2.8   Subsidiarity of Governance

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/28.htm)

Individuals exercise power, and are constrained by it, in each dimension.  Governance responsibilities are divided between successive layers of widening scope, from the family through to global organisations – as illustrated:


This layering is referred to in this book as ‘subsidiarity’.  The proportions of the diagram are constrained by the need for it to be readable, with the result is that it gives a misleading sense of the relative importance of each layer.   In practice, for example, a great deal of political power is concentrated at national level in the Western world, whereas multinational and global governance is much less robust.  It should also be remembered that there are billions of individual people on the planet and only one (very thin) global layer of governance.  Each layer of governance is empowered by the people who are affected by it, so an individual person’s influence is proportionally less in the larger domains of control.

Power is not ranked according to its reach, so having a wider scope doesn’t imply having more power.  Governance authority can flow upwards or downwards through the layers:

·      Some aspects of power can be delegated downwards in a hierarchical fashion if authority has been centralised; such powers can also be revoked at the discretion of the higher authority. 

·      Some authority flows upwards, where power is pooled for collective benefit.  International institutions, for example, are empowered by national governments for specific purposes; if the latter withdraw their support, the collective authority might be weakened.

·      Power which has been seized can be withdrawn by those upon whose support it depends.

No form of authority wields unconditional power. 

In the absence of a mutually-recognised and effective governance authority to protect them, Self-Protection exists de facto: people build fences and countries rely on their armed forces to defend themselves.

The concept of subsidiarity can be illustrated by this hypothetical example of how law-enforcement might be arranged:

·      Budgets might be set politically at different levels: local, county, national and international (by contributions to Interpol).  At each level, the budgets for policing would compete against other public spending priorities within a total that would be constrained by people’s willingness to pay tax.

·      The management of policing might be organised according to type of crime: for example patrols and low-level crime might be treated as a local issue, traffic as a regional issue and serious crime at national level.  Counter-terrorism has an international component.

·      Political policy for policing, such as performance targets, behavioural guidelines and strategies for dealing with high-profile issues, might be set predominantly at national level.

·      A national ombudsman might be provided to deal with people’s complaints about the police.

·      Defining how to work with other agencies – including fire services, social services, ambulance services and residents’ associations – might be a local matter.

·      The ‘customers’ for policing, who are seeking protection, are at different levels of subsidiarity:

?      Individuals seek protection from each other.

?      Communities (which might not be co-located geographically) seek protection from interference.  Ethnic minorities, people with shared interests and businesses are all examples of communities.

?      Countries want help in combating international crime and terrorism.  They also want to repatriate fugitives from justice.

·      Where the police are unable to provide protection, supplementary forces such as private security guards or vigilantes might emerge to fill the gaps.  If these have no legal status they would be classified in this book as Self-Protection.

This example, of the subsidiarity of just one of the powers in the Legal Dimension, shows how many power relationships have to be defined, or at least understood.  It also hints at the scope for variability in the application of governance. 

Implementing governance at a higher level, across a broader area, may yield collective benefits: e.g. better co-ordination, coherence, economies of scale or consistency of treatment.  The disadvantages of moving the power too far from the individual, though, are loss of responsiveness to people's needs and a dilution of accountability.  As reviewed later (6.6.7), there are practical problems in the implementation of political subsidiarity.

Countries vary in how much power accrues to the different levels of governance.  The American Constitution, for example, was set up so that the individual States retained more power, compared to the Federal government, than the regions of Britain (despite recent measures for devolution).

In this book it is suggested that many changes in subsidiarity are needed, to move power both upwards and downwards from the national level – to reflect a greater need for international cooperation on some issues and a need for more local power over other issues so that governance can be more responsive.  Some of these changes are already taking place as, for example, the EU becomes larger while Britain, Belgium and Spain have all been moving towards a more devolved model in recent years.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014