Libertarianism and Catholic Social Teaching: Convergence and Divergence
Since the end of the Second World War, the political debate in the US has been, for the most part, about how best to utilize vast and expanding resources. Despite their perennial rhetoric about bloated government, conservatives have remained just as invested in securing federal expenditures as liberals. Let’s be honest and admit that in the post-war era the debate has never really been about the size and scope of government as such; it’s been a fight between defense and corporate subsidies on the one hand, and healthcare and education on the other. Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, the battlefront seems to be aligning itself more and more with the traditional trope of limited versus pro-active government. Over the past few years it really does seem like lawmakers and citizens alike are arguing over the size and scope of government in absolute terms. The considerable number of people who welcomed the intentionally illogical sequestration cuts testifies to this growing desire for governmental downsizing, regardless of its character or consequences. The growing influence of the likes of Grover Norquist and Rand Paul suggests that an earnest and robust form of libertarianism (and not merely one that masks alternative governmental interests) is now becoming a genuinely viable political alternative in mainstream national politics in a way it never had been before. In light of this development, Catholics need to consider the extent to which libertarianism as a general political philosophy coheres with the Church’s social doctrine. There are at least two main points to be made on both sides of this question. I’ll begin first with the two principal reasons Catholic social teaching cannot simply dismiss libertarianism in its entirety, and then move on to articulate the reasons why Catholic social teaching cannot ultimately embrace libertarianism as a governing philosophy.
Secular Totalitarianism. In one sense, Catholic social teaching is as old as Christianity itself, in so far as the apostles themselves confronted pressing questions about how followers of “the Way” were to participate in the broader society. In another sense, however, “Catholic social teaching” emerges as a distinct body of thought only at the end of the nineteenth century, alongside the emergence of the modern secular nation-state. Leo XIII’s path-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum is often portrayed as a proposal of a “middle way” between Marxist socialism and the unfettered capitalism of the industrial revolution. Yet both sides of this twofold critique emerge from a common root, namely the denunciation of those political philosophies that warrant the modern state’s claim to absolute sovereignty over their citizenry. Put more positively, Leo XIII sought to protect the genuine autonomy of those intermediary human communities (such as trade unions) from the encroachment of governmental structures whose authority over such communities rested not upon any “general will” but rather upon abstract ideological commitments. These ideological commitments, both in their Marxist and capitalist forms, are built upon the presumption that the social realm is most fundamentally an arena of violence. From the Marxist perspective, this violence takes the shape of the great ongoing “class struggle,” while from the capitalist perspective, this violence is the natural basis for the competition that fuels the market and so ultimately produces ameliorative ends. Either way, political organization amounts to an extrinsic (and wholly benevolent) intervention upon “the way things are.” Both inevitably lead to forms of totalitarianism in so far as the lives of individual citizens and their proximate associations become subordinated to the ideological abstractions that justify modern regimes. In this sense, the entire project of modern Catholic social teaching emerges from a suspicion of the modern state’s claim to absolute sovereignty that bears remarkable resemblance to the libertarian suspicion of government today. Both suspicions are about the corrosive effects of unchecked, centralized power. Yet Catholic social teaching would diverge from libertarianism in claiming that this corrosive potential is not so much about the essential nature of power itself but about the contingent conditions under which power is in fact being wielded here and now.
Utopian Ideologies. The apotheoses of modern secular totalitarianism, of course, were Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Most everyone today considers these regimes to be historical landmarks of evil and inhumanity, and certainly Catholic social teaching would concur on this point. Yet the reason that Catholic social teaching would deem them such is not so much that they are insufficiently liberal or democratic, but primarily because they were beholden to ideologies that subordinated human individuals (human “units,” as Stalin called them) to larger ideological goals that justified the extension of governmental control to every aspect of social life. In other words, it was their relentless and uncompromising pursuit of a utopian vision of society that led to the massive defacing of humanity that occurred at their hands. As Bl. John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, “Man cannot give himself to a purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or to a false utopia. As a person, he can give himself to another person or to other persons, and ultimately to God, who is the author of his being and who alone can fully accept his gift” (§41). That idea is central to Catholic social teaching, and is what differentiates it from the kinds of ideologies it critiques. As Bl. Pope John Paul II famously argues in paragraph 41 of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:
The Church’s social doctrine is not a ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own….It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.
As history bears out, regimes built upon ideology alone are inherently totalitarian. Their destructive quests for utopia begs the question of where human communities should draw the line in their attempt to realize their social ideals. In this light, every decision to limit the government’s power to intervene in society is an implicit recognition that a nation may not be able to fully realize its political goals without inflicting greater damage to the humanum which those goals purportedly serve. The libertarian instinct to limit government intervention can thus serve as a salutary check on the dangers of utopian delusion. Such is the convergence, as I see it, between the libertarian platform and Catholic social thought.
Activist Individualism. If the divergence between the two is more subtle, it is also more profound. The best way to introduce that divergence, I think, is to point to the strange yet poignant resemblance between the tactics of pro-choice activists and those of gun rights activists. The parallel between abortion rights claims and the right to armed self-defense become apparent at even the most cursory glance at the rhetoric each employs. One might see the parallel in the respective bumper stickers of each cause: where one reads “hands off my uterus,” another reads “hands off my guns.” Each group is eager to defend their sphere of freedom (their “right”) from any and all regulation and restriction. Any attempt to infringe upon this sphere is taken to be a violation of a fundamental right, or else pragmatically resisted as the first step down a “slippery slope.” Earlier this year, Charlie Camosy alluded to the connection between groups like NARAL and the NRA under the categories of “control” and “choice,” and questioned these categories as reliable indicators of even individual flourishing. He raises there the critical issue of the relationship between individual freedoms and the common good, and the conditions under which the latter could have any leverage over the former. The public authority must provide justification for overriding these spheres of “individual choice” in terms of some substantive good in which the community as a whole has a vested interest.
