Nanjing, China. Lew Daly’s provocative new book, God’s Economy, aligns with an inspiring tradition of social thought.  In contrast to the rather tired breakdown of left and right, he indicts the excesses of both the top-heavy state and an untempered free market.  He also affirms the insight that modern states have gathered in much of their power by eroding and dispossessing civil society.  Rather than liberating individuals, the weakening of families, religious bodies, and other “little platoons” has merely enslaved us to centralised power.  This diagnosis becomes even more apparent in our own time than it was in the nineteenth century.  Depending on the country, a weak civil society has meant unleashing the cruelties of lucre-lust, or pressing citizens into the service of hubristic nationalisms, or both.

Daly’s book links the nineteenth century debates over “social pluralism” with more recent experiments in “faith-based initiatives.”  His choice to do so is quite apt.  It means a project of restoration in the best sense of the word: finding in these older models lessons about the proper relationship among the state, the market, and the natural associations of church, guild, and family.  We should not underestimate the importance of being able to look back at practices that, however defective on some levels, do offer a lived example of something different from what afflicts us now.  At the same time, looking at faith-based initiatives today means bringing this philosophy down to earth, in a practical challenge of public policy.  Daly is right to point out the one-sidedness of how the Bush administration carried out these initiatives, by focusing on rolling back state responsibility for the poor rather than on chastening the market as well.  There is, as he explains, a great difference between empowering these little platoons and using them simply as an excuse to hand more over from state to market.  Small wonder that some of the most committed people working on those initiatives were frustrated by the administration’s failure to take them seriously.

I am, perhaps unsurprisingly, enthusiastic about the agenda that Daly lays out.  He suggests that “we should expand our pluralist defenses in society, creating a new legal order of family protection, community wealth, and market restraint.”  This is a worthy project grounded in the best aspirations for protecting human dignity.

My main apprehension is not about the goal, but about what will be required to realise it nowadays.  It is likely to prove much more difficult that we might like to believe.  It will demand a rethinking of the modern nation-state far deeper than many imagine.

Of course, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.  Some modest policy measures could shift us a bit in the desired direction.  Strengthening the financial incentives for families and associations to meet their needs in a sturdily independent fashion would require only tweaking fiscal policy.  Political choices also could tip the playing field to transfer some resources from the for-profit to non-profit sector.  And if we have a pot of state spending dedicated to social welfare, then channelling it through confessional and other institutions obviously would strengthen them.  There are constitutional barriers to some state aid to religious institutions in the United States, of course, but these are hardly obstacles inherent to modern life.

Other problems do run deeper.  As Daly rightly notes, it is not enough just to rein in the state.  Untrammelled capitalism is part of the problem, too.  Reining in the market requires a much larger scale solution than many of us at FPR seem to think.  It has become a global juggernaut that crosses polities and bears down on any experiment in more humane living.  To rein it in would require erecting one, or both, of two kinds of boundaries.

In many of our conversations, the preferred kind of boundary is one of space.  Local diversity and local self reliance are undoubtedly important ends.  When properly protected, they are compelling counterweights to market excess.  But I am frankly sceptical that they will be sufficient, or even possible as a new equilibrium on their own.  Any local victory is fleeting and vulnerable, precisely because the global market is a slippery and soulless creature.  It worms its way into any nook and cranny, because of the relentless self-interest of some actors.  Walmart is always growling outside the door, and mercenary capital is always scratching at the same door to be let out.  Sooner or later, someone turns the key.  And even multiple experiments in localism, sympathetic to each other, are only as strong as their weakest link.  Subsidiarity in the merely local sense may work less well today than it once did, given what it is up against.

The other kind of barrier is one of kind.  I have in mind Michael Walzer’s argument about “spheres of justice”: realms of life that have different standards for fair distribution of goods.  We should not, he insists, be able to translate money into advantages outside pure consumption, such as in gaining honours, or educational access, or basic health care.  Such qualitative buffers on the power of the market, if instituted on a broad enough scale—and by this I do mean transnationally—are likely to have more staying power.  Perhaps we could have different “currencies” for different spheres of life, so as better to allow each dimension of society to follow its own logic.  This would give real substance to the idea of a plurality of goods and domains.

