As the managing editor of The Libertarian Catholic, I have seen a lot of misinformation and ridicule in both arenas of religion and politics. I’ve heard from libertarians who think it’s oxymoronic to be skeptical of man’s law while strictly adhering to God’s law, and I’ve heard from Christians who see libertarianism as antithetical to the faith. Many in both camps find it impossible to reconcile the political philosophy of freedom and the religious doctrine of Christ, but for the Christians, this stems from three central misconceptions of libertarianism that I see over and over again.
1. Libertarianism is isolationist
When Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, a thoughtful Catholic friend of mine criticized the libertarian-ish move as isolationist and uncharitable. He thought that Brexit would mean less economic opportunity for Britons and continentals and he also bought the argument that Brexit was based on racist motives to prevent people from poorer Muslim countries from taking over the country. The Catholic Church preaches solidarity with all people of goodwill, and many see taking in refugees as a Christian duty. Brexit would put an end to that.
But as I explained to my friend, Brexit wasn’t about being isolationist or uncharitable, it’s about being free from the shackles of regulation to pursue one’s own destiny. “Leave” champion Daniel Hannan said it more eloquently than most what Brexit was about, “An internationalist, global Britain, a more deregulated Britain, a freer Britain, and a more democratic Britain, one that is interested and engaged with the affairs of every continent including Europe.” Far from isonlationist, Brexit was about having the sovereignty to interact more with the global community.
All of the positive aspects of the EU (free trade, free flow of employment) could be maintained without the negative aspects of wasteful bureaucracy and constrictive economic policies. After all, Switzerland enjoys a high degree of autonomy outside of the EU while also maintaining a liberal economic relationship with its geographic neighbors.
The same can be said for libertarianism on the whole — it’s not about being isolationist or being mean to those in need. It’s about having the freedom to interact as you wish. As Saint John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like but having the freedom to do what we ought.”
2. Libertarianism is the cult of Ayn Rand
Ask any Christian on the street who started the liberty movement and you might get an answer like Ayn Rand or Ron Paul. You may get the rare Adam Smith or Thomas Jefferson, but you’ll rarely ever hear anyone say that the liberty movement started in the Catholic Church.
Libertarian philosophy is actually rooted in the School of Salamanca, a group of Spanish and Portuguese theologians writing in the 16th century. Thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, and Francisco Suárez originated the modern concepts of libertarianism based on Catholic moral teaching and St. Thomas Aquinas’s theory of Natural Law. The school, which Murray Rothbard called proto-Austrians, answered new challenges to the Catholic concepts of man and God brought by the rise of humanism and the Protestant Reformation with theories on the rights of man, just war, and freedom in economics.
Over time, a simplified version of one aspect of their philosophy has come to what is known as the non-aggression principle:
The initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property is inherently illegitimate.
Which, for savvy readers, will invoke Aquinas’s principle, “one should do harm to no man” (Summa Theologea I-II Q. 95) or the political philosophy Vulnero Nemo, a progression from the Golden Rule, professed in the Bible: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31.
While libertarianism has found a home in many camps, including Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, it can call the Church its true mother.
3. Having the right to do something means it’s the right thing to do
Almost daily, we see critics of libertarianism warning of all the evils that the political philosophy allows. Without government coercion in several areas, people would be allowed to do many things that the Church finds objectionable such as sodomy, prostitution, alcohol abuse, and narcotic drug use. Libertarianism may ostensibly protect against harm, critics may say, but it allows for — even promotes — other evils.
Of course, they’re right. Libertarian philosophy asserts that everyone has the right to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with the same right of others and that would mean that people could do some sinful acts without government stopping them. But this is the only legitimate political solution because once government uses coercion to stop people from doing something when they’re not harming anyone else, it is overstepping its only legitimate authority and necessarily commits evil in order to do so.
The War on Drugs is an ugly example of this abuse of power. Sure, drugs may be harmful and I don’t advocate for their use, but the government prohibition is much worse than the problem. Stories of no-knock raids — sometimes on the wrong people — always resulting in stolen goods, broken families, or shot dogs are all to frequent. The War on Drugs has done irreparable damage to urban communities and has single-handedly made the US the most incarcerated country in the history of the world.
The same goes for other victimless crimes. As quintessential Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.”
He later continues, “Hence, though unbelievers sin in their rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of some good that ensues therefrom, or because of some evil avoided.” He understood that just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
With these misconceptions cleared up, it should be easier for Christians to appreciate the principles of libertarianism and to understand the God gave us free will and he intended us to use it.
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