Catholicism and Libertarianism

While libertarianism has a number of tenets that are in accord with Catholic social teaching, complete integration of the two is ultimately impracticable.

Earlier this year, a friend and I attended the Ludwig von Mises Institute conference in Houston, Texas. The conference centered upon an analysis of the current financial challenges facing our country, and a discussion of some economic and political solutions. Since the keynote speaker was Ron Paul, I thought it was safe to say the majority of those in attendance identified themselves as libertarians, either socially or philosophically. But I learned otherwise. During the first session break, following Lew Rockwell’s lecture, I began talking with a young man by the name of Bo. After a brief introduction and small talk, Bo quickly asked, “So, I am guessing you are a libertarian?”

“No,” I responded. “I am actually a Thomist.”

To my astonishment and joy, Bo knew what this meant, for he himself had read Aquinas in college, and said that Aquinas changed the way he viewed, and did, philosophy. Bo did favor the libertarian view of politics, and he was intrigued as to why I was there, perhaps hoping that my presence was a sign of “conversion.” I informed him that, as a Thomist, I disagreed with many of the libertarian positions, but was willing to affirm whatever was true in what libertarians held and taught.

To be a Thomist is not simply to hold to a particular set of doctrines (it is that, as well), but, more importantly, it is a way of viewing everything—a manner of distinguishing and separating in order to unite, thereby seeing the relation of the parts to the whole. Ultimately, it is the search for truth as the end of the human intellect, pursuing it wherever it can be found, no matter its source. Ralph McInerny provides a magnificent insight on the authentic image of a Thomist in his book Thomism in an Age of Renewal:

One reads Thomas with the growing awareness that he was, in principle, interested in anything available to him, from whatever source it came; moreover, the sympathy with which he reads authors whose fundamental tenets are opposed to his own, the value he insists on finding truth in whatever he reads, is something almost unique in the history of philosophy. (p 52)

What, then, does Thomism have to do with libertarianism? The recent presidential election and subsequent political battles have revealed a strong tendency among some Catholics to attempt an integration of the tenets of libertarianism and Catholic social teaching. While it is true that there are libertarian positions that are fully in accord with Catholicism, it must be emphasized that the integration is quite complex and, at a certain level, quite difficult, even impossible.

What I hope to do, with the aid of Aquinas, is highlight some of those positions which, when viewed through the lens of Catholic social doctrine, reveal libertarianism’s incompatibility with it, at least in regard to the following issues: 1) the necessity of government; 2) law as a moral pedagogy; and 3) the proper order of politics. It is important to note that I do not claim to equate Thomism with Catholicism, but only to highlight some foundational aspects of Catholic social teaching that are problematic for libertarianism.  

Before analyzing these three issues, I want to call attention to the fact that defining libertarianism requires great clarity since, as Dr. Edward Feser has frequently reiterated, libertarianism can be seen from various perspectives, for example, as a philosophic worldview, whereby the majority of (if not all) issues are seen through a libertarian lens. However, there are libertarian positions that are more specifically related to the economy, and therefore are not necessarily a view of the whole, but only a part. Thus libertarianism has many different forms, some more compatible with Catholicism than others.

I wish simply to highlight what I see as certain tendencies prevalent in libertarian literature and public speeches. The three issues covered here were present in Ron Paul’s keynote address, and only reaffirmed my assumptions regarding these tendencies within libertarianism itself.

On the necessity of government

During his keynote address, Ron Paul frequently made mention of the “evils of government.” He is right, in one sense, to deplore the rise of statism and the ever-so dangerous increase in the size of our government, all in the name of “compassion” and “taking care of its citizens.” The onslaught of globalization has surely coincided with an increase in the role of government in almost every facet of its existence, and Ron Paul’s continual call for a decrease in government surely constitutes a level of political realism—“That government is best which governs least.” However, libertarians, and Ron Paul in particular, often criticize government at such great lengths they seem to posit, at least implicitly, that government is the result of man’s wickedness, thereby declaring government to be intrinsically evil in its very nature. One can hear the Augustinian note in the background, namely, that in a good and perfect society, government would not be needed, for virtue would suffice to bring about the common good.

