At the BMW championship recently, golfer Phil Mickelson was reported to have purchased a glass of lemonade from some kids at a roadside stand. The price was $1, and he left a $99 tip.
Mickelson is one of his sport’s leading players. Through hard work, perseverance and many trials, he has developed the game of golf to an art.
Mickelson is also known for his philanthropy. He and his wife, Amy, have hosted thousands of children in back-to-school shopping sprees. They contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hurricane Katrina relief, and they donated considerable money to help with wounded veterans.
Mickelson’s generosity is an example of the social principle of solidarity.
The principle of solidarity is a sense of the common good, of the natural and supernatural connections that bind us one to another, and of our responsibility toward one another.
In individual cases, the application of the principle is a reminder of the clear moral imperative that the wealthy exercise their sacred obligation to aid the less advantaged and to work toward the betterment of everyone.
While the Catholic Church is certainly not in favor of Marxism or socialism, Thomas Aquinas, one of the great thinkers of the Catholic faith, taught that ownership of private property is certainly allowed but that the use of that privately held wealth must be directed toward the common good. This is because everything ultimately belongs to God, and we are given stewardship of it for a period of time.
This principle of solidarity in relationship to government action means that state government — and many times the federal government — are appropriate vehicles to direct the use of wealth collected through taxes or otherwise for the common good. We see this in such things as unemployment insurance and in Social Security.
There was a time when rugged individualism precluded thoughts of the federal government creating a social welfare net, even as the agrarian and more local family units, which were more relied on before the 1930s, became less intact.
Mickelson’s encounter with the lemonade stand demonstrates the principle of subsidiarity, which is also part of Catholic social teaching. Golf, particularly, rewards individual hard work and God-given talent. Lemonade stands are probably the most basic unit of the entrepreneurial spirit to be found. Their construction and operation, and yes, regulation, belong at the most local level possible.
Subsidiarity is the principle that says that in matters economic and political, the preference is always to be given to the most local level of authority that can handle the matter. We don’t appeal lemonade stand issues to state regulatory authority; at least I hope not. So, too, with questions such as traffic, employment issues and health concerns solutions should be found at the most local level possible.
This principal does not negate the idea that sometimes the federal government must be involved, but the preference is clearly for solutions to be found at the local level if possible.
Subsidiarity if taken to an extreme, and left unchecked, could result in a rampant capitalism and even a rugged individualism that exults greed over the common good. Solidarity, if left unchecked, can devolve into government rule to achieve whatever those in power deem to be justice either through an outright exercise of power or through more subtle forms of social engineering.
Catholic social teaching emphasizes the application of both the principle of subsidiarity and the principle of solidarity. The two are not meant to be mixed and balanced; instead one principle acts as a check on the other principle.
There is no Christian doctrine that clearly defines when and how the two principles are to be applied, when one is meant to be used to check the other. Instead, the application of the two principles — subsidiarity and solidarity — where one principle limits the over-application of the other principle, is an exercise of prudent judgment.