But we still have a deeper problem to solve.  Daly digs out of the nineteenth century debate “a concept of plural sovereignty.  Political order, in this view, was comprised of a plurality of sovereign group-domains, each ordered to its own distinctive nature and purposes and all held in balance across society by a limited but supportive public authority.”  Coming out of a Catholic tradition of social thought, this vision has much to recommend it.  It is crucially different from Walzer’s idea that the spheres of justice are marked off differently in each society, after long national conversations about what justice means.  Instead, plural sovereignty is grounded on a telos.  It has a more rigorous—and universal—underlying view of human purpose, human dignity, and the practices that secure them.

But how can such plural sovereignty be realised under the circumstances of this century?  What is a “limited but supportive public authority”?  Who will guard the guardians, so to speak?  How will the stones of the arch fit together?  The logic of the modern state is popular sovereignty, residing in a mass of undifferentiated citizens.  It is a jealous master, as jealous and often as spiritually undiscerning as the global market.  And it has been master for long enough that it will have few qualms in riding roughshod over “social pluralist” arrangements for its own temporary purposes.

What we end up needing, I think, is metaconstitutional guarantees that transcend the logic not only of the one-dimensional market economy but also of the stripped-down modern state.  The kind of buffers placed on the state now—solely in the name of contentless individual rights—are good largely for unleashing market forces.  In the same vein as what Daly does with the nineteenth century, we do have to look back for other models.  But we might look back even further, to much earlier strands of political thought and practice that enshrined these different domains in the structure of society and chastened the state when it encroached on them.  Mediæval Christendom had them in the pan-continental Church.  Whatever steps up to the task in future will have to be much more multiconfessional and geographically far-reaching, but no less stalwart in its defence of principle.

Of course, much can be done to lay the groundwork in the meantime.  Experiments in civil society can weave real cross-border networks that support and multiply the little platoons.  They can meet the real human needs to which Daly is so rightly attuned.  They can also prove by doing that neither state nor market has all the answers, and thereby prompt further conversation.  And on a large enough scale, they can even become the embryo of a very different kind of society, which harks back to what Daly is trying to rediscover here.  The political alternative may well be the keystone of that vision, but in keeping with the tradition that inspires us, it will probably be the last block to be added.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. To establish amongst a majority that the remedy to the nation’s problems is to rein in the “sociocaps”, the socialists and capitalists who lust after political and economic power regardless of the effect on others, is the first objective. Such is the weariness within in society at the dysfunction that surrounds them that grasping the unifying idea that it is abuse of power wherever it is found that needs remedying should not in itself prove controversial. To do this at least is providing an emotional and reasoned perspective, or outlook, against which solutions can be evaluated. Running alongside the knowledge that “reining in” has to happen is promoting the understanding that the best resistance to abuse of power is for associational democracy to be built at the intermediate level in society through organizations operating on mutualist principles. This understanding includes the belief that organizations delivering public goods and services as well as private are part of this reconstruction. It should not preclude the opportunity to use initiative and build wealth merely the understanding that mutualism, or associational democracy, has the right to control the potential for abuse of power of these rights. Such is the task before us.

  2. A helpful response to a great precis. Thanks to both of you. One rhetorical but serious question in particular remains in my mind: what would Hauerwas or Cavanaugh say?

  3. Interesting couple of articles… I agree that a study of the proper role of the state under the principles of subsidiarity is much needed; there is indeed unresolved tension among susidiarists (if there is such a word) as to what this might entail.

    I do, however, wonder if your statement that, “…if we have a pot of state spending dedicated to social welfare, then channelling it through confessional and other institutions obviously would strengthen them,” doesn’t fundamentally violate at least some of the key elements to a working subsidiarity.

    Is there not a significant difference between the client relationship described above and a real subsidiary relationship where the lesser order has a “sustainable” model that does not require the higher order to maintain it? That there may be mutual duties and obligations is a given… but it is one thing for the higher order to protect and adjudicate, it is quite another for it to beget and execute.

    If the lower order is just a dependent client, where does it marshal the wherewithal to oppose encroachment?

    Seems to me we are crossing some lines between delegation and subsidiarity. Though perhaps with the best of intentions.

  4. Quite correct. My point, in keeping with the rest of that paragraph, was not that the resources should have to pass through the state. I merely point out that in a transitional scenario those resources that already are at the state’s disposal for this purpose could usefully flow through these channels of civil society. Obviously it is preferable, so far as it can be arranged, for subsidiary institutions to be self-sustaining, with the “state” keeping the various parts and practices in balance.

