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COVID-19 and Subsidiarity

Updated: Apr 10

Elementary Teacher
It is really a question as to which level should be given overall decision making responsibilities.

By: Dave Rojeck, PhD

Catholic Educational Leadership/Policy Studies

In the last generations, the principle of subsidiarity has taken a back seat to growth in government. According to Google, 'subsidiarity' is "an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority." It originated in Catholic Social Teaching.

What we see being played out in these times of the coronavirus in the United States is a tug-o-war between those favoring subsidiarity against those who prefer a top-down approach. In fact, this pandemic shines a gleaming light on the seemingly never-ending battle between big v. small (limited) government.

Big government proponents seem to prefer standardization of policy with regard to dealing with the crisis of our times: If we just say at home, shelter-in-place, we will a matter of time. Those favoring limited government would seem to prefer a patchwork, state-by-state approach, but many citizens are asking: How much time? Haven't we flattened the curve as originally stipulated?

Both sides claim authority over the matter. Many a small town across the fruited plain see it as fruitless to lock down like New York City. They plead for subsidiarity while the national experts in the medical and public health fields want to limit gatherings of people in whatever town or state. Keep the restaurants closed, they say. No sports or concerts, nor even religious services. After all, in a country such as ours with easy interstate access, there will inevitably be a mingling of peoples between Michigan and Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma, New York and Pennsylvania.

So, without continuing to get 'locked down' in 'gridlock' between the lock-down v. open-up forces, what is the most democratic solution? Self-employed and small business people say: Enough is enough! Our livelihoods are at stake. Those working in government who continue to receive their salaries prefer to play it safe. Indeed, we are going to have to open-it-up before virus eradication occurs, which by most accounts, will take years. Kids need school/ The first of the essentials are schools. Parents, who are unable to home-school effectively, need schools for their children as much as they need bread on the table. Fresh Eyes on Teaching has first hand information that Chinese schools have begun to re-open in some of the smaller provinces. Schools in Shang-Hai, one of the largest cities in the world, are now opening up but in Beijing, not yet. Online schooling simply can't replace face-to-face in-one-place schools. As just reported in The Guardian, research into New South Wales schools in Australia found that children "were not likely to spread the virus between themselves or to adults."

The approach taken in the USA to determine when life will get back to 'normal' is state-by-state. The discussion started with a national approach, but it was determined that our country is just too big and -- one size does not fit all. So, it became a state-by-state approach, using national guidelines as a framework for governors to strategize the safest way to open-up. Some states have moved quicker than others but are still far from getting back to normal. Other states have moved slower and citizens have let their governors know they are unhappy with the ongoing lock-downs. It is a classic case of individual primacy versus the collective self, one that has been played out in the citizenry of nation states around the world for ages.

In the USA, we have that pesky Bill of Rights that enshrines individual liberties. Governors do have their own right to safeguard the well-being of their states. If on a national level however, a one-size-fits-all strategy is difficult to employ because each state is different in scope and size, the same can be said for every state as each has their own densely packed cities as well as farm country along with suburbs, towns, and villages.

That said, the principal of subsidiarity means that issues should be handled by the smallest, least centralized competent authority, that decisions should be made at the local level. With national and state guidelines (not mandates) under tow, perhaps it should be the mayors and executives of cities and towns and not the governors of states that should be making the decisions, based on the will of the people, on the speed to which they open. We will then have thousands (not just 50) of case studies in schools and municipalities from which to draw on best practices should there ever be a re-occurrence. With citizens close to their local governing municipalities, we would more likely avoid the protests, angst, divisiveness and bitterness that is now being played out across the United States.

Through subsidiarity, communities can rally together, rebuild themselves, and pull back to regroup should they need. There are far too many local communities across the country that need stitched back together anyway. It's been said that crisis begets opportunity. The opportunity lies in the second greatest commandment: Love the neighbor as thyself. With neighbors voluntarily taking care of each other's needs, communities may not need the gargantuan stimulus band-aid that will invariably deplete itself and leave the federal government in debt with our blameless children having to eventually shoulder the financial burden of immense proportions.

Subsidiarity is organic and natural. It is human nature. Citizens don't want to be governed by afar, even from the statehouse. They prefer self-government. Isn't that the great experiment in which our country is engaged? Should a catastrophic event occur that causes the electrical grid to go down, we will be forced to live locally as in ages past when life was simpler and neighbors had each other's back. We will have no other choice. It is called functional community. Relationships, not federal assistance, are at its core, and many communities have lost it. Perhaps we can re-gain it and stitch back the tears and divides.

The principle of subsidiarity seems to be more akin to -- THE LAND OF THE FREE AND THE HOME OF THE BRAVE!

Dr. Dave is the director of Fresh Eyes on Teaching at

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