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Handbuch der Politischen Philosophie und Sozialphilosophie, S. Gosepath, W. Hinsch &B. Rössler (eds). 2008. Berlin, Gruyter. 2: 1307-1313.


The "principle of subsidiarity" regulates authority within a political order, directing that powers or tasks should rest with the lower-level sub-units of that order unless allocating them to a higher-level central unit would ensure higher comparative efficiency or effectiveness in achieving them. This principle has come to political prominence primarily through its role in quelling fears of centralization in the European Union, last as expressed in Article III-9, III-160 and a Protocol of the Draft Constitutional Treaty of the EU. But subsidiarity has also figured in discussions of the proper scope for local autonomy for social policies in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and in Green party calls for decentralization quite generally.2

A survey of alternative interpretations and justifications of the principle of subsidiarity suggests that apparent consensus on it has been gained only by obfuscation.3 Section I sketches the political backdrop of the debate within the European Union where, rather than reducing and removing fundamental political conflicts, the principle of subsidiarity increases and shapes such tensions. In Sections II and III, I delineate alternative conceptions of the principle of subsidiarity and its possible institutional role. The alternatives have strikingly different institutional implications regarding the objectives of the polity, the domain and role of sub-units, and the allocation of authority to apply the principle of subsidiarity itself. The need for a political theory of subsidiarity thus established, Sections IV through IX present and assess five alternative normative justifications of conceptions of subsidiarity, illustrated by reference to the European Union.

I. The Principle of Subsidiarity in the European Union

The principle of subsidiarity takes on particular salience in periods of institutional transformation, often as part of the bargain among sovereign communities agreeing to a common authority. In order to reduce the risk of permanent minority status, the powers of central unit are restricted by various checks such as specific "lists of competences," rules of unanimity or qualified majority voting, weighted votes — and principles of subsidiarity.

The principle of subsidiarity was introduced in the European Union in the late 1980s in response to fears of centralized power by placing the burden of argument with integrationists. Fears of centralization were not without warrant, since safeguards against undue centralisation typical of federations are absent. But the EU principle of subsidiarity can be interpreted and applied in several different ways, and can have a centripetal effect by providing warrant for centralisation.4 The principle of subsidiarity is also used by sub-state regions against member states, with the unforeseen centrifugal effect of draining national state powers from within.5

Three current debates in the EU illustrate that the principle of subsidiarity plays a political role which warrants philosophical attention. Firstly, there is a dispute over the proper domain of sub-units to be regulated by that principle, particularly over the status of sub-state regions. Secondly, there is a dispute over the scope and mode of central intervention, for instance whether Community law should only prevent "social dumping" among member states and correct market imperfections, or whether it should intervene in labor conditions generally. Thirdly, the principle of subsidiarity makes reference to the "objectives" of the political order, but these are often disputed - consider redistribution among regions and member states which may require centralization of monetary, social and fiscal policies, the principle of subsidiarity notwithstanding.6

II. Issues of Interpretation

The principle of subsidiarity holds that an allocation of authority must satisfy a condition of comparative efficiency. The central unit must secure the desired outcomes better than the sub-units, due to differential ability, differential willingness, or both. This condition may require the central unit to satisfy a condition of effectiveness, or of necessity, and it may either proscribe or require central action.

Regarding effectiveness, important issues concern when and how central unit intervention may occur.

Limits may be placed on the scope of application of the principle – for instance environmental regulation - , or they may be determined by the principle of subsidiarity itself, for instance allowing intervention wherever necessary to promote a free market in goods and services. Another case of the latter is the German Grundgesetz — the Basic Law of the German Federal Republic. A principle of subsidiarity applies to issues which satisfy one or more of the following three conditions:
The Bund shall have the right to legislate in these matters to the extent that a need for regulation by federal legislation exists because:

1. a matter cannot be effectively regulated by the legislation of individual Länder; or

2. the regulation of a matter by a Land law might prejudice the interests of the Länder or of the People as a whole; or

3. the maintenance of legal or economic unity, especially the maintenance of uniformity of living conditions beyond the territory of any one land, necessitates such regulation.7

Secondly, the principle of subsidiarity can also regulate how the central unit is to act, so as to respect sub-unit autonomy by respecting their discretion, leaving it to subunits to decide how to meet certain targets.8 The central unit might also bolster sub-unit capability and cooperation and coordination.9

The principle of subsidiarity can include a necessity condition, allowing central unit action only when sub-units cannot achieve the desired result on their own. Yet parties may disagree whether joint action is required and efficacious for resolving particular problems. And sub-units may be able to cooperate without a central unit: they may just not desire any action.

