Must I Give Up Libertarianism To Be Saved?

With all the discussion of marriage of late by Roman Catholic bishops and observers of the Roman church, we may forget that back in the Spring the hot topic of conversation was libertarianism (and the implicit argument that Pope Francis had pitted solidarity against hyper-individualism). Here is how one interlocutor described the relationship between Roman Catholicism and libertarianism:

Libertarianism is an ideology that cannot be reconciled with Catholicism. Unfortunately, it has a relatively wide appeal in our society, including among some who identify as Catholic. But the very foundations of libertarianism directly and unavoidably conflict with the principles of Catholic moral and social thought.

Libertarianism is inseparable from individualism, self-interest, and autonomy. Property rights are sacrosanct. Government is viewed as a necessary evil and a constant threat to liberty. And the market is turned into an idol.

Conversely, Catholics are called to recognize themselves as persons who only reach their full development in community — or, better yet, communities, as we exist in crosscutting communities from our families to the global community. Catholics believe that real freedom is found through communion with God and others. Our desire for love, joy, and communion leads us to choose solidarity over autonomy.

For Catholics, government has a positive role to play. It exists to foster conditions that allow each person to reach their full emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual potential as human persons. National governments have the responsibility to create these conditions for their citizens, but they are also responsible for promoting the global common good — solidarity transcends national borders. The foundation of this understanding of government is the dignity of the human person, which is universal, giving all people equal worth as brothers and sisters, children of the same God.

Some might find it odd that so many Roman Catholic intellectuals and some clergy could so clearly see that libertarianism is bad but not be so definite about gay marriage, divorce, Islam, or even Protestantism. I do understand that Roman Catholic social teaching has been cautious about the excesses of capitalism and has generally sympathized with workers (especially in ways to prevent labor from turning Communist). I also understand that the kind of libertarianism popularized by Ayn Rand is goofy even if it is distinct from more responsible versions on tap from such folks as Albert J. Nock, H. L. Mencken, William F. Buckley, or P. J. O’Rourke. Even so, you do have to wonder about the matters that tighten some Roman Catholic jaws and not others.

And while I’m wondering, I do wonder why critics of libertarianism are not less hostile to it given the church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person:

The basis for the theme of Human Dignity, the bedrock of Catholic Social Teaching, is that humans were created in the image and likeness of God. Regardless of any factors or reasons we can think of, individuals have an inherent and immeasurable worth and dignity; each human life is considered sacred. This theme is about our radical equality before God that leads us to think no less of somebody because they are from a different place or culture, because they believe something different to you, or because of their work or employment situation.

The principle of Human Dignity means that Catholic Social Teaching takes a strong position on issues around the start and end of life (like the death penalty and abortion) but it also has big consequences for everything in-between. For example it can effect how we think about how our society supports those with disabilities, how we address global inequality and the approach we take to civil rights issues. It is from this idea that all people have inherent dignity that the themes of ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ and ‘Authentic Human Development’ develop within Catholic Social Teaching.

The idea that each life has value isn’t something Catholic Social Teaching has a monopoly on; it shares a lot in common with International Human Rights which are also universal, inviolable and inalienable. But Catholic Social Teaching differs slightly because of its basis. It grounds Human Dignity in the firm foundations of the Catholic Church’s traditions thought about the sanctity of creation as told in the story of our creation (Genesis) and God’s incarnation (Gospels).

I understand that this is not necessarily an affirmation of individualism and also that Roman Catholic social teaching understands individuals not as isolated beings but as social creatures. Even so, if you are going to stress the sacredness of every individual and all of their personal existence between birth and death, and if you are going to basically embrace freedom of the will (and let Calvinists take all the blame for the wills bondage even though Aquinas taught it), wouldn’t you have some sympathy for policies that respect the sacredness of persons who own and run businesses?

36 thoughts on “Must I Give Up Libertarianism To Be Saved?

