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Libertarianism: Now More Than Ever

February 6, AD2013 7 Comments


For my first post at Catholic Stand, I will introduce you to a combination of two things you may not be accustom to seeing together: Catholicism and libertarianism. Indeed, some Catholic authors have made a special effort to demonstrate that the two are utterly incompatible. By the end of this post, however, you will see that the opposite is true, and that they are not only quite compatible, but at this particular moment in American history, dependent upon one another.

The basic premise of libertarianism is not that individuals should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences. What distinguishes libertarianism from other political theories is the position that the state exists to protect rights – specifically, natural, individual rights. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, states that all men are created equally in that they each have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Other formulas include property or estate. It further states that the purpose of government is to secure these rights.

Catholic political theory is in basic agreement. In the encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII teaches that \”man preceedes the state\” (7), meaning that men and their needs exist before any government does, that \”the state has for its office to protect natural rights\” (51), and that if the state becomes oppressive, it would \”rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.\” (13) While the state may be necessary given the evils that would follow if it did not exist, there are definite limits to its authority. In Libertas, Pope Leo goes even further, declaring that \”where the power to command is wanting, or where a law is enacted contrary to reason, or to the eternal law, or to some ordinance of God, obedience is unlawful, lest, while obeying man, we become disobedient to God.\” (13)

Slavish devotion to the state, then, is not mandated by Papal political teaching. On the contrary, resistance is required of Christians when the state enacts laws that would, if obeyed, cause them to violate the natural or divine laws, to which human law is subordinate. We have seen the state enable widespread unconscionable evil in the form of legalized abortion on demand, and while Catholics have opposed this evil since 1973, they were not required to participate in it. Under Barack Obama\’s presidency, however, we are now on the verge of such a requirement pending the outcome of several lawsuits filed against the administration. I am referring to the HHS mandate, which in spite of two rounds of fine-tuning by the administration still requires Christian private property owners to violate their consciences by contributing financially to abortion, contraception and sterilization.

Another threat to Christian property owners is posed by the radical \”marriage equality\” movement. Once again the fate of individual conscience and private property rights is up in the air as Christians refuse services to gay couples who claim to be married or getting married. For those who aren\’t clear on this topic, it needs to be stated that the current resistance has nothing to do with discriminating against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, but rather with an unwillingness to participate in events that those individuals freely choose to engage in as couples. There is a world of difference between these two things. If you wouldn\’t force Jews to serve pork products or atheists to go to Mass every Sunday, you should understand why Christians don\’t want to photograph \”gay weddings\” or bake cakes for them.

I could also bring up older and ongoing threats to the individual rights of Christians not only as property owners, but as parents. Consider how violent and obscene many public schools have become, at which students learn about the facts of life from a government curriculum that encourages promiscuity at younger ages. Whenever your taxes are raised, your ability to raise your children how you want is impaired while the state obtains the resources it requires to transmit its values to the next generation.

What threatens the Church, in a nutshell, is an aggressive statist campaign to impose an ideology – a religion, if you ask me – upon society as a whole. This is the religion of radical egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is the belief that people ought to be as equal as possible; radical egalitarianism seeks to obtain this equality at the expense of individual rights to property, liberty, and even life itself, as the secular state\’s commitment to free abortion on demand amply demonstrates. While the street movement may say it is about \”choice\”, the administration has made it clear that it is really about achieving gender equality; babies are ultimately responsible for the \”gender gap\” in pay between men and women as demographic groups. The attempt to even things out between demographic groups regardless of the injustice done to individuals or even entire institutions such as the Church is a hallmark of radical egalitarianism.

To oppose radical egalitarianism is not to oppose the idea that all people are created with the same rights; this is egalitarianism taken to its proper extent. Likewise, to embrace libertarianism is not to say that the individual is the only thing that matters; that would be radical individualism, which is unacceptable as a moral ideal. Rather we seek a balance of liberty and equality. All individuals are possessed of the same rights, and no individual may exercise those rights at the expense of another. The business of the state is not to bolster one group of people at the expense of another for ideological or crass political reasons, but rather to respect and defend the rights that all individuals possess by God and nature.

Another important consideration is federalism. While many libertarians may believe that things like marijuana or prostitution ought to be legal (and in this, they are joined by a couple of Doctors of the Church), many also accept the federalism of the U.S. Constitution by which each locality can decide for itself what to permit or prohibit within the broad framework of respect for basic natural rights.

Finally, I strongly believe that human dignity is inexorably bound up with liberty. When people have their property or even their very bodies invaded by the state, or when they are presumed to be so helpless or out of control that they can\’t possess a firearm for self-defense, or when they are told what to eat or drink by government officials, their status as ensouled individuals with an intellect and a will is degraded and mocked. While the state\’s obligation to protect life, liberty and property necessitates that safety precautions and security measures exist, it is obvious that some measures go too far. They become ends in themselves, their designers having forgotten the end that they were originally to serve.  An adult human being with the use of reason, for the sake of his or her dignity, ought not to be interfered with beyond what is absolutely necessary for the common good. America in 2013 is soaring past that point.

I am a libertarian because that disturbs greatly me as Catholic.

© Bonchamps. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Bonchamps teaches political science for an online college and has written previously for Crisis Magazine and The American Catholic. His main interests are at the intersection of liberty and moral order, both of which are necessary for human flourishing. He currently resides in Orange County, CA with his wife.

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