Thursday, February 11, 2010

Subsidiarity: Errors, or, Lessons from Another Original Sin

"in viis iustitiae ambulo"
"I walk in the way of justice." [Prov 8:20]

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.
[GKC, CCC CW3:111]

If we are all the victims of blind and misleading hereditary prejudices, it is indeed impossible for us to judge, not only in a divine or mystical sense, but even in a practical and normal sense. We have no reason to suppose ourselves right in anything we think; and we have no way of correcting ourselves if we are wrong.
[GKC ILN Oct 19 1929 CW35:185]

I am sure you noticed last week the "comedy of error" I committed by attributing Joyce Kilmer's "only God can make a tree" to Rudyard Kipling. (Don't forget to read how GKC made a similar mistake in "The Real Journalist" in A Miscellany of Men, it's even more hilarious!) This was particularly funny to me since I knew the Kilmer poem long before I knew Kipling existed. Apparently this was due to playing with GKC so much in recent years, and seeing the name "Kipling" (I will not go into the role RK's Kim plays in my fiction; you will have to wait and see.) There was another gaffe I committed recently when I was trying to write of "Brownian motion" but typed BROWNING - a very curious error which crosses all sort of "impassable divides". (That is a tongue-in-cheek reference to a book by Fr. Jaki - us tech guys are so goofy when we play on literary turf!) If the slightly veiled tech humor here escapes you and you are not in the mood to find out what Brownian motion is (or who Browning is) perhaps you would like something of an else. I recall being at work (indeed, the place where we used Subsidiarity) when I heard someone speaking of a movie called "Finding Nemo" and I immediately started laughing. I had not seen it (and still haven't) and knew nothing whatever about it; I laughed merely at that title. Now, my co-workers know (as you also know) that I laugh about all sorts of things - but of course I quickly explained that the Latin word nemo means "nobody" - of course I thought a movie called "Finding Nobody" must be very curious!

Ahem. Let us rather proceed to find something - for today I wish to speak of errors, in particular, such errors as they relate to my larger topic, Subsidiarity.

The word used in medicine is "pathology" - where it means the study of disease, its causes, its treatments and so on. By extension it can be applied to study of failure or error in other fields... but let us not be pedantic. Rather I shall tell you a story.

The very first computer program I wrote - lo, so many years ago now - was our first assignment in the first programming class in my first semester at college. In those days we punched cards - yes, I really AM that old! We were given a sheet of paper which listed that first program, and told to punch cards corresponding to the printed text. We were to check it very carefully, because if we made a mistake we would produce an "ERROR" with a row of asterisks, presumably arising from our mistyping something - then we would have to make a correction to the cards and try again. When it appeared that we had a perfect rendering of the program onto the cards, we would then submit our "deck" to the computer for processing. Ah the thrill of submitting that first program! Yes, it was quite exciting and interesting, but I have no time to recount all the details for you today, as vivid as they remain for me. So I punched the cards, checked them several times, and finally submitted them.

Soon afterwards, I received the "printout" which was produced by my request. I examined it and was very disturbed to see this:

Ah, yes... I checked the computer printed version of the program against what we were given in the handout - and they were identical! What's going on? we moaned.

The professor explained when we handed them in. Yes, we had been framed. The interesting thing about the program we were given was that it contained an error! If we did the assignment correctly, we would of necessity encounter this "end-of-file" situation. (There happens to be a good pedagogical reason for this apparent setup, but since we are not talking about software development here I shall omit it; see me after class for details.)

Yes, our first program was wrong - a kind of software original sin. It was a useful point of instruction, and indeed I am still instructing with it all these many years afterwards! For from this lesson we should begin to distinguish two major classes of errors - an important distinction which we need to grasp if we are to understand more about Subsidiarity.

In medical school the future physician learns that there are large classes of anomalies to be found in the health of a human being: situs inversus, sickle-cell anemia, polydactyly; kidney failure, leukemia; malaria, tetanus - all have differing causes and differing treatments - or lack of treatment. Some anomalies (like the first three) are congenital: they are part of the being as inherited or developed. Others arise within an otherwise normal body, either by some failure of the system, or by some invasion by an malignant organism.

These same broad classes might be said to apply to other kinds of errors... I am not going to give a scholastic study of this here, but I wish to give you at least a little introductory guide to the pathology of Subsidiarity. (nice ring to that, hmm.)

This is particularly useful since I have been hearing some vague uses of the term recently, and have become a little concerned. This is a bit tedious, I know, but let us proceed.

One does not weep and moan and say "Ah the problem with our economics today is that we are neglecting the principles of ALGEBRA!"

Maybe we should. I find it suggestive that the words "commutative" (that is, a+b=b+a) and "distributive" (that is, ab+ac=a(b+c)) are important in algebra - even though they can both be found on the "Tree of Virtues" which I posted a few weeks back, where they appear as branches of what the artist terms "IUSTITIA". But then as a Chestertonian I know there is no such thing as a different subject.

However, it would seem a bit more rational, and more in tune with the proper, ah, let us call it the proper "bedside manner" of a physician, to suggest that the problem is not so much the neglect of the rules of algebra, but the rules of justice. A greedy man can work accurate sums which are quite morally wrong. It is greed, not inaccurate sums, which is the disease to be treated. (But I say all this in way of example, and may have it somewhat distorted... except for the rules of algebra. For instruction on the other matter, I might suggest Prümmer's Handbook of Moral Theology or other such authorities.)