  1. From what I understand, only in America is Libertarianism understood to be conservative. And pertinent for this blog is not the question of can I be libertarian to be saved or to be Catholic. The question is, is conservative libertarianism consistent with the Reformed Faith?


  2. Curt, not exactly. The question is, What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or put another way, Is there no such thing as liberty of political conscience?


  3. No, Curt – the question is can the Reformed faith be consistent with a view of government that involves suckling upon the State for the rest of one’s life.


  4. This video, sent by a Catholic relative, does seem to have for those who own and run businesses but it is pretty far down the list.


  5. The trick with any form of do-gooderism that is funneled through government is two fold: (1) Making sure that government is truly doing people good and not harm, and (2) Making sure that government doesn’t siphon off too much of the funds to support its own infrastructure.

    Government can set up a department with wonderful aims, but if 80% of the workers in that department roll in at 10, leave at 4, take 8 weeks of vacation a year, goof around on the internet while they are at work, spend time generating lawsuits over how they hire, fire, and deal with each other, earn six figure salaries, and expect to retire at age 60 with generous pensions, no thanks.


  6. Kent -Any system that places politics on a top level is inconsistent with Christianity.

    Me: Considering Libertarianism is bascially a view that politics will not solve whatever problem is being dealt with, it is basically an anti-politic politic. So I am not sure that your statement fits here.

    There were many protestants full of do-gooderism that responded to Machen who wrote a letter to Roosevelt lambasting his policies and social security as “inimical to honest and liberty.” Saying the President may want to consider that there is a wrong way to do the right thing.

    From Pulipt Politics (p.64-65):

    “Accusing Machen of ignoring the teachings of Jesus on the responsibility of the wealthy to the poor, Broun [Curt in a previous life] continued: “According to the economic theology of J. Gresham Machen, it should have been the first duty off the state to protect this admirable young fellow in his property rights and to assure him that no matter how the great the distress about him his own wealth would be kept inviolate less class distinctions be diminished.” If J. Gresham Machen had been in Judea beyond Jordan, “he would have sent the young man away rejoicing. But another preacher back then said ‘Go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.’” Machen, said Broun, apparently feels, like Cain, that he is not his brother’s keeper, and there is divine sanction for inequalities of wealth…I trust that there is someone to point out to the young theological students that they must make their choice between the words of Jesus Christ and those of J. Gresham Machen.”
    To Machen’s credit, he faithfully responded to all correspondence, most in person, and did so with patience toward his enemies and genuine gratefulness to his supporters…To Mr. Broun the response was crisp and to the point in suggesting two ways to get rich men to give to the poor: one, force them, and two, induce them to give through love. Arguing that the latter was the way of Jesus, Machen reminded Broun that the Rich young ruler was told to “sell all thou hast and give it to the poor”; that did Jesus did not say to the poor, “Take the goods of that rich young ruler by force, sell them and distribute them among yourselves.” We have here, said Machen, the difference between the ethics of Jesus and the ethics of communism.”


  7. Libertarianism is for the very rich and/or very insane.

    And 17 years old who haven’t thought critically about Atlas Shrugged

    If you thought I’d read anything by one of those four categories you are probably the insane one


  8. Kent,
    Did you read the post: “I do understand that Roman Catholic social teaching has been cautious about the excesses of capitalism and has generally sympathized with workers (especially in ways to prevent labor from turning Communist). I also understand that the kind of libertarianism popularized by Ayn Rand is goofy even if it is distinct from more responsible versions on tap from such folks as Albert J. Nock, H. L. Mencken, William F. Buckley, or P. J. O’Roarke…”


  9. Do Catholics actually read other Catholic libertarians? Reading the caricatures in the article, I think not.

    “What is this dangerous doctrine, against which Church leftists must combine? Libertarianism teaches that individuals should avoid violence when interacting with each other, and should resort to force only in self-defense.

