Catholic libertarians in the Critics Den, a response

BeFunky_Grunge_9The 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, whichcreates 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.

Stopped by the cops – Freedom Feens 08/03/2014

Catholic libertarianFreedom Feens is a daily, liberty-related radio show with Michael W. Dean and a rotating cast of co-hosts.

I was co-host on a Feens broadcast this week. 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 08/03/2014: Feds collecting subversive internet memes — Nationalize the police? — FeenPhone Update — When the cops pull me over — Never, never, ever consent to a search — Do police have to read me my Miranda Rights? — I want to talk to a lawyer!

Download or listen to today’s show here:

[Download here] (right click, then Save link as . . .)

Or visit Freedom Feens

If you imagine that you are not a criminal, think again:

Illegal milk crate

Freedom Feens – co-hosts Derrick J and Randy England

microphoneFreedom Feens is a daily, liberty-oriented radio program and podcast with Michael W. Dean and a rotating cast of co-hosts.

Freedom Feen Derrick J Freeman and I co-hosted today’s show. The 2-hour show is broadcast live at LRN.FM weeknights at midnight Central time and at noon on weekends.

This weekend, August 23-24, 2014, we will be broadcasting live (the Lord willing and the creek don’t rise) from The 2nd Annual Midwest Peace & Liberty Fest held at the Circle Pines Center near Delton, Michigan. Listen at noon Sunday on LRN.FM.

Of course, if you live in the neighborhood, just come on by. For more information: The 2nd Annual Midwest Peace & Liberty Fest.

Show notes for 08/18/2014:

Being a government prosecutor — Ferguson, MO protests — future justice systems — Ignorance of the law is no excuse — selling raw milk without permission — prosecutors refuse cases — Why Catholics should be libertarian — heroine sold in vending machines? — libertarianism in the Bible — Mind your own business — Derrick’s concealed carry appeal

Download or listen to today’s show here:

[Download here] (right click, then Save link as . . .)

Or visit Freedom Feens

MindYourBusinessCoin

Catholic libertarian J.R.R. Tolkien

tolkienThe centerpiece of the libertarian political philosophy is the nonaggression principle which prohibits any person from initiating physical force against another person. Such force–universally prohibited to individuals–fairs no better when government claims such power for itself.

J.R.R.Tolkien (1892 – 1973) is one such libertarian: A Catholic Englishman who understood Lord Acton’s maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute powers corrupts absolutely.”

Viewing state power as illegitimate, Tolkien described himself as  a philosophical anarchist:

“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inaminate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people. […] Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. ” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

I hope you enjoy this very listenable biography and background on this great storyteller:

The Bad Quaker talks with a Catholic libertarian

Bad QuakerIf you have never listened to Ben Stone’s Bad Quaker podcast, you’ll find it a relaxed way to spend an hour and learn about liberty at the same time.

Sometimes Ben will offer a unique view on libertarian issues; sometimes he explores relevant historical issues; and other times he shares interviews he has recorded with other liberty-minded people. This week I had the pleasure of discussing Christianity and libertarianism with Ben. I hope you will give it a listen:

Show notes for 07/17/2014:  The Catholic Case for Libertarianism — Free will and Helping the poor — God is so very libertarian — Virtue cannot be be forced — Libertarianism and people on the margins — Should Christians pay taxes? — Romans 13 — St Paul Mocks the Emperor Nero

Download or listen to today’s show here:

[Download here] (right click, then Save link as . . .)

Visit Bad Quaker

don't tread on your neighbor

The Catholic Case For Libertarianism and The Golden Rule

Why Catholics should be libertarianOn June 3, 2014, Catholic University in Washington, D.C., hosted a conference entitled: “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” The initial buzz centered around the keynote speech by Cardinal Archbishop Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras. Catholic libertarians Tom Woods and Ryan McMaken have penned solid responses to the Cardinal’s speech, here and here.

The videos of the conference are now available. After watching the conference, I noticed a pronounced lopsidedness in the content, not because all the speakers were hostile to liberty, but because the speakers came mostly from a Catholic left perspective and seem chiefly interested in trashing free markets and the libertarians who advocate them. One has to wonder if the title ought not to have been: “The Case Against the Acton Institute.

