3.2.5 Suspensions of subsidiarity

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Unit 3 Contents


CST recognizes quite explicitly that there can be exceptional circumstances in which it is necessary for government to take over tasks that are properly done by civil society bodies, that is, times when subsidiarity must be suspended.

CST refers to this function of government as ‘substitutionary’.  Writing especially with economic life in mind, Pope John Paul II said this in Centesimus Annus (1991):

[I]n exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when social sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom. (#48, italics in original)

The Compendium says there are “various circumstances” in which such interventions are required (#188).

One obvious example of government having exactly this kind of ‘substitutionary’ role is what happened to some banks in the UK during the severe financial crisis that began in 2007. In the early part of this crisis, when complete collapse of one or more major banks would almost certainly have had the domino effect of causing others to collapse, the state directly took over those that were on the brink: Bradford and Bingley, Halifax, Lloyds, and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).  This was even though, in line with subsidiarity, nobody in the British government has argued that in the long term banks should be state-owned.  This was a temporary measure in a serious crisis.  The aim was to try to ensure the survival and recovery of those institutions, before returning them to the private sector.

The fundamental problem that had led to this state of affairs can be put like this: banks had ceased to be banks.  They had ceased to operate in line with their own ‘vocational responsibility’ (using the term introduced on the last screen). The basic purpose of banks is twofold:

  • to look after depositors money
  • to use this to make loans which fund

– investment by businesses to enable them to supply real goods and services to people

– major purchases by consumers, especially houses.

But British and many other Western banks had, in general, abandoned this purpose and, in line with the neoliberalism that had come to dominate economic and political life, adopted the overriding aim of maximizing profit.  Therefore, rather than acting to benefit their customers (depositors and borrowers), they came to see customers as instruments from which to extract maximum revenue.  (For fuller discussion of that contrast, and of how neoliberalism differs from CST, see Module A, Unit 5, especially 5.2.3.)

The banks having ceased to be what banks should be, and having taken the whole economy to the edge of what would, without state action, have been an immeasurably more severe economic crisis, government stepped in and nationalized those about to go under.  The state was able to pump in a vast quantity of additional funds to keep them afloat.  Since then it has had to try to nurse them back to a healthier state and to prepare them for transfer back to the private sector.

With that example in mind, read the single paragraph in the Compendium on this ‘substitute function’ of the state.  (This comes immediately after the reading set on 3.2.3.)


Reading (1p.)

Compendium, #188 (last paragraph of Chap 4, sec IV)

The URL takes you to #187.




Can you think of other examples of when the state might need to play such a ‘substitutionary’ role?


Both the quotation from John Paul II above and the text in the Compendium emphasize that such action by government has to be temporary.  What this means in practice depends, of course, on the nature of the intervention.  Another example of the state fulfilling a substitutionary role is when, as is never desirable in itself, a child is ‘taken into care’.  The fundamental reason for the need for this is that, for whatever combination of reasons, the child’s parents or other close family members are not able to look after him or her adequately.  As we are all aware, if only from media reporting of cases of terrible neglect or abuse by family members, judgments by the relevant state body about such children can be extraordinary difficult.

The reason for giving this second example is that the way in which government’s substitutionary role is undertaken is significantly different from such cases as the temporary nationalization of banks.  All would agree that each child should remain ‘in care’ for as temporary a period as possible, before living with foster parents and then adoptive parents – although of course achieving this outcome can be very difficult.  However the state needs to make on-going provision for dealing with children in such circumstances. In other words, the state has to maintain a permanent system to enable it to act properly when taking such children into temporary care.

So some of the kinds of substitute action the state must take are very occasional, such as in relation to banks.  But other kinds are sufficiently regular that a system to administer them has to become part of the on-going work of government.  What the principle of subsidiarity helps us to see clearly is that the latter are still exceptional, temporary and, in a sense, abnormal.  Fundamentally, it is parents’ role to bring up children, which is why it should never be seen as normal for a state agency to take this over.  Doing so must always be temporary, even if the state has a system firmly in place that aims to ensure it is done as well as possible.

The final point to do with suspensions of subsidiarity that we need to be clear about is this.  The state’s ‘substitute function’ is not the same as what is required by the state’s basic responsibility to run an effective criminal justice system.  This is a normal part of the state’s role.  As there are always injustices among people – theft, assault, rape, child abuse, fraud, neglect of dependants, exploitation of workers, cruelty, etc. – it is fundamentally important that the state maintains an effective court system. The interventions this requires are not at all the same as the state taking over civil society bodies.

In short, the operation of the criminal justice system is a quite separate matter from the suspension of subsidiarity that the state’s emergency ‘substitute function’ can require.  If somebody claimed that subsidiarity meant that the state should not prosecute such crimes as endangering workers, domestic violence, or child abuse, they would show they did not grasp what subsidiarity is all about.

This responds to one objection that some might make to the principle of subsidiarity, namely that it could give a shelter to criminals.


End of 3.2.5

Go to 3.2.6 Questions for discussion half way through the unit

Module B outline

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