    That is all it is. Libertarianism is not strictly about “individualism,” “atomism,” or any of the typical caricatures. It is concerned solely with the use of violence in society. It says that you should not steal, and you should not hurt anyone. “


  10. What do you think about the “seamless garment” and the nonaggression principle? Given what you’ve said in the post above, it seems like the former ought to make Catholics more congenial to the latter.


  11. Mr Curt,

    This a limited response. But I do think it’s unfortunate that you say only in America is libertarianism identified as being on the “right.” Again, clarity in terms of the ideological spectrum is needed.

    Libertarians, of the Consequentialist stripe, and the Ayn Rand variety, are classical liberals. So “liberal” according to the 19th century definition of liberalism. In that sense, American Constitutionalism in America is all apart of a classical liberal approach to individual life, and the state, and is unique in terms of the European model of ideological spectrums. So for instance, American conservatism, fusion movements, and Consequentialist expressions of libertarians (think Dr Milton Friedman, Dr Walter E Williams, Dr Thomas Sowell), are all on the right in terms of American ideas about political philosophy, but surely antipodal to “right wing” fascism which historically, as articulated by Stalin, is a “heresy” of the left. Fascism is a phenom on the rightward part of tyrannical leftism, (fabian socialism, progressivism).

    Still, the term “conservative” is problematic. Too many think all that means politically is to be traditionalist. If by that we mean “conserving” the ideas in spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution and it’s inherent ideas, then that’s ok – but the U.S. Constitutional goes to war with all kinds of different “traditional” ideas about individual liberty and the role of the state glimpsed in how nation’s previous to the founding of America looked at suck issues. The Constitution is a “liberal” (specifically anti-authoritarian) document of the 19th century. The U.S. Constitution neither enshrines the attitudes of many on the contemporary progressive left as it enshrines the social, cultural – uniformity authoritarianism glimpsed on so much of the right. It protects, inherently, the perception of happiness people presume, and therefore freely engage to create for themselves through individual autonomy and private property rights, locally considered, before the jurisdiction of the Federal government. Indeed, American conservatives found themselves opposed to many “traditionalist” political ideas because of their philosophical loyalty to political liberalism most specifically, sobered with cultural conservative views about “best practices.”

    Where conservatism goes into the toilet bowl (and goes quickly) is when it’s adherents forget American conservatism (or Constitutionalism) is really a “conservation” of classical liberalism on one hand, or on the other hand, when it allows it’s fidelity to general ideas about cultural conservatism “overpowering” or “overshadowing” it’s political liberalism in the classical sense. That’s one of the most severe problems glimpsed in American conservative pundits, personalities, and political candidates on the right in our time … Think especially of Rick Santorum & Ted Cruz, specifically. This had an effect, especially with national figures assuming the conservative label in dismissing or belittling the central themes of true classical liberalism from the perspective of our Constitutional Amendment Clauses which focus primarily on protecting Federalism & localism, and individual property rights, rather than the witch’s brew of moralistic crusades so popular in religious right circles and other cultural right agendas …

    Thus, we get a lot of ignorant traditional bromides centered on the need for seeming endless American military intervention, American exceptionalism (what does that mean?), and all kinds of efforts in the name of “moralism” to involve the Federal government in areas never intended because of the collapse of the culture.

    While it’s a understandable concern, there is very little collation between increased government in regards to size, scope, and moralizing duties, with a renewal or reformed cultural. It’s exactly the opposite, in my humble opinion based on a wide array of historical data.


  12. David,
    If the Constitution was an instance of classical liberalism, and the Constitution strengthened the federal government’s control, then what was American gov’t before the Constitution?