  5. This particular post of Mr. Webb , with its fine metaphor of a keystone and bridge is not setting off this unfortunately erupting blast of hot air so much as causing the windmill to catch the armor of my patience and thus, successfully pitching me off my black mule Rocinante to bring my fat arse in close contact with the ground. As such, a right bit of foaming petulance intrudes, but I feel it important to broach the subject now as we ponder this evolving thing called subsidiarity wed to distributism.

    Perhaps what is needed is a Twelve Step Program for Uncle Sam……

    “Hello, My name is Sam and I’m a Big Stateaholic”

    “Hello Sam”

    Then we can all have a grand time with the narrative of debauched dissolution. However, the principle problem remains the depths reached in hitting bottom because any idea that this Mosh Pit of Backsheesh, unceasing want and relentless preening might devolve in a transitional manner is , in my humble opinion as a professional class drunk: Dim, spectacularly, humorously and vigorously DIM …at best. Anybody who tries to stage an intervention shall be punished for their impetuosity. We have only just begun to see the terrors attendant to competing interests and wants within a dark climate of diminishing rewards. It aint darkest before the light, its darkest after a lengthening period of blackness before a still longer period of deepening black that only lightens after a good dose of unremitting terror of the kind you awaken from in a confused start, clutching your extremities like they were your first slobber-coated pacifier. Morning aint dawning sweetly, we’re drunk in the afternoon and they are running out of cucumber sandwiches and the flask is running empty while men with big boots stomp in to check everyone’s papers while their brass band plays a dirge entitled “We’re Here For The Children”.

    Not that stranger things don’t actually happen but one is really pushing the pollyanna model to think that a government with the accelerating Debt to GDP ratio we have, coupled with rising public and private entitlement obligations in an aging population, a war machine that aint seen a democracy scam it can’t mine with murderous alacrity and the fact that these Boosters In Charge actually think we’ve somehow dodged a bullet by making Too Big To Fail even Bigger Than Too Big To Fail…well, the best I can say is that curbs are concrete and they are harder than thick skulls. Any transition will stretch the limits of the term and be open to dissection only after the fact.

    But then, perhaps sliding into some kind of American communistic bureaucracy redolent of the way the current Communist Party in China operates its neither-here-nor-there Federalism may be in the cards. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing the writers of remotely proposing this but there is cause for pause as a result of a lot of the rhetoric going on here of late). There is autonomy and then there is Party Sponsored Autonomy. The Authoritarianism of Best Intentions is bipartisan and purple. With all the slamming of libertarians afoot, one could be excused for thinking that the version of Conservatism evolving within this localist claque has finally deluded itself into treating liberty as a pejorative rather than the vital astringent it has always been.

    Though one cannot but help to be discriminating and circumscribed when arriving at a workable definition of the Good , is it also true that the freedom to assemble must have an equally strong corollary in the freedom to exclude? Is a society of exclusiveness capable of maintaining liberty? The recreational trashing of the libertarian philosophy….no matter how warranted in some instances and no matter how prudent when the realm of narcissistic liberty is in play….but the reflexive derision of the important role in our checks and balances that a strong American undercurrent of libertarianism has played, well, it reveals a fundamental sympathy for authoritarian conceits and it is authoritarianism…in the realm of economics, in the vicarious agora of our media, in our political system of rising fear and hobgoblins…it is authoritarianism that is fundamentally driving our appointment with the gutter of diminishing exceptionalism.

    One of the fundamental reasons that the lapsed-republic did so well for itself is the presence of a 234 year long Greek Chorus of Libertarians. Truth be told, the Conservatives would have been over-run long ago by the Statists if libertarianism had not exerted itself and vice versa, the liberal interests and their many hopes for social advancement on the one hand and the consumer paradise on the other would have been impossible without it as well. In a rightly ordered Discursive Republic, one must have all the elements in strong working order, otherwise the Checks and Balances are quickly subsumed by Checks alone. We are well into that territory now and with the rising fears of our protracted stint as debauchees, authoritarianism is a default mechanism that frequently masks its evil designs in smarmy pandering to the notion of “public good”. Any sense of “gradualism” or reform or transition will carry this taint forward and the essence of our existence, our liberty in place…our quotidian quixotica…our fecund weediness…our gawdammit-to-hell enthusiasm will remain an elusive impossibility on the road to reclaiming our gloriously messy commons. Far from being excluded from proper notions of the Good, Libertarianism is important, it functions in the realm of aerodynamics…a force best enjoyed not in exclusivity as a concrete item but in the product of its streamlining effects. Perhaps it is dangerous in a role of indiscriminate primacy but damned if it is not entirely and ineluctably vital in the defense of a flourishing Republic.