Similarly, we hear of people speaking about how government X or society Y is "not applying the rules of Subsidiarity". However, Subsidiarity is rather like Algebra in that it orders its materials at a far lower level, and the error may be somewhat nearer to the surface. Indeed, the error is not so much one of Subsidiarity (or its failure, or its lack of having been resorted to) as much as it is a nearly endemic denial of the far more present and far more relevant Written Laws of the Society. If there was no "constitution" (let us call it, just for an example) for that country, then we would properly appeal to the Laws of Subsidiarity. But since in (let us say) a given country there already exists a well-drawn-up, fair, just, sensible and legal "constitution" which moreover happens to acknowledge Subsidiarity implicitly - well, then the bedside physician ought to instruct the patient to follow his constitution in order to get back into health, and refrain from unhealthy and inaccurate speculations about larger rules he is less familiar with. If, of course, that "constitution" had not properly conformed to Subsidiarity, then it would require adjustment - but one must proceed to correct things in proper order, or one will never be sure whether one has corrected the problem or merely introduced a new illness.

(The exceedingly curious truth is that the error of not abiding by the original spec is given a different name when it occurs in a living being rather than a society. The word is "cancer". In a system of thought the word used is "heresy". See GKC's The Man Who Was Thursday for details.)

Now, this may seem quite insulting to some. People may tell me, Doctor, what gives you any better vision of the rules of Subsidiarity than us? Have we not read Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus? I am not arguing that way - not at all. As of today, February 11, 2010, I have not seen any writing according to the Scholastic manner which studies the nature and principles of Subsidiarity, as true scientists once studied the other branches of such moral and intellectual sciences. If I had the proper training perhaps I would write such a book - but God had other plans, as did - er - a certain cable TV company. Instead, I have done something else. I have studied a system that used Subsidiarity - yes, a simpler one, simpler by far, than most governments or even most clubs - and from it I have learned a little about its principles.

I have recently found a quote which may help clarify this. I was reading The Life of Christ by Giuseppe Ricciotti - a very wonderful book - and found this commentary about the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37:
Note the apparent discrepancy between the doctor's question ("Who is my neighbor?") and Jesus' answer ("Do thou also in like manner!"). It is a discrepancy in form only. The doctor is still within the realm of pure ideas; Jesus comes down to the realm of fact, because the most beautiful ideas in the world are nothing but words if they are not realized in actual life. ... That is why when the doctor wants to know who his neighbor is, Jesus pictures for him one who acts like a neighbor and admonishes him to follow that example.
[GR The Life of Christ §440 p. 445]
In some sense, I am writing a parable - I propose that we might learn what Subsidiarity is by studying the Control Room and HOME and the inserters, CUSTOS and PUMP and FERRY - the things which act, even if merely analogically, according to Subsidiarity.

Now, I must say one more thing, in case you have the impression that Subsidiarity is just "a way" or "a good approach" or "some novel management technique" or something of that kind, like the odd excretions of "style" one finds every few years coming from "graduate schools of management". It is not even "THE" Catholic way, as if it was somehow labeled or bound to the Catholic Church, in some curiously unknown dogmatic or liturgical manner, by vesting appropriately, or eating certain foods, or saying certain prayers.

Subsidiarity is not Catholic in that sense - though it is catholic, meaning universal. It is not "a" way - it is THE way, the only way, of properly structuring systems of any complexity. Any system, any method of management or of ordering, succeeds to the extent it conforms to Subsidiarity, and fails to the extent it rejects or distorts Subsidiarity. I know that it seems too simple to be true, but then there are lots of things which are like that - algebra for example.

Now that we have made our Scholastic distinguo and began to have a glimpse of that first error (which is, in some fashion an original sin) next time we shall actually consider several of the particular errors which occur in a system using Subsidiarity. This will be fun, because even when these examples sound abstract and theoretical and far-fetched, I can mention real experiences of those errors, and show how to deal with them. It will be instructive. Cable TV never had it so good. Hee hee!


  1. about when the constitution (of a given country) permits a government action but doesn't require it, so that there's a policy choice policy to be made that the constitution by itself won't settle? Would it make sense to invoke principles of subsidiarity then?

  2. Another excellent question, Brian. Indeed, it is true that one must eventually resort to the principles of Subsidiarity - but I think it wise to elaborate.

    In that odd little branch of software development called "object oriented programming" we find jargon like "inheritance of a method from a containing class" - which is nothing more than the idea that "if the local group don't have a rule for something, then you use the applicable rules of nearest containing body". In our example, if there is no local law or anything relevant all the way up to and including the constitution of the country, we must then test against the "containing" laws. (But we must be sure in such cases that we have not overlooked the relevant article, etc - what the thing itself SAYS and what the media or the mob - or lawyers - claim may not align with the document. But this is an aside; the details of the case must be carefully studied.)

    Now I must point out here there are several classes of such "containing" laws, and we need to use some care in distinguishing the cases which each touches. There are matters of international law (society), of tradition, of physical law, of moral law, and perhaps others. There is also those three laws - more accurately, "meta-laws" which arise from the nature of Subsidiarity in itself, about which I will talk more next time.

    Now, this does not resolve the matter entirely, but I want to add a reference to something Chesterton points out. The situation you suggest is really a kind of ambiguity - and these need a very special care, indeed a vigilance - we need to WATCH for such cases - because as Chesterton warns us:

    "...evil always takes advantage of ambiguity."
    [GKC Eugenics and Other Evils CW4:297

  3. So does that mean that if the law of the smaller group opposes the law of the larger group the law of the smaller group is to be followed?


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