Any discussion of Catholics and libertarianism on the internet will always attract some troll who drops in just long enough to conclude that “Catholicism and libertarianism are incompatible.” A few of these folks will stick around to complain that Catholics can’t be libertarian because . . .
- libertarians are selfish individualists
- libertarians are libertines
- libertarians dissent from the doctrines or moral teachings of the Church
- libertarians cannot see Christ in others
- libertarians are pro-abortion
While such statements surely apply to some libertarians, these criticisms have nothing to do with libertarianism in itself.
Doing evil that good may come of it
In Romans 3:8, St. Paul tells us that the ends do not justify the means: one must not do evil so that good may come of it. Likewise Pope Saint John Paul II teaches this principle in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor:
Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused.
Don’t tread on your neighbor
The golden rule famously tells us to do unto others what we would have them do unto ourselves; and we are told in Tobit 4:15: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”
In libertarianism, there is but a single rule. It is called the non-aggression principle: that no one may initiate physical force against another. Unless one trespasses against the person or property of another, they must be left in peace. We call this freedom. It is not just a moral imperative; man’s freedom also serves a spiritual purpose.
Freedom: Hothouse of sin or prerequisite for virtue?
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once explained this about earthly freedom:
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.
Libertarians understand that freedom is a double-edged sword. The dilemma is that freedom is indispensable and yet opens the door to all kinds of evil. Freedom enabled Satan to rebel against God. Adam and Eve in the garden abused their freedom and brought death into the world. The same freedom is granted to each of us. Since the beginning, God has decreed our freedom, all the while knowing the danger–and seeing the suffering to come–decided that the game is worth the candle. See “Why God is more libertarian than we are.“
Thomas Aquinas & libertarians on victimless crimes
Libertarians agree that no one should be permitted to commit violence against others, but we may use necessary force to protect persons and property. The protection of persons or property is a legitimate act, whether done by individuals or by the community. Libertarians agree: we must keep the peace.
We do question, however, the use of force against anyone who has not threatened or harmed another. Saint Thomas Aquinas recognized a distinction between acts that harm others and those are commonly referred to as vices or “victimless” crimes. He wrote:
[H]uman laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.
St. Thomas argued the wisdom of such a live-and-let-live philosophy, and acknowledged that to go further would cause more harm than good. See more here. It is a good rule, but the modern world knows no such limits when it comes to the one institution which claims a monopoly on the right to initiate violence against others. That institution is the state.
The Church and Government
Once upon a time, the ancient Israelites were lead by the “judges.” The judges did not have many duties. They led the army in times of war and people came to them to settle disputes. The nations around Israel had kings, so the Israelites begged for a king. God explained how bad life would be under a king. They said “We don’t care. Give us a king,” So God gave them a king. And that king was pretty bad. Most of their later kings were even worse. It seemed that people were not ready to give up bossing and being bossed around.
The Church has lived with the state since Roman times. Christian teachings often mention the state, urging it to justice. But the Church does not demand particular solutions to societal and economic problems. Neither does the Church proclaim any particular form of governance, but only that it provide for the common good, i.e peace and security, protection of individual rights and the general prosperity of society. See “Does the Bible approve of violent government?”
The role of the State: both the real and the ideal
When the Church does suggest solutions to problems, the state will often figure prominently in those solutions. The Church can hardly do otherwise considering that the state is everywhere. Today, it is more massive and controlling than anytime in history. Even so, the Church’s social encyclicals are not shy in confronting the state where it encroaches on human rights, especially in its teachings on subsidiarity (the principle that governance should always be at the lowest possible level of society).
Even recognizing limits to state power, the encyclicals also charge the state with a responsibility to promote social justice and protect people’s rights. This is no more or less than the protection of the common good. At times the social encyclicals suggest certain initiatives by the state which–putting it mildly–seem beyond the competency of the state. Proposals to regulate voluntary and honest economic activity come to mind.
Certainly the state fulfills a just purpose when it protects us from those who would harm us. It only makes sense that when someone is hitting me over the head, I could use the help of someone who also specializes in hitting people. The state–whose only tool is violence–may have the resources to solve my problem. The trouble is, when we ask the state to do more than keep the peace and protect fundamental rights, we ask too much. This is because only a wise state, one with integrity and perfect knowledge could fulfill such a mandate as the Church urges upon it. That state has never existed.
Instead, we have governments run by the most corrupt of men, the best of which are thieves and the worst, tyrants. They wage unjust war almost continuously and use it to expand their powers. Violence is the essence of the state. See more here.
The Question: Should we have a preferential option for non-violence?
The Catholic libertarian asks this question of his fellow Catholics: When the community has a problem to solve or has a worthy goal to reach, would you be willing find a voluntary solution in place of a coercive solution? Would the Church object to this “preferential option” for non-violence? Many Catholics call on governments–when dealing with other governments–to find peaceful solutions, using violence only as last resort. If non-violence is preferable in dealing with nations, even hostile nations, how much more should coercion be avoided in dealing with our own neighbors here at home.
As Catholic libertarians, we propose voluntary, non-coercive solutions. We will argue that charity, mutual aid and lifting barriers to honest work are better solutions to poverty than the welfare state. We are going to suggest that drug abuse is a social problem, a mental health and spiritual problem, but not a criminal one. We will contend that any armed forces must be limited to self-defense, rather than messing around in other countries’ business, replacing strongman dictators with jihadist leaders.
As a moral issue, no Catholic–no Christian of any stripe, for that matter–should choose violence when a voluntary solution is available. This does not makes us libertines, nor make us selfish individualists. We do not dissent from the doctrines or moral teachings of the Church. We are pro-life. We see Christ in our brother and we accept this personal challenge from the letter of St. James:
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?
Those are marching orders for every Christian, but the modern state makes it easy to ignore our personal duty, and so we dismiss the needy saying: “Go to the government, be warmed and filled.”
What remains of “love 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, for this is not a measure we apply to others. We apply it to ourselves.
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.