In two fascinating articles in the Rutgers Law Review and the Hastings Law Journal, Fordham Law professor Nicholas Johnson thoroughly (and brilliantly) investigates the parallels between these two issues in the legal realm, specifically in court cases involving two extreme cases of each “right”: Stenberg v. Carhart, which overturned Nebraska’s partial birth abortion ban, and Heller v. District of Columbia, which overturned DC’s ban on the personal possession of handguns. Johnson points out how in both cases personal rights compete directly with substantive life interests, with the proponents of each right arguing their case in terms of self-defense. Though each is an extreme form of the right in question, it can be (so the argument goes) the only available means to preserve one’s own vital interests in certain situations, however rare. Johnson points out how, ironically, Stephen Breyer’s opinion in Stenberg cleared the methodological ground for what would become Scalia’s opinion in Heller, namely that the constitution protected the sphere of individual freedom at stake in each case. (A transcript of Prof. Johnson’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on this connection can be found here.) Johnson argues that despite all attempts to maintain conceptual and methodological consistency in the arguments concerning these two “rights,” what ultimately determines their arbitration is not any coherent legal tradition or substantive account of the common good, but rather the competing passions of those advocating for the protection or restriction of such “rights.”
What is more, the fact that the battle over these “rights” is fought at the constitutional level, won or lost through highly determinative decisions of the Supreme Court, only exacerbates the ferocity with which the issues are debated in public discourse. Single events or figures (think Newtown and Kermit Gosnell) are held up as iconic embodiments of the patent injustice of the rights in question, followed by equally vehement efforts by the other side to explain the idiosyncratic nature of the event or figure, and how the right itself is not to blame. Events and figures thus become the focus of propaganda which appeals to particular sentiments rather than any broad conception of the common good. The fact that this same pattern plays itself out on both sides of the “political spectrum” should give us pause; it should lead us to question whether we are debating any longer within the same conceptual field. Could it be that our political life has become so invested in the competing individual “rights” (read: lifestyles) we wish to protect that our discourse cannot be but the collision of rival ideologies? In this condition, politics can only amount to “activist individualism,” in which government no longer serves as the vehicle for the realization of shared goods, but rather is only the tool for the promotion of individualized interests. The bottom line for Catholic social teaching is that such “activist individualism” constitutes the antithesis of solidarity. It is vital that we recognize that not only does libertarianism leave us vulnerable to this individualism, it actively promotes it. It is the vision of society upon which libertarianism is built.
The Libertarian Utopia. It is worth noting that the encyclical in which Bl. Pope John Paul II diagnoses the dangers of ideology is also the encyclical in which he takes pains to describe and promote the importance of solidarity. Indeed, it is precisely solidarity that he proposes as the antidote to the corruptions of ideology:
in a world divided and beset by every type of conflict, the conviction is growing of a radical interdependence and consequently of the need for a solidarity which will take up interdependence and transfer it to the moral plane. Today perhaps more than in the past, people are realizing that they are linked together by a common destiny, which is to be constructed together, if catastrophe for all is to be avoided. From the depth of anguish, fear and escapist phenomena like drugs, typical of the contemporary world, the idea is slowly emerging that the good to which we are all called and the happiness to which we aspire cannot be obtained without an effort and commitment on the part of all, nobody excluded, and the consequent renouncing of personal selfishness. (§26)
This description of society is clearly incompatible with the libertarian, which eschews notions like “moral interdependence” and “common destiny,” as well as the sort of communal commitment that would necessitate the denunciation of my right to own an AK-47 or have a partial-birth abortion. This (albeit strong) form of libertarianism is itself built upon a kind of utopian vision of individual life: self-determined, self-sufficient and insulated from the dangers and responsibilities of regarding the good of one’s neighbor as co-extensive with one’s own.
Libertarian policies may present themselves as eminently pragmatic, seeking limited and attainable goals, but behind such justifications often lurks a broader anthropology that is just as utopian as any Marxist politics. It is the utopianism of Rousseau, Thoreau and Ayn Rand. Like all ideologies worthy of the name, it is very seductive because it is built upon a vital truth; and so it appears all the more seductive in times when that vital truth is neglected. As Bl. Pope John Paul II himself admits, “An essential condition for global solidarity is autonomy and free self-determination.” Yet, he hastens to add, “at the same time solidarity demands a readiness to accept the sacrifices necessary for the good of the whole world community.” (SRS §45) What could maintain the proper grounds for asking or making such a sacrifice? Only love—only a love based on the truth about what it means to be human. Pope Francis puts the point beautifully in his latest encyclical Lumen Fidei when he says:
Without a love which is trustworthy, nothing could truly keep men and women united. Human unity would be conceivable only on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear, but not on the goodness of living together, not on the joy which the mere presence of others can give. (§51)
It is this precisely this shared goodness, this shared joy, which libertarianism cannot give us, and why it ultimately remains incompatible with Catholic social teaching.