Different conceptions of subsidiarity may respond differently to these options. Respect for sub-unit autonomy may grant each sub-unit a veto; alternatively, central unit action may override objections to combat free-riding. The necessity condition may be specified, for instance only allowing central action to address Cross-boundary Effects.10 Uniformity of living conditions for inhabitants across sub-units may require drastic redistribution across borders.11 A minimal safety net, on the other hand, may not require any transfers among sub-units.

The impact of the principle of subsidiarity also depends on whether it is interpreted negatively (or proscriptively) as a legal immunity, protecting sub-units from intervention; or whether it is interpreted positively as a prescription, requiring intervention from the central unit.12

The principle of subsidiarity can regulate the allocation of legal competences or powers between units of government,13 or it can regulate discretion in the making and execution of laws. The principle of subsidiarity may thus allow a more dynamic and evolutionary development than a standard Competence Catalogue.

The principle of subsidiarity may regulate territorial units, as in federal arrangements14 and in the EU. This is sometimes called its "vertical" application.15 Alternatively it applies non-territorially ("horizontally") to associations, social sectors or social functions.

An important issue for territorial applications is the size of sub-units. Non-territorial applications of the principle of subsidiarity typically address conflicts when groups or issue areas are territorially intermingled and toleration is absent.16 Thus theological defenses of subsidiarity have often sought to protect private and religious issues, or the "natural" groups of family, church and guild. The principle of subsidiarity has also been applied to corporatist and consociational arrangements. The domain of legitimate sub-units — families, labor unions — and their proper functions are contested.

The principle of subsidiarity may be applied by any of three bodies: the sub-units (or their representatives) unanimously; by a (qualified) majority; or by the central unit – or a combination of sub-units and central unit. The first occurs in confederations and consociational systems. Both of the first two are found in EU policy-making and in federal arrangements with "interlocking powers," where sub-units take part in central unit decision-making.17 The third occurs where the principle of subsidiarity allocates or regulates powers of the central unit which is independent of sub-unit cooperation18 — as in the EU's "negative" interventions against national market restrictions.

Likewise, responsibility for reviewing applications of the principle of subsidiarity may be lodged with different judicial bodies. Such judgments are difficult, requiring assessment of comparative efficiency and necessity of central unit action.19

All these are contentious issues. The aims of the common undertaking and standards of achievement are often contested, as is the allocation of authority to pursue and apply such norms. Disagreements may also exist concerning the need for unanimity or qualified majority decisions. Contested issues concerning application of the principle of subsidiarity include the domain of sub-units (sovereign states, regions, families or labor market parties) and which issue areas are to be regulated. The principle of subsidiarity regulates the allocation and exercise of powers only after these important issues have been laid to rest. But those issues are often left to one side, in order to achieve apparent consensus.

III. Justifying the Principle: Theories of Subsidiarity

Several theories of subsidiarity indicate some constraints on the appropriate set of sub-units, authorities and allocation of discretion. Three particular concerns must be addressed: Which sub-units should be recognized and endowed with authority? Which objectives should inform the standards of efficiency? And who are to make such assessments?

