6.6.7 The Complexity of Political Subsidiarity

The complexity of political subsidiarity makes it difficult for people to understand who is responsible and hold them to account.

Subsidiarity (2.8) doesn’t imply a hierarchy, with world government at its apex.  It is a segmentation of power, where each segment of decision-making is controlled at the appropriate level.  People find it easy to understand a hierarchy, which is a familiar model, but it is less easy to understand segmentation and subsidiarity.  Differences in understanding make it hard to reach agreement on how much power should be given to each layer of governance.

There are different layers of government within democratic countries, and further layers of multinational and global governance.  The book Multi-Level Governance, for example, describes how: “Multi-level governance has emerged as an important concept for understanding the dynamic relationships between state and non-state actors within territorially overarching networks”.  Ideally, given that the purpose of a democracy is to enable people to choose their representatives and governments, people should be able to make these choices by voting 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 to have, a local access path to exert influence.  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.  In America, there are elections at County and State levels of government and the election of the country’s president.  This gives at least three levels of voting, and there can be more in some countries.  These multiple levels of voting are what create the complexity of political subsidiarity.  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, multi-level governance faces several difficulties:

●  There is disagreement on how much power to allocate to each layer of governance (  Regional autonomy would lead to financial inequality unless money is redistributed between wealthy regions and poorer ones.

●  People might vote on the basis of their national or cultural identity, with potentially divisive results (  Many important political issues, such as public service levels, do not primarily depend on someone’s ethnicity.

●  Voters might have insufficient knowledge to give due weight to understand the importance of taking business needs into account (  During the 2016 referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU, many people did not realise the degree to which employment and the economy would be damaged by leaving the bloc.

●  People might simply be confused by complexity, leading to apathy and a sense of disenfranchisement (  They find it easier to vote on party lines instead of thinking about the issues at each level of subsidiarity.

●  The distribution of power between Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine is a particularly thorny question (  There is growing support for a three-layer ‘one-state solution’ for living together, which might offer a model for other complex situations.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/667.htm.