Friday, November 18, 2016

Deep Subsidiarity

That's Lao Tzu (now transliterated as Laozi) heading west through the Hanku Pass on his way to... somewhere. Maybe he passed by here after he wrote this:

 "Small state, small population/No need for tools/Tools not used/People think about death/Don't move far/Boats and carts/No reason to ride them/Armor and chariots/No reason to use them/Return to knots rather than writing/Be satisfied with their own food/Be content with their own clothes/Happy in their homes/Content with their customs/Nation next door so near/Its dogs and chickens are heard/People live their whole lives/Never make a visit." (T'ao Te Ching/Dàodéjīng: 80; my translation based on Red Pine's).

 Now that's deep subsidiarity. The knot business might be a bridge too far, but the rest of it fits right in with the subsidiarity life style if you ask me. Younger folks may balk at this, and when I was a young man, I found it quaint. It was a different translation I read back when studying Chinese long, long ago, but it made no difference: I was convinced I still had miles to go before I slept (Frost again) and planned to put on plenty while traveling the world. Now? I very nearly live the life described above: dark bread with cracklings still warm from the clay oven; freshly laid eggs; carrots, beets, peppers, lettuce from the greenhouse... Okay, the coffee comes from elsewhere, the milk is in a tetrabrick, beef not butchered here, but the apricots came straight from the tree and this is 2500 years after the above was written! Fanatical purists are unwelcome at the Subsidiarity Institute.

Deep subsidiarity on the individual or family level is making rare journeys to urban areas, likely living in a rural community in which the maximum degree of local political autonomy can be obtained, if not de jure then de facto, as is often the case in rural areas that pay lip service to administrative rules and laws handed down by larger governmental bodies, but often ignoring them on a regular basis. The Institute, for example, is located in a village of some 2,000 people in a province and nation that requires the use of auto headlights at all times as well as the use of seatbelts while driving. Fines are high for violations of these ordinances and there are police checkpoints on paved roads at which one can be stopped. In practice, however, if the driver is a villager, the police will overlook the infraction. There is considerable legal latitude in villages, with custom, often outweighing law.

Communities that embrace subsidiarity avoid becoming overly dependent upon outside funding for their municipal needs. Keeping focused on needs as opposed to desires is a critical if subsidiarity is to be practiced. The Institute is located in a tiny village that is poorly administrated, so poorly in fact that the mayor was recently removed owing to the disastrous municipal financial situation. The village budget draws about eight per cent of its total from local taxes; the rest comes from "co-participation" by the provincial and federal governments. The municipal water system does not supply potable water, but we do have a partially-finished "multi-use" sports facility that goes largely unused. This is not subsidiarity-style governance, much less budgeting.

 Deep subsidiarity is not the same as survivalism, given that it does not predicate some sort of societal disaster as its raison d'etre; if subsidiarity were widely practiced, there would be no need for survivalist thinking. Subsidiarity is after all a community-based system, although upon further thought, the family is the first unit of government, so...

Anyone who practices or wishes to practice subsidiarity in modern life is well advised to read Lao Tzu, Han Shan (Red Pine translation), Chuang Tzu and others in the Taoism/Zen tradition. Subsidiarity was first articulated as such by Catholicism, from which the word was coined, but as far as a way of life embracing simplicity goes, the Asians expressed it far earlier and very effectively.

And on the subject of Lao Tzu, there will be a bonus post today! The Institute is publishing a short story, "Dr. Lao Redux," written by our founder. It draws upon a 1935 novel by Jack Finney, The Circus of Dr. Lao, read by our founder half a century ago. It remains one of his favorite novels and is re-read on perhaps a bi-annual basis.

Subsidiarity was the de facto governing principle for much of humankind's history. It was a principal feature of early US governance and the nation would be a better place, a more satisfactory society, were it to return to the forefront of political theory worldwide with no overarching bureaucracy meddling in the affairs of largely self-determinant communities.

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