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All Hands on Deck: Let’s Try Democracy

Paul Kando

Last week I advocated for a democratic way to transition to a zero-carbon economy within the next decade and avoid the prospect of catastrophic climate change. The task is massive: meet everybody’s human needs without violating the limits imposed by a finite planet. We must all be actively involved in figuring out how best to meet our individual and collective needs — for food, water, work, income, housing, health-care, child- and elder-care, transportation, energy, education, equality, justice, peace, political voice, networks of belonging — simply because all problems are best solved by those closest to them.

Democracy definition
photo credit: followmyvote.com

The idea is not as far fetched as it may, at first glance, seem. What it requires is democracy, an organizing principle that goes back at least as far as ancient Greece. For democracy to work, we need to mentally invert our customary power-relationships. Instead of often self-interested higher-ups “calling the shots”, let them play their proper role as subsidiaries — supporters of decisions made by those closer to the problems being addressed.

Like democracy itself, the principle of subsidiarity is based on the autonomy and dignity of the human person, and holds that all levels of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of that person. Subsidiarity assumes that all human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions — family, church, labor unions and other voluntary associations — as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. "Positive subsidiarity" is the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action that creates the social conditions necessary for an individual to fully develop, such as the right to work, a decent income, adequate shelter, health care, and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should always have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. As an organizing principle, subsidiarity means that matters are handled by the smallest, lowest, least centralized competent authority. Political decisions are made as close to the local level as possible, rather than by a central authority.

Subsidiarity charts a common-sense middle course between individualism and collectivism by locating the responsibilities and privileges of social life in the smallest unit of organization at which they will effectively function. Larger social bodies are to intervene only when smaller ones cannot carry out the tasks themselves. Even then, the intervention must be temporary and for the purpose of empowering the smaller social body to be able to carry out such functions on its own.

Applying the above to meeting everyone’s need for decent housing, for instance, may begin with deciding what we mean by “housing”, a secure, year-round shelter or a real estate investment. (There may be a preference, but no human need for the latter.) An individual or family may next decide the technical details of a decent shelter and ways to attain them (e.g., the energy features of the dwelling and the capital and occupancy costs involved). Can I/we afford to purchase or rent such a dwelling? Would it help to form a neighborhood cooperative? What sort of support may we get from our church or community, town-, state-, or federal- government? How does what we learn and decide apply to others in the community? In short, we start with what we ourselves can do to meet the need, then move on to the subsidiary levels of outside help we might need, beginning with working with our immediate neighbors or community members.

Imagine the collective brain power available to solving our common problems! Furthermore, people working on common problems often come up with spectacular results. Systems theory holds that when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, emergence occurs. These properties or behaviors emerge only when the parts interact in context of a wider whole. Emergent structures are patterns that emerge via the collective actions of many individual entities.

A termite mound produced by a termite colony is a classic example of emergence in nature. So was the spontaneous collective action by many individual drivers to deliver most Las Vegas mass-shooting victims to hospitals in private vehicles, meeting a massive logistical challenge in record time. This could not have been achieved by any individual driver—and it would have taken much longer for the authorities to marshal ambulances for several hundred. Of course, those individual drivers depended on the road network and the laws and rules of safe driving — all created by various subsidiary levels of government. Democracy at work, dare we live it?