Libertarianism & liberty

Rand Slam

I write not as an expert on Catholic social teaching, but as a political theorist. I’m profoundly pleased with what I’ve read in Commonweal of late, because it addresses and critiques a development that has concerned me for a number of years now, namely the increasing influence of libertarian thought over the minds of Catholics. The editors get it exactly right when they attack the Paul Ryan–inspired fusion of Randian individualism and Catholic social thought (“Bad Influence,” November 9). In the end, this synthesis can’t work. As an ideology, it exists in a state of high internal tension and sometimes outright contradiction. Something’s got to give, and indeed it does, for example when Paul Ryan interprets the “preferential option for the poor” as a preference for a market that prices tens of millions of Americans out of insurance coverage. Or (even more egregiously) when American bishops claim that health care is not a basic human right.

The libertarian influence is indeed “baneful,” as J. Peter Nixon claims in his insightful dotCommonweal piece “A Right to Be Healthy?” (published in the November 9 issue). The American bishops do more than a disservice when they conflate the teachings of Ayn Rand, et al., with the religious ideals and commitments of Catholicism. There’s more. If one digs into the conceptual marrow of the libertarian school of thought—and its affiliates in classical liberalism and neoliberal economics—one finds some troubling ramifications.

Looking back past Adam Smith’s idea of the market, we find the understanding of the individual offered in John Locke’s influential Second Treatise. To be sure, Locke’s individual has great dignity in many ways, holding rights that exist prior to the establishment of the state. The problem, however, has to do with the attitude of that subject, both with regard to others and to self. With regard to others, fundamental relations are comprehended almost universally as different species of contracts. Even religion is understood as a “salvation society” into which every person enters without ancestral connection, without history, without context of any kind, simply as a cost-benefit calculus. Paul’s body of Christ becomes reduced and instrumentalized; every other member of the ecclesia is evaluated and measured, assayed as a means to my salvation (or as a liability).

When it comes to comprehending the individual, we find even more conceptual impoverishment. Yes, the person is a bearer of rights. The problem, though, is the obsessive prioritization of property that lies at the heart of those rights. The rights of life and liberty are at their core really expressions of the property relation: liberty or freedom means for Locke in essence that I keep what I own, especially against the claims of the state. The right to life means that because I work on myself, I “own” myself. My relation to self is a relation of ownership, grounded as it is in the idea of labor power. Communities arise simply as a means of promoting and protecting these property relations. While I have simplified these ideas a bit, this is essentially what Locke argues, and it deeply informs contemporary thought that mines the vein of classical liberalism.

Let’s remain focused on this articulation of self-ownership at the heart of the libertarian strand of thought. Let’s then turn to the issue of abortion. I would contend that modern materialism, secular humanism, ecumenism—even Marxism and other leftist frameworks—are not to blame for the so-called epidemic of abortion. Nor is the expansionist or “collectivist” state, which in the American context isn’t socialist at all but mainly continues to rely on the Lockean notions I mentioned above. I do not mean that libertarian thought is responsible. Rather, I contend that of all these options, any attempt to deploy libertarian concepts against abortion (as some American Catholics apparently like to do) is profoundly confused. Any attempt at confessing or preaching it as church teaching is irresponsible, and perhaps deceptive. It is the libertarian orientation toward the self that prioritizes the instrumental property relation, the one that conceptualizes the body most purely and rigorously as “my property.”

Libertarian thought seems unable to produce anything richer, more robust or satisfying as an ethical or religious principle than simply “this is mine.” On the crucial matter of community, libertarians simply have nothing original to say. My advice to Catholics who would seek a synthesis along the lines of Ryan’s vision: quit while you’re ahead. It won’t work. Such an inappropriate synthesis does damage to the tradition we profess to love, and what’s worse, to the human world, the delicate network of relations all around us.

Robert Geroux

Greencastle, Ind.


Liberty For Me, Not For Thee

Thank you very much for Eugene McCarraher’s article “Morbid Symptoms” (November 23). As a Baptist who was director of the library at St. Patrick’s Seminary for over two decades, I have watched these symptoms come to the fore. I have never read such a masterful article on this subject. The newfound interest in religious liberty amazes me, because it stands the concept on its head. Have these people not read John Courtney Murray and Bishop Thomas Curry on this subject? The “characters” in the article would impose their beliefs on all of us, even those who do not share their understanding of Christian faith. That is not religious liberty, but a return to the very bad old days. No thank you.

Cecil R. White

Hayward, Calif.


Called Out

Thank you for the rich November 23 issue, and especially for Eugene McCarraher’s article “Morbid Symptoms.” It was a welcome relief to hear the recent complaints of right-wing Catholic leaders called what they are: outrageous. Will no one emulate the courage of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and speak out on the need to embrace the stirring, challenging vision set forth by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council?

Tom Mahan

Brevard, N.C.

Published in the 2012-12-21 issue: 
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