I recently co-hosted the Feens broadcast with Diana Keiler and Ben Stone (the Bad Quaker). The 2-hour show is broadcast live at LRN.FM weeknights at Midnight Central time and at noon on weekends. A list of stations carrying the Freedom Feens is available here
Show notes for 05/03/2015: Libertarianism and the non-aggression principle — The State: Doing evil that good may result — Romans 13: Obey the government? — How St Paul dishonored and mocked the Emperor Nero — Paying taxes: Render to Caesar — “Slaves, Obey your masters” — Natural disasters: Private aid trumps government assistance — Lawyer advertising
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Or visit Freedom Feens
Christian statists like to drag out St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans to demonstrate that disobedience to government is not an option:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Rom. 13:1-4
Some laws must be disobeyed
Long recognized, however, are certain exceptions to this “always obey the government” rule. While St. Paul here equates obedience with “doing what is good,” no one argues that governments have ever confined their conduct to what is good. We find the famous standoff recorded in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Peter and the apostles defy the rulers saying: “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29. Numerous other approving recitations of civil disobedience occur in both the Old and New Testaments.
Some must always (and everywhere) be obeyed
So first of all, we must disobey some laws, but even the government gets many laws right. This second sort of law are those that seek to prevent or correct harm to others; such prohibitions would have to be obeyed in any society.
Unjust Nanny-state Laws
Finally, alongside the protective laws (which must be obeyed) and the laws which command us to do evil (which must be disobeyed) we still have that great morass of laws designed either 1) to steal from us; or 2) punish us unless we conduct our own lives according to the ruler’s demands.
It may well be wise to obey this third sort of law (if only out of self-defense), but as to any Christian moral obligation to obey, a closer look at St Paul’s epistle to the Romans suggests another layer to the analysis and raises the question as what duty—if any—is owed to the authorities:
For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Rom.13:6-7.
How much honor is due?
The rulers might read this passage as satisfying homage, but the subversive undercurrent of this verse is barely beneath the surface for any objective reader. Indeed, justice might cry out that no taxes are due; that the bloody hands of the ruler merit no respect; and his thefts deserve not honor but punishment. Only a fool feels honored at having been wished “all the respect he is due.” St. Paul’s words are reminiscent of Bilbo’s speech at his birthday party:
I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.
It’s hard to make out whether he is insulting or paying a compliment.
As with so much of scripture, the writings of St. Paul are rich with multiple levels of meaning. It turns out that the stern apostle possessed a perilous sense of humor, quite capable of lampooning the king.
Nero runs his race
In the year 66 A.D., the Emperor Nero left Rome to compete in the Olympic games and make a concert tour of Greece. At Olympia, he competed in the four-horse chariot race. The historian Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, reported that Nero drove his chariot with at least 10 horses. The emperor was thrown from his chariot during the race and had to be picked up and put back at the reins.
The emperor was unable to remain in his seat and gave up the race before the finish. Since he was the emperor, the judges crowned him the winner anyway. Nero generously declared the whole province a free country and gave the judges large sums of money.
This humiliation would have been fresh news when the buffoonish emperor returned to Rome and soon afterward had the apostle Paul beheaded. Could there be a connection between Nero’s race and a letter St Paul penned from a prison cell in Rome? The apostle wrote this in his last letter to his young friend Timothy,:
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. . . . [T]he time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day. 2 Tim. 2:5, 4:6-8.
Nero the athlete had also competed, but he never finished the race. Nero did not compete according to the rules, yet was awarded the crown. Can there be any doubt that St Paul combined his bittersweet farewell to Timothy with a joke at Nero’s expense? If Nero was due respect simply for being the emperor–as Romans 13 is so often read–then St. Paul failed to follow his own rule. It is something to ponder when we consider one’s duty to any ruler or government.
Read the related post: “Does the Bible Approve of Violent Government” here.
Today’s LewRockwell.com posts this transcript of my interview with Lew:
More and more, American Catholics are coming to understand the essential compatibility between Catholicism and libertarianism. The great virtue of libertarianism is the respect it accords one’s neighbor.
As we are told in the book of Tobit 4:15: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike,” a command we recognize as a corollary to the Golden rule. This makes libertarianism the one political philosophy that truly takes human dignity and free will seriously.
At the same time, some Catholics see the liberty movement as a threat to both the Church and society. Until recently, opposition to libertarianism in both Catholic and secular media has been sporadic, but now we are seeing a rising protest. Last June, there was the much publicized conference touting “The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism,” most of it springing from a Catholic left perspective. Certainly most of the noise seems to be coming from the left or redistribution side of the fence.
“We believe that every single human being has a fundamental right to life. This human right is innate and immutable. Directly and intentionally taking an innocent life is always immoral and indefensible.”
That is solid Church teaching that any Catholic must accept, but the article quickly moves onto shaky ground. As critics of libertarianism inevitably do, the article starts in by mischaracterizing libertarians as something most of us are not:
“Libertarianism is centered on a commitment to the autonomy of the individual and removing impediments to the individual’s freedom of action.”
“A good way to strengthen the pro-choice side is by framing the debate around autonomy, individual choice, and self-interest.”
The coming arguments could all follow smoothly except that most libertarians, especially Catholic libertarians, would never frame the debate around “autonomy, individual choice and self-interest.”
It is true that libertarianism respects free will and would allow freedom of action so long as it does not harm other people, but individualism is not its essence. The bottom line of libertarianism is the nonaggression principle–which simply stated–means that one may not initiate physical force against another. That’s it. Period.
The Church teaches love of neighbor as a core belief. The Catholic libertarian embraces that duty without reservation. Indeed, he believes more strongly in such duties because he knows those duties are his own, not the job of some distant government that has nothing of its own to offer and gives only what it has first stolen.
The article’s main theme is that the pro-life movement must use every tool possible to protect life:
“If the pro-life movement wants to succeed, it should embrace a comprehensive approach to abortion that recognizes the full range of duties that individual people, intermediary institutions, and the government have in supporting pregnant women, strengthening families, and protecting lives.”
While Mr. Christian may be surprised by this, pro-life libertarians would agree with everything in that paragraph, including the role of some “government” or other institution in protecting the public from harm. Since prohibiting abortion and punishing it are preventive and responsive force (not an initiation of force), no libertarian who believed an unborn child has a right to life would have a problem with such laws.
This is not to argue that libertarianism resolves the pro-choice/pro-life conflict, but neither does our current system. There is no disputing that the U.S. Government alone is the sole entity preventing the prohibition of abortion in many U.S. states, including my own. On this issue, the United States is an enemy of life and there is little prospect of overcoming it.
Even so, the article decries libertarian “anti-government rhetoric.” Mr.Christian views government as a pro-life ally, if only we can gain control of it. This is a fool’s errand. We should ask if such help seems imminent. Better progress might be made by getting the police state boots off our necks. There is a certain irony in the argument that an incorrigibly aggressive state is an essential tool for fixing the problem of violence against the most helpless.
It may be true that if the state were truly determined to end abortion, then a completely totalitarian state would be most effective in sniffing out more abortions: watching everyone minutely, and punishing everyone most vigorously. Most people, however, would find the good done by such a police state far would be outweighed by the evils it fostered.
The reality, however, is that our police state does not prohibit abortion and—adding insult to injury—it uses its power to protect and fund abortion; and makes all of us partners in its crimes.
Most Catholic libertarians agree that abortion must be outlawed, just as any crime against an innocent human being—whether it be murder, rape or assault—must also be outlawed. Admittedly, criminalization will have only limited effectiveness. The way that decentralized communities would deal with the offense of abortion will undoubtedly vary, but the practice must not be permitted.
The higher priority, however, must be the task of changing minds to value the life of both mother and child. A voluntary society—one that respects others and removes barriers to adoption—is our best hope.
At the beginning of this post, I noted that most criticism of Catholic libertarians has come from the Catholic economic left who fear libertarianism would hinder the growth of the welfare state. I gave Mr. Christian credit for taking a different tack in the war on Catholic libertarians—not because there is any conflict in being both pro-life and libertarian—but because I appreciate pro-life allies of every stripe.
