Ethical Perspectives 4 (2):117-130 (1997)
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It has always been the fate of centrally important concepts in public debate to be used promiscuously. ‘Democracy’, for instance, has long been assigned multiple contested meanings; its meaning is univocal only in the minds of passionate advocates of a single political project seeking to monopolize usage of the term, whether Liberals or Leninists. Theorists tend to worry about this conceptual promiscuity more than practitioners, who, firing off loaded concepts in the heat of political battle, are impatient of reminders that, perhaps, this or that concept is not being consistently used as originally intended. “No matter,” says the busy practitioner, “it is doing the job I currently intend.” This reply is often justified: scholarly intrusions into public debate are sometimes appropriately dubbed ‘academic’ . However, when rhetorical skirmishes cease and a concept gets to be embedded in public policy or legislation, clarity is indispensable.This, of course, summarizes the recent career of the concept of ‘subsidiarity’, which has been nominated as possibly ‘the most contentious abstract noun to have entered European politics since 1789’ . Advocates of both centralization and decentralization currently invoke it with the same firmness of conviction. Its inclusion in the Maastricht Treaty, far from having generated clear guidelines on how to determine the proper balance between European and national competences, has only served to highlight the competing interpretations which it can, apparently, bear. ‘Subsidiarity’ is suffering from a ‘clarity deficit’ which needs remedying. My aim in what follows is to contribute to that process of clarification and to suggest ways in which the concept might be critically developed.First, I attempt to retrieve the original meaning of subsidiarity and exhibit its intrinsic relationships to related concepts of community and the common good. I seek to show that subsidiarity is only one aspect of a broader theory, rooted in Catholic social thought, of the proper relationship between persons and communities. Subsidiarity takes its meaning from an elaborate social theory which is personalist, pluralist and communitarian. Charges of vacuity against subsidiarity are only to be expected when the concept is treated in isolation from this background theory. Second, I identify and attempt to remedy certain deficiencies of the concept by critically elaborating what I take to be its central intent. In a brief conclusion, I indicate the need to bring the concept into dialogue with alternative models of the person-community relationship



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