Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Pope Francis Has Forgotten the Church’s Own Grand Libertarian Legacy

By Jeffrey A. Tucker of FEE. Excerpts:

"Well, it’s a pretty big deal when the Pope attacks libertarianism by name. It’s even more interesting when my Spanish-language publisher believes that the Pope, in an academic paper, was attacking language used by me in particular, by implication but without citation.

In a choice passage, the Pope says that libertarianism “deceptively proposes a ‘beautiful life’.” The 2nd edition of my book Beautiful Anarchy (Una Bella Anarquia: Como Crear Tu Propia Civilizacion en La Era Digital) just came out in Spanish (the Pope’s native language), with solid sales. It’s not a stretch that my book has been targeted, but you decide (you can download the English version here). 

When the Church anathematized views in the Middle Ages, the Popes were careful specifically to cite the works in question, so that there would be no confusion about the views being condemned (see the Catechism of the Council of Trent, for example). Not so any longer. We are left to guess the identity of the interlocutor, and the Pope is thus free to mischaracterize.

Moreover, I only wish that the Pope’s criticism had some substantive content to grapple with. Libertarians are always up for a good challenge. Sadly, the statement mostly amounts to caricature.

Here is the full context of what Pope Francis said:

    Finally, I cannot but speak of the serious risks associated with the invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism. A common feature of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is, “living well”, a “good life” in the community framework, and exalts the selfish ideal that deceptively proposes a “beautiful life”.

    If individualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and so it is only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad, then libertarianism, today in fashion, preaches that to establish freedom and individual responsibility, it is necessary to resort to the idea of “self-causation”. Thus libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good because on the one hand it supposes that the very idea of “common” implies the constriction of at least some individuals, and the other that the notion of “good” deprives freedom of its essence.

    The radicalization of individualism in libertarian and therefore anti-social terms leads to the conclusion that everyone has the “right” to expand as far as his power allows, even at the expense of the exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority. Bonds would have to be cut inasmuch as they would limit freedom. By mistakenly matching the concept of “bond” to that of “constraint”, one ends up confusing what may condition freedom – the constraints – with the essence of created freedom, that is, bonds or relations, family and interpersonal, with the excluded and marginalized, with the common good, and finally with God.

Wow, this Sounds Grim

An ideology that asserts these things would indeed be terrible. It’s hard to imagine that such an ideology could ever become “fashionable” at all. But of course the Pope only gets away with claiming such things because he defines libertarianism in a way that makes it incredibly easy to attack – which is a solid indicator that the opposed position has been mis-rendered.

And sure enough, what the Pope claims libertarians believe is not only untrue; in some respects, it is actually the opposite of what libertarians believe.

Let me offer my own definition of libertarianism. It is the political theory that freedom and peace serve the common good better than violence and state control, thus suggesting a normative rule: societies and individuals must be left unmolested in their associations and commercial dealings so long as they are not threatening others.

I’m almost certain that most thinkers in the liberal tradition would be happy with that definition.

Is that view strange or exotic, dangerous or radical, to the point that the rise of such thoughts really do constitute a dangerous invasion of culture?

I don’t think so. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, wrote essentially this in the Summa Theologica (2;96:2):

    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.

Libertarianism is not an arcane, peculiar, oddball view of politics.

The Summa was written in the 13th century. His stand for limiting the state, and his championing of human freedom (however inconsistently), marked the beginning of a new era in philosophy, law, and theology. It pointed the way out of the feudal period and toward the emergence of the modern world. The ideas now called “libertarian” were essential building blocks of the political developments that took place over the following 600 years.

Libertarianism is not an arcane, peculiar, oddball view of politics; it is a distillation of the wisdom of a mighty tradition encompassing the experiences of many cultures and the highest thought of the most serious thinkers from the late Middle Ages to the present.

"the term “libertarianism” was a postwar usage that was made necessary because the term liberalism seemed to have been corrupted. That generation made a judgement to bail from the word liberalism if only to distinguish what they believed from what the partisans of state power believed.
Dean Russell in 1955 was among the first to suggest the replacement, a new synonym:
    Many of us call ourselves “liberals.” And it is true that the word “liberal” once described persons who respected the individual and feared the use of mass compulsions. But the leftists have now corrupted that once-proud term to identify themselves and their program of more government ownership of property and more controls over persons. As a result, those of us who believe in freedom must explain that when we call ourselves liberals, we mean liberals in the uncorrupted classical sense. At best, this is awkward and subject to misunderstanding. Here is a suggestion: Let those of us who love liberty trade-mark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word “libertarian.”"
"when we are talking about libertarianism we are talking about the successor and the living embodiment of liberalism in the classical tradition. Understood in this way, it doesn’t seem so bizarre."
"Catholicism’s role in modern history has been to serve as a benefactor of the liberal cause. From the time of St. Thomas and his successors, the Catholic Church began a long move from its Constantinian tendencies in the first millennium, gradually dispensing with the aspiration to unify Church and state and toward an embrace of the emergent liberal tradition. It occurred first in the realms of banking, when the Church served as a defender of the Medici banking cause against the reactionary forces that tried to stop the dawn of modern commercial life. It liberalized its rule against usury, for example, and defended the rights of property and commercial trade between nations.
The end of slavery was perhaps the greatest triumph of liberalism before the 20th century, and here the Catholic Church had been a force for human rights and justice long before others caught on.