In the First Part of the Summa Theologia (Q. 96, A.4), Aquinas brings up this very issue, whether or not man, in an unfallen state, would have ruled over others. It is a very Augustinian question, for Thomas is attempting to analyze whether government is intrinsically good, or simply the result of man’s sinfulness, a deterrent against the rages of our vice. St. Thomas, relying upon Aristotle, first distinguishes between despotic and political rule, likening the former to the master-slave relationship in which the master rules for his own private good and ambitions. The latter consists of the ruler leading those who are ruled to their own proper good which, in turn, fosters the common good of the entire society.  

There are, principally, two reasons why this kind of political rule is necessary. Again, leaning on Aristotle, St. Thomas affirms that man is political by nature, that he is born into society and does not choose it, as he would with regard to other associations. Man is a “political animal” not only because he cannot satisfy all of his basic needs by himself but, more importantly, because he is incapable of virtue and authentic human flourishing without society. Notice that this is true even in a society of perfect virtue and moral goodness, what Yves Simon calls “the perfective function” of authority.

This brings us to the second point. Aquinas simply accepts the fact that various people have differing degrees of intelligence, wisdom, virtue, and prudence—some more and some less. The parent-child relation is a good example: the parents, due to the deficiencies of the child, must substitute their intelligence and will for the child’s. This is not evil or disordered, but naturally the case, and it is for the good development of the child. Yet Aquinas’ point is not simply about the substitutional role of authority, as with parents, but is more specifically concerned with the orientation and will toward the common good. For in a society that, has a result of freedom and excellence, has many good ways to pursue the common good, “the more we would need an authority to decide among the many good choices” (James V. Schall, SJ, “Government in a Perfect Society”). It would only be in rare instances that society would not be in need of an authority leading it to its good.

Furthermore, in light of the common good, government is necessary in order that citizens desire, and bring about, the realization of particular goods, for the abundance of particular goods pursued by citizens is due to the very essence of perfection, not disorder. We cannot all be doing the same things, so it will be the requisite authority that helps to place emphasis upon, and order, those goods in their particularity and how it is that they build up the good of society as a whole (cf. Simon’s Philosophy of Democratic Government, Ch. 1).

It is true, as libertarians remind us—in line with both Augustine and Aquinas—that disorders in society are often the result of disordered governments. However, the libertarian tendency too often leaves it at that, asserting that government is evil by nature, thereby fostering a greater concern for private, individual goods and losing sight of particular goods in relation to the whole. The view of government thus presented is a Lockean conception that sees government as having purely a negative role—protecting us from the worst of citizens and providing a legal framework for the protection of our material and bodily goods.

Law as moral pedagogy

In light of these considerations concerning the necessity of government, it seems to follow naturally that one’s conception of the purpose of law would also be distorted. After Ron Paul’s talk, I was in the hallway speaking with another young man about libertarianism in general, and he informed me that he was a practicing Catholic. The topic of same-sex marriage was brought up at one point, and this man professed that the state has no right to be in the marriage decision process at all, and that what he was suggesting was nothing more than government “neutrality.” This claim of “neutrality,” something which libertarianism has often espoused, has its roots in political, moral, and philosophic modernity, and is something that is incompatible with Catholic social teaching.

The ancients and medievals held that the purpose and nature of law is, in fact, to make men good. Laws, in this perennial understanding, were meant not only to prevent us from indulging those vices that are most harmful to society but, just as importantly, to help cultivate those kinds of habits and customs that can—and should—assist citizens in thriving as moral and social agents. This, of course, requires the admittance of two essential and foundational points: first, that citizens have a real human nature, and second, that what perfects our nature is virtuous activity, the only kind of activity that can foster, and truly bring about, the happiness of individuals and political society as a whole. Modern liberal democracy usually rejects both of these points but, for the ancients, medievals, and Catholics as well, this is the beginning point of all sound reflections on political philosophy and the meaning of man’s life in society.

To demonstrate the fallacy of “neutrality” when it comes to laws, one need only recall the famous decision in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey case, where the court declared, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” At the end of his “A Farewell to Congress,” Ron Paul wrote the following:

I have come to one firm conviction after these many years of trying to figure out the plain truth of things. The best chance for advancing peace and prosperity, for the maximum number of people world-wide, is to pursue the cause of LIBERTY.

