Podcast time: 39:55
There’s a principle that governs conservative thinking that’s actually derived from the Catholic Church, and then even more deeply, derived from an older biblical tradition based on the Old Testament Exodus story, that proper governance — proper distribution of responsibility — should follow the principle of subsidiarity. Edmund Burke developed this as well. It’s a very good notion, and I think it’s correct. It’s one of the things that attracts me in some fundamental sense to conservative thinking.
Imagine a state where there’s a single executive who has all the power and the people have none. You would think of that as a tyranny, and that’s obviously not desirable. And then you might think, ‘What’s the alternative to a tyranny?’ You might say, ‘Well, direct democracy where the voice of the people rules supreme and the leader must follow the whims of the crowd.’ But the problem with that is that it’s not that easy to figure out what the crowd thinks, and the entire system can fall prey to suddenly arising, poorly organized, deviant impulses.
So what the founders of the American state did, and many other states as well, is set up a series of intermediary structures of power. You can sort of list them up hierarchically. There would be the domain of responsibility of the individual. There would be the domain of the responsibility of the married couple, of the family, of the local community, then the town, then the state or province, and then the country. Each of those levels would be requested to take as much responsibility for what they could at the local level. The relationship between all those levels should be governed by the principle that if it can be decided at a lower level — then it should be.
The reason that that’s useful is twofold. One is that it’s a really good way of delegating responsibility. It’s very efficient if everyone plays their role. The second is — this is another thing the conservatives really have on their side — if the state does everything for you, let’s say, well, in a sense you’re secure, although you’re not because you’re beholden to the benevolence of the state. That can be taken away arbitrarily. But the downside is — this is one of the downsides of universal basic income proposals — it’s like, what the hell is there left for you to do if the state does everything for you? Well, you’re secure. But what’s your life, then? You have no purpose. If the purpose of life — and this is another thing that the more libertarian conservatives could be offering — imagine that the purpose of your life isn’t security and satiation because you’re not just an overgrown infant. Imagine instead that the purpose of your life is something like responsible, productive, generous adventure.
Then the call would be: Make space for people to manifest that in the particularities of their own life. And then everyone has a real part to play, and no one in some real sense is subordinate to anyone else. There would be a hierarchical structure, and some people like you would be leading at the more abstract levels. But your power would be — your authority and your responsibility — would be properly delimited and everything else everybody else was doing all the way down the hierarchy right to the level of running their individual enterprise would in some sense be just as meaningful and just as crucial. That strikes me as an extraordinarily useful vision of governance, especially in the aftermath of the COVID fiasco.
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Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.