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  • Stephen Schneck on Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism

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Stephen Schneck on Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism

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Stephen Schneck on Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism (As Prepared for Delivery)

I’ve been tasked this afternoon to pivot away from economics and toward the political side of the Catholic case against Libertarianism. In truth, though, I will aim somewhat more broadly than that.  Indeed, libertarianism offers a comprehensive worldview that informs ethics and art, lifestyles and culture, and even relationships and psychologies. Surely it’s as evident in a NARAL woman’s claim that “It’s my body,” in the art of the “selfie,” and in the doomsday prepper’s fantasy of self-reliance, as it is in rancher Cliven Bundy’s claim that common grazing land is “my property.”

Imagine for example, a mirror image of today’s conference. Call it “The Libertarian Case Against Catholicism.” Its focus would hardly be limited to economics. Instead of Cardinal Rodriguez, such a reverse conference would surely have as its keynote address something like the long soliloquy that Ayn Rand’s hero, John Galt, offers in Atlas Shrugged.

Ridiculing mercy.

Ridiculing charity.

Ridiculing faith.

Ridiculing the poor as moochers.

Ridiculing those who would sacrifice the self for God or others.

Praising selfishness as a virtue.

Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged perfectly elaborates the libertarian case against Catholicism. We Catholics believe in the primacy of the common good over self-interest. We believe so strongly in community that even salvation is not private and solitary but shared. We believe that on the final day we are judged not for our private success, but what we have done for others. Blessed are the merciful, we say. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Of course, in seizing on Ayn Rand and her fictional character John Galt, libertarians will be quick to say, “But Dr. Schneck, that’s not fair. You’re erecting a straw man, selecting the most radical of libertarian arguments. You don’t really appreciate the elegance of libertarian solutions to culture, ethics, lifestyle, and politics. You’re missing the efficiency and practicality of libertarianism by focusing only on the extremism of Ayn Rand’s literary character. You don’t understand libertarianism.”

So, let me tell you a story. It goes that once upon a time there was an unhappy and dysfunctional colony of bees ruled by a strict and moralistic bishop. Then, the righteous bishop died. Without his moral rule, the bees were completely free to do as they pleased. Self-interest won out, of course.  Exercising their new liberty, each bee indulged in private vices and selfish interests.

What each bee desired, though, was inevitably limited in supply. So, amidst the freedom of each bee pursuing private vice and selfish interest, competition emerged that automatically modulated the exercise of their liberty. It was as if magically, the competitive exercise of liberty enforced its own discipline upon the bees. In part the competition forced each bee to think even more narrowly about what were her most important self-interests and to work harder and to not stir things up by involving herself in the affairs of the others.

What had been a sad and failed beehive when governed by the bishop now buzzed with dynamism and hummed with harmonious order. From the exercise of unfettered liberty in competition came a marvelously balanced and dynamic order that generated progress and efficiency, that automatically allocated the hive’s talent and resources without the interference of authority, that even generated a kind of morality: work hard and don’t engage in behavior that would be counterproductive for your self-interests.  From the pursuit of private interest in competition, in other words, came a powerful order. From selfishness came a sort of morality. From private vice came public virtue. The bee colony hummed. All automatically. With no laws or government or church enforcing interfering rules or imposing morals.

Many of you probably recognize my story as loosely indebted to Bernard de Mandeville’s 1704 poem The Fable of the Bees. Here’s a snippet from the poem itself…

Thus every Part was full of Vice,

Yet the whole Mass a Paradice;

Their Crimes conspired to make ‘em Great;

And Virtue, who from Politicks

Had learn’d a Thousand cunning Tricks,

Was, by their happy Influence,

Made Friends with Vice: And ever since

The worst of all the Multitude

Did something for the common Good.[1]

De Mandeville’s poem goes on to trace the collapse of the colony when religion is again brought back. With an external, religious morality again enforced, interfering with the bees’ liberty and undermining competition by demanding mercy and love, all the marvels that had come via the unfettered pursuit of self-interest disappeared. With religion back, the hive no longer buzzed and hummed with progress and dynamic order. Repression, dysfunction, misallocation of talent and resources, and dreary unhappiness reigned.

De Mandeville’s 1704 poem is a marker for the beginning of libertarian ideas. So, while I’ll agree that its provenance probably stretches back into medieval nominalism or even before, libertarianism is best understood as epitomizing the Enlightenment. It shares in the Englightenment’s anti-clericalism, suspicion of tradition and custom, and humanistic values. Most importantly it shares in the Enlightenment’s confidence that there is a kind of automatic Reason that can be relied upon for order in human life.  While libertarianism is so focused on individual liberty that it is theoretically antithetical to or agnostic about social order, when its defenders are forced to address social concerns their premise is that from unfettered, competitive private liberty will come such an automatic order.

