Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Christianity and Libertarianism

Over at the America blog, Michael Sean Winters -- with whom MOJ readers are familiar -- has this new(ish) post, discussing Christianity and Libertarianism.  In it, he engages (appreciatively) Robby's recent post, in which "libertarianism" is characterized as a "heresy."  Winters writes, among other things, that:

The problem is not just libertarianism, in which the difficulties are most obvious, but extend also to the modern, Western liberal state. (Here, "liberal" is intended in the Lockean sense of the word, not the partisan sense of the word.) Because, in Catholic anthropology, the idea of "personal autonomy" is not a "truth," not at the beginning and not at the end, and linking it with a Catholic notion of freedom is enormously problematic. . . .. . .

The problem for libertarianism . . . is that it starts at the wrong place. It is not a truth run amok. It is a falsehood masquerading as a truth. Yes, human freedom is a good thing, but what is freedom? I do not see how you can reconcile negative freedom with Christian anthropology. The "freedom of the children of God" of which St. Paul writes is not autonomy.

So, we only skate around the difficulties. The problem, of course, is not just philosophical. I love the practical consequences of the First Amendment as much as the next person, but I worry that it is built on a faulty foundation, that it derives from ideas about the human person and human dignity that do not cut the anthropological mustard, and like everything built on a faulty foundation, it may not be as sturdy as it seems. We can keep the issues fuzzy, but at the end of the day, the fact of the Incarnation calls into question the very idea of autonomy. I submit this is the central issue in our Western culture today and the point at which the Church remains the most counter-cultural influence in the West: How do we rescue human freedom and all the manifest good that flows from a politics in which human freedom is valued, from the nasty Enlightenment influences that require the privatization of religion? It is no small question and hats off to Professor George for raising it.

This is important stuff, and I invite my colleagues (and MOJ readers) to weigh in.  Two quick thoughts of my own:  First, I think "negative freedom" is reconcilable with (and, indeed, can serve well) the Christian understanding of human flourishing and common good, so long as the negative-freedom claim is (something like) "generally speaking, unless they have a sufficiently compelling reason, governments ought not to interfere with the plans and projects of persons and societies.  Rather, persons and societies - generally speaking -- ought to enjoy the (negative) liberty to be free from such interference."  This claim is, I suppose, "libertarian", but not in the misguided ("heretical") sense of making deep claims about autonomy.

Second, with respect to the First Amendment:  It is possible (indeed, it is common) to think about, interpret, and apply the First Amendment as if it were a philosophical statement about the nature of truth (e.g., "it can only be found through the operation of an unregulated marketplace of ideas") or human flourishing (e.g., "no one is any position to judge whether or which ideas and statements are damaging or harmful").  But, it can also be understood, in a more pedestrian way:  "Generally speaking, the government is an unreliable, or even untrustworthy, regulator of the search for, and debates about, truth.  So, we disable the government from regulating speech not because there is no truth, or because ideas never cause harm, but only because the government-speech-regulation cure will too often be worse than the disease."

Other thoughts?


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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Now, think about this post, and Robert George's, and then compare with the vociferous response recently when you linked Mark Lilla's piece about Tea Party people and their counterparts in other sections of the political spectrum. Mere, abstract "freedom-ism" will always, ultimately, blind itself and its believers to moral claims, whether about slavery, or the unborn, or what-have-you.

Posted by: Bruce Cole | May 27, 2010 4:46:00 PM

Your second point strikes a chord, one I first heard from the philosopher Peter Kreeft. This is how I see the logic and role of the First Amendment, particularly in the context of free speech:

(1) Truth exists. The pursuit of truth is important, even fundamental.
(2) Man is fallen.
(3) Governments are made up of men. Therefore, governments are fallen. And governments are particularly susceptible to error because of the corrupting influence of power.
(4) If government, which holds coercive and censorial power, is allowed to regulate the search for truth (ie, speech), it will do so in a corrupt manner.
(5) Thus, to best preserve the search for truth in a fallen world, government's ability to regulate speech must be very limited.