Theories of subsidiarity should firstly offer certain conceptions of the individual and of the proper relations between individuals, various social associations (including states) and the larger political system. Secondly, normative arguments must be offered for standards of just distribution of benefits and burdens among individuals and among associations/states within a larger political system. Such arguments should provide criteria for the allocation and use of political authority, on the basis of some conception of individuals' good. Thirdly, most theories will also rely on institutional arguments regarding the likely consequences of institutions or policies embodying a particular interpretation of the principle of subsidiarity. Two arguments from liberty -- Althusius and Confederalism -- are addressed, one argument from efficiency (fiscal or economic federalism), and two arguments from justice: a Catholic argument based on Personalism and liberal contractualism. The order roughly reflects the decreasing autonomy of sub-units granted by each argument.


Johannes Althusius (1557-1630), by some regarded as the father of modern federalist thought, developed a theory of subsidiarity influenced by French Huguenots and Calvinism. In Politica Methodice Digesta (1614), Althusius sought protection for the religious associations in Emden and of the city itself against abuse of central power. Orthodox Calvinists insisted on sovereignty in the social circles — to be developed as the Dutch doctrine of "souvereiniteit in eigen kring"20 — subordinate only to God's laws. Rejecting theocracy, Althusius prohibited state intervention even for purposes of promoting the right faith. Accommodation of dissent and diversity prevailed over any interest in subordinating political powers to religion or vice versa.

Althusius relies on a conception of humans as fundamentally dependent on others for the reliable provision of requirements of a comfortable and holy life. Communities and associations are both instrumentally and intrinsically important for supporting [subsidia] the needs of individuals.

The Althusian argument for subsidiarity addresses the tensions between stability and pluralism. By insisting on non-interference by the central unit, it secures a coherent political order while accommodating diverse religious views. Central government enjoys legitimacy by delegation, based on sovereign and legitimate units of the union whose interests must be served by the common action.

Althusius' theory fails to provide criteria for legitimate sub-units, partly because it seeks to secure the religious and cultural associations from state intervention on such grounds. This conception of subsidiarity also yields a weak confederate center, and is proscriptive, protecting autonomy of lower units against states intervention. The Althusian theory of subsidiarity might generate conditions on the domain of sub-units and on standards for power allocation among sub-units, but such restrictions are not readily apparent.21


Several authors have argued for decentralized government as the best guarantee for our interest in liberty, on a republican interpretation harking back to Machiavelli of avoiding subjecting oneself to the arbitrary will of another.22

By limiting central unit action, more room is left for individuals' liberty understood as non-interference. Veto rights for sub-units ensure that joint gains do not come at the price of despotism.23 Thus argued the American Confederalists, drawing on Montesquieu.24 The application of the principle of subsidiarity is by sub-units enjoying veto powers. The best justification of this appears to rely on a conception of the common good as mutual advantage, leaving the areas of application open. The American Federalists questioned such blessings of small government, partly on empirical grounds. No polity is so small as to avoid minorities with different interests, and tyranny of the majority happens more easily within small polities.25 Larger units provide better checks against tyranny, argued they.26

Fiscal Federalism

Fiscal federalism holds that powers and burdens of creating public goods should lie with the populations that benefit from them. Assuming that individuals' preferences vary systematically according to external or internal parameters such as geography and tastes and values, a preference for decentralized government arises for two reasons. Firstly, local decisions prevent decision-making from becoming overloaded. Local decision-makers have a better grasp of affected preferences and alternatives, making for better service.27 Secondly, for certain goods — "internalities" — it is possible to isolate subsets of those individuals who prefer them.28 According powers to such subsets allows them to act on those preferences and hence increase efficiency.29

This theory can apply both to the allocation and to the exercise of powers, and it allows both territorial and functional sub-units. The central unit may overrule free-riding sub-units to ensure coordination problems. The scope of central unit intervention is determined by whether there are public goods which can thereby be obtained. There are at least four weaknesses with this as a general theory of principle of subsidiarity. This theory requires complex empirical comparative assessments of sub-unit and central unit action. Secondly, while coordination deadlock among sub-units is avoided, choice among alternative bundles of sub-unit powers is an important organizational challenge which the theory fails to address. Thirdly, the common good is exclusively interpreted as "public goods," exclusion from which is infeasible and whose consumption is non-competitive.30 Thus it fails to address the acquisition and distribution of divisible goods, or cases where gains or burdens are not shared symmetrically among parties. Finally, this economic approach runs up against standard challenges to the premises of economic theory, such as excluding other indices of individuals' well-being than economic utility and preferences31 and the impact of skewed starting positions among parties.32

