6 Myths Catholics Tell About Libertarians
by Ryan McMaken
Recently by Ryan McMaken: Equality Before the Law Finally Achieved
Catholic libertarians like myself have become accustomed to being lectured by priests, bishops and Catholic pundits about the inherent incompatibility of Catholicism and libertarianism. This assertion, whether presented in writing or as a harangue from the pulpit, is generally accompanied by a set of reliably tried-and-true myths about libertarianism that often demonstrates a poor grasp of what libertarianism even is. Of course, one never encounters a wholesale condemnation of Liberalism or Conservatism, mainly because large numbers of American Catholics generally self-identify as one or the other. Given the relatively small number of libertarians among the faithful however, one can safely denounce it, and neither courage nor erudition is required.
The opposition to libertarianism stems from a handful of myths that are circulated among Catholics about libertarianism.
Myth #1: Libertarians are libertines
It is certainly true that some libertarians are libertines, just as some people who profess to be Catholic are libertines as well. There is certainly nothing in the libertarian philosophy that precludes a person from being a libertine. Libertarianism after all, is a political theory only, and is based on the idea that it is immoral, except in cases of self-defense, to engage in violence against other persons. The state, being an organization that maintains a monopoly on the means of coercion, is based on the use of coercion and is thus inherently violent. To the libertarian then, the cases in which states can act morally must be either constrained to a very small number of situations or must be eliminated entirely.
So, libertarians merely argue that it is not moral for states to fine, imprison, kill persecute or otherwise coerce human beings who wish to behave in immoral ways that do not involve physical violence against others. For example, if a person wishes to smoke a joint, it is not moral for the state to persecute such a person since he or she has not done anything violent.
Mind you, there is nothing to prevent a private voluntary organization, such as a family or church or club or business from discouraging or denouncing such behavior in its members of employees. Indeed, libertarianism argues strongly in favor of private organizations like churches and families and businesses being free to demand whatever behavior they wish from their own members and employees.
This situation, of course, is what has predominated historically in Christendom. Drug laws, for example are an invention of the 20th century. Did Christians walk around high on drugs every day prior to the prohibition of marijuana use in the 1930s? Obviously not. Indeed one could argue that drug use is far more prevalent among Christians now than it was before drugs were made illegal. Saint Thomas Aquinas famously spoke against civil governments attempting to outlaw human vice. His contention that “[a]ccordingly in human government also, those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred,” wasn't a declaration that moral vices like prostitution were morally permissible. It was simply a recognition of the fact that to have the state outlaw a vice was often a cure worse than the disease.
Myth #2: Libertarians hate the poor
Those of us who have been involved in right-wing politics for years have all seen how some people might get this impression. Among Conservative and Republican pundits and activists, who often unconvincingly claim to be in favor of "free markets," one will often hear denunciations of poor people who are presumably lazy, deceptive and foolish. This, apparently, means that poor people and their children "deserve" to be poor.
It is very rare that someone will encounter this attitude with a libertarian who is not just a Conservative pretending to be a libertarian in an attempt to appear more hip.
In fact, a major reason that libertarians are so opposed to state power is that we recognize that the state causes most of the poverty that it later then turns around and claims to be eradicating. The current depression is a perfect example. There are now at least 8-10 million unemployed Americans. The current bust is the result of at least 20 years of economic meddling and wealth destruction encouraged by the government through manipulation of the money supply and through a runaway regulatory state. This has led to the current situation of a stagnant economy and rampant unemployment and underemployment.
As the middle class shrinks and millions descend into poverty, thanks to the state, how can we say that the state's most vulnerable victims, the poor, "deserve" their present situation?
Libertarians recognize that providing for one's self and one's family is a difficult job and that people need to be as free as possible in pursuing those goals. Those people should also have more control of their income and their wealth so that they can provide more fully for their Churches as well. As it is, millions of working Americans give 40-50 percent of their income to fund massive government departments in Washington, DC, endless warfare and the bailouts of billionaires. Meanwhile, the government that we are taxed to fund is causing the poverty we're told it can fix. The argument that the government is the best way to provide poverty relief is naïve in the extreme. Indeed, when it comes to letting the government be in charge of reducing poverty, one might as well put communists in charge of food production.
Myth #3: Libertarians neglect solidarity
Many libertarian Catholics, like Thomas Woods, have often made the point that libertarian ideals of a just civil government and just economy are well grounded in the subsidiarity principle –the idea that any act of government should be performed at the most local level possible- that has long been favored by Catholic theologians and popes.
Some Catholic pundits, such as Mark Shea, claim that libertarians inflate a concern for subsidiarity at the expense of solidarity. This notion of course, is based on an acceptance of Myths #1 and #2.
This myth can be dispelled in two different ways. First, we can note that libertarianism is not opposed to the success and legality of non-governmental organizations. Secondly, we note that libertarians oppose the organization that has done more to destroy human solidarity than any other organization in human history: the state.
First, there is nothing in libertarianism that makes libertarians opposed to the success and propagation of organizations and bodies on which solidarity is built. These include families, churches, clubs, association, schools, and even labor unions. Libertarians believe that all of these organizations should be free to exist without molestation from the state. For the Catholic libertarian, the most important foundations of society are of course the family and the Church. Under a libertarian regime, these organizations can be freely supported by any person, and he or she may peacefully encourage others to do so as well.