    Blond may have said that the Subsidiary Model is not a fetishism of the small but it seems to me that it is, as discussed too frequently here, a continuing fetishism of the kind of statist , centralized authoritarianism that we should have the good country sense to be steadfastly athwart no matter if the neighbors piss us off.

    Now, back to the regularly scheduled programming.

  6. Dr. Webb,

    Do I read your remarks correctly to mean that we (as in the modern we) need to return to hierarchy, properly understood, where money does not necessarily determine social status, and turn away from the notion of the sovereignty of a “people” made up of a numberless mass of “autonomous” indidivuals? If that is the case, I like what you’re saying.

    Mr. Sabin,

    I believe you are correct to worry about the possibility of contemporary plans for reform naively enlarging the state. However, to allay your concerns about a possible “Party Sponsored Autonomy,” which you sense is a possibility on the porch, let me remind you of one of Tocqueville’s great insights, namely that America needed intermediate associations in order to prevent tyranny. Dr. Webb, however, is going a step further–if I understand his critique of Daly’s article correctly–and calling not merely for intermediate associations (vital as they are), but for “sovereign group domains,” which will have authority independent of any central state.

    Finally, I’ll leave you with two aphorisms.
    “Liberal parties never understand that the opposite of despotism is not stupidity, but authority.” (#329)

    “The absolutist desires a sovereign force to subdue all others, the liberal a multitude of weak forces to neutralize each other. But the axiological commandment decrees hierarchies of multiple vigorous and active forces.”

  7. “How’s that deregulation thingy working out for you Joe?” “Well not too well Sarah. I’ve just lost my job, my home and my savings!” “Well just remember we’re free in the United States Joe and keep on hoping.” “Thanks Sarah.”

  8. “Do I read your remarks correctly to mean that we (as in the modern we) need to return to hierarchy, properly understood, where money does not necessarily determine social status, and turn away from the notion of the sovereignty of a “people” made up of a numberless mass of “autonomous” individuals? If that is the case, I like what you’re saying.”

    Yes. I argued something along those lines in Beyond the Global Culture War. For some reason, since I wrote more about peasants in the last few years, I’ve been told I sound more “reasonable.” Less fiery imagery or something. Thank you for detecting my continuing unreasonableness.

    As for the libertarian angle, I suppose I should note that one side-effect of living in China is a greater appreciation of bloodyminded libertarianism. As my original posting suggested, I am quite apprehensive of how a libertarian approach can slide too easily into the excesses of one-dimensional capitalism. But I do agree with one thing in Brother Sabin’s comment. One should not assume smooth transitions to this, or indeed to anything. My point was merely that IF one imagines a transition happening, there are some obvious ways one might link present arrangements with the desired alternative, and try to connect the dots. My inclination has always been to have grave doubts about the willingness of the present constellation of interests to go quietly, though.

  9. “Truth be told, the Conservatives would have been over-run long ago by the Statists if libertarianism had not exerted itself…” I tend to think that it is probably the other way around. If the Conservatives had not stood athwart the Statists, for reasons having little to do with the material interests of libertarians, the Statists would have easily subsumed (or bought off) the “chirping sectaries.” Such may be the case today.

  10. Faux Libertarianism.

    It would be a welcome relief to see in FPR more serious effort to grapple with the true origins and evolution of the state instead of the interminable deployment of the circular and self-cancelling argument that the state is by nature automatically authoritarian and abusive and can only be checked and contained by “Libertarianism”.

    I think we could start with William the Conqueror, of Viking ancestry, and his ordering of the Domesday Book once he had pacified England. He was in England because in good “Liberating” or “Libertarian” pillaging mode William had decided he’d like to expand his personal Normandy empire by using force to take over the one next door. Having achieved this objective he ordered a survey of his new realm with the view to figuring out the shakedown potential (tax yield) and how many fighting men he could sucker into defending his personal empire in the name of patriotic defense of the new realm. No doubt this assessment exercise had been undertaken by similar managerially inclined “Libertarian” despots in previous ages but this was the first big one easily accessible in hardback form. Of course, William didn’t do all the conquering and suppression on his own he had his oligarchy some of whom from Norman surname analysis most of us can count as our ancestors or from Anglo-Saxon or Celtic analysis as our ancestor victims of this oligarchic clique.

