Papal emissary brings hot meal to local economy, shivering at bulwarks

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Local problems should be solved locally, according to the idea of local economy and the Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity.

Local problems should be solved locally, according to the Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity.

By David Tulis

Local economy is a remedy along the margins of national crisis. It cannot stop what one analyst calls “multiple overlapping death spirals” that will occur when a rigid centralized national economy teeters toward its crisis and into its moment of recognition.

Local economy cannot undo the national mess. A poll by the Associated Press poll says people don’t have much confidence the government can fix it, either. Sixty-five percent of respondents say they have no confidence the national government can fix even the matters entirely within its own control such as the budget and the national debt.

Still, local economy provides a framework for recovery in regions and cities in the 50 states and beyond. The problems that will roll outward from bankrupt and dissolute centers of power will have to be addressed by individuals, by business owners, neighborhood groups, districts in a town, city governments, county and state governments and, most importantly, the church. If Social Security’s monthly stipend loses half its buying power at the local Bi-Lo, thanks to inflation, families will have to help Ma with her rent and groceries, or take her into the family home.

Local problems, local solutions

The idea of local economy — a reformation of morals in a given city, a taking charge of local mercies amid national destitution — is evident in Christianity’s major branches. My background as a reformed Christian cites many works suggesting how biblical living enables local economy. In Roman Catholicism the ideas emerge in its doctrine of subsidiarity.

“Catholic teaching wants man to be an effective participant in his world,” says James Kalb, “so it wants the center of gravity of social life to be within his reach. For that reason it insists, in the face of the modern tendency toward the industrialization of social relations, on making the business of society as local as reasonably possible.” So subsidiarity insists family and neighbors, not officials and higher-ups, are capable of rendering aid and assistance.

Local economy is a force for good in society because it is antipolitical, if you will. Subsidiarity shares that characteristic. “More generally, it rejects present-day liberalism, the attempt to turn the social order into a technically rational contrivance for maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences. It opposes it not only in its leftist or progressive form, which emphasizes expertise and equality, and prefers to act through neutral bureaucracies and international authorities, but also in its rightist or conservative form, which emphasizes energy and efficiency, and prefers global markets and the exercise of national power.

“So it is ill at ease with both the politically-correct welfare state and such aspects of present-day capitalism as outsourcing, big box stores, the penetration of commercial relations into all aspects of life, and the bottom line as the final standard for business decisions.”

Local economy, the version with the tiara on its head, favors some elements on the “left” and some on the “right.” Says Mr. Kalb: “It generally favors family values, distributed powers, federalism, local control, and freedom of enterprise and association, all of which now count as conservative causes. It also favors causes that count as liberal, such as grassroots democracy, limitations on big business as well as big government, and certain kinds of unionism.”

A Christian center

Subsidiarity takes place in the Christian life of the church, of worship, sacraments and what Mr. Kalb calls “subordinate bodies,” all working to bring souls to God and make them faithful to Him after conversion. Parish life is necessarily local, with individuals making use the teaching and means provided in a Christian context.

Mr. Kalb represents a church structure that is highly centralized and autocratic, a contrast to the decentralized government seen in the Protestant church. Be he says centralized systems are “grossly unequal because they concentrate power in so few hands.” In contrast, the Roman version of local economy “promotes functionality by giving implicit local knowledge — the kind of knowledge you only have if you’ve been there — a place to develop, accumulate, and find application.”

Biology and urban design theory, says Mr. Kalb, a Manhattan lawyer, are best understood in terms of local economy ideas. “[R]esilient and adaptable systems need exactly the features that subsidiarity favors with its emphasis on local initiative and relative autonomy: diversity and redundancy, inter-connected networks, structures on all scales of size and complexity, and the capacity of the system and its components to self-adapt and self-organize. On that line of thought, subsidiarity is not so much a good idea as a necessity for any system that combines great complexity with enduring functionality.”

Source: Mr. Kalb’s essay, “Subsidarity: Why is It Praised More than It is Practiced?”, appears in a Roman Catholic journal, Crisis, where it is reprinted from Catholic World Report of Dec. 9, 2013. His book is The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality.

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