Libertarian Social Justice: Trees Make A Forest

PHOTO: Donar Reiskoffer

Yesterday, I was having a discussion with some of my fellow Catholics about the presidential election, and there arose a brief debate about the concept of libertarianism. It never ceases to amaze me when I see committed Catholics embracing libertarianism…but then, I remember, most of them probably were not catechized very well. Also, we should take into consideration that for years many of us have been rightly troubled by a far-reaching government engaged in what the Catholic faithful invariably see as injustice. I suppose I can understand why many Catholics might think that libertarianism is a legitimate way to put that unjust government in check. Though well-intentioned, they have fallen into a snare.

Stephen Metcalf writes at Slate today about what he calls ‘The Liberty Scam’. His article is essentially a rebuke of libertarianism, at least as he believes it was defined by Robert Nozik. David Boaz at CATO Institute takes issue with him on that point.

It’s interesting that Boaz makes a couple of arguments against Metcalf’s article that I’ve grown accustomed to hearing from libertarians in response to criticisms of their ideology. In a nutshell, first, we who are opposed to libertarianism are apparently not allowed to claim that one of their heroes can be said to have defined it with any certainty. We find this in Boaz’s seeming annoyance with those who believe they have “grappled with libertarian ideas” if they have read Nozik. Secondly, if we disagree with the libertarian ideas set forth, it automatically means that we are misunderstanding it, hence Boaz’s headline ‘Misunderstanding Nozik, Again‘.

Unfortunately, again, the libertarian runs up against the wall of reality and finds himself stunned.

Boaz writes:

As for Metcalf’s final complaint that advocates of a more expansive state have been “hectored into silence” by the vast libertarian power structure, well, I am, if not hectored, at least stunned into silence.

Libertarians frequently cannot see the forest because the trees get in their way. How dare we think that libertarians have a shared value system that results in any kind of society that has power! Hence we see a self-refuting principle in libertarianism. Human beings are “social animals”, if you will. They will, invariably, join together with like-minded people to bring about political change that reflects their views of justice. All such associations are “societies”, whether or not they are governmental or political. One need look no further than one of the infamous episodes of astro-turfing for Ron Paul in straw polls and the various Campaign for Liberty rallies to see a libertarian act of “social justice”, per se. The very act of joining a campaign is an act of joining a power structure to bring about one’s sense of “justice”. Granted, libertarian “social justice” is nothing like the Left’s “social justice”, but that is neither here nor there.

Metcalf paraphrases Nozik, the libertarian who apparently either doesn’t speak for libertarianism or is misunderstood?:

To the entire left, Nozick, in effect, said: Your social justice comes at an unacceptable cost, namely, to my personal liberty…

This is, to be sure, the libertarians’ basic argument. Ironically, the libertarian movement’s social justice is similarly problematic in that it so frequently promotes license over liberty. As Mortimer Adler has written:

Herein lies the distinction between liberty and license. Liberty is freedom exercised under the restraints of justice so that its exercise results in injury to no one. In contrast license is freedom exempt from the restraints of justice and. therefore, injurious to others in infringing their freedom as well as violating other rights. When no distinction is made between liberty and license, the freedom of the strong an destroy the freedom of the weak.

Most Catholics still understand on some level that abortion and same-sex “marriage” are opposed to true justice. As such, they are opposed to authentic liberty. Just as we know that the word “choice” is misused in the abortion debate to preserve a license to kill, we should also understand that the word “liberty” is used by libertarians to preserve license on any number of issues, including abortion and the re-definition of marriage.

If you take nothing else away from this article, know this. There is a libertarian movement. It exists. It has arisen as its own society, a social group being made up of individuals who share a common definition of “justice”. Their common view of “justice” is the act of joining together in a society to oppose those who would seek to bring about “social justice” which they view as a monster because the Left’s version of “social justice” is, in fact, a monster. In other words, the libertarians have engaged themselves in an exercise in hypocrisy.

What’s a Catholic to do? Well, we can begin by helping people to understand what authentic social justice is. (Sorry, libertarian Catholics, but that’s the way it is.) Certainly, all Americans are able to make a decision to either be complacent (that is, to be the “sleeping giant”) or to actively work through the political process to bring about a society that reflects our view of justice. Catholics are not free to be complacent. We each have a duty to be politically involved….to enter into associations with others to work for authentic social justice. It is my hope and prayer that we can do so as One Body. The more we talk about these issues in peace with each other, the better.

Hat-tip, Memeorandum.


9 Responses to Libertarian Social Justice: Trees Make A Forest

  • I had always thought that libertarianism (closely related to Randian Objectivism, though Rand hated libertarians – go figure!!) meant that two rules are sacrosanct:

    (1) The individual right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
    (2) The non-initiation of force

    I had oncee identified myself as a libertarian by politicaal temperament, and I still think highly of certain libertarian ideals [e.g., small government, individual freedom as long as principles (1) and (2) aren’t violated, etc.]. But what I saw happening among libertarians is a lack of responsibility for their individual freedom, and a failure to recocognize (as you poiint out, Lisa) that humans are innately social beings, not isolated individuals. So I migrated to tthe US Constitution Party whose platform is closest to Church teaching:

    http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php

  • It seems from the tone of this blog that there are no good political choices to which a Catholic can gravitate. Each philosophy has its own set of things that makes it contrary to Catholic teachings.

    In my opinion the “progressive” outlook is probably the most at odds with Catholicism with its despotic micromanagement of every aspect of a citizen’s life and particularly from unabashed support for, and promotion of, abortion and euthanasia. The “Progressives” would like nothing better than to destroy Christianity and establish a new secular religion of the state.

    The “conservative” philosophy, on the other hand, is often viewed by Catholics as being cruel and uncaring because of its focus on individual initiative and the opposition to the forced redistribution of wealth.

    “Libertarians” are on the fringe and one step away from anarchy. As you note, people are social animals. Without a structured governmental framework within which to operate, people tend to fall into the mob-like mentality of tribalism. Just look at the behavior of people in the Middle East … or even in Wisconsin!

    As far as I know, the Catholic Church remains mute on supporting any particular government philosophy. I am not a political scientist and I do not have the answers. The checks and balances incorporated into our government by the founders is a wonderful concept, although it is being put to severe tests under the current Obama administration. Any truly free and fair form of government needs to contain such a set of restraints or it will end up in either a despotic dictatorship or a corporate hegemony. Libertarianism would seek to abolish all restrictions resulting in imbalances of power thus is not viable way for people to organize.

    What would a government that echoes the values of Catholicism look like?

  • The Church doesn’t endorse parties….but considering that I have criticized here the libertarians and the Left… the latter being exemplified in the Democratic Party…do the math. Ever heard of a Republican?

  • I’ve always liked libertarians because they report news from a non-Democratic or non-Republican slant. Outside of that, they’re useless IMHO.

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