By Peter Haworth
Federalism and subsidiarity are, indeed, different concepts, even though they often dictate similar applications. Federalism is a rigid notion; it now frequently connotes the making of strong demarcations of power between the multiple local associations and the single central government within a political union. Subsidiarity, however, enjoins leaving a function with the lowest level of association (i.e., not allowing a higher-level association to assume power over the function) to the extent that the lower-level association can perform it efficiently.*Here is a short post I wrote on subsidiarity, speculating on its role in contemporary CST. A longer post.
The difference between the two principles can be further illustrated through considering the different ways that each might dictate handling the scenario of a rogue state or polity within a larger political union that possesses a federal government to help manage the common affairs of this union.
Let us assume, for example, that a state gravely mistreated a minority portion of its residents. What would each of the above principles direct as being the correct action? If the political union were organized such that the states had full police powers and this was not a power assigned to the federal government, then federalism would demand maintaining such demarcation of powers regardless of the fact that the rogue state is failing to protect and is even willfully mistreating its residents. In fact, other than during the initial stage of deciding how power is to be demarcated between lower and higher (or more centralized) levels, the effective performance of a function is not even considered in determining applications of the principle of federalism.
Subsidiarity, on the other hand, is more flexible, in that it is theoretically open to transferring a function (i.e., power over the function) to higher levels if it becomes clear that a lower-level association cannot perform the function efficiently. Thus, if it were found that a state or polity within our hypothetical union could not efficiently perform the function of protecting a certain minority of people within its borders, then subsidiarity would direct us to transfer this function and the corresponding power over such function to a higher level, by whose agency performance of that function could be performed more efficiently.
For many, the pursuit of such applications of the subsidiarity principle (and not federalism) just seems like utter common sense. Subsidiarity is a principle that allows for continual re-evaluation about which levels of government can most efficiently perform various functions and, hence, should have the relevant powers over such functions. Federalism, on the other hand, does not entail this evaluation within its concept; it refers merely to the maintenance of an already determined division of functions and the powers to implement them.
We have to remember that what may be ideal or in accordance with reason is different from what obtains in reality. While the civitas is the perfect community and should be of a certain size, because of the loss of autarky what used to be a perfect community may no longer be such, and what originated as a union of civitates may now have the character proper to a perfect community, instead of being some sort of alliance or confederation.
How does the authority of the father differ from that of the head of a guild? How does the authority of the government of the civitas compare?