Catholic Personalism

The Roman Catholic tradition of subsidiarity — presented in the 1891 encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, and developed in Pius XI's 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno 33 — rests on a particular conception of the person and on a conception of a natural social order. Rerum Novarum sought both to protest capitalistic exploitation of the poor and to protect the Catholic Church against socialism. The Catholic argument for subsidiarity rests on the view that the human good is to develop and realize one's potential, thus realizing one's dignity as made in the image of God.34 As developed by Mounier, this theory of Personalism had profound influence on Jacques Delors.35 Associations play two roles: through voluntary interaction persons develop their intrinsic dignity36; and associations assist those who lack ways or means of developing. The state must comply with natural and divine law to serve the common interest.37 Non-intervention is appropriate both to protect individuals' autonomy, as required for their proper development,38 and to economize on the scarce resources of the state.39 Conversely, state intervention is legitimate and required when the public good is threatened, such as when a particular class suffers.40

The Catholic argument allows for more state intervention than the Althusian. It has both proscriptive and prescriptive elements, endorsing minimal intervention aimed at bolstering sub-unit autonomy. Sub-units are not accorded veto rights, since the central unit may have to intervene in the interest of affected individuals. This tradition also challenges the current exclusive status of states as sub-units, since the conception of the just social order might warrant transfers of powers. The Catholic conception of subsidiarity rests on contested views of the social order and of human flourishing, along with a correspondingly controversial view of personal autonomy. Thus the theory can neither settle issues concerning the domain of sub-units nor identify their legitimate powers, which are among the contested political issues within the EU and elsewhere. A deconfessionalized conception of a natural social order might leave the domain of associations somewhat more open, yet is an open question whether a modified theory can still offer guidance for a polity characterised by pluralism.

A Liberal Contractualist Argument

Finally, the principle of subsidiarity might be justified within a liberal contractualist framework in the Kantian tradition, holding that a normatively legitimate social order must be justifiable to all affected individuals. 41 Two reasons may be offered, based on our interest in controlling institutional and cultural change in the social institutions which shape values, goals, options and expectations,42 and on our interest in fostering a sense of justice among the population at large. The interest in political control provide some support for a principle of subsidiarity. When individuals share circumstances, beliefs or values, they have a prima facie claim to share control over institutional change to prevent subjection and breaking of legitimate expectations. Those similarly affected are more likely to comprehend the need and scope for change. Yet immunity and expectations are but two interests, and both are often overridden by others' need for material goods, means or political control. Finally, the interest based on expectations is not to maintain institutions or cultures but, rather, to control the speed and form of change. This conception of principle of subsidiarity supports minimal intervention — for instance, directives rather than regulations — allowing local accommodation both to circumstances and to expectations.

The second argument for the principle of subsidiarity concerns its role in character formation. The principle of subsidiarity may foster and structure political argument and bargaining in ways beneficial to public deliberation and the character formation required to sustain a just political order. By requiring impact statements and arguments of comparative efficiency,43 the principle of subsidiarity facilitates the socialization of individuals into the requisite sense of justice and concern for the common good. Yet this argument does not require that principle in particular. Other rules for the exercise of political power which require public argument would also further deliberation and character formation. Such a theory does not indicate which sub-units are required in a just social order, insisting only that such claims to authority must be justified by their merits based on a pluralistic conception of the common good. This argument for principle of subsidiarity allows intervention in sub-units to protect members' interests.44 For character formation some institutional features must be in place. Deliberations must occur within a system of checks and balances, either such that both sub-units and central unit must strive to influence each other by arguments, or such that the deliberative process can be reviewed. Moreover, the representatives making decisions should not only be delegates taking the interests and preferences of their constituency as fixed. Rather, the representatives should be able to argue with their constituency, and such discussions should be transparent to the public to foster character formation. The liberal contractualist approach only supports a prima facie preference for sub-unit authority, which is easily overridden by other important interests. It rests on a contractualist conception of justice, which is controversial both on account of its approach to the value of community45 and on account of its view of moral motivation as based on respect rather than empathy.

