The Lord of the Rings has enthralled the minds of readers for close to a century with its dazzling and fantastical depiction of an alternate reality, one in which Dwarves and Elves, Hobbits and Humans, band together in an attempt to save Middle Earth from the tyranny of the Dark Lord Sauron. Beyond the intrigue of its specific plot line, readers have sensed within the trilogy a pulsating conservative spirit. Underneath its detailed descriptions, poems, ballads, and dialogues lies a robust defense of tradition, of kinship, and of organic community; an idealization of a life lead naturally; a veneration of the higher virtues like heroism, self-sacrifice, courage, and humility; a recognition of the role of providence in history; and most importantly an acknowledgement of the perverse nature of unbridled power.

Power and its capacity for corruption, embodied in the One Ring, holds particular sway over the Human race. It is Isildur, a Human, who while taken by the allure of the ring ignores the advice of the Elf Elrond and refuses to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom, ensuring the eventual renascence of Sauron and his reign of terror. Likewise, Sauron had given lesser rings to all the races of Middle Earth, but only Humans could not handle their newfound power. As Gandalf retells, “Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them. Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants.” Mindful of this truth which Tolkein wishes to impress upon us, an analysis of the following passage found towards the end of the Fellowship of the Ring proves enlightening.

Catching Frodo isolated from the rest of the Fellowship, Boromir attempts to convince Frodo to give him the ring so that he can employ its power against Sauron. Frodo, aware that the ring would surely overwhelm Boromir, refuses. Boromir, half-crazed and desperate, responds:

‘So you go on,’ he cried. ‘Gandalf, Elrond – all these folk have taught you to say so. For themselves they may be right. These elves and half-elves and wizards, they would come to grief perhaps. Yet often I doubt if they are wise and not merely timid. But each to his own kind. True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the -Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!

How ironic that Boromir, the proud and ever ambitious human, derides the Elven and Wizard races as incapable of wielding the Ring and withstanding its dangerous influence! When discussing the necessity of the rule of law and government in society, we too often tend to forget our easily corruptible nature and our tendency towards selfish action. Government bureaucrats are not necessarily selfless, noble public servants who wish simply to provide us with services. Like most human beings, they enjoy power and can easily become lost in its wastelands. We can all conjure in our minds various episodes of massive government overreach that were quite detrimental to the lives of the citizenry. Yet, we also recognize that we can easily destroy ourselves if left to our own devices. The libertarian invariably becomes a libertine. Moreover, as Boromir himself realizes in the above passage, power can certainly act beneficially. Government provides useful public services that individuals alone would be incapable of procuring for themselves.

It would appear, then, that we have arrived at a paradox: man requires government else he will descend into bacchanalia or impotence, yet the very authority vested in government corrupts man!

It is with this problem in mind that Catholic social teaching developed its theory of governance. Recognizing both the danger of laissez-faire individualism as well as strong centralized government, Pope Pius XI proffered a middle course: subsidiarity. The essence of political subsidiarity lies in an adherence to the simple maxim that the functions of government and law should remain as local as possible. It is within small communal institutions that we can place our trust. Thus the family, the local parish or synagogue, and the volunteer town council receive renewed significance. These institutions can provide the collective with proper health care, housing, law and order, as well as other basic necessities. However, their localized and modestly sized structure serve as a ballast against the natural tendencies of such authority to become wracked in self-serving corruption. Indeed, not only will local authority remain less corruptible, it will actually behave more selflessly. No one will dispute that parents care for their children without an overriding material interest compelling them so. We can expect the church and communal council, then, as a form of extended family comprising individuals whom interact with each other on a daily basis and have formed personal relationships, to act similarly.

Libertarian rhetoric often leads one to conclude that society is simply a social Darwinist experiment. Individual pitted against individual; an absolute meritocracy in which the most deserving will succeed, while those less fortunate will perish. However, absolute meritocracy is a myth, and unfettered individualism becomes a path fraught with moral danger. Conversely, those in favor of a robust welfare government place far to much trust in the individual, assuming he will act for the greater good even while history indicates otherwise. What is required, then, is a return to Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity which successfully straddles the line between anarcho-individualism and the Leviathan.