An Ethic of Subsidiarity image

An Ethic of Subsidiarity

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Of the many fascinating things about Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, one of the most striking is the transferability of much of it to the political situation of contemporary Britain. For instance:

Liberals look back to the postwar golden age of midcentury America [or the Attlee government], which tehy believe embodied the formula for cultural liberalisation amid economic security and progress until some market fanatics threw it all away. Conservatives look fondly to the late-century boom of the Reagan era [or Thatcherism], which they say rescued the country from economic malaise while recapturing some of the magic of the confident, united America of that earlier midcentury golden age, but was abandoned by misguided statists.

This nostalgia, Levin argues, is misguided, for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who has observed the rise of either Ukip or Corbynism:

Each side wants desperately to recover its lost ideal, believes the bulk of the country does, too, and is endlessly frustrated by the political resistance that holds it back. The broader public, meanwhile, finds in the resulting political debates little evidence of real engagement with contemporary problems and few attractive solutions. In the absence of relief from their own resulting frustration, a growing number of voters opt for leaders who simply embody or articulate that frustration [or simply vote for Scottish independence, or Brexit].

This book begins from that widespread frustration, which I take to be a function in large part of a failure of diagnosis, and so a failure of self-understanding. American life in the decades since the end of World War II has not been, on the whole, a story of finding the right course and then falling away from it. We have actually held fairly steadily to something like a single complex but coherent trajectory, which has turned out to bring us progress at a cost.

Progress at a cost, you say? Like what?

In our cultural, economic, political and social life, this has been a trajectory of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalisation. And it has come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.

That is a remarkably accurate two-sentence summary of the UK today, let alone the US. Here is another:

We have grown less conformist but more fragmented; more diverse but less unified; more dynamic but less secure. Both progressives and conservatives are conflicted about this combination of gains and losses.

So what is to be done? Well, that’s what the rest of the book (which I haven’t yet read) is about. But I’m guessing it’s what Levin calls an “ethic of subsidiarity”, which is essentially an expanded version of this (emphasis added):

Our society is thus like a set of concentric rings, beginning with the most concrete and personal of human connections [i.e. the family] and concluding in the most abstract and philosophical of human commitments [i.e. the state] ... This understanding of society, this picture of our social compact, is itself what is most threatened by the fracture and fragmentation of our era. But it is at the same time what holds the key to balancing diversity with cohesion, and dynamism with moral order. The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralisation. Our political life need not consist of a recurring choice between having the federal government invade and occupy the middle layers of society or having isolated individuals break down the institutions that compose those layers. It can and should be an arena for attempting different ways of empowering those middle institutions to help our society confront its problems.

The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face. Sounds a lot like the church to me.

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