Is it contrary to the principle of subsidiarity for a school principal to ban homemade lunches, my colleague Jana Bennett asks? Should there be a national ban on incandescent lightbulbs? These questions are not earth-shaking. But they are extremely important for establishing a Catholic social teaching that actually “works” – that actually applies to our day-to-day evaluation of systems.
I wanted to write a separate post because the problem here begins when subsidiarity is deployed as a principle apart from solidarity. Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate (#57):
The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.
I argue nearly the same thing in an (earlier!) essay in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, on CST and modern politics: that solidarity and subsidiarity together function as the key principles.
How might we apply these in the cases above? I think two rules are necessary. First, we should recognize that subsidiarity is not a free-standing principle about “size,” but rather a principle that protects against “demeaning” or “paternalist” laws. Is any “lower” group harmed by these rules? As Jana points out, the law makes exceptions for those who demonstrate particular dietary rules. It would not seem at all demeaning, were I a parent with interests in vegetarian meals, to indicate to the principal that I elected to send my child with vegetarian foods not served at the cafeteria. Attempts to ban particular types of foods are, of course, impossible, and would probably be much more paternalistic, because they inevitably involve judgments on particular choices, which are highly contestable. But how is the family unit harmed by this rule, if the exception is there? And how is the family unit harmed by banning inefficient incandescent lightbulbs? Here the case is even less compelling.
In both of these cases (and others), “subsidiarity” turns into a libertarian appeal, which is quite specifically is NOT meant to be – that would turn in into a principle of “social privatism,” which it often is in the hands of some Americans of a libertarian bent. In order to appeal to the principle, we need to demonstrate the harm done to the subsidiary group. We cannot simply appeal to freedom.
Such a standard is particularly true in light of the second requirement: that subsidiarity be deployed in tandem with solidarity. On lightbulbs, the pope is clear (#47):
On this front too, there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity, especially in relationships between developing countries and those that are highly industrialized. The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens.
Reducing energy use is virtually a moral norm (“can and must”)! Solidarity requires the reduction of energy use. The reduction of energy use is accomplished primarily collectively, since “everyone” do a small action leads to much larger results. Those for whom CFL lightbulbs are a symbolic issue are not wrong: solidarity requires it, and unless one can demonstrate harm to subsidiary groups, the law should do this (and on energy use, much more, if Benedict is to be followed).
But what about school lunches? Un-commented-upon here is the way in which individual parenting failures (for example, feeding your kids poorly in public) affect other children. I’m sure others on this blog could offer many more examples than I can, but I would be relieved (as a parent trying to develop healthy eating habits for my kids) that my child was not faced with a lunchroom full of junk food. This is another issue of solidarity which we as a society need to face: for a long time, for good or ill, custom governed child-rearing in community. Today, for various reasons, custom is in disrepair, and one would seem to have two options: restrict the interaction of your children to groups where they are mostly exposed to good customs, or require certain kinds of good behaviors in schools and other public institutions, regardless of parental intentions. Neither, I admit, is ideal. But surely part of the reason for schools is to mitigate poor parental choices and habits – or at least to avoid “spreading” these choices. This is simply a recognition that school systems are important practices of social solidarity, and while they should not somehow usurp the family (e.g. through inappropriate sexual education), I do not see how the practice of teaching good eating habits to all, and protecting kids with good habits, does harm to families. If anything, it helps them. Call me paternalistic. If this is paternalistic, surely it is equally paternalistic for WIC programs to restrict food choices.
These examples help us get past a fundamental misuse of subsidiarity, which detaches it from the principle of solidarity. Catholics are not anti-government or pro-government; they are about common-good government.
You note “The law makes exceptions for those who demonstrate particular dietary rules.”
From what I could see in the article, the principle’s rule makes exceptions only for medical reasons, though that may only be what the article reported. I cannot see a school infringing (deliberately) on student’s religious freedom (Kosher, or fish during Lent on Fridays) or particular beliefs of diet (vegetarian).
“And how is the family unit harmed by banning inefficient incandescent lightbulbs?”
Well, there’s direct harm, and then there’s class and environmental harm. Alternatives to incandescent bulbs tend to be far more expensive, as well as being harder (or impossible) to recycle, and some contain heavy metals (such as mercury). On the food front, lunch costs $2.25 / meal at the school. This is no problem for some people – others, where packing a lunch might cost far less, this does impact the family.
That said, apparently many students at the school qualify for the free / reduced lunch option. So, they eat for lower cost at school, as it seems.
With THAT said, for some of these students, parental control is simply lacking. There MUST be some students, however, who brought healthy lunches that they prepared with their parent, or watched their parent prepare, thereby increasing family solidarity. The principal’s decision impinges on these students – are we to believe that EVERY student brought unhealthy lunch?
Finally, the CSD notes that:
“[I]t is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community….”
