Libertarianism: A Remedy, Not a Panacea

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Over the years, my personal political philosophy has followed an arc from what is commonly described as neoconservatism to a form of libertarianism tempered by a Catholic sensibility.

I like the strong themes of personal liberty, responsibility, and subsidiarity that are woven into libertarian thinking, and I see the libertarian impulse as strong medicine in a society that wants to outsource all thinking and decision-making to an increasingly powerful central government. It’s not so much that libertarianism is the ideal political system as it is a necessary remedy to the out-of-control statism that grips most of Western civilization.

But if libertarianism slashes the red tape of leviathanesque bureaucracy to make way for freedom, left to flourish without a strong controlling moral impulse, its implicit adherence to the principle of unrestricted self-ownership can lead to tragic conclusions. At Aleteia, Jason Jones and John Zmirak warn of where this radical, unimpeded personal liberty can take us:

There is a strong surface appeal to this position, particularly in our current political context of galloping secular socialism that drags us toward its goal of the subhumanist nanny state.  Murray Rothbard’s version of libertarianism (anarcho-capitalism) has attracted a surprising number of otherwise prolife religious believers—no doubt because of its appearance of philosophical rigor, and its justified rejection of the intrusive secular state.  But let us listen to Rothbard on the subject of motherhood and the family:

“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus. Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body. Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.”

Self-ownership, as the ruthlessly consistent Rothbard construes it, has other implications for the rights and duties of parents, extending far beyond the intimacy of the womb. He writes later in the same chapter:

“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow anybaby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)”

So self-ownership, as a principle, prevents the state from intervening when parents starve their children. At this point it is tempting to simply toss the very concept aside as toxic, to decide that any theory which cannot account for and defend the most basic unit of society, the family, can hardly be trusted on larger and more complicated questions. But self-ownership is not entirely wrong.  It is radically incomplete, an important piece of the truth which when ripped out of its living context leaves a trail as bloody as any vital organ.

The key, Jones and Zmirak argue, is understanding that rights correspond to human dignity, and this dignity must be universally respected. It is a dignity that is rooted in our equality as human beings, who all start out small and helpless in the womb. That equality is met with the challenges of circumstance even before we make our way into the world at birth. Whether it is the nutritional quality of the foods our mothers have access to, or the quality of healthcare they enjoy, factors outside the control of the individual give the lie to the notion of the completely self-made man almost from the moment of conception. Jones and Zmirak point out the obvious:

It is clear that no human being is really “self-made.”  We are born to parents, without whose care we would quickly die.  Human beings are dependent for longer than any other creature on the constant protection of parents.  Nor, once we reach adulthood, can most human beings survive alone.  We are physically and emotionally dependent on cooperation with others.  Our very consciousness is constituted and formed into fullness through the mediation of language—of words and grammatical structures that we learn from others, who have themselves inherited them from the dead.  Likewise, we are the beneficiaries of the hard work done by our ancestors in establishing an orderly society that protects individual rights, and creates the infrastructure for education and technology. Think of the immense advantages in lifespan, opportunity, health, and wealth that a modern American or European enjoys over a persecuted Nuba tribesmanor a Brazilian living in a favela; can any of us rightly take credit for these?  No, these are gifts that we have been given, and without them we would not have the knowledge, skills, freedom or physical safety that make possible our efforts at creating wealth. Two people with similar talents and comparable work ethics will fare very differently, if one of them is born on New York’s Upper East Side, and the other in an aboriginal community in Australia.  The discrepancy between the opportunities offered to these two people ought to show us the measure of how much we owe to others, how little of the selves that we have become for which we can take sole credit.

We do not give birth to our bodies, nor create ourselves. We take a vast array of inherited gifts and opportunities and do our best to steward and make good use of them.  Given that fact, our ownership of our labor and our wealth is not complete and absolute.

If this reminds you of “You didn’t build that,” that’s because there’s a grain of truth in President Obama’s much-maligned critique of personal success. Nobody grows up in a vacuum. Common sense tells us that what we have accomplished in life would often have been impossible without the assistance of others or the favorable circumstances of the society in which we were born. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get credit for the hard work we’ve put in along the way, only that no man is an island.

And that’s where I throw an asterisk on my self-described libertarianism. There are times in my life when I’ve been in tough circumstances and have needed the assistance of others, not only friends and family, but at times, even the state. I know that whether this was due to my own failings or simple misfortune, I wouldn’t have made it without the help I received. I sometimes wonder if die-hard libertarians have never found themselves in a jam they couldn’t get out of on their own. My own experience tells me that “every man for himself” is probably not a philosophy God wants to see flourish among His people.  (I think we can all agree that the Sermon on the Mount leaves little room for debate on that.)

