Pragmatic Libertarianism: When Two Wrongs Make a Right
Brace yourselves, everyone. I am about to announce one of those major shifts in thinking that causes everyone I know to recoil in shock and horror, or, if they’ve been paying attention to what I say and write, simply shrug because they saw it coming. Most people do not change their thinking as drastically in a lifetime as many times as I do in a decade. I am hoping that I will eventually reach an equilibrium. I can’t help it that new facts require a reexamination of old logic.
For the last few years, I have been a pretty consistent advocate for a particular interpretation of Catholic social teaching. The central argument was that, contra all forms of libertarianism, the state had a right and a duty to intervene in the economy in particular, and social life in general, short of establishing a command economy, in order to promote the common good.
Before continuing, I should make clear that I still believe this ought to be the case in principle. Should the right conditions arise, I would be the first in line to support everything that follows from this political and moral premise. But I have come to understand that the conditions for this project do not exist. For the premise that a just socio-economic order will arise from the intervention of the state presupposes that the people who are in charge of the state are themselves just.
This presupposition, in the United States of America, in 2010 Anno Domini, is entirely false.
On a whole host of issues, such as national security and the build-up of the police state under the last three presidents, imperialist foreign policy, complete subservience to the interests of Wall Street CEOs, the promotion of detestable anti-life, anti-family, and anti-Christian policies, the erosion of civil and political liberties, even the collapsing infrastructure in many parts of the country, to name only a few – the government of the United States, regardless of the party in power, deserves a vote of no confidence.
This is not a call for an armed rebellion. It is a plea to fellow Catholics who find themselves on the “left” or “right” of the spectrum to understand that none of the things we truly value as Catholics can be secured or implemented by the state as we know it, as it actually is. This essay will not review the many examples that could be employed to demonstrate the degeneracy of the state, but to outline the embryonic political philosophy that has emerged from my re-assessment of two trends of thought that I was once trained to reject and loathe: libertarianism and pragmatism.
As the title of this piece suggests, on their own, and as pure philosophies, I could not embrace either pragmatism or libertarianism. My heart will always belong to Aristotle and the social teaching of the Church, which I believe is absolutely and objectively the best political philosophy. But my mind understands that under the present conditions, these philosophies can only be implemented or embraced in part, while libertarianism and pragmatism must be reconsidered as the most viable instruments for laying the groundwork of a truly Christian society in America.
I can already imagine what some people are thinking: there he goes, thinking like an American. Whether or not actually being an American causes me, by some kind of unconscious cultural assimilation, to eventually think like an American in spite of my best efforts to think like a 19th century German for five years, or that the American situation such as it is can only logically conclude in an embrace of these uniquely American political and philosophical constructs, I cannot say.
What I do hope for is that, in the spirit of charity, my “Americanism” is not held too much against me as an irredeemable character flaw, and that the questions and arguments I raise here can be fruitfully discussed among friends with common values.
I will begin with pragmatism, which is ultimately the justification for my rapprochement with libertarianism. Because I did not study pragmatism as a philosophical school, having only had minimal contact with figures such as Dewey and James in my studies, I am not declaring here an affiliation with what a philosophy student might understand as pragmatism or neo-pragmatism.
My version of pragmatism is this: when we are faced with two or more possibilities or options, and none of them conflict with God’s moral law or the teachings of the Church, we ought to choose the most rational means to a given end. For in the end, many of the definitions of pragmatism I have come across are really missing something crucial; how can the “workability” of an idea be a standard for goodness when its end result has not been defined as a good or an evil?
A barebones understanding of pragmatism might end up as consequentialism, the sin of committing an evil in order to obtain a good. This is clearly something that we should avoid.
A more fleshed-out understanding of pragmatism would always remain completely and consciously subordinate to a higher moral law, which is objective, immutable, timeless, and divine. But within the parameters of that moral law, we ought to be free to experiment with what will best secure it within society – for what good is the moral law if it can find no expression in the laws and institutions of society? It remains a nice abstraction with no relevance in our daily lives.
Thus pragmatism must always be employed by those who have a firm grasp of the hierarchy of goods, who understand what is to be prioritized and what is of secondary importance.
I must also stress that it is only in the realm of politics that I approach pragmatism; in the realm of religion, as I hope has been made clear, I reject it. I would never, for instance, argue for a purely pragmatic approach to the liturgy. That which is sacred – which is set aside for the glory of God – can never be subject to calculations in order to achieve quantitative results, such as more converts or fewer deserters.
But in the realm of politics, we are dealing with much different matters. Here the command to be as “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” becomes all the more important.
It should be made clear that I am not arguing that “prudential judgment” makes it ok to be an individualist libertarian, in case that is where some people see this going. The limitation of a government that is completely out of control is not an aim that I believe is at all contrary to Catholic social teaching; nor do we find a mandate anywhere that we must unconditionally submit to the growth of the state. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II is quite clear in his rejection of the bureaucratic welfare state.
What I wish to make clear at the outset is that I do not at all accept what is often associated with philosophical libertarianism, which is individualism. As a matter of morality, of politics and economics, I reject individualism as well as collectivism, the “twin rocks of shipwreck” of which Pius XI spoke in Quadragesimo Anno.
Having established that, I have come to understand that libertarianism and individualism are not necessarily wedded to one another. The goal of libertarians today, regardless of their philosophical premises, is to limit the size and scope of government. What the majority of libertarians I have read or spoken to do not do, is oppose at all the efforts of Christians, or anyone else for that matter, to establish communities based upon our own set of economic values.
In other words, while the modern secular state raids food cooperatives and prosecutes rural farmers for sharing raw milk with their neighbors in the name of “safety” (in reality, it is the protection of food cartels), the libertarian political program rejects as gravely immoral such arbitrary and ridiculous intrusions. A libertarian political regime would, in my view, cut down a number of obstacles standing between Christians and the establishment of communities based upon economic principles that have nothing to do with individualism or laissez-faire; for instance, communities running on Distributist principles.
It is worth nothing that one of the co-sponsors of the Employee Ownership Act, which had as its goal the conversion of 30% of American businesses into worker-owned enterprises within 10 years of its signature into law, was libertarian Ron Paul. As I am always pained to note when discussing the EOA, it was dead-on-arrival in committee some 10 years ago.
I bring up this long-since-defeated bill, however, to illustrate that one of this country’s most prominent libertarians, and the man most likely to serve as the president of a libertarian America should one emerge, actually supported a policy that I, as a Distributist, believe would have been one of the greatest things to happen to America in a long time.
Upon reflection, though, I was not surprised by this. For I remembered well the many debates I had with libertarians over the years, first as an atheistic socialist and later as a left-leaning Catholic, that concluded with an affirmation on their part of the rights of association, and of communities to organize on whatever principles they see fit, provided that no one is forced to participate against their will.
Here libertarianism and subsidiarity appear to work together nicely. In the past I have been critical of a tendency to invoke subsidiarity in order to make an argument against government intervention. And I still believe that this argument can be overused, and even abused. Certainly one can never go as far as to claim that there is no legitimate role for the state, even under conditions in which the state has become completely corrupt.
But under these conditions, it is perhaps time to take the principle of subsidiarity more seriously than some have. The corrupt secular state ought to have as many functions and institutions stripped from it as humanly possible. Its reach into our families (especially through the heavy-handed Child Protective Services), or local communities and businesses, our schools, our churches, etc. ought to be shortened by the greatest possible extent. The evils that arise from the hundreds of cases of persecution of innocent families and communities that I have read of, far outweigh whatever theoretical goods come from this level of bureaucracy.
It must also be said that while I do not embrace at all the individualism that is rightly in some cases, or perhaps wrongly in others, associated with libertarianism, the left-Catholic critique of philosophical libertarianism is sometimes little more than crude caricature. Honesty compels me to state that not everything in the classical liberal tradition is dangerous or false. As an example, let us look at two statements on the natural right to property; one form a classical liberal, the other from a Catholic pope. If you can spot the substantive difference, please let me know what it is. Here is the first:
The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry
Here is the second:
God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common… yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man…
Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
The first quote is from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. The second quote is from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Lest I be misconstrued, I am not attempting to argue that Leo XIII and Locke shared identical philosophies. They may start from different premises (a state of nature where individualism reigns, versus an Aristotelian social nature that exists prior to the state); they may end up at different conclusions (perhaps on the ultimate aims of private property in a social context). But on this important point, their views appear to overlap. To save space my quotes are truncated, but a further comparison of these texts shows other points of agreement on the matter of property.
If Pope Leo and John Locke can agree, at least to a certain extent, on the origin and purpose of private property, then I see no reason why modern Catholics and libertarians can’t come to agreement on a few issues as well.
To re-emphasize my main idea here: I do not claim that the economic philosophy of laissez-faire, or the “anthropology of individualism”, are compatible with Catholic social thought. They have both been emphatically rejected by a series of popes beginning with Leo XIII. But neither of these abstractions are necessarily related to the practical goals of limiting the size and scope of an increasingly arbitrary and intrusive national government, and thereby securing our God-given rights to life, liberty, and property – all of which we of course retain a moral obligation to use in the service of the common good, and not simply to satisfy our own selfish interests.
Indeed, I wish more Catholic libertarians saw the need to chastise the selfishness, indifference, or exploitative tendencies of the billionaires that run America and the world. Neither the Bible, the saints, nor the Papacy have been short on such chastisement, as I have shown in earlier posts.
It is not as a rejection of, but rather as a strong reaffirmation of my commitment to the principles of Catholic social teaching, Aristotelian political theory, and Distributist economics, that I call for a pragmatic libertarian political platform. It is libertarian in that it will reduce the size and scope of the currently, actually existing government (and not the theoretical government I want to exist), it is pragmatic in that is not an affirmation in any way of libertarian philosophical principles.
Most libertarian principles are not my own, particularly when they are based upon the “anthropology of individualism.” But I am willing to align with libertarians insofar as their policies would allow a breathing space for communities based upon the principles that I do hold to rise and flourish. It is libertarianism in the service of communities, as paradoxical as that may sound to some of my readers.
On a closing note, I have to thank John Zmirak for planting the seed of this idea in my mind through his article, Smash the Secular State, and other articles he has been kind enough to point me towards. It took a while for this idea to germinate in my mind, but the trajectory of the US government is too obviously hostile to fundamental Christian and Catholic values to ignore. Whereas approximately a year ago, I firmly believed that even this government was capable of implementing a Catholic social program, at least to some degree, I am now quite convinced that this is an impossibility in the near future.
I am more convinced on the other hand that a radical reshuffling of the deck is necessary, that Leviathan must be opposed, and that candidates such as Ron Paul deserve my support, again, not out of fundamental agreement on principles but rather a common goal that will serve both our interests. In the scheme of things, what Ron Paul proposes is not inherently evil, and he certainly doesn’t oppose our own community initiatives, while what the Wall Street candidates (which is what every GOP and Democratic nominee and president have been for some time now) want is often intrinsically evil, prudentially stupid, or both.
I await your comments with anticipation and in the hope that they will remain civil.