    See, there is a difference between what the Constitution is and what we want to think of it as. The Constitution was a response by American elites to widespread dissent and Shays rebellion. Documents that provide a better understanding of the Constitution include Federalist Paper #10, The Constitutional Debates, and Henry Knox’s Letter To George Washington. The Constitution was written to strengthen the Federal government in order to not only control future rebellions, but to prevent direct democracy. This is particularly true in the creation of the Senate where the main concern was to make the Senators immune to popular opinion. We should note that during the debates, Madison specifically said that he feared the prospect of people all classes being allowed to vote because he thought it would bring agrarian reform. It is in that snippet that Madison stated that the purpose of gov’t is to protect the “minority of the opulent from the majority.”

    That fits in with classical liberalism. We should note that neoliberal capitalism, which is championed by today’s Conservatives, is a rehash of classical liberalism. There are religious and social reasons for this relationship. We should also note that the stress on the individual and laissez-faire economy fits Madison’s concern because the combination of the two allows elites from the private sector to gain power. This is why democracy is seen as its Kryptonite. Democracy makes the individual answerable before the group. And this emphasis on group liberty, that is the right of the group to determine how its members will live with each other, is opposed to more extreme forms of individualism and visa-versa. BTW, it is religious and social conservatives who cling to classical liberalism. This is where we need to remember what Martin Luther King Jr said while comparing capitalism with communism. He said that life is both social and individual. Thus the problem with classical liberalism is that is that it does not give the fact that life is social its due recognition.

    As for the Constitution being based on classical liberalism, that is rather complicated. Again, the Constitution created a stronger federal gov’t. However, by allowing elites to emerge, you have allowed for the consolidation of power and thus you have allowed for the centralization of power whether or not that accumulation of power is located in the gov’t. Thus, the way to distribute power is not to increase the power of the individual but to increase democracy. By employing more democracy, we inject into the decision making process both more diverse concerns and inefficiency.

    BTW, we should note that Stalin was a continuation and even extension of Lenin and that even Lenin regarded the moves he made to consolidate power was the result of him turning to the Right rather than the Left. The Left stands for the extension of democracy while the Right favors elite rule.


  13. Curt (and Brian), all interesting, but getting back to your original question…how does any of it align or not align with the Reformed confessions? But on top of wondering why alignment is relevant, one also wonders why you should care anyway since you’ve also made clear your low view of the confessions.


  14. Scripture, then Confessions/Creeds, then good theology

    Anything else placed with these 3 is destroying your walk in the faith.

    Provided that you were honestly concerned about it in the first place.


  15. DGH, some libertarians have been helpful in trying to sort out a metanarrative of life. So have certain Roman Catholic scholars and journalist/opinion makers. This can’t get in the way of my spiritual quest for piety, but is a good leisure pursuit, like sports.

    I’m old enough to remember neo-cons defined as Marxists in the 1930s who went to the right in their 40s and never stopped writing about it all. Now it just means some affiliation with someone who read a chapter of Leo Strauss.


  16. Kent, the best of the libertarians as I read them avoid metanarratives — even snicker at them in the manner of Ecclesiastes’ preacher. They generally have a laugh at everyone, including themselves.


  17. It’s a (post-post?) postmodern world, a delight for ironists, especially north of the border.

    I do not recall a lot of humour in their manifestos.


  18. Zrim,
    Perhaps, some of our discussions point to inadequacies in the Reformed Confession in both what they say and what they left unsaid. Besides, weren’t we addressing at least part of what the post addressed since it involves libertarianism?


  19. Curt, sure, but your question seemed to follow the post and also addressed the relation of political view to theological confession. You seemed to be suggesting that libertarianism doesn’t align with the Reformed faith, much like the way Christian says it doesn’t align with Catholicism. I’m asking, So what? Since Catholicism is the original neo-Calvinism, maybe the answer is “worldview.” Or “paradigm.”


  20. Finally Curt puts up a coherent post, much more (Yay) commends the West. Standards.
    It did take a long time coming.
    And democracy is mob rule not the desideratum, St. Karl to the contrary.

    But first things first. If there is no indication of an adequate understanding of the Reformed Confessions, a discussion of the inadequacies of the Reformed Confessions would itself be inadequate to the question.