Even so, he eventually reverts to a pitch for the welfare state (“economic justice”) as necessary for reducing abortion. He calls the free market a “grave threat to unborn life” and argues:
“Only by fixing and strengthening the social safety net, supporting pregnant women to ensure their needs are met, developing pro-family policies, and increasing economic opportunity and mobility for those living in poverty can we minimize abortion. This demands robust government action, something that cannot be reconciled with libertarianism.”
We libertarians gladly join in a call for government action. We propose that government repeal the thousands of state-created impediments to human flourishing, each of which separates people from good jobs, independent housing and the ability to create their own businesses. See “Catholic Libertarians in the Critics Den, A Response.” These are the sorts of changes that foster human dignity.
There is good reason to doubt the ability of an aggression-based government to protect those who have no voice. Only a society based on respect for life and freedom can protect the unborn, for such respect comes from an impulse that is both Catholic and libertarian: Love your neighbor as yourself. Never do to others what you would not want done to you.
To succeed in this, we need only to recognize Jesus in everyone we meet, even if they are not yet born.
The National Catholic Reporter online is pressing its war on the growing movement of Catholic libertarians with an article entitled, “Solidarity is our word: My humanity is bound up in yours.” The writer is Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of theology, who also delivered a talk at the June 3, 2014 conference at Catholic University in Washington DC: “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.”
The theme of Clark’s article is that “Catholicism and libertarianism have incompatible views of the human person” and that libertarians have a warped view of human nature. She charges that libertarians are radical individualists who see themselves as Robinson Crusoe on his island, accountable to nobody. She writes that libertarians deny this basic theological claim: “I do not create myself, I do not call myself into existence, and I always exist in relationship to other people and to God.” This is a mistaken view of Christian libertarians, as we will see.
The Nature of Freedom
Libertarians of every stripe understand freedom to mean that no one may initiate force against another. It means that each of us must permit our neighbors to make their own choices as it affects their own lives. As we are told in the book of Tobit 4:15: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.” The corollary is the Golden Rule itself: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
According to Clark, libertarians do not really understand freedom. Clark writes that personal autonomy–the right to live one’s life without interference–dominates a libertarian’s understanding of freedom, thereby missing the meaning of true freedom.
Clark references Pope Benedict XVI who calls all people to this true freedom. This higher freedom is more than the simple right to make our own choices in this life; it is the freedom to do what is right. This higher freedom is what enables the selfish person to love his neighbor; enables the gluttonous, the lustful, the greedy and the envious to moderate their appetites. After all, one who is a slave only to his own vices, is still a slave. He is not truly free. We get it.
We should distinguish, however, between natural freedom of action (which is imperfect) and true freedom (which is perfect). The higher freedom is freedom from fault and unhappiness, freedom from what Christians call sin.
The existence of this higher, spiritual freedom in no way negates the existence of the our natural freedom of action which makes up the core of libertarianism. Despite Clark’s assertions, natural freedom is also an essential component of what makes us human and it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The libertarian philosophy concerns itself with what St. Thomas Aquinas called “natural liberty, which is freedom from coercion.” It encompasses all the choices we make in this life, whether good or bad. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.” In His wisdom, God permits it.
As God permits this natural freedom, so must we. Natural freedom is a given in this life. We are told not to judge others. We are cautioned not to be busybodies (a contemptible bunch that St. Peter classes with thieves, murderers and other criminals 1 Pet. 4:15). There is a purpose in allowing the exercise of free will.
As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once explained:
“Take the quality of freedom away from anyone, and it is no more possible for him to be virtuous than it is for the blade of grass which he treads beneath his feet to be virtuous. Take freedom away from life, and there would be no more reason to honor the fortitude of martyrs than there would be to honor the flames which kindle their faggots. Is it therefore any impeachment of God that he chose not to reign over an empire of chemicals?
“Virtue in its concrete order is possible only in those spheres in which it is possible to be vicious. Man can be a saint only in a world in which it is possible to be a devil.
~Through the Year with Fulton Sheen, Servant Books, 1985 pp 110-111.
Unless we are to be a race of robots, free will and room for exercising it seems a necessary condition for making virtuous people, the kind of people capable of exercising that true freedom. While many libertarians may not know this higher freedom, a Catholic libertarian will likely understand both natural freedom and the true freedom; and aspire to both. Ms Clark’s mistake is in denying the importance of natural freedom, which turns out to be a rung on the ladder to true freedom.