Every speaker (except one, Msgr. Stuart Swetland) carefully avoid mentioning anything close to the one essential element of libertarianism: the nonaggression principle–which simply stated–means that one may not initiate physical force against another. I suspect that the nonaggression principle sounds too close to the Gospels and the Golden rule for comfort.

Bread for the WorldThe backdrop to the conference podium displayed a message from the conference sponsor, “Bread for the World” that underlines exactly whose job the group believes it is to help the poor. The poster read: “Bread for the World — a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.” According to the Bread for the World website, they are mainly lobbyists who do not actually feed anybody.

[Correction: Upon further thought, any fair analysis should at least credit these guys with feeding congressmen]

In their presentations, the conference speakers tended to mistake the non-Christian individualism of writers like Ayn Rand as being the very heart of libertarianism.

Catholic libertarians are not individualists just because we value individual virtue above government welfare, taken from its “donors” by the state at gunpoint. We are not anti-social individualists simply because we are not busybodies. I am sure that even the speakers at this conference understand the difference between tolerating a selfish jerk and being a selfish jerk.

One speaker explained that it is hard for a libertarian to see his neighbor as himself. I have no words for such an accusation. That just seems mean.

The speakers liked to throw around the phrase, the “common good” as if it were synonymous with the welfare state. None bothers to parse the catechism definition which teaches that the common good entails the protection of individual rights and security; and that these are protected when a person is allowed to live life peaceably and without interference. There is nothing in the catechism definition to support the redistribution of wealth by the state. The reason it is called the “common good” is because it is good for everybody, not just the beneficiaries of redistribution.

Another speaker, Matthew Boudway, an associate editor at Commonweal magazine, has posted his own talk at the Commonweal blog. Mr Boudway advises that “if you watch just one of the videos, watch” the remarks of John Dilulio, a political science professor who also served in the Bush administration.

John Dilulio presentation

Mr Boudway chose well, because Dilulio levels his sights dead center on those he calls “radical libertarians.” Dilulio takes just twelve minutes during which he caricatures the libertarian viewpoint, then tamps down the dirt on the Catholic libertarian grave, neatly ignoring what Catholic libertarians actually believe and their moral basis for it.

Dilulio argues that libertarianism is incompatible with a Catholic view of society:

The Common Good:

Dilulio charges that “radical libertarians harbor no conception of the common good.” This astounding indictment is so baseless as to raise a question as to John Dilulio’s conception of the common good. As noted earlier, the “common good” is not a club for critics to waive at libertarians, for the common good is best served when people are safe and their dignity as human beings is respected. Libertarians have no trouble with this idea.

Sinful Inequalities:

Dilulio says libertarians refuse to acknowledge “sinful inequalities” in society. He says libertarians disfavor government efforts to end them. “Sinful inequalities” is a phrase from the Catechism that is misused to support redistribution by the state. “Sinful inequalities” refers to “economic and social disparities” which are not conducive to “social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.” The Catechism calls us to “strive for fairer and humane conditions.”

As libertarians, we do not refuse to acknowledge “sinful inequalities” in society. True, we often oppose the increasing demands of the state, but Dilulio could not be more wrong in saying that we disfavor government efforts to eliminate sinful inequlities. Here are a few areas ripe for government action:

Crony Capitalism:

The sinful inequalities to be eliminated must include benefits that are not enjoyed by all. These include government subsidies to business, protective tariffs, too-big-to-fail corporate bailouts, and the use of eminent domain which destroys whole neighborhoods and takes land for big business at bargain prices. Intellectual property laws–which have the chief effect of protecting monopolies while stifling creativity and productivity–should also be repealed. On top of this, product regulations and occupational licensing requirements limit competition and raise prices, all to the benefit of established  businesses. Zoning and other state-mandated land-use restrictions tend in the same direction.