Paul’s call for liberty, reminiscent of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, is tied intimately to his understanding of the purpose of law, which is, at root, simply to restrain those who can’t live peacefully with others in society. Law’s function is simply a negative one, and therefore opens the gates to cultivating the philosophical and theological worldview espoused by the Casey ruling cited above. There is no such thing as neutrality pertaining to established laws, since contained within them is a particular philosophy, a view of the human person, of happiness, of virtue, and of the ultimate destiny of man.

While it is true that the Church, relying upon Aquinas, is quite lucid that this habituation of acts through law is extrinsic, and incapable of directing the interior movements of the will, nonetheless, it does little for the common good to say that thoughts and inner movements of the will fall completely outside of it (cf. Michael Pakaluk, “Is the Common Good of Political Society Limited and Instrumental?” Review of Metaphysics, vol. 55, 2001, pp. 799-816). As Hadley Arkes once wrote, the moral character of law need not entail destroying the distinction between law and morality, nor eliminating the prudential limitations of the public enforcement of public morality (The Philosopher and the City: the Moral Dimensions of Urban Politics, 450-455).

The order of politics

Those two points of criticism are more particular than this final issue, which I take to be foundational to libertarianism as a whole, and something that has been present in practically every political philosophy since the modern turn with Locke. What is at stake is the very nature and order of politics, of what constitutes a truly “political life.” In Catholicism, there is always the realization that in order for politics to be itself, and accomplish what it is meant to in accord with man’s nature as a social and political animal, it must point to that which is ultimately not political:

The whole of political life seems to be ordered with a view to attaining the happiness of contemplation. For peace, which is established and preserved by virtue of political activity, places man in a position to devote himself to contemplation of the truth. (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Ethics, #2102)

The libertarian position rightly posits the need to limit government and keep it from expanding beyond its natural scope and purpose. However, the essential point is this: that which limits politics is the affirmation of an order that transcends it. As much as society and culture need the public recognition of the natural law and the enacting of good laws for the support of moral conduct and virtuous living, man is ultimately a being that is called to a supernatural end, one which the political order cannot satisfy. Here again, it is worth citing St. Thomas at length:

Besides the natural and the human law it was necessary for the directing of human conduct to have a Divine law. And this for four reasons. First, because it is by law that man is directed how to perform his proper acts in view of his last end. And indeed if man were ordained to no other end than that which is proportionate to his natural faculty, there would be no need for man to have any further direction of the part of his reason, besides the natural law and human law which is derived from it. But since man is ordained to an end of eternal happiness which is disproportionate to man’s natural faculty, as stated above (Question 5, Article 5), therefore it was necessary that, besides the natural and the human law, man should be directed to his end by a law given by God. (ST, I-II, 91.4).

Man has a life and goods that surpass ordination to political society because of the fact that the human person is drawn beyond the city. It is for this reason that Jacques Maritain, at the beginning of his classic work Integral Humanism, states that “to offer to man only the human is to betray man.” This point, along with the above citation of St. Thomas, is perhaps the foundation for all genuine societal reform, and the beginning point for sound reflections on political things. It is practically the same point that Pope John Paul II made in Centissimus Annus, that “there can be no genuine solution of the ‘social question’ apart from the Gospel” (#5).

I am certain that some libertarians agree with this point. But the tendency within libertarianism is to not call attention to it as being at the heart of any real reform in man’s life, including, and most especially, politics. As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, libertarianism has a number of tenets that are fully in accord with Catholic social teaching, and so my purpose is not to denounce libertarianism. Rather, the hope is to demonstrate some particular, substantial issues within libertarianism that make it difficult to integrate with Catholicism, especially in light of those points that are fundamental to understanding Catholic social doctrine. The Augustinian realism of libertarianism, particularly in regards to politics and what men actually do in this life, is without doubt refreshing and much needed if we are to stem the tide of an ever-threatening and all-powerful state that sees nothing beyond its own determinations and self-legislating criteria. However, I shall conclude with something Father Schall once said, wisdom that all of us would do well to follow: while it is essential to remember our Augustine, we must also never forget our Aristotle and Aquinas.

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About Brian Jones 33 Articles
Brian Jones is ia Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.