6.6.7 Problems in Political Subsidiarity

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/667.htm)

There are different layers of government within democratic countries, and further layers of multinational and global governance – as described earlier (2.8).  Ideally, given that the purpose of a democracy is to enable people to choose their governments, people should have the option of choosing at every layer of subsidiarity.  In practice, though, there are problems in achieving this: deciding how to vote is more difficult, in proportion to the number of layers.

Political responsibility could, in theory, be hierarchical – so that each layer of politicians would appoint its representatives in the layer above.  The individual voter would only vote for local politicians in such a system and would only have, or need, access to them.  This would make local politicians much more important, but it would reduce a voter’s influence on the upper layers of governance.  It would be disempowering.

In practice, democratic countries have direct elections for both local and national politicians and, within the EU, elections for representatives in the European Parliament.  This gives at least three levels of voting, and there can be more in some EU countries.  People can only make meaningful choices in these elections if they understand the roles and responsibilities of each level, have some understanding of the political issues, recognise the politicians they are voting for and have sufficient information about the policy options available.

As described in the following sub-sections, there is disagreement on how much power to allocate to each layer of governance ( and people have problems in making informed choices:

  • They might vote on the basis of their national or cultural identity, with potentially divisive results (
  • They might have insufficient economic knowledge to give due weight to economic issues (
  • They might simply be confused by complexity, leading to apathy and a sense of disenfranchisement (



Next Segment