Barriers to Self-employment:

It is time to demolish all the “sinful inequalities” that prevent honest work; time to tear down the state-erected walls that separate workers from earning a living:

  • Allow street vending along the public right of way. No permits, no licenses, just food carts, trucks and flea markets, etc.
  • Eliminate taxi-cab permits and licensing so that a car or van owner can make a living giving rides without asking permission from the state.
  • Eliminate occupational licensing. Those who can cut and braid hair, midwives, carpenters, plumbers, beer brewers, nail clippers, babysitters, funeral directors, dental hygienists and other practitioners should be left alone to do their work without arbitrary educational requirements, testing, dues paying and permission from the government. Even professions like medicine, law, engineering and architecture would be better certified by private entities.
  • No ordinance should require state permission to operate garage sales, growing vegetables, chickens or other small animals and selling the resulting goods from the same premises.
  • People should be allowed to practice trades out of their homes; to build things, to can food and bake bread, to cater to customers out of their home kitchens.

The some on the left are critical of the whole idea of working for wages. They argue that the employer/employee relationship is coercive because the poor have no better options. On the other hand, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, so having more alternatives to working for wages has to be a good thing. If it puts employers and employees on a more even footing, that is good too. All Christians should support the removal of barriers to making a living.

If government is going to level the employment field, it is also time to repeal the minimum wage laws. The reasons are many: here, but the bottom line is that the minimum wage is nothing more than a barrier separating unskilled workers from a job.

While jobs are the top priority in raising up the poor, another way government can help is by getting out of the way of affordable housing by:

  • Eliminating minimum house and lot sizes and other building code restrictions that prevent the poor from owning a home. The entire “tiny house” movement shows people can live economically and well.
  • Repealing zoning laws that prevent homeowners from creating small apartments out of basements and attics, thereby creating income and increasing the amount of affordable rental housing.
  • Making it easy to establish boarding houses were people can live well and cheaply.

These are just a few areas where government could create widespread prosperity with libertarian ideas by eliminating “sinful inequalities.” Of course, this is just a start.

Libertarians want to end foreign military interventions and return the military to a purely defensive role, saving lives and resources that would be much better kept at home. Libertarians would limit the United States’ prison system to people who actually hurt other people and would treat the drug problem as a social and mental health problem, not a criminal one. A country with 5% of the earth’s population and 25% of the inmates–mostly poor and minorities–needs to find a better way.

Love for the poor:

Dilulio goes on to accuse libertarians of having no “manifest love for the poor.” We are, he says, “blind to the ‘another self‘ in others.” And he charges that the humble aphorism,  “There, but by the grace of God, go I,” is “not a sentiment that much stirs in their souls.” These are serious charges to level against a fellow Christian.

Catholic libertarians believe there is no poorer expression of love for the poor than a willingness to put a gun to our brother’s head with the purpose of making him a charitable man. We prefer voluntary charity, mutual aid, and the removal of all the barriers (noted above) that prevent people from making a dignified living.

Subsidiarity:

Pope Leo XIII taught in the encyclical Rerum Novarum that “Man precedes the State.” Leo wrote that “the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of community, and founded more immediately in nature.” This natural ordering of society is known as the principle of subsidiarity; that human activity ought to be governed at the lowest level possible, leaving higher orders of community with only those functions which only they can accomplish.

Dilulio knows that libertarians are all in favor of what could be called subsidiarity’s preferential option for governance at the lowest possible level. His criticism centers around libertarians who prefer to make up their own minds about when to kick a particular task upstairs to a higher authority.

Catholic Social teaching would seem to leave some prudential room on the question of when to apply government aggression to gain the cooperation of the people. Coercive violence by government, against its own citizens, is never the preferred option; and–as the Church teaches–the use of force is a sign of a government that does not respect the rights of its citizens. Such a government “can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects.” See Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 1930.

In his closing remarks, Dilulio concedes that there are things to be learned from libertarianism and that government is not the answer for everything. Still, he insists, there can be no doubt that this world would be worse off were it not for the blessings of forced redistribution by government.

“Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism” was a refreshing opportunity to see how we libertarians appear to the Catholic left. They got a few bits of it right and much of it wrong; egregiously wrong in taking the measure of our motives. Most importantly, we are getting traction and they know it. We may expect more such efforts ahead.

Catholic Statist poster

Catholics, Libertarians, and Coerced Charity, great post at FFF.ORG

Libertarian JesusOne of my favorite organizations and great website: The Future of Freedom Foundation.

Check out this article by FFF founder Jacob Hornberger:

Catholics, Libertarians, and Coerced Charity