How can a pro-life Catholic be a libertarian?

Catholic Libertarians  XmasMore 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.

A recent article at Crux by Robert G. Christian, however, comes from a fresh direction. In If you are pro-life, you can’t be a libertarian,” he writes:

“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.

biil&joeThe 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.