May 10, 2017

The Pope’s Cartoon Libertarians

Pope Francis has thoughtlessly rehashed the old lie that libertarianism is an anti-social philosophy.


In late April, Pope Francis sent a message to participants in the then-ongoing Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The Pope wrote:

[T]he Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC) insistently invites us to find ways to apply, in practice, fraternity as the governing principle of the economic order.

What is most disturbing today is the exclusion and marginalization of the majority from equitable participation in nationwide and planetary distribution of both market and non-market assets such as dignity, freedom, knowledge, belonging, integration, and peace. In that respect, what makes people suffer the most and leads to the rebellion of citizens is the contrast between the theoretical attribution of equal rights for all and the unequal distribution of goods for most people. Although we live in a world where wealth abounds, many people are still victims of poverty and social exclusion.

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.

The full text of Francis’s message has been posted to the Vatican’s website.

With all due respect to His Holiness, Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ is profoundly ignorant of even the most basic features of libertarian thought, as conceived by the people who actually urge its adoption in public policy. In this, of course, he has plenty of company. And this is nothing new for the Pope, who has been warning the faithful of the dangers posed by greedy, malevolent freedom-lovers for years. But in disseminating his views, the Pope has only regurgitated, apparently without much thought, various superficial and long-exploded caricatures of libertarianism. He attacks a bizarre version of libertarian thought that few, if any, actual libertarians espouse—one in which thoughtless and self-centered borderline sociopaths seek to live shallow, atomized lives of material consumption and accumulation.

It is, to begin with, deeply ahistorical to regard the state as the social institution most likely to be concerned with promoting the common good, however conceived. The record of history finds the state the most destructive and antisocial of all human inventions, quite literally defined by violence and rooted in conquest. In his The Man Versus the State, Herbert Spencer helpfully reminds the Pope of a truth actually rather uncontroversial: “it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression and by aggression.” Important liberal thinkers like David Hume and Thomas Paine similarly drew attention to the ignominious origins of the state, Hume observing the lack even of “any pretense of a fair consent” in its establishment. So even as he flattens a dummy libertarianism made of straw, Pope Francis builds an idealized version of government that is nowhere to be found in history, manned by angels devoid of the selfish motivations he (rightly) imputes to every other human being. Thus is the Pope’s picture of social theory embarrassingly underdeveloped in ways that conspicuously favor his preferred political order: when individuals operate in markets—that is, when they must trade voluntarily, respect each other’s rights, and cooperate peacefully—they are hopelessly flawed vehicles of avarice and mutual mistrust. Once granted the arbitrary power to lord over others, however, individuals are elevated to near-perfection, sanctified by the numinous beauty of political power. This should seem strange to anyone learned in political philosophy.

Yet even all this, on its own, does not suffice to dispose of the question with which the Pope is likely to be concerned: how do we best serve the needy, promoting a social order of charity and compassion, in which the ideal of equality is taken seriously? Libertarians, too, believe that this question is important, and we believe that a social order in which individuals are free to make decisions (yes, even economic decisions) for themselves is the best answer to it yet discovered. To begin with there is no reason why the interests of the free individual and those of society at large should not align, unless by “society at large” we mean a small group of politically powerful masters with special prerogative powers. Quite contrary to the Pope’s inaccurate rendering, ideas of social cooperation and community are at the heart of the modern libertarian project and always have been. Libertarians believe that the robust and dynamic network of voluntary associations, clubs, enterprises, and charities generated by a free society is among the most powerful points in its favor. Libertarianism is largely based on the idea, associated with the revolutionary work of Nobel Prize-winner Friedrich Hayek, that a free society is a network of spontaneous orders—that, just as a matter of course, free people do undertake to do things collectively that no single one of them could fully understand. Put simply, libertarians underscore the importance and beauty of collective action. Libertarianism is not an argument against social organization, only, in Hayek’s words, “an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from trying to do better.”

The Pope apparently believes those committed to the idea that not only they but everyone else should be free to live as they choose are selfish and uncaring. But we never hear why it is that a principled respect for the equal standing and rights of all is morally objectionable. The very foundation of libertarian thinking is the idea—radical to be sure—that other people deserve respect just because they are people. To govern is to make an assumption of superiority, to arrogate to yourself the power to treat others as mere means to your ends (that is, as subordinates), to summarily dismiss their legitimate claims to the right of self-determination and -governance. It is the desire to dominate the will of another coequal human, to coercively control her, that is truly selfish and antisocial—a deep psychological problem somehow transmuted into a laudable virtue when exhibited by governments. After all, what is more self-obsessed and immature than to compel others with violence to accept your way? Yet this is the very definition of government, which is only a claim (by some distinct group of actual, flesh-and-blood people, it ought to be noted) of the right to a monopoly on the use of force within a given area. The first of these monopolists were, borrowing Thomas Paine’s words, “nothing better than the principal ruffian[s] of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence in subtlety obtained him the title of chief among plunderers.” Governments have always been plundering gangs; they don’t trade value for value, in the style of those terrible, self-seeking libertarians—they take by force.

Pope Francis also falls carelessly into mistaking today’s corporate capitalism for a free market, another mistaken notion that falls apart with even the slightest prodding. Most of the economic problems about which the Pope and the apostles of social justice quite justifiably worry are in fact caused by the perverting and unbalancing effects of coercive government intervention in economic life. For example, the Pope and his ideological kin stress the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism with regulatory power. Yet small and new businesses wear regulations like a millstone, lacking the compliance infrastructure of their larger counterparts. When regulations fail, as they so regularly do, to achieve the outcomes desired by their proponents, the response always seems to be doubling down on new rules, compounding the original problem. In fact, libertarians are among the few principled and consistent critics of the existing corporate economic system. Competition is the most effective check on the power and size of the capitalist firm. Government intervention limits competition, often, intentionally or not, redounding to the benefit of the most powerful and politically savvy corporate titans.

As noted, few real-life libertarians would care to speak up on behalf of the Pontiff’s cartoon version of libertarianism. Were we libertarians selfish, forever lusting after money and power, we might map a straighter route, embracing the socialism to which the Pope seems partial; for that is the system that has actually enriched unscrupulous strongmen, stolen from the poor and left them destitute. There is, as it happens, one proven solution to the problem of global poverty and want, but it is one that happens not to fit with the Pope’s worldview. Though admittedly no panacea, freedom is the best solution we have—freedom to live as one chooses, freedom from arbitrary power the arrogant will of rulers.