Catholicism and Libertarianism, Part 2

In a recent post I discussed what I think are some problems in Kevin Williamson’s critique of Catholic thinking about economics and politics.  Here I would like to continue the critique.

Here’s Williamson:

From the old royalist Right to the redistributionist Left, there is an implicit and sometimes explicit belief that the state is a channel for moral expression, whether that expression takes the form of entrenching traditional ideals about family life or or collaborating with the state in the seizure and redistribution of wealth. (Probably worth keeping in mind the clergy’s historical track record here: The last economic idea that it got itself exercised about was Marxism.) But the state is in fact no such thing. It is a piece of social software, a technology, a tool with no more moral significance in and of itself than a hammer.

I think we find a number of problems here.

st. peters

In the first place, this is not so much an argument as it is an assertion.  Catholicism thinks the state can be a channel of moral expression, and Williamson says it cannot.  He does not explain why we should reject the view he rejects.  If the state is just a tool, as he says, then presumably it can be put to a moral purpose, just like any other tool.  Or if it cannot, he needs to explain why it cannot.

In the second place, Williamson needs to face the fact that in criticizing the Catholic view that the state can be put to moral purposes, that it has moral obligations, he is not really just criticizing the view of some kooky clerics, but is really criticizing a view that has been held by almost everybody.  That the political authority has a moral character, that it can be used with a view to moral ends, was held by Plato and Aristotle, by Ciero, by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, by the Protestant reformers, and by the American founders.  And if we leave aside the theorists and look around the world at political practice, we see that almost everybody everywhere treats the political authority as if it can be a means to moral ends.  Almost all laws everywhere are justified on some ground of decency or justice.

Of course, it goes without saying that the state can be perverted to bad ends, or that moral ends can be invoked as a mere pretext for the exercise of power in the service of somebody’s self-interest.  But everybody who has thought it has moral purposes has known that, and they have understood it in light of Saint Augustine’s observation that “the abuse does not take away the use” of a thing.

This is a problem not just with Williamson but with libertarianism in general.  It tends to be a creed at war with the common sense of human kind.  By insisting that the state must not be used as a channel of moral expression, it is putting itself at odds with the opinion of almost all human beings throughout history, as far as we can tell.

Williamson then goes on and criticizes Saint Pope John Paul II for holding that “the State has the duty of watching over the common good.”  Williamson says:

But the state in fact has no way of knowing to any practical effect what the common good even is or how its policies might affect priorities relating to it. The “common good” may seem like a relatively straightforward thing when your theater of operations is the general moral intuition of a saint, but it’s something else when you’re working with 20,000 pages of Affordable Care Act regulations — and that, not refined sentiment, is the realm in which the state operates. Meanwhile, he also expects the state to determine just wages and union work rules, to administer unemployment insurance, to calculate the economic consequences of immigration, and a hundred other things that the state has no capacity for doing.

Doesn’t this argument just prove a little too much?  I mean, if the state has no way of knowing what the common good is, then presumably nobody has any way of knowing what the common good is.  But if we cannot know what it is, how can we say, for example, that libertarianism is any good as an approach to politics and economics.  I suppose any given libertarian can say that he is happier with less government, but if the common good is unknowable he can’t show why anybody else should care—especially people who directly benefit from government.

If Williamson’s argument is correct, it would mean that there should be no government regulation of the economy at all, and maybe no government at all.  But this is not a position that ever has or ever will will substantial support.



  • Dennis Culley

    “Almost all laws everywhere are justified on some ground of decency or justice.”

    Did God give us free will in order to have it taken away by government?

    The author seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of America that was innovated by the founders. We are a country based on the concept that government is here to protect our liberty. These ideas are well explained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other copious writings from that period.

    Our government is supposed to guarantee our liberty. This also means that we choose our decency, our sense of justice, and our morality. However, this does not guarantee a right to infringe on the liberty of others. For example, it is immoral and unlawful to murder but it is not unlawful to use condoms or engage in homosexual behavior. Yet, that is exactly what Carson Holloway is suggesting. He is telling us government has the right to force his definition of social justice upon us, effectively taking away our free will.

    God gave us free will so that we could choose right from wrong. That is central to God’s plan. The role of the Catholic church is to teach us morality, not to collaborate with government in its enforcement. It seems to me that this is laziness on the part of the church. It is an example of its failure to spread its message.