After de Mandeville, on the Continent, such ideas are evident among the Philosophes associated with the French Revolution, for example: Jean-Baptiste Say, a laissez faire revolutionary and Jacobin fellow-traveler who advocated the disestablishment of the Catholic Church.  Say’s theories were translated by the German anarchist of radical egoism, Max Stirner, who in turn influenced the Austrian Carl Menger, founder of the Austrian School of Economics, which gave us Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Stirner’s influence on Ayn Rand is also quite evident.

On the English-speaking side of things, the path to libertarianism runs through the Scottish Enlightenment, through the Manchesterism of the 1840s that notoriously opposed aid to Ireland during the potato famine for fear of fostering dependency, through the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, and through the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer.

Such thinking crossed the pond and found a surprising home in post-Civil War America, impacting national policies on immigration, unions, child labor, race, environmental use, industrial safety, and much more.  Gilded Age university apologists like William Graham Sumner influenced generations of American academics, down to Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick in our day. However in America, popular libertarianisms, leaning both right and left, have also flourished, influenced by writers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.

All of this is to insist that I think that I do understand libertarianism: its roots and its branches. And the central features of libertarianism today – as evidenced so well in John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged – have not changed significantly from the ideas espoused in de Mandeville’s 1704 poem:

negative conception of liberty and rights, egoism (often verging on solipsism), association of authority with regression and repression, antinomianism, suspicion of community and common good, absolute conception of private property, valorization of competition, suspicion of custom and tradition, automatic order or “invisible hands,” anti-institutionalism, suspicion of  hierarchical morality, and obviously a negative conception of government and distrust of governmental action

Each of these elements of libertarianism are at odds with traditional Catholic moral and social doctrine to varying degrees. They are squarely at odds with recent papal writings, such as Pope Francis’s wonderful Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, and St. John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. And, they are at odds with the Thomistic theology and philosophy that are foundational for the Catholic Church’s intellectual tradition. They are impossible to fully reconcile with the Catholic understanding of the person, with the Catholic understanding of natural law, with the Catholic conception of overcoming the self, with the idea of the Mystical Body of Christ, the communion of saints, and so much more. Arguably, the Church’s doctrinal teachings offer the bases for sweeping criticism of libertarianism in its economic, political, and cultural forms.

To frame the Church’s arguments, however, allow me to briefly sketch criticisms of libertarianism from the political Left and Right.

A Conservative Critique: Russell Kirk or Robert Nisbett

Libertarianism’s competitive process and invisible hands yield not order, conservatives like Kirk say, but rather chaos and social decay. It undercuts transcendent claims for what is good, or right, or moral because the market – whether a market of ideas, or of values, or of goods and services – does not defer to anything beyond its own measure of what “sells.” And, what sells are usually the lowest common denominator values of the masses – lower civilizational values like utility at the expense of higher values like the sublime and sacred. The values that have been raised up by long tradition are no more valued in this process than the most immediate desires of the marketplace. Moreover, in overemphasizing the individual, libertarianism militates against fundamentally important social structures – like community, religion, and even family – leaving human beings isolated and unprotected from the pressures of common culture and mere economics. In emphasizing competition and struggle, libertarianism generates mores at odds with social stability, with the result that all values are continually eroded by unceasing change driven by market-like processes in society, culture, economy, and politics. Nothing is sacred; everything is in flux.

A Left Critique: Herbert Marcuse or Michel Foucault

From the Left, the basic criticism is against Libertarianism’s claim that the market-like competition yields progress. No; what it inevitably does is to reward the status quo. The churning and froth of market competition is judged to be just a sideshow of fake fairness, because markets always reward the powers that be. Market outcomes are never fair; they are always skewed by existing power structures. Understood in this way, libertarianism would actually be at odds with genuine liberty – as for example Marcuse contends. Its invisible hands create potent social, cultural, and economic forces that repress social change and do so more effectively than other forms of repression – as for example Foucault contends.  Over time, too, the operation of market forces consolidates power in society in fewer hands, thereby creating greater and greater inequalities. Like the conservatives, Left critics also warn against libertarianism’s individualism, which works against needed transformational social change by undercutting the opportunity for collective action, class consciousness, and social mobilization. The participatory nature of markets is perceived to be a mechanism for cooptation and control in support of the status quo.

Catholic criticism of libertarianism would share aspects of both the conservative’s and Left’s objections.

With the conservatives, for example, Catholics worry about the corrosive effects of market-like systems on tradition, community, natural law, and revelation.  Is the family just another possible lifestyle in the competitive market of lifestyles that libertarian approaches to culture propose? Is the value of human life for the elderly or the unborn something for market forces to decide? Can we allow the market to decide what society does about pornography, religion, and so forth? Aren’t there truths that are too important to relegate their handling to the free market of ideas?

With the Left, Catholic thinking worries that market-like processes coopt and repress human dignity by imposing what sells best to the status quo upon everyone through very powerful invisible hands. These processes militate against policies and values that are counter-cultural. In so doing they submarine prospects for real progress. Similarly, Catholics share with the Left a concern that this aspect of markets disenfranchises those in society who are marginal or who otherwise are unable to effectively compete.