I believe that there is a value in home-prepared meals. Both subsidiarity and solidarity have as an important value the shelter of the family. The school could have found some alternate way to support students who DO have a good home life without taking some part of that away in attempting to rectify the other good.
In my mind, there is nothing wrong with a healthy paternalism when trying to live out CST. I guess I have two practical questions, one which the Chicago Tribune piece comments on, and the other they do not. So #1: How much food waste goes on with these lunches? The article seems to intimate that there is a lot of food uneaten and thrown away. How does this fact fit into the paternalistic scheme of healthy lunches? It would seem to undermine the effort at providing healthy lunches; the students probably go home or go somewhere after school for a less healthy meal anyway AND it wastes food on a large scale. #2: Are these meals in fact healthier than what they would be bringing from home? It certainly is not cheap or easy to produce healthy meals in mass quantity. One of the pictures accompanying one of the Chicago Tribune pieces does not portray a very healthy looking meal.
Walking back to my office after class I was thinking precisely this – that not only is subsidiarity misused and misrepresented – but it also has to be paired with Solidarity – this is now the 2nd time we’ve envisioned posts in a similar way. 🙂
I completely agree that Catholics are about common-good government, and on some level that isn’t anti- or pro- except that it is starting from a very different standpoint. It isn’t Pro-Big Government; but acommon good approach does begin from a standpoint of a positive role for community organizations and governments (from the local to the national). In this sense it is somewhat optimistic about the possibilites of the public sphere.
I think this also ties back into soldiarity as not only a prinicple but a virtue and in fact, a social virtue. Thus, I think you are correct to raise the issue of how a handful of children’s junk food lunches affect the other children in the lunchroom.
This is helpful, Dave. I was worried I was sounding a bit too “libertarian” in my post, when one of my points was more to say we need to be nuanced in the ways we understand the function of government and the levels of government. Your suggestion via Pope Benedict helps aim me in a better direction.
I think we probably ought not stop with the tie in to solidarity – I think that the universal destination of goods (and perhaps some of the other major principles?) is yet another way to think about the justice of a situation and perhaps to mitigate cries of paternalism. (The paternalism question deserves its own post, though – maybe I’ll have to write that at some point.)
Thanks for the replies – I wanted in particular to pick up on some of Jonathan’s points, because I think they are quite reasonable and they demonstrate that the disciplined application of these principles is something that would help the Catholic conversation.
1. If the restriction did not allow for religious practices or for firm moral convictions regarding food and diet, I agree that this would be a problem. I read “medical” extremely broadly. It would be interesting to see how this is actually handled. But I would add – this is not really an issue of subsidiarity. It is about religious freedom. No government body, large or small, should restrict such exercise, subject to the usual (highly debatable) caveats. But then we are no longer discussing subsidiarity.
2. I also agree that if there were a viable, less “drastic” solution, it would be reasonable for the school to follow it. But alternative solutions – for example, restricting particular foods or categories of foods – seem to me far MORE problematic on the level of subsidiarity. But if some concrete “alternate way to support students” whose parents send good meals could be proposed, it might be an improvement.
3. The general issue – “it is gravely immoral…” (what is the CSD paragraph here?) – is not seen correctly unless the issue of solidarity is also raised. Presumably the chief reason we need environmental regulations at all is not because people “cannot” take certain steps on their own, but because the problem itself demands a social solution. Some problems, such as war, demand international authority, as the popes have clearly stated. If it is true that the common making of lunch is in fact a family practice, is it really that difficult, for the sake of social solidarity, to concentrate such practice on (say) breakfast and dinner? Thus, any “solution” needs to take account of realistic possibilities, both at the family level and at the school level, in order to address a problem effectively. There is no “trump card” here, but rather an array of possible solutions – and an encouragement to search for future solutions that might be better.
4. I also think the application of these issues to the family does require the virtue of prudence. A “one-child” populatiion policy, for example, is gravely immoral. But if we accept that public education outside the home for a substantial portion of childhood is OK (i.e. it does not constitute such a gravely immoral replacement of the family), then it’s hard to see school policies which do not violate Catholic morality (so, the school serving a healthy lunch to all is clearly consonant with Catholic morality). Maybe public education itself is a violation of subsidiarity – that would be a different question.
5. CFL lightbulbs can be recycled, their cost is (substantially) less over the lifetime of the bulb (because of the energy savings), and one of the effects of mandating use has been to drive demand and thus lower the prices on the bulbs.
Great conversation here!
What many of the debates on topics such as the previously mentioned are really intending to address relates to the nature of government itself. Subsidiarity should not be utilized in a partisan and ideological fashion. It is not properly identified with the libertarian notion of smaller government as a necessary evil. David, I think you quoting from Caritas in Veritate is important in providing context when discussing subsidiarity.