Libertarianism: Selfish individualism or Respect for our Neighbor?
Clark also misses the mark in characterizing libertarians as selfish individualists. How her conclusion necessarily flows from libertarianism is a mystery. No Catholic Christian could embrace such a philosophy. Nevertheless, Clark paints all libertarians in the mold of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, who lived only for himself and taught that “greed is good.” Clark asks:
“Am I really irrational every time I consider someone else in making a decision? Is selfishness really a virtue, as Ayn Rand argues?”
One who aspires to demonstrate the incompatibility of Catholicism and libertarianism ought to begin with core libertarian principles. This a simple task because there is only one. It is the non-aggression principle: that no one may initiate physical force against another. While this is a moral principle, it is not a comprehensive moral code, so critics should not view libertarianism as a monolith of belief.
There is a great gulf between the teachings of an atheist like Ayn Rand and the understanding of a Catholic libertarian. Clark and other Catholic commentators would do well to examine how a Catholic Christian applies the non-aggression principle to a life of faith.
Catholic libertarians are not isolated individualists. We are not libertines. We do not dissent from the doctrines or moral teachings of the Church. We are not pro-choice on abortion. We would not permit the starvation of children. We believe in the golden rule.
Social Justice = Welfare State?
After Clark faults the Catholic Christian libertarian understanding of freedom, she comes to her real target: libertarian resistance to a welfare-state style of social justice. Returning to her theme, she writes that this resistance to the compulsory welfare state “is really a disagreement about what it means to be human.” Such an audacious accusation! One could counter that zeal for initiating violence is hardly what separates us from the animals. Indeed, it makes us more like them.
Clark goes on to quote U2 frontman Bono, numerous popes, the scriptures, and Martin Luther King, Jr., each citing undeniable truths about our solidarity with our fellow man; truths taught by Jesus himself:
- That we see our neighbors as ourselves, and as brothers and sisters; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, especially those in the greatest need
Clark makes a good case that each of us has a moral duty to our fellow man. Any Christian libertarian will also recognize this duty, even while rejecting the use of violence to compel others to do the same.
It is this libertarian rejection of state violence, Clark insists, which “creates a barrier to seeing the other as neighbor, as brother or sister.” Does anyone sense an irony in exalting state-compelled welfare above the Christian spirit of voluntary charity?
When Mother Teresa of Calcutta , or a servant like Dorothy Day counsels us to visit the sick and feed the poor, she is not asking us to write our congressman:
“If your brother is hungry you feed him. You don’t meet him at the door and say ‘Go be thou filled, wait for a few weeks and go get a welfare check.’ You set him down. Feed him . . . . It’s far easier to see Christ in your brother when you are sitting down and sharing soup with him.”
~ Dorothy Day interviewed on “Christopher Closeup” recorded 10/20/1971.
Of course she is quoting the letter of James, where we read,
“If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?”
The modern state makes it even easier for us to ignore the needy, for we can always dismiss them, saying: “Go to the government, be warmed and filled.” There is nothing of loving your neighbor in that.
Catholic libertarians favor a genuine charity that springs from love instead of coercion. Such charity puts the whole golden rule into action. First as a guide to what we ought to do for our neighbor; and then as a caution as to what we must not do. It is not a measure we apply to others. It is not an excuse to mind our neighbor’s business.
It is time for Catholics, and every Christian, to consider libertarianism, the most just system in a fallen world and the only political philosophy that takes love for our neighbor, human dignity and free will seriously.
I was co-host on today’s Freedom Feens broadcast. The 2-hour show is broadcast live at LRN.FM weeknights at Midnight Central time and at noon on weekends. A list of stations carrying the Freedom Feens is available here
Show notes for 09/17/2014: The OuterNet — Miranda Warnings — Waiving Rights — Right to Remain Silent — How silence can be used against a suspect — Why we get pulled over — Are cops allowed to lie?
Download or listen to today’s show here:
[Download here] (right click, then Save link as . . .)
Or visit Freedom Feens