With both conservatives and the Left, recent popes have perceived that the growing libertarian qualities of the contemporary world are shaping foundational structures of human life in ways contrary to the Church’s understanding of God’s design for human nature. But Church teachings are more thoroughgoing than these conservative and Left critiques.

Others today have spoken of the contrasts between Catholic understandings of the person, community, the poor, the common good, and much more. Given time constraints, let me focus on just a couple of contrasts from the perspective of political thought – the concepts of law, rights, and government.

Law:

Libertarians conceive law primarily as a negative constraint on liberty. Law limits freedom. As such, law always interferes with the free exercise of liberty needed for the magic of competition to work. Hence, law might be necessary for practical purposes, but in theory it should be looked at suspiciously and the less law – the better.

In contrast, Catholic teachings present law as ideally a positive formation of liberty. It inculcates virtue that is foundational for liberty. It directs us toward an end of perfectly completed freedom in salvation. Human law ideally reflects natural law, which itself reflects the perfection of order and freedom in the divine mind. Catholic teachings utterly disagree with James Madison’s sentiment that if men were angels no law would be necessary. Law is not at heart a practical necessity, it is the natural formative structure of divine goodness for human life.

Rights:

For rights, let me use just one right by way of illustration–but I ask you to remember that this is an example of how Catholic teachings understand all rights. My example is the right of property.

For Catholic teachings, the starting point for understanding property is to realize that all legitimate property is ultimately something that we have been entrusted to hold for God. We can never really earn it; it has been given to us. Our labor, skill, talents, and social situations may have been part of the legitimate process by which we came to have property, but of course all those things are themselves gifts from God. Hence, property is something we hold in stewardship. We hold it for God’s plan, for the common good, and for the needs of others and for our own needs as part of our relationship with others. Its universal destination is to return to God and to the community of saints with the Second Coming. We never really deserve it. It is never really ours. Since Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic teachings speak of property as a right. But as Pope Leo pointed out in that encyclical, it is a right that flows from the needs of others and the common good. Property, he said, is essential for family life. It’s essential for the right operation of the community and the social order. But it is never ours to do with as we please. We certainly cannot allow property’s use to be utterly determined by outside forces – like the market or the state. We are obliged to use property for the good of others, for the common good, for human dignity, and for God’s plan. Our own individual needs are part of this, but not primary.

The right to property, then, is not absolute. The right to property does not inhere to the individual. Its foundation lies in the needs of others, the common good, and in the divine plan.

So then, as the example of property shows, rights are not privileges that we hold privately or outside our responsibilities to others and the community. All rights are rooted in those responsibilities. Obviously, this is a very different way for thinking about rights then one finds in libertarian thought.

Government:

Just as Catholic teaching presents law ideally as something ordained by God, as natural, as inculcating virtue, and as something positive in the formation of humankind for its completion in salvation – so too is government understood in Catholic thought. By nature, human beings belong in political governance. Even in paradise, Thomas Aquinas argued, God created us such that there would be government.

Government properly helps form human life toward the common good such that each of us flourishes in the dignity that God designated for us. Of course, the state can fail to live up to its proper nature. It can fail to serve the common good by instead serving interests or factions. It can inadequately serve the common good by insufficient governance. It can fail to inculcate virtue in citizens. And it can repress or deform human dignity by confusing its own interests with the common good.

But governance itself is natural and good. The role for the state is a necessary one. From the perspective of natural law, government is divinely ordained. Its responsibilities are not limited to protecting citizens and their rights. Its role is especially the positive one of formation, of developing and promoting citizens for the common good. As every recent pope has insisted in their encyclicals, government is tasked with ensuring that the needs of all are met, if they are not met otherwise – with a special responsibility for the poor, for the oppressed, and for those marginalized.

What would libertarians make of this Catholic ideal of governance? It’s a model they would lampoon as the “nanny state.”

Conclusion:

As these examples of a Catholic understanding of the political order indicate – law, rights, and government – the distance between what the Catholic Church has traditionally taught and what libertarians propose is enormous–light years apart and, really, unbridgeable. Someone might ask, “But, Professor Schneck, cannot these non-infallible teachings of the Church about governance, community, law, rights, common good, and so forth be safely ignored? After all, these ideas are not (or at least are not explicitly) found in the words of Christ. Neither do they bear the gravitas of matters of intrinsic morality.”

Well, I’m not a theologian nor a bishop – although it’s a wonder to see the room is filled with them today. However, I would dispute claims that these teachings of the Church do not have their roots in Scripture and would also disagree with those who would say that these ancient teachings are not about intrinsic morality, or that such doctrine is merely prudential. As I said, I’m not a theologian or a bishop, but it’s clear to me that these political ideas are deeply integral with the whole of the magisterium. One cannot pull these threads from the seamless cloth of the Church’s teachings without unraveling much of the whole.

Accordingly, I conclude that libertarian political thought is essentially incompatible with the Catholic ideal of the purpose and promise of political life. Thank you.


[1] Bernard de Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924). P. 25.