The writings of Bartolomé de las Casas from 1547, for example, continue to inspire with their moral passion against the atrocities against human rights perpetrated by many states. None of the ancient philosophers dared imagine a world of universal equality for all persons, but the Catholic Church did, based on the conviction that all individuals are made in the image and likeness of God and are thereby deserving of certain rights.

The late scholastic tradition of Catholic social thought, centered in Spain, has been frequently credited with giving birth to economic science itself. This was because these scholars were not only moral idealists; they were imminently practical men who sought to understand how the real world works, all in the interests of understanding how people can have better lives. They gradually discovered that the interests of the individual person and the common good were not in conflict but could both be realized through liberalization of all spheres of society."

"the long ethos of Catholicism has been toward favoring exactly what the Pope just denounced: the view that a presumption for liberty over coercion should be the prevailing norm in political life.
It is for this reason that the Catholic Church positioned itself against socialism at the very dawn of idea in the modern world. In 1878, forty years before the Bolshevik Revolution, Pope Leo XIII wrote in Quod Apostolici Muneris that the socialists were plotting to “leave nothing untouched or whole which by both human and divine laws has been wisely decreed for the health and beauty of life.”

Above all, he wrote, the socialists were wrong to “assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one's mode of life.”"

"Catholicism “holds that the right of property and of ownership, which springs from nature itself, must not be touched and stands inviolate. For she knows that stealing and robbery were forbidden in so special a manner by God, the Author and Defender of right, that He would not allow man even to desire what belonged to another, and that thieves and despoilers, no less than adulterers and idolaters, are shut out from the Kingdom of Heaven.”"
"Vatican II further affirmed that seeking a better life through liberty is at the very core of the human experience. This aspiration requires certain institutional conditions, such as the right of private property. The inspirational and beautiful document Gaudium et Spes (1965), traditionally seen as a masterpiece of exposition that sums up the spirit of the Council, said the following:

    Private property or some ownership of external goods confers on everyone a sphere wholly necessary for the autonomy of the person and the family, and it should be regarded as an extension of human freedom. Lastly, since it adds incentives for carrying on one's function and charge, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberties."

"The seeking of the good of all does not require the violation of individual rights and interests.
This concern over the "common destination" of goods seems to be at the core Pope Francis’s concern is the idea that libertarianism pushes the rights and interests of individuals against the common good. This is a frustrating point to make because it has been the major project of the liberal tradition (from the Scottish Enlightenment to the present) to argue that these are not inconsistent, that one need not be set against the other. The seeking of the good of all does not require the violation of individual rights and interests, and the assertion of individual rights and interests need not conflict with the good of all.

Consider the words of the man who is widely considered the leading libertarian genius of the 20th century, Ludwig von Mises. In his 1927 book Liberalism, he argued that only liberalism seeks the good of all, as opposed to the interests of one special interest or another.

    With the advent of liberalism came the demand for the abolition of all special privileges. The society of caste and status had to make way for a new order in which there were to be only citizens with equal rights. What was under attack was no longer only the particular privileges of the different castes, but the very existence of all privileges. Liberalism tore down the barriers of rank and status and liberated man from the restrictions with which the old order had surrounded him…."

"The liberals maintained that with the elimination of all the artificial distinctions of caste and status, the abolition of all privileges, and the establishment of equality before the law, nothing else stands in the way of the peaceful cooperation of all members of society, because then their rightly understood, long-run interests coincide."

"It is a fact of human life that every single individual is different. You could say that it was designed to be that way. The great discovery of liberalism was to observe that it is possible for individuals to pursue their interests in a way that does not sever community attachments but rather strengthens them. That this is true is ever more obvious in our times. Technology has made it so. Curated lives have coincided with ever more community connection across groups and nations."
"It is the great burden of the liberal tradition to forever explain that the path toward community runs through the pursuit of individual interests in voluntary cooperation with others."
"To be sure, liberalism cannot and does not promise the salvation of souls; that is the domain of the great religions. Liberalism does not seek to displace the role of religion in society. It only seeks to provide the best possible conditions for the flourishing of human society in a material sense through the building of freedom as the essential framework for the good of all.

As Mises says, liberalism  “promises nothing that exceeds what can be accomplished in society and through society. It seeks to give men only one thing, the peaceful, undisturbed development of material well-being for all, in order thereby to shield them from the external causes of pain and suffering as far as it lies within the power of social institutions to do so at all. To diminish suffering, to increase happiness: that is its aim.”"

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