Mirror of Justice

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

More on Catholicism and Libertarianism

There has been a lot of discussion about and coverage of the recent conference, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism,” which was sponsored by Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.  (Robert Christian provides a very helpful summary of the presentations, here.)  From what I can gather, the participants made a number of important points.  At the same time, as I suggested a few days ago in this post, I continue to think that the ongoing critique by some Catholics of "libertarianism" as inconsistent with the Church's social teaching would be more valuable and effective if it were more careful to avoid invoking and attacking straw men (Paul Ryan's favorite books notwithstanding, it is not the case that "laissez faire", "unfettered" capitalism or Randian objectivism exists anywhere or is a live political option in the United States) and to disinguish consistently between "libertarianism's" unsound (and inconsistent-with-Catholicism) anthropological and philosophical premises, on the one hand, and specific policies that some self-identified "libertarians" support.  If this distinction is not recalled and observed, it becomes easy to dismiss, perhaps in a partisan way, specific policies that are justifiable on entirely Catholic grounds and that owe nothing to an unsound anthropology or to "erroneous autonomy" simply because the label "libertarian" is attached to them by some.

If my Twitter feed is any guide, my raising these concerns is taken by some as an expression of support for "libertarianism" or as a disagreement with the Church's social teaching.  But, at least readers of MOJ should know that it is no such thing.  In academic writing (here) and in probably hundreds of MOJ posts over the last decade -- including my very first post ("Law and Moral Anthropology") -- I have endorsed the moral anthropology of Redemptor Hominis and rejected the one of Atlas Shrugged, and I have insisted that all legal and public policy questions should be seen as depending crucially on accounts of what it means to be human.  In the spirit of "throwback Thursday," here's a quote from that first post (February 2004!):

One of our shared goals for this blog is to -- in Mark's words -- "discover[] how our Catholic perspective can inform our understanding of the law."  One line of inquiry that, in my view, is particularly promising -- and one that I know several of my colleagues have written and thought about -- involves working through the implications for legal questions of a Catholic "moral anthropology."  By "moral anthropology," I mean an account of what it is about the human person that does the work in moral arguments about what we ought or ought not to do and about how we ought or ought not to be treated; I mean, in Pope John Paul II's words, the “moral truth about the human person." 

The Psalmist asked, "Lord, what is man . . . that thou makest account of him?” (Ps. 143:3).  This is not only a prayer, but a starting point for jurisprudential reflection.  All moral problems are anthropological problems, because moral arguments are built, for the most part, on anthropological presuppositions.  That is, as Professor Elshtain has put it, our attempts at moral judgment tend to reflect our “foundational assumptions about what it means to be human."  Jean Bethke Elshtain, The Dignity of the Human Person and the Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries, 14 JOURNAL OF LAW AND RELIGION 53, 53 (1999-2000).  As my colleague John Coughlin has written, the "anthropological question" is both "perennial" and profound:  "What does it mean to be a human being?”  Rev. John J. Coughlin, Law and Theology: Reflections on What it Means to Be Human, 74 ST. JOHN’S LAW REVIEW 609, 609 (2000).

In this post, Michael Sean Winters -- who has been focused on the conference's theme for a while and in many posts and articles -- quotes me:

 I agree with Michael Sean that conversations about public policy should be couched in terms that treat ideas like "competition" and "consumer choice" as means and mechanisms.  But, it's worth remembering that they are, often, very effective means and mechanisms.  To the extent they are, let’s use them!  Sometimes, “libertarian” (or "free market" or "non-state" or "private ordering") policies are the better ones, not so much because of imperatives connected with deep anthropological premises or because of an idolatrous attachment to autonomy, but because . . . they work better (at bringing about human flourishing and common good, properly understood).

He then says, "Garnett expects the adjective 'effective' to carry a lot of water. 'Effective' at what? As I noted before, it is worth asking the question whether our current economic system does not create spiritual poverty at the same time that it creates material wealth, and if this co-creation is acceptable to a Christian." 

I do not disagree at all, and I don't think Michael Sean's observation undermines or is inconsistent with my point and with the concerns I've been raising, which is not a particularly "big" one:  Some policies, which are supported by "libertarians" or to which the label "libertarian" is attached are sound policies which Catholics can and should support, which are consistent with the Church's social teaching and with Christian anthropology, and which are "effective" in the sense that they accomplish worthy goals (i.e., goals that Michael Sean and I, I am sure, would often agree are worthy) in an efficient way and without unintended or undesired consequences.  And, some policies that are framed in terms of "communitarianism" or "solidarity" or the preferential option for the poor are, notwithstanding this framing, unsound and unwise policies , , , and sometimes inconsistent with the Church's social teachings.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink