French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the heyday of the 1830s and immediately saw the source of her strength: Americans, he wrote in Democracy in America, do not assume that government exists to solve their problems. Rather, they created flourishing institutions (families, churches, clubs, aid societies, and so forth) to solve those problems at the level closest to the problems themselves.
What Tocqueville observed is called subsidiarity. Long considered an artifact of Catholic social doctrine, the principle of subsidiarity itself is not specific to any doctrine. I think it ought to be reclaimed for the larger purpose of helping our citizens truly flourish.
In the absence of subsidiarity, governments usually fall victim to three temptations:
1. The temptation to turn people from citizens into subjects. Most people think it is a good idea to have a centralized government that does things like negotiate treaties, provide for the common defense, and settle conflicts between the states. But beyond this, Tocqueville thought, centralization “accustoms people to ignore their own wills completely and constantly and to obey, not a single order on a single occasion, but always and in every way. It not only subdues them by force but also ensnares them through their habits.” Any government that denies this effect is either “deceiving itself or trying to deceive you.”
2. The temptation to make coercion seem like compassion. Given the delegated powers of government, it is unreasonable to ask government to exercise true compassion. It can only coerce people to help one another according to its own definition of help and prosecute them if they fail to do so. A government that attempts to exercise compassion smothers and oppresses its citizens by requiring resources from some and obeisance from the rest.
3. The temptation to commit suicide and take its citizens into the grave with it. In his famous Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln said, “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Lincoln was well aware that nations can, and do, die when their governments become unsustainable and citizens lose their will. Tocqueville put centralization at the heart of the problem. Highly centralized nations are, to Tocqueville, “ripe for conquest,” and “if they do not vanish from the world’s stage, it is because they are surrounded by nations like themselves or worse.”
Who Will Stand? With chilling clarity, Tocqueville detailed the end game: “We must not reassure ourselves with the thought that the barbarians are still far from our gates, for if there are peoples who allow the torch of enlightenment to be snatched from their grasp, there are others who use their own feet to stamp out its flames.”
Here is our choice: Will we earn the honor of future generations by standing for truth and justice, or let history record that we lived in the greatest of times and did nothing to preserve them?
Reprinted with Permission: Dr. Jeff Myers, Summit Ministries