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The principle of subsidiarity: less state and more citizen
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Thus, it is not surprising that most Brazilians have become accustomed to expecting solutions to their problems to always come from the top down. And when we say "from top to bottom", we are not referring only to public power, although this is the most visible facet of this mentality, reflected in the tendency to settle absolutely everything with legislation – some of it bordering on the ridiculous - and in the fact that the public space happens to be seen as "nobody's thing" (or worse, as “the property of the state”) when it should be seen as “everybody’s thing”. Believing in solutions that come from the top down also overload non-state entities such as neighborhood associations or class entities.

Not surprisingly, most Brazilians have become accustomed to expecting top-down solutions.

But there is another way of looking at the protagonism in life in society, a way more consistent with the recognition of human dignity - of the infinite value of each individual and of the respect for their freedom - and with an ethic that favors personal development. We can illustrate this idea with a simple example of professional life: is it not true that a centralizing boss, who takes on the tasks his subordinates can do, prevents employees from developing fully and acquiring the skills necessary to do their job well? In the long run, the spirit of initiative of team members will be completely nullified. A good boss leads when he respects his employees by letting them work, values what they bring to the team, and uses his experience to help the subordinate when it is genuinely necessary.

The same reasoning that we apply to the daily life of a company is valid for society. Each person, each entity must be free to act according to their capabilities and have their autonomy respected. It is only when a person or a group cannot perform a certain task that there will be a superior body who comes to their aid. Where an individual’s action is insufficient, the family comes in; that which the family is not able to do, there will be the help of a group of families, an association, a company; and so on, to the highest spheres of government. It makes perfect sense: it is the lower bodies that are closest to our daily life; it is there that problems are seen with rich detail and that one knows well those involved and affected by each decision. The higher body, in this scheme, does not assume the role of micromanagement agents; their major function is to provide support - in Latin, subsidium, which explains why this principle is called "subsidiarity."

“Each person, each entity must be free to act according to their capabilities and have their autonomy respected”

This does not mean, however, that state power must be reduced until it reaches the "night watchman state" preached by certain currents of liberalism. In subsidiarity, the state plays an important role in coming to the aid of the lower bodies when they are not able (or interested) to solve certain issues, then retreating when society acquires the capacity to perform the task or solve the problem. There are issues too complex, that require resources that are beyond the capabilities of a certain group, or that call for a higher body to play a regulatory role - we can think, for example, of major infrastructure plans. In these cases, the state must be present, but always acting "from the bottom up", starting with the municipality and only requiring action from the state or federal government when the situation so requests. One example is that of the United States, where many policies are decided in counties or state legislatures.

A society guided by subsidiarity observes various types of advantages. Most evident is the fact that subsidiarity empowers people and communities. It removes the notion that the citizen is a passive being and transforms him into an active agent in the progress of the place where he lives. It reinforces the bond between individuals, families and their neighborhoods and their cities, recovering the notion of "space for all". Whoever owns it cares and cares about what is theirs, and knows that good results are a consequence of their work.

Another happy consequence of subsidiarity is the encouragement of associativism. In 1791, revolutionary France passed the Le Chapelier Act, which banned trade guilds and nascent unions. Its pretext was to defend free enterprise, but its consequence was to leave individuals at the mercy of an all-powerful state; the associations formed a "mattress" which, uniting citizens around a certain interest, strengthened and protected them from state authoritarianism, but French law, by prohibiting various types of entities, isolated the individual. The associativism has this fundamental aspect of promoting intermediary bodies to defend citizens, families, companies, but it is not its only dimension. Faced with a problem too great to be solved by one or a few people, those who are aware of their protagonism will not immediately relegate the solution to the public power; before that, they will try to bring more people closer together and organize themselves better, in a process that will generate more and more associations, increasing the social capital of a nation.

“Another happy consequence of subsidiarity is the encouragement of associativism”

In places where people gather around common interests - whether they care about where they live or whether they are defending a cause - society grows stronger and more pluralistic. This had already been observed in the 19th century, when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America”, and gathered new empirical evidence in the 20th century, especially with the work of Robert Putnam, who noted the Italian regions created in the 1970s and found the existence of several associations, linked to the most diverse topics, was one of the main factors that made one administrative unit work better than another.

In his inaugural speech in 1961, US President John Kennedy used a phrase that became famous: “Do not ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Putting subsidiarity into practice is more than doing "something" for your country: it is actually doing a lot for each person and for the whole of society.

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