    Unfortunately, the Catholic church is now engaging in collusion with the progressive forces in government to force Marxism upon us. Let us count the ways.
    1.It supports Obamacare except for the contraception mandate.
    2.It supports Common Core, which is nothing more than indoctrination of children.
    3.It supports Open Borders, a direct attack on American values.
    4.It supports the redistribution of wealth in place of the creation of wealth.
    5.It supports politicians openly committed to values in opposition of liberty and the church’s own teachings.

    The Catholic church lends it support to this misguided effort even though progressives are committed to destroying religion. I have already decided that I will not continue to support the Catholic church in this mission. My charitable contributions will continue with organizations that are committed to my values.

    • Anthony Clifton


      Where does Carson misunderstand the idea of protecting liberty? If it is an injustice to take away a persons liberty, wouldn’t that fit within Carson’s explanation for our laws?

      God did not give us free will only for it to be taken by government. Our constitution retains our free will by giving us the power to change it if needed.

      On the other hand, God did not give us free will in order for it to be taken by criminals or Planned Parenthood. That is why there is a moral basis for many laws.

      I also think that you misunderstand or are mischaracterizing the positions of the Church that you list.

      • Dennis Culley

        Where am I wrong?
        1.The Bishops are on record supporting Obamacare except for the contraception mandate.
        2.Catholic Schools are in the process of implementing Common Core because they get money from the federal government.
        3.Within the last week, the church has called for stopping all deportations and creating a path to citizenship.
        4.Even the pope gets it wrong when he fails to talk about the corruption of capitalism, aka crony capitalism. Capitalism has done far more to raise people out of poverty than anything in the history of man.
        5.Please explain Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. “Catholics” openly hostile to the teaching of the church.

    • 1984 is here

      Dennis, bravo

  • Mary

    The State itself IS a tool, that of the people wielding it. And the people in this Country who are being given the tool are objectively increasingly lacking in virtue, denying the very existence of a preset model of virtue, OR openly desirous of vice.
    If the people of the State, gaining their power through collusion, fraudulent votes, untruthful candidates and blind loyalty, are no longer primarily virtuous, then you can bet that in short order the State will no longer be capable of being virtuous. And that is where we are now.
    Can the State know the common good? it cannot, because it is rejecting the basis of that Good. Instead, it spends it’s time and money making its good APPEAR to be the common good.
    Until our society is more healthy, self rule is very unlikely to result in genuine common good.

    • Anthony Clifton

      If you can’t know what the Common Good is, how can you claim to know that the people of the State are not virtuous?

  • Harry Smith

    I couldn’t agree more with Kevin Williamson. Our government was put into place to resolve issues between 2 or more US States and to provide protection from out side enemies. Morality isn’t decided by our government but rather by our internal ethics. Government is a reflection of societies ethics and not the other way around.

    • breidenc

      I think the author is correct that Mr. Williams is far too vitriolic in his argument against Catholics. But let’s step back for a second. The argument Mr. Williams is sharing starts with his abhorrence of Cardinal Maradiaga’s obsession with government redistribution. So Mr. William’s argument stems from his belief the clergy have no sense about economics and the value of the State. And I agree that many clergy who write or talk in the public square do not. Yet, the response should have been a sound use of Catholic Social Teaching (from the Socio-economic encyclicals – Mr. Williams used Centesimus Annus!) to Mr. Williams. Cardinal Maradiaga is clearly wrong about his opposition to Capitalism, because he has done the opposite of St. Augustine and claimed the abuse (greed, power) is the use of Capitalism, rather than as abuse of its core tenets. Capitalism has been recognized for its economic value in lifting more people out of poverty than any other economic system. It should be retorted that the Catholic Church has lifted more out of poverty regardless of the system. We should not only respond to Mr. Williams with sound economic theory, but also with Catholic Social Teaching on economics, since the Cardinal and his socialistic ilk do not understand or refuse to understand the effectiveness of Capitalism (outside of its abuses, which we expect Government to rein in). St. John Paul II covered this in Centesimus Annus, are we not going to be conversant in this, either?

      • Anthony Clifton

        Well said.

    • Anthony Clifton

      Government is a reflection of societies ethics?

      Isn’t that in direct contradiction to Williamson’s ideal?



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