Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

How can the free world do justice to its moral responsibility? Freedom preserves its dignity only as long as it retains the relationship to its ethical foundations and to its ethical task. A freedom that consisted solely in the possibility of satisfying one’s needs would not be human freedom, since it would remain in the animal realm. An individual freedom without substance dissolves into meaninglessness, since the individual’s freedom can only exist in an order of freedoms.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 48

Reflection – Values in a time of upheaval: well, it certainly has been a time of upheaval in the past week (even more so than usual). Tensions in the Middle East push the world further down the path to war and the chaos and turmoil that would bring. The economic climate remains rocky, and the future is uncertain. These words from Ratzinger are a helpful and necessary reminder to keep our heads and our focus in uncertain and dangerous times.

We have to remember always and never forget who we are and what we are made for, and the standard of charity and justice that this calls us to. When people are afraid, they all too easily devolve into fight or flight responses, into lashing out in anger or withdrawing into a safe cocoon, an illusory soap-bubble-thin fa├žade of protection against the world.

We are Christians, and we can do neither. We are called to the great adventure of love, of openness, of receptivity, of hospitality, of service, of care for the poor, of forgiveness of enemies, of laying down our lives for the world.

This is freedom, you see. Some today, in the discussion about freedom in the world, wish to reduce freedom simply to this animal level: I do whatever I want. I have a measure of sympathy with that view, especially in the context of government controls and the passing of laws that would restrict human choices and actions coercively (thinking here of the Nanny State, or also speech codes, curtailing of religious freedom).

But… there is more to freedom than ‘I do whatever I want.’ And we have to bring this into the discussion. Ratzinger has labored hard to do just that. A freedom that is left at the animal level of doing whatever you want is a freedom doomed to failure. Someone else will come along and ‘do what they want’ to me, and where is my freedom then? Or my doing what I want will lead me to self-destructive choices, and my freedom will pass away quickly.

While I’m all in favor of the government generally leaving people alone to live their lives as they see fit, we have to realize that this kind of free society depends on people living morally responsible lives. The two go together; if people generally act like miserable vile barbarians treating each other like trash, the state has a vested interest in intervening. If people wish to be left alone in peace to live their lives, this has to occur in an ethical framework.

This is why I am not a libertarian, but a conservative. In the current context of out of control governments legislating every aspect of our lives, I have great sympathy with the libertarian perspective (as many of the lawn signs around this part of Ontario say, “This land is our land – BACK OFF, GOVERNMENT!”). But… every action we do on ‘our land’, so to speak, affects not just ourselves but the whole of society. Every choice I make is fashioning a world in which the rest of you have to live. Every choice you make fashions a world in which I have to live.

Libertarianism does not, it seems to me, take this into account. Freedom has to be directed by moral concern, responsibility, deep awareness of the solidarity and inter-connectedness of the human family, or it is doomed to failure. If this direction is not to come from intrusive and coercive government control, it must come from a shared moral vision derived from the traditional wisdom narratives of the human family—in North America and Europe this would be our shared Judeo-Christian ethos.

Without this, freedom is doomed to failure, as society degenerates into a Hobbesian jungle of competing self-interests and unrestrained appetites. We have three choices: anarchy; government tyranny; spiritual-religious-moral renewal. What’s it going to be?


  1. Well, I am libertarian and Catholic. You misrepresent me. Cheap shot, father. Use your words. It is possible to express yourself and take into account that another's viewpoint may be as genuine as your own. Really, I am not going to say grow up, but it is tempting.

    1. Well, you could try telling me where I am wrong, and we could have a conversation about it... I think I am respectful in what I write, while asserting and arguing for the truth of my own views. How is that immature?

  2. So good to have found this blog!
    I am a great admirer of Madonna House. My family did the Cana Colony family program this summer. And it was from that experience that my comment/question arises. While there I shared my story of moving from the Anglican community into the Catholic Church. In the course of the conversation I had with others, I had referred to my deep reservations about liberal christianity. This brought a reaction from some Madonna House people who thought it more than possible to be both "liberal" and catholic. Indeed, they considered themselves to have combined this ideology with their faith to some degree of success. Now, I have never regarded myself as particularly conservative, but now find myself so labelled by most I meet. And it seems to me what you have articulated in terms of what needs to be the foundation of a civil society--a shared set of values rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition--is something all the parties (within the broad Christian community)to our current civilizational crisis claim. It is vexing: everyone sings from the same hymnal yet understands the message so very differently, and bandy about labels with little sense of their meaning. I often find that I cannot get anywhere with any conversation until I stop and ask of my interlocutor, "what do you mean by liberal? conservative? libertarian? fascist? etc."
    Has our culture so disintegrated that we can no longer effectively communicate in our common tongue of English?

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I saw you at Cana, that Friday night, but didn't have a chance to introduce myself. I have a great admiration for Anglicans who 'swim the Tiber' - I know well what the cost of that swim is.
      Yes, the words 'liberal' and 'conservative' are... ambiguous to say the least, and I generally do try to avoid using them. What the words mean seems to depend almost wholly on the person using them, which is (to put it mildly) a detriment to clear communication...
      I think these words in particular are so... and have always been thus. I think outside this narrow political realm words are at least slightly more stable in meaning... slightly, anyhow.
      Blessings upon you.

  3. Well said friar. Though I am not a catholic, your points on freedom and how it needs a moral people do use it properly is spot on.


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