    Many years after William’s death yet another king, Henry VIII, and his oligarchic clique undertook a further “Libertarian” pillaging which dismantled the Catholic Church’s monasteries and confiscated their land effectively destroying the Christian welfare system they had established for the sick and the poor. Next in lines was the biggest land enclosure of them all forced through by the “brave Libertarian” adventurers of the New World who gave birth to the state of America at the “small” price of the near genocide of the existing inhabitants. This was followed by yet another “Libertarian” initiative in England, the Enclosure of the Commons, which was inspired by developments in agricultural technology but created great destitution amongst the poor. Of course, during the course of these great “Libertarian liberating” exercises the poor and indigenous were not consulted over their needs. This unhappy state of affairs continued into the Industrial Revolution and the remnants of serfdom in Europe and elsewhere where the horrors of abusive treatment of the poor became such that the state eventually had to concede ameliorative welfare measures and ultimately universal political suffrage to enable the “Libertarian” regimes to retain their power and avoid liquidation like the French Revolution.

    We have now reached a point in time where the realization is growing particularly after the latest financial crash that the state remains the pawn of these “Libertarian” oligarchies, or plutocracies, but the need for the state’s welfare role could be substantially reduced through economic suffrage and the tax burden on the majority substantially reduced not just through a fairer sharing of production but also a down-sizing of the state both central and local. This growing realization that the “Libertarians” have drawn a mask, or a veil, over the role of the state has been available to us for over 150 years in the form of Marx’s diagnosis. Now it can be used again knowing that strengthening the state through state socialism perpetuates “perverse Libertarianism” of the most monstrous nature.

    Obviously I have used the word “Libertarian” perjoratively in my comments but is this not reasonable in the current climate of thinking in America where “Libertarians” always do two things, fail to argue the case for universal economic suffrage which would substantially reduce the need for the state to play a welfare role, and secondly always define the role of the state as being abusive and, therefore, not to be regarded as a useful vehicle for being the catalyst in promoting universal economic suffrage? How useful the circularity of their argument is to their true belief system which amounts to there being no need for restraint on the individual’s right to pillage others and free-ride on their backs. Individuals who believe in this form of Libertarianism pervert the meaning of the word Liberty and they are not true and responsible Libertarians but Faux Libertarians. If Marx was alive today he would probably use this term and accuse the current Republican Party of being its principle proponents starting with Ronald Reagan and the Democratic Party as secondary dupes. A true and responsible Libertarianism would actually seek to reduce the necessity of the state playing a welfare providing role by ensuring economic suffrage sufficient to alleviate suffering and to check the inherent tendency of the competitive capitalist process to create that suffering by counter-use of the vehicles of intermediate associative democracy and central and local state regulation.

  11. Smith,
    You seem to miss my point by a country mile but no matter, this era seems to constrain a person’s thinking into constricted patterns that do not allow the holding of more than one idea in mind at a time. Your ending comes around to it but even there, you place too much hope in the ameliorative effects of a perfect bureaucracy… if there was or shall ever be such a thing. My point is not embodied by any current political notions of “libertarianism”. Just as “liberal” and “conservative” are essentially meaningless, so too now is “liberty”. All are lost in a narcissistic sea of pathos and want. Fear begets Fort Apaches.

    My point is that Liberty, in its most discursive sense is annealed by a full accounting of the individual and their social setting. A social setting that diminishes liberty is as bankrupt as an individual liberty that ignores social obligation. Using libertarian philosophy as a punching bag ignores the fact that any social construct with pretensions for either longevity or vibrancy that then forgets the vital freedoms and responsibilities in liberty is a diminished one and not worthy of the term “social”. Anthills are marvels of efficiency but I do not think they know such a thing as liberty.

    All prejudices must be transcended in order to break out of the degenerative patterns we inhabit. This is something far easier said than done. If this were not the case, we would not be confronted with the historic levels of widespread fraud that we confront today.

    The vicarious agora loves its partisans.

  12. Mr Sabin. With regard to your remark…”you place too much hope in the ameliorative effects of a perfect bureaucracy”…I’d like to say I’m so sorry that you keep falling off your mule and hurting your butt but I’m not since you don’t seem to be able to resist mounting that particular mule.

  13. Mr Sabin. It is true that your mule is stubborn but it is also trying to teach you something else every time it throws you off when you insist on tilting at windmills.

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