IV. Conclusion

The different arguments offered for the principle of subsidiarity have striking implications, both for the interpretation of the principle and for public policies. Fiscal federalism, Catholic personalism and liberal contractualists offer drastically different conceptions of the proper objectives and scope of authority for central political action. The principle of subsidiarity may help to generate systematic deliberation about these issues.


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1* This paper draws on Follesdal 1998. I am grateful for comments and suggestions by Siri Skogstad Berntsen, Ken Endo, Eli Feiring, Malin Gjellestad, Robert Goodin, Helge Høibråten, Janne Matlary, Knut Midgaard, Johan P. Olsen, Inger Johanne Sand, Anne Julie Semb, Richard Swedberg, Henrik Syse and Stephen de Wijze; and for the hospitality of the Minda Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and Barbara and William Graham and Patricia Pepper of Currier House at Harvard University.

2See Genesko1986; Therborn 1989; Goldsmith 1996; and Green Committees 1986, European Greens 1989 and Die Grünen 1983, respectively.

3van Kersbergen and Verbeek 1994

4Endo 1994, 2062; Taylor 1996.

5Kapteyn 1991, 42; Schilling 1995.

6Scharpf 1997.

7Grundgesetz, Article 72 (2).

8Brinkhorst 1991, p. 92.

9cf. Goodin 1992, 162-8.

10Grundgesetz, Article 72.

11Schilling 1995, fn 66.

12This is discussed in the European context as "negative" versus "positive" subsidiarity. See: Endo 1994, pp. 2054-2; Dehousse 1994, pp. 109-10.

13Grundgesetz, Arrticle 72.

14Grundgesetz, Article 72; US Constitution, 10th Amendment.

15d'Estaing 1990.

16 cf. the introduction to Knop, Ostry, Simeon and Swinton (1995).

17King 1982, p. 77.

18Hueglin 1995, p. 215; Scharpf 1985

19Muller-Graff 1996, p. 87; González 1995, p. 366; Kapteyn 1991; Weiler 1991.

20Kuyper 1880.

21 This concern is perhaps most vividly underscored by the fact that the South African practice of apartheid and separation into "homelands" was long regarded as justified precisely by the tradition of "sovereignty in one's social circle" (Kuyper 1880, de Klerk 1975, 255-60).

22Skinner 1984. Pettit 1997.

23 For systematic treatments, see: Braybrooke 1983; Goodin 1996.

24Montesquieu 1748; Beer 1993, 219–43.

25 Madison in Federalist Papers 10 and "Letter to Jefferson" of October 24, 1787, quoted in Beer (1993, p. 257).

26Hume 1793, 5pp. 14-15; Federalist Papers 10, 51.

27Smith 1776, p. 680.

28Olson 1969.

29Oates 1972.

30Musgrave 1959; Olson 1965, pp. 14, 38.

31cf. Cohen 1989.

32e.g. Sen 1982.

33 Precursors include Bishop Ketteler in Germany, writing on "Labour and Christianity" (van Kersbergen and Verbeek 1994, p. 222).

34cf. Finnis 1980 and Millon-Delsol 1992 chs 8, 9.

35Mounier 1957. Delors 1989a.

36Pius XI 1952.

37John XXIII 1961, para. 20; Leo XIII 1891.

38Finnis 1980, pp. 146-8.

39Pius XI 1931, para. 80.

40Leo XIII 1891, paras 36, 37; Pius XI 1931, para. 78.

41Rawls 1971; Scanlon 1982; Barry 1995; Habermas 1996. MacCormick 1997 may be taken to provide one such account of subsidiarity.

42Scanlon 1978, p. 102.

43 cf. Amsterdam protocol.

44cf. Kymlicka 1995.

45Fishkin 1986. Miller 1995.

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