The conservative's defense of diversity

This post is a continuation of a series I began on Russell Kirk’s 10 principles of conservatism and how they can be incorporated into today’s political climate in hopes of stabilizing the Republican Party and putting it on a pathway to victory in 2014 and beyond. The conservative principle to be discussed in this post is that conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.

Conservatives recognize the uniqueness of individuals and therefore, respect diversity. To respect the dignity of the individual is to recognize and respect variation. While we are each endowed with certain unalienable rights, we all possess different wills, capacities, needs, and other characteristics that define who we are and what suits us best. A respect for individuality then permeates the conservative’s view of government in that a government that is too large will not be able to address individual variation or allow individuals and their naturally occurring communities to address their needs as they see best. This lesson is most clearly manifested in the Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity and federalism as the political manifestation of that teaching. Pope Pius XI wrote in Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish on their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” We also see in Aquinas an explicit statement about what subsidiarity means for politics when he writes that subsidiarity allows laws to “adapt to time and place [and] can be rightly changed on account of the changed condition of man.”

Subsidiarity rests on two ideas about the individual and the society. First, humans are not ends but contain an inherent worth thus making it personalistic rather than contractual or utilitarian. This means the individual person is ontologically and morally prior to the state or any association. Second, the individual is naturally sociable and can thus only realize her telos in the context of the proper social order. Because the individual cannot flourish without associations he must work to preserve those associations for without them he harms himself. These two points are well-established within the contemporary literature on subsidiarity and are nicely summarized by Duncan. “It [subsidiarity] assumes that the basic aim of societal structures…is to promote human dignity and, hence, genuine freedom. It views the human person not as an instrument, but as an end-in-himself. At the same time, persons are irreducibly social and realize their authentic humanity is only in community with others.” Subsidiarity, then, seeks to reconcile man’s individuality with his need to associate. Subsidiarity argues that this can only be reconciled when governing occurs at the smallest level.

While there are both clear and nuanced distinctions between federalism and subsidiarity, one can easily discern from the summary of subsidiarity I have provided that the principle of governing at the smallest level possible is the idea behind federalism and therefore receives its full justification and normative defense from subsidiarity. Althusius is the first major theorist of federalism and he drew, explicitly, on the Catholic social teaching. And while its popularity has waxed and waned since then, subsidiarity has always provided the basis of local government whether commentators have recognized it or not. But most recently Paul Ryan pushed subsidiarity into the mainstream vernacular and forced us to reconsider the idea.

To close, it is worth considering one more source as it is a source not usually associated with conservatism in order to demonstrate the breadth of this principle. As Aristotle argued in Book 1, ch. 2, and Book 3, ch. 12 of Politics, political questions always require a balancing of diverse and sometimes incompatible goods, a balancing that can be accomplished only in context and not by the unmediated application of universalizing theory.

If we combine these two insights, we develop an almost irrefutable defense, not just for federalism, but for small-scale government in any iteration. What I hope to illuminate in this post is not just the need for small-scale government, but the need to go into the core of why and encourage all thinking conservatives to do so on their own as well. Furthermore, we should demand and expect that our leaders do so as well.

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