    Stick to the constitution for now Curt and forswear any mention of d****** or s****** please.


  21. Bob,
    Who calls democracy mob rule fails to call a republic “the mob rules.” And see, here is the problem, you go against democracy, you favor control by elites. And to think you have escaped the power struggle by opting to emphasize less government and more individual liberty is to confuse power with gov’t authority. Power is the ability to influence change. And power can rest with elites from the private sector as well as those from the public sector.

    IMO, those who unthinkingly adopt the Reformed Traditions, will favor elite control so long as it is exercised by the “right” elites. After all, us Reformed Christians are a pretty authoritarian lot. We have a difficult time turning off that authoritarian switch. And this can make it difficult for us to work and play well with others in society because some of them suspect that they are equal to us and thus think that our authoritarian switch should be turned off when interacting with them. And because we are authoritarian, we get offended at such heresy because it is not in the Reformed Confessions. So do you see the rub for the future of evangelism in this country? Of course, if you are too insular, you might not care too much for the future of evangelism because that means that you must interact with those who are different from you in an uncontrolled setting.


  22. Zrim,
    Libertarianism leads to rule by elites in the private sector. To those elites, one dollar = one vote so those with the most dollars get the most votes. And since, all too often, the primary concern of elites is to keep the status quo if not to increase one’s own standing, collective consciousness flies out the window.

    So let’s add this up scripturally
    love of money
    + lording over others
    + neglecting those in need


  23. Curt, and alcohol leads to drunkenness which leads to all manner of personal and social ills. So what? You’re talking about political views the way Fundamentalists talk about adult beverages.


  24. McDurmon— Murray Rothbard’s essay “The Anatomy of the State” has been more influential to my understanding of statism than most other works on civil government, like, say, Willson’s The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government, or Gary DeMar’s God and Government, although I would side with Willson and DeMar on some points over against Rothbard. …You may shriek in horror at the thought that reading certain anarchistic writers has influenced me in different ways in regard to the correct interpretation of faithfulness to Old Testament law…. Interestingly, Bahnsen similarly praised proto-Reformed Libertarian J. Gresham Machen for his political views. Bahnsen spent 15 minutes quoting and praising Machen in this lecture, noting that if he could meet one person from history, it would be Machen (he says even above Calvin or John Cotton).

    Brandon Adams—Westminster Covenanters who sought justification for religious offenses looked to the common law of nations in order to understand the obligations of moral/natural law with regards to civil law. They were polluted by Constantinianism and were not thoroughly reformed according to sola scriptura. I will add that this is true of their ecclesiology as much as it is true of their civil polity.

    Adams–This included men like William Perkins, who wrote– “A judicial law may be known to be a law of common equity, if either of these two things be found in it. First, if wise men not only among the Jews, but also in other nations have by natural reason and conscience judged the same to be equal, just, and necessary: and with all have testified this their judgment by enacting laws for their commonwealths, the same in substance with sundry of the judicial laws given to the Jews: and the Romans and Emperors among the rest have done this most excellently, as will appear by conferring their laws with the laws of God.If

    Adams–If you recall, McDurmon appealed to Perkins in his debate and wrote a subsequent post claiming that Perkins determined who won the debate. Since Perkins was a theonomist, theonomy won the debate. Well, since McDurmon has now written an entire chapter called “What is not Theonomy” referring to Perkins’ view, it would appear that theonomy lost the debate. ….John Owen was rebuking John Cotton, one of Bahnsen’s theonomic heroes (Bahnsen includes Cotton’s writing on the subject as an appendix in his book and says he is one of the few men he would like to go back in time and meet – the others being Calvin and Machen). McDurmon may also be interested in Increase Mather, John Cotton’s son-in-law who later in life repudiated Cotton’s view of Mosaic law because of his understanding of Canaan as holy land.


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