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.

“Don’t tread on me” or “Do unto others?”

dont-tread-on-neighbor300There is a standard criticism of libertarians by Catholic opponents: that we are selfish individualists.

I cannot understand how avoiding the use of violence in dealing with others is painted as individualistic and un-Christian. I am sorely tempted to believe these critics are being deliberately obtuse. The scriptures teach that we should not do to another what we would not want done to ourselves. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t hit. Don’t harm others. Live and let live. Mind your own business.

So here is my plea for charity: Give us libertarians the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume that libertarians are all about “Don’t tread on me.” I don’t control what others do to me, only what I do unto others. That is where my libertarianism hits the road.

I ran across a very well-made video called “The Conversation.” It’s a powerful dramatization of the non-aggression principle, well-reasoned–and not religiously based–so please share it with everyone.

Violence is the soul of government


Violence 600T
he use of aggression to compel obedience is the essence of the modern state. 

“What essentially sets a nation-state apart,” declared candidate Barack Obama, is that it has a “monopoly on violence.” Clearly Obama was referring to aggressive, not defensive, force, for the use of defensive force is never limited to government. We all retain that right by nature. Only government routinely uses aggressive force or the threat of force. The threat of violence compels the payment of every tax, and ultimately, whatever behavior it desires of the people.

Bill & Joe

Under most circumstances, everyone agrees it would be wrong for Joe to take money from his neighbor Bill. Joe would not dream of stealing Bill’s money; he knows it is wrong, and he also knows he could get punished for stealing.

Would it make any difference if Joe can convince 20 other neighbors to gang up and take the money from Bill and give it to Joe? No? What if hundreds or thousands get together and demand the money? What if they call themselves a government? What if they make a law to take Bill’s money?

Obviously, if the government takes Bill’s money, it doesn’t call it theft—it calls it taxation. Continue reading

Does the Bible approve of violent government?

Those who insist that the Bible approves of violent government as the God-mandated institution by which men must order society can cite numerous scripture passages to support that thesis. There is, for example, St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

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. Rom. 13:1-2.

Elsewhere, St. Paul writes: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities.” Titus 3:1. Some would say that Christians are here instructed to obey authority, without exception, but other scriptures make it obvious that there is more to the story.

In Acts 5:29, we see the apostles defying the their rulers saying: “We must obey God rather than men.” Later, St. Augustine adds: “An unjust law is no law at all.” On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, § 5. The Catechism forbids obedience to any law “contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” CCC 2242

Obedience to government can never be absolute. No Christian may obey a law that requires them to disobey God. No Christian may commit an inherently evil act, even for a good purpose. Rom. 3:8 and here.

They may, however, find themselves in a situation of obeying an unjust law simply because to disobey would cause more harm than to obey. Thus, I pay my taxes because going to jail would prevent my supporting my family. If any man with a gun demands that I give him money, I may question both his authority and his demand, but obedience may be the wiser, Christian course.

As to the notion that government is instituted by God, all creation is instituted by God, as well as our need for order and authority, but as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.” CCC 1901.

God has left the social order in human hands and mankind has made mixed bag of it. If we rejoice that men no longer offer human sacrifice or enslave their fellow men, we cannot deny that immense evils are still perpetrated by governments everywhere. We cannot lay this at God’s doorstep. He permits it, but He neither approves nor appoints such things.

In the early years after Moses died and Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, the people were ruled by what were called the “judges.” This rule was minimal—one might say libertarian. The taxes (the tithe) were voluntary. The judges did not generally meddle in people’s lives. The main roles of the judges were to resolve disputes brought to them and to provide leadership during wartime.

Some judges did a good job, but some did not, so the people came to the prophet Samuel and said, “Give us a king to govern us like all the nations.” Samuel was displeased by this, for the Lord was their king and had given them the law of Moses and the judges. So Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord told him not to worry about it: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. . . . Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” So Samuel did as the Lord directed and said to the people:

This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day. 1 Sam. 8:6-18.

With Samuel, we want to shout–across three millenia–“Don’t do it!” but they did and then paid the full price they had bargained for.

The Church, the scripture and our common sense all teach us to obey the laws of coercive government as long as those laws do not command us to do evil, but that does not suggest that the institution of such government itself is not inherently evil. St. Paul’s commands to obey do not baptize the institution itself.

If we read biblical commands to obedience as commending the goodness of the institution of government, then we must also accept Ephesians 6:5, as commending the institution of slavery. Here St. Paul commands: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters.” He writes elsewhere: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth.” Col. 3:22

Such commands—in the Roman world—were wise for both spiritual and worldly reasons, but no one today uses them to justify the continuation of the institution of human slavery. Christians unanimously condemn slavery as a grave moral evil. The Catholic Church forbids the “enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise.” CCC 2414.

Ultimately, both citizens and slaves may be obliged to obey their overlords, but neither slavery, nor violent government are commanded by God. The modern state has grown monstrous in its destruction of freedom; in its thefts and murders of innocents.

When government turns aside from the only possible justification for its existence it becomes illegitimate. It exists to protect human rights, and as the Catechism teaches: “[i]f it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects.” CCC 1930. Neither the initiation of force–nor any authority that relies upon it–is necessary to a just society.