle for the glory of heaven while the Buddhist seeks the tranquility of personal annihilation. Lord Rosebery might want to be filled with "spiritual tremors," but Chesterton prefers to be filled with jam.1 What point is there talking about the proper roles of drivers and passengers, if there is nowhere to go and no car to drive? We don't agree about what we want, or even about what is possible or needed.

Even supposing we have got an idea of what we want, as soon as we look closely at it, it becomes elusive--especially when we say it must be done at the right level and not just at the lowest possible one. We say we want education, but we aren't quite sure what that means. Subsidiarity can point us in a number of directions based on our view of things, and what if our view is not really what we want and we don't even know it? What if we have second or third-order ignorance? What if we are begging for the wrong gifts? This brings me to a comment I made recently in another forum, from which I extracted my aphorism #10, and which I have edited and now include here:

I notice that we talk about teaching as if teaching were a first thing. Without the possibility of learning, there is no teaching.

But there is no objective quality that one can label "learning." This, however, does not discourage us from attempting to quantify every possible aspect of teaching. What is the proper style of education? Where does the responsibility of education belong? We are adamant that our children will be taught, but cannot seem to make them learn.

Not only should subsidiarity put things where they belong, but it should also allow them to remain in the right perspective.

Should I worry if I can’t teach my children Calculus, Latin, or any other subject? I wish to bestow the best gifts on them, but what if I can’t? Is there someone who must? Is that what subsidiarity demands?

Richard Feynman learned how to calculate at the age of 13 and was rather bothered when he discovered that his own father couldn’t quite make heads or tails of it. Feynman knew he needed to learn, so he did. No one had to teach him, but he learned anyway.

Certainly a liberal education is a very beneficial thing. But it is, nevertheless terribly fortunate, for instance, that David Farragut wasn’t given a liberal education. Imagine the national tragedy that might have ensued had the boy been properly schooled. National tragedies happen every day in classrooms where some (probably most) children simply don't belong.

My daughter loves rock and roll. She once asked me for an electric guitar. I said, “Do you really want a guitar? Then make it yourself!” That ought to discourage any foolish aspirations. I have no idea how to make an electric guitar. Guess what? It seems my daughter does, or at least is willing to make the attempt. I tried to give her good advice on how to do part of it. After ruining things according to my specifications, she redid it on her own. It worked out brilliantly without my interference. And what if I, who had the power and the right to grant a wish, had given her what she asked for instead?

It seems that gifts, when trivially bestowed, offend great desires. Subsidiarity, if it is to be right, must not demand the acceptance of gifts.

Subsidiarity has to be a very passive thing. There is a potential for right action at many levels, it is true; but right action awakens only under the current of human will and when there is a possibility for channeling it. Because a thing can be done, even at an appropriate level, does not mean that it must be done or that a way must be found.

Without the desire to receive, it is an injustice to give. Without the desire to learn, it is a tragedy to teach (and a waste of precious time). Without the need to use or to enjoy, there is no directive for making. Without the possibility of ever being, why set about realizing a proper policy for becoming?

It is, perhaps, a small thing to ask if something is done in the proper way or at the proper level. The greater question is whether the thing must be done at all. That too is a part of subsidiarity.

1. Works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton from MobileReference, version 10.1, Kindle location 112,426-59.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Aphorism #10

Gifts, when trivially bestowed, offend great desires.