This approach to the First Amendment is grounded in a very consciously Christian view of the world, particularly of truth and human nature. Regarding truth,Benito Mussolini famously had very little use for free speech because of his relativistic views on truth: if there is no truth, then there is no value in free speech, for all the things said in speech are equally value-less; thus, it is morally permissible to punish inconvenient speech. But Christian belief holds that truth does exist and that it is knowable. Counter-intuitively, then, relativism is not a safe-harbor for the hands-off approach of the First Amendment, while Christianity can be. (It is not by accident that the Western world is unusual in its protection of speech.)

Which leads to the First Amendment's Christian view of human nature. While truth exists, men are not angels, and their governments are particularly not so. (As well our Founders knew: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Federalist 51.) Men may only know truth "through a glass darkly," but they will likely know much less of it if many of the sources of truth are cut off from open consideration by corrupt government.

Grappling with these twin principles about truth and humanity, the First Amendment curtails the role of government in speech significantly, basically leaving it to the "marketplace of ideas" to sort out Truth from falsehood (or at least allowing pursuers of Truth their pursuit with minimal official interference).

Notably, both principles must be held simultaneously to reach the result of the First Amendment. Believing in absolute truth unhinged from the humble perspective that men are fallen can arrive at the same result as Mussolini's Italy by getting there a different way: there is absolute truth, some men can fully know it, and they can righteously put down all speech which is untrue. Similarly, believing in man's fallen nature without truth is essentially the relativism and barbarism of Mussolini: everything is equally untrue and thus unworthy of special protections; if you don't silence someone else, he'll simply silence you.

In a final point, the First Amendment's sober-eyed view of mankind, which embraces both his identity as an image-bearer of God and the inherent brokenness of that identity, can only likely exist within the framework of Christian thought.

Posted by: Daniel Blomberg | May 27, 2010 4:47:08 PM

I wish I had time to comment further on this, but I agree with Prof. Garnett's first point on libertarianism and negative liberty. Further, I'd add that there are two Catholic exemplars of this view of negative liberty, that adhere to freedom of conscience, with a conscience rightly formed by the faith. They are Lord Acton and Dorothy Day. In Acton's case, in the days of Mirari Vos, his views were definitely on the verge of being considered heretical, particularly with his opposition to papal infallibility. However, later Dorothy Day came along as one who explicitly considered herself a libertarian (see The Long Loneliness), and one who reconciled libertarian views with orthodoxy in ways that were difficult for Acton.

In any case, the Catholic libertarian is one who views the modern nation state as a major impediment to human flourishing. The humorous John Zmirak makes the Catholic libertarian appeal along this line for an appeal that is not in any way heretical, but radically sober:

"So we must oppose such a system for as long as we suffer under the laws and the courts and the legal and opinion elites who'd force us to fund intrinsic evils with our confiscated wealth. Leave aside any libertarian arguments about the proper limits of the State; this State, our State, is relentlessly secular. Its version of secularism is almost devoid of a true understanding of the Natural Law. Ironically, Natural Law -- our notion of the truths and goods knowable even to pagans -- is rejected out of hand by pretty much everyone but Catholics. Which renders Natural Law arguments pretty much . . . useless. In America, State action will be secular in spirit, utilitarian in execution, and in the service of the modern culture of death. Until and unless we can evangelize and overtly Christianize the State -- I'm not holding my breath -- we are morally obliged to shrink it, squeeze it, entangle in complications and starve it of funds however we can. We are obliged to be libertarians for the duration."


Posted by: Casey Khan | May 27, 2010 11:12:24 PM

In reference to the article on the "saintly" nun who was excommunicated latae sententia. Saintly nuns don't kill innocent babies. Her excommunication was due to her direct participation in the murder of an unborn child. She earned it.

Posted by: JS | May 28, 2010 11:27:15 AM