On the other hand, libertarians oppose the state. It is difficult to image just how exactly pro-state Catholics imagine that the state actually promotes solidarity. Does it promote solidarity by sowing class warfare through the stealing from one class to give to another? Is it the crony capitalism that impoverishes the poor for the sake of billionaires? Do the endless wars promote solidarity? Did the dropping of atomic bombs on women and children help solidarity? How about all the famines caused by governments from Ireland to China? Did the mass murder of priests in Mexico during the twenties promote solidarity?
Some Catholics will say, "You libertarians are too extreme. You want to cut back government too much just because some states have been really awful. If we can just vote in the right people, bad things like that won't happen." In response I have one question: How has that been working out for you?
Myth #4: Libertarians support liberty only because it is in their self-interest
This one is the most easily disproven. Anyone who has been involved in libertarian activism knows that being a libertarian is not exactly a great career move. It is likely to make one unpopular and, if one is lucky, he will merely be considered to be a harmless eccentric by his co-workers and family members. Often, people are not that charitable. Most libertarians support libertarianism because they think it is the right thing to do, and not because there is some kind of expected material benefit. Very few libertarians expect major libertarian victories in the near future anyway.
Although there are real victories, such as the end of global communism in 1989 and the fact that Keynesian economics is now virtually discredited among everyone except government employees and academic economists, no libertarian actually expects to benefit in any meaningful way from the advance of libertarian ideas in his lifetime. For example, a great libertarian victory would be major cuts in military spending and the ending of the government's many foreign wars. How that would monetarily benefit any libertarian who advocates for such a turn of events is hardly obvious.
Myth #5: Libertarians want to persecute Christianity
There are no doubt some libertarians who wish to persecute Christians, but if those libertarians actually adhere to libertarian principles of not using government power against people, then we don't have much to fear from them, now do we?
On the other hand, a strong government is one of the most dangerous weapons in the hands of those who seek to persecute the faith (and also in the hands of those who don't.)
One need not be a historian to notice that Catholicism in the United States has been persecuted to a much smaller extent than in many countries, including many so-called Catholic countries.
This is due in no small part to (quickly-waning) libertarian traditions in the United States regarding how the state interacts with religions. The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This amendment is born from a tradition that comes to us from many lessons learned over the centuries in both Britain and in the American colonies. The colonials had learned that religious majorities tend to persecute religious minorities, and many of the framers of the Constitution came to the conclusion that the best way to promote Christianity was to leave it alone. Many Catholics have bought into the incorrect contention made by leftists that the establishment clause was the work of secularists, and that the separation of Church and state is somehow detrimental to Churches.
On the contrary, the separation of Church and state in America has been one of the greatest obstacles in the path of those who might have sought to persecute Catholics in what, for most of its history, has been a country imbued with anti-Catholicism.
Why is it, for example, that there have never been anti-clerical purges in the United States as there were in Mexico during the twenties? Why have Catholic women and children never been gunned down specifically for their faith as was the case in Spain during the thirties? Why were attempts at outlawing Catholic schools struck down as illegal? The answer is that there is a tradition in America, when it comes to religion, in which it is believed that the state which governs best, governs least. We call that philosophy a libertarian philosophy.
Unfortunately, in our present age of the unlimited state, the old constraints on the state, even in matters of religion, are breaking down at an increasingly rapid pace.
Not helping matters is the fact that there has long been a pro-state element within the Catholic clergy and hierarchy that has been whooping it up for all types of socialism in the name of poverty-relief.
Recently after decades of naïve pro-government boosterism, the bishops finally figured out that a state that is powerful enough to wage total war and to distribute wealth and regulate on a massive scale, is big enough to persecute and prosecute Catholics who refuse to commit sin in the face of government regulations.
Obviously, such a situation would never come to pass under even a militantly secularist libertarian regime since libertarians would never regulate health care. Catholic doctors, pharmacists and hospitals would be free to govern themselves in line with their Catholic faith.
Myth #6: Libertarians are not pro-life
There is no doubt that libertarians are split as to whether or not abortion should be legal. Since this is an open debate among libertarians, there is no "libertarian position" on the legality of abortion, and any claim that libertarians are "pro-abortion" is simply contrary to the facts.
On the other hand, we can note that libertarians are far less bellicose toward babies that are ex utero than are either Conservatives or Liberals. Both look the other way or actively defend horrific injuries to children in the name of "national defense" or "global democracy." Rare is the Conservative or Liberal who will denounce, for example, the firebombing of Japan as a crime against humanity, in spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Japanese women, children, toddlers and infants were burned to death horribly, as can be seen here.
The final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, known as Gaudium et Spes states that "[e]very act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."
Conservatives and Liberals routinely defend this sort of violence against civilians in the name of the war on terror or ridding the world of evil or some other unattainable and impractical utopia, yet it is the libertarians who are supposedly anti-Catholic.
The state is not our friend. Many Catholics oppose libertarians because apparently, some Catholics still cling to notions about government that have never been true, but have contended that states are somehow built on consent and virtue and that they do more good than harm. The reality is much different. Even the most uncorrupted and constrained states sow discord among their people, expropriate massive amounts of wealth to dole out to the politically well-connected, wage wars against civilians, suppress dissent, supplant the family and persecute the religious.
Clearly, this institution that is supposed to bring us so many blessings, is not nearly constrained enough.
The state is fundamentally an institution founded on violence. Saint Augustine once famously compared secular rulers to pirates. According to historian Ralph Raico:
In City of God, St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him, “How dare you molest the seas?” To which the pirate replied, “How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor.” St. Augustine thought the pirate’s answer was “elegant and excellent.” Alexander sought to bring civilization and enlightenment to the world. Our own government seeks the same. The times are different, but the outcomes are the same.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.