Social capital and the subsidiarity principle

This month’s blog post serves  a dual purpose: to fulfill my personal commitment to posting an item every month; and do some research to fill a gap in my forthcoming book on social capital and the well-being of nations.

Evidence suggests that participatory and community-led economic development approaches may help to maintain and grow social capital, underpinned by the subsidiarity principle – that social and political issues should be decentralised to the most immediate or local level that is consistent with their resolution.

The concept of subsidiarity  underpins efforts to ensure that authority for collective action is devolved to an appropriate level. The principle stems from Catholic social thought, that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only what tasks cannot be performed at a more local level. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation when it could be done just as well by a smaller and simpler organisation (Bosnich, 2010). In other words, that any activity which can be performed by a more decentralised entity should be. This principle underpins ideas of limited government and personal freedom and is counter to ideas of a centralised bureaucracy and ‘welfare state’.

According to the 19th century analysis by Alexis de Tocqueville (1838): “Decentralization has, not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.”

Subsidiarity is well known as a principle of European Union (EU) law, which requires that action to accomplish a legitimate government objective should be taken at the lowest level of government capable of effectively addressing the problem. In this way, subsidiarity is a guideline for contemporary power-sharing between the relatively new institutions of the EU and the constituent member states that originally formed it (Vause, 1995). The ever-attendant counterpart to subsidiarity is the principle of proportionality, that actions of the EU itself must be limited to what is necessary to achieve its objectives.

According to Macrory (2008), the positive effects of a political/economic system governed by the principle of subsidiarity include that systemic failures can largely be avoided; individual and group initiative is given maximum scope to solve problems; and local initiative and responsibility are given an opportunity to be activated.

Successful application of the subsidiarity principle depends on the willingness of people to become active participants in civil society. In this regard, subsidiarity and social capital are inter-related: a nation’s adherence to the subsidiarity principle is a necessary but not sufficient condition for fostering social capital; and an adequate level of social capital is needed to enable localised collective action for decentralisation to be effective.


Bosnich, D. A. (2010) “The Principle of Subsidiarity”, Religion and Liberty 6(4), July 2010:

Macrory, R. (2008), Regulation, Enforcement and Governance in Environmental Law, Cameron May, London.

Tocqueville, A. (1838) Democracy in America, Saunders and Otley (London).

Vause, W. G. (1995) “The Subsidiarity Principle in European Union Law-American Federalism Compared”, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 27(1): 61-81: