Not long ago I examined an article by Patrick J. Deneen concerning the intellectual divide between American Catholics. If you will recall, Deenen divides American Catholics into a pro-America/liberal camp and an anti-America/illiberal or “radical” camp. At the heart of this divide, so they say (I will challenge this below) is an alleged conflict of “anthropologies”; it appears to be common currency on the illiberal side of the debate. Liberals – and to be clear, we’re talking about classical liberals for the most part – supposedly hold to an anthropological view that is self-centered and individualistic. Worse yet, in this view, human beings are allegedly driven primarily by fear and greed (when they aren’t gratifying their basest urges). All of this contemporary classical liberals are alleged to hold as demonstrated irrevocably by the laws of microeconomics and the sophisticated and often indecipherable mathematical models of neoclassical economists. Dig a bit deeper and the whole rotten anti-Christian edifice can be traced back to John Locke, whose “possessive individualism” birthed the demon-spawns of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson and gave us the American commercial republic.
The reality, of course, is quite different. The fundamental value of classical liberalism is not “individualism”, but liberty. But the nature of liberty is such that only individuals can exercise it, for the human race is not a hive mind; each human being possesses his or her own intellect and will and is, barring some defect, responsible for the decisions they make. Metaphysical libertarianism, which is the position that human beings have free will, is a foundational assumption of Christianity (and indeed of any ethical system that presupposes human beings can make moral choices). It is also the foundational moral and methodological assumption of classical liberal sociology, political theory and economics. People are free by nature, and cannot be studied as if they were not free. And because we are free by nature, we are gravely harmed if we are unnecessarily restricted in our liberty by other men, including and especially governments.
The very word “liberty” is often sour in the mouths of anti-capitalists, however. Just look around you, they might say; look where all of this libertarian rhetoric has gotten us. And yet classical liberals will be the first in line to decry the false liberty that can only be attained through a confiscatory welfare regime and an over-regulated economy. Classical liberals did not invent the Great Society or the Life of Julia, the great means by which the government subsidizes and sustains the destruction of the traditional family. We did not invent the Federal Reserve System, which is directly responsible for the reckless behavior of the large banks and corporations. We advocate a system of genuine liberty, in which the only support one can obtain is that which someone else is willing to provide them. No massive subsidies for degenerate behavior. No endless money supply for banks to gamble with, no bailouts for companies that can’t meet a legitimate demand somewhere in the marketplace. It is unbelievable that anti-capitalist and pro-capitalist Catholics could denounce the same horrible policies and results and yet be on such completely different political pages.
I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for this divergence is not different anthropologies. The anthropological fact of human liberty does have has moral implications, however. The anti-capitalist, especially when Catholic, usually does not deny the mere fact of human liberty or free will but is nonetheless often tempted by the prospect of saving men from themselves and will not hesitate to advocate for coercive policies to try and bring this about (I emphasize try, since such policies often fail). Ban unhealthy food, regulate drugs, run Wal-Mart out of town, get rid of advertising – the people are so empty and so vacuous that they can’t be trusted to deal with these things!
Classical liberals on the other hand do not desire to let people alone out of sheer indifference, but rather because it is in our view, and in the light of free will, an affront to human dignity to force someone to become something that they don’t wish to be no matter how good it might be for them objectively. Persuasion is as far as we are willing to go, and only for so long as we will be heard. As a slightly secondary matter, force rarely works in the manner intended. People do not fall into line like so many rows of virtuous toy soldiers; instead they turn to black markets run by criminal elements or simply leave for greener, freer pastures.
Another sharp dividing line is between classical liberal consequentialism and anti-capitalist deontology. As good economists, classical liberals are always looking for the costs and consequences of a proposed course of action. These costs are often hidden and serious enough to merit finding. Anti-capitalists will often insist upon courses of action that they believe to be moral in themselves, and consider the consequences as a secondary matter if at all. The hidden costs are often lost upon them or irrelevant. And yet in my view, it is immoral to fail to fully consider costs and consequences. To pursue a policy that sounds and feels morally right, perhaps because it is based upon a sacrosanct moral principle, without regard to the potential negative side effects is recklessness. As the possibility for unintended harm remains neglected, the pursuit of moral ends becomes immoral. Libertarians who rigidly adhere to the non-aggression principle sometimes face similar dilemmas.
All of the talk about “false anthropology” is really a smokescreen for an alternative economic system that, when taken to its logical implications, is authoritarian, irrational and undesirable. My dream is that we can put all of this nonsense aside and focus on what we mutually agree to be a moral obscenity; the sick and bloated Leviathan that subsidizes and promotes selfish vices and the Federal Reserve System that finances the whole thing. If anything has warped human behavior, it has been this system, which creates incentives for reckless and irresponsible behavior from the bottom rungs of society all the way to the very top. The absurd caricature of “homo economicus” that anti-capitalists have created was never proposed by any classical liberal philosopher let alone held up as an ideal human being, but the policies of the politically-correct welfare tyranny that has arisen in our midst have created a truly Hobbseian struggle of each against all at every level of society. Junkies and single mothers fight for welfare and public housing while CEOs and bankers fight for subsidies, bailouts, and regulations that harm their competitors. The jungle that government was supposed to rescue us from, it created; the society it was supposed to create, it destroyed. No one understood this development better than those evil, wicked, selfish classical liberals of the 19th century.