But neither can I say that I believe God wants us to become dependent on an overreaching nanny state. I know otherwise good Catholics who are in exactly that boat — due to poverty or underemployment (or their choice to work for the Church, which often fails to pay the subsistence wages to families that it advocates), they have become increasingly reliant on receiving their food, healthcare, and education from a government that was never intended to provide it but has its own interest in creating addicts to the public dole.

And make no mistake: it is addictive. Ask anyone who has ever received food stamps how hard it is to pay for their own groceries after the benefits dry up. The sense of entitlement to that money you get every month through no merit of your own is incredibly powerful, like a trance that needs to be broken. I know. I’m not proud to admit it, but I’ve been there. It’s like a drug. This is why so many people never rise out of poverty in America: it’s simply easier to have the government subsidize their existence.

The government has proven that it’s very interested in playing the role of helper of the helpless, but in the process, it has created a helpless class at the expense of those able to bear the burden. This is why I can’t help but agree with Penn Jillette when he says:

It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

People try to argue that government isn’t really force. You believe that? Try not paying your taxes. (This is only a thought experiment — suggesting on CNN.com that someone not pay his or her taxes is probably a federal offense, and I’m a nut, but I’m not crazy.). When they come to get you for not paying your taxes, try not going to court. Guns will be drawn. Government is force — literally, not figuratively.

It seems to me that Catholics who wish to counter this compulsory charity and the growth of an overbearing state can embrace a sort of libertarian impulse in good conscience — provided they understand the danger of the atomized, radically individualistic anarchy that lies at the far end of that spectrum.

Similarly, Catholics who believe that social justice demands a certain level of statism to fill in where private charity fails must understand the danger of fascism or communism that result when we hand too much power to the government and outsource works of mercy that should voluntary to bureaucrats who trade handouts for votes.

As we strive for balance and the protection of the liberty that allows us to thrive and prosper as citizens, we must all be wary of being drawn to extremity, simply out of the feeling of a need for ideological purity or unquestioning affiliation to the political group of our choice.

Critical thinking is required, not lockstep adherence. We should not be afraid to use labels insofar as they help to describe what we believe, but we should also be wary of attaching too much significance to them.

First and foremost, we are American Catholics, patriots and faithful sons of the Church. We should seek freedom because it gives the greatest opportunity for moral action and success in our endeavors, not because we desire to be unfettered in our pursuit of maximum self-benefit with no consideration given to the needs of the helpless or less fortunate. We should work to build the most just, equitable, and prosperous society we can here on earth, while never losing sight of the lives we must live so that we may enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Once there, there will be no libertarians or anarchists, no progressives or socialists. Political partisanship before the Beatific Vision is an impossible absurdity. There will be only loyal subjects of our Heavenly King.

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Categories:Politics

9 thoughts on “Libertarianism: A Remedy, Not a Panacea

  1. Robert Hutchinson says:

    Most excellent article, Steve! I, too, lean strongly libertarian and find both major political parties repellent… I somewhat jokingly call myself a Christian anarchist… but I can’t follow libertarian principles to their Randian, Rothbardian conclusion. Rothbard’s pro-abortion stance presupposes that the vaunted Non-Aggression Principle does not apply to unborn children. You might be interested in a website called “Bleeding Heart Liberatarians” because its writers, mostly philosophers, wrestle with precisely these issues, how to balance the “medicine” of libertarianism with basic human decency. Anyway, thanks much for a great post.

  2. Bern M. says:

    Thanks for this posting. There is a lot here to think about. My political views are center-left, yet I can understand the concerns people on the right have regarding the increasing statism in much of the developed world.

    I’m afraid however that replacing govt programs (food stamps) with private charity just is not viable. We’ve been through hard times over the last 5-6 years; unemployment here in RI is still above 10%. Food handouts from private charity to those in need isn’t going to cut it.

    I would like to say that in a fair and just society there should be employment available for everyone who is able to work. Those who simply don’t want to work would not be entitled to benefits.

    How this would be implemented is for another discussion.

  3. Micha Elyi says:

    Wow. You all have awakened to the realization that Caesar cannot supply the land with a Christian people. Or even a moral people. That, dear friends, is the task of the laity of the Church.

    P.S. When are our bishops and priests going to deny the Abortion Party and all its works? Until then, all these recent jitters about libertarians are just a sham and a distraction.

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