Reflections at the Airport: Subsidiarity

Before leaving for Copenhagen, we had some breakfast at the airport of Brussels. Through the large windows we could observe the use of the tarmac by airplanes, lorries, buses and cars. One could attempt to pre-program every movement, as if airport activity would be the solution to an all encompassing mathematical equation capable to regulate all the trafic on the ground. Of course, this is impossible: we all know the small delays that can occur when a passenger doesn’t show up in time at the boarding gate – the plane will be moving out a little bit later than forseen and ground traffic at the airport is different from what was expected. It made me think how, on the ground, concrete people, the pilots and the car drivers, have to take responsible decisions independently – be it with the respect of certain general rules, but, nevertheless, independently -: Am I going to cross this part of the tarmac now? The whole “system” of the airport cannot work without these small decisions and this responsible sense of initiative.

To me, this illustrates the necessity of the principle of subsidiarity: some decisions cannot be taken at the higher levels of organisation – factoring them in in equations seems beyond feasibility -, and should not be taken or put into equations at that higher level, because it is not possible. A balance has to be found on what is to be decided at the various levels of an organisation. Moreover, we also know that a “small” decision taken at a lower level, may have huge consequences at a higher level – as when my decision to cross a street provokes an accident that leads up to huge traffic jams that can paralyze several streets or even more. The decisions taken at a lower level represent a moment of creativity for the higher level of organization. This illustrates even more the need to coordinate decision making processes at lower and higher levels.

This seems important with regard to the answers that all of us, at our various levels of existence – as individuals, as members of a family, as inhabitants of a city or a region or a country, at the social, economic and political levels of organisation that characterize our complex societies and communities, at world level -, are called to give. We should also be aware that small, individual actions, may result in profound changes at higher levels of our lives together, particularly if these small changes solidify into movements that have social and political impact. This is hopeful: it means that we can act at various levels, although we may feel very small and insignificant, although the challenges we are facing together seem to go beyond each one of us. The principle of subsidiarity is not only a warning to the higher levels of organization that their greed for organization and power should be tempered by their openness to responsible action at lower levels, it is also a call to each one of us to act at our direct individual levels, as this represents, in the long term, also an action at a higher level.

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