The Pope’s recent foray onto the political stage has been rather disappointing. I had been heartened over the first few years of his Papacy that he seemed to be the man required to rejuvenate the Catholic Church and to reconnect it with the people. He seemed to be able to recognise areas of public life that were problematic and also to be able to see ways to counter these. His comments on issues such as war, hatred, and greed were both welcome and wise. However, his recent attack on the philosophy of libertarianism was thus both a surprise and a disappointment.
This is firstly a surprise because he has previously been well informed and accurate in analysis but on this occasion he has revealed himself mistaken. Secondly it is a disappointment as it is likely to neither help the Church nor the people.
It is apt that Pope Francis was not speaking ex cathedra as on this occasion he is clearly not infallible. He fears that libertarians will fail to work for the “common good”. As he is reported to have said :-
“A common characteristic of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is the idea of ‘living well’ or the ‘good life’ in the communitarian framework,” Francis said, while at the same time exalting a “selfish ideal.”.. ..
…. ..”because on the one hand he supposes that the very idea of ‘common’ means the constriction of at least some individuals, and on the other hand that the notion of ‘good’ deprives freedom of its essence.”
He labours under the common misconception that libertarians reject society and, as individualists, wish an atomised existence. This is wrong as all libertarians see the value of associations and communities and encourage their development as long as they are voluntary arrangements. Most libertarians see the development of the capitalist society as one of the great successes of humanity as it lifts so many out of poverty and want. This is a system clearly based on trade and agreements between individuals so that all parties can benefit. People trade as equals and both parties benefit, subjects obey because they must and only the ruler consistently benefits. Though self-interest guides the arrangements that people make this is not the only motivation people have. Our desire to assist our fellows is also a serious motive for our actions and as Adam Smith mentioned in the first sentence of his book :-
“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.”
The main focus of libertarianism is to set the individual free so that he, or she, can make the arrangements that they wish. Adam Smith reminds us that “man is an animal that makes bargains, no other animal does this, no dog exchanges bones with another” . We exist in order to, and by reason of, making alliances and exchanges with other people. We do this in order to improve our own lot and the lot of those we cooperate with. As Thomas Paine stated in “Common Sense” :-
“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer…”
Libertarians wish to allow people to make their own societies not simple to follow the diktat of those who have cornered power. From a Christian viewpoint this is important: we have free will to allow us to live our lives as we wish. In doing so we may become good people or we may not. If we simply do as the state commands us, we are not good, we are simply disciplined. We are only good when we, ourselves, make the choice. I have no choice but to pay my taxes to ensure the welfare state runs (as well as paying forthe military machine unfortunately), my payment was not a good act, simply a necessary one. I paid my taxes primarily to avoid suffering on my part (jail or other penalties) rather then to benefit others (though that is a happy side-effect). Leaving people free to make these arrangements themselves allows us to be good rather than obedient. If I want to be good then I need to be charitable or, possibly, pay extra taxes. Though the latter system may not, on balance, work as while you may give more to support the welfare state you may also be contributing to fund wars abroad,political initiatives at home you disagree with, or to fund corporations as they use government legislation to stifle free trade through competition.
We should recall that this is not a minor point. Of the many virtues that we may aspire to exhibit the greatest of all is charity, as we demonstrate our care for our fellows. All the writings are clear that, of all the gifts, charity is to be preferred over all others. Taking this options away from us, doing it on our behalf whether we wish to or not, and distancing us from our fellows would cause serious problems to many Christians who see, in libertarianism, a manner in which to practice faith and recall the first letter from Paul to the Corinthians :-
If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.
As individuals we have to make choices and stand by these. The sum of the choices we make and the associations we form are what defines us as an individual. In libertarianism we don’t have the luxury of a relative morality we are obliged to be responsible for ourselves and our morals. Mathew 7 is quite clear; people will know us by our actions.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Rather then being a risk to the ‘common good’, libertarianism is a way to increase it. A mercantile society with free trade has increased the number of people free from poverty. Libertarianism promotes the ideas of personal responsibility, moral behaviour and freedoms in association and thought. Perhaps, the Pope has mistaken libertarians for libertines but he should be aware that personal responsibility is a very effective antidote to unrestricted hedonism.
The Pope is in a difficult position. His church is associated with a history that is often far from glorious, his church is mired in present scandals and his church operates in increasingly secular societies.He should see that perhaps the growth of libertariansim might actually be associated with a growth of interest in issues of morality and responsibility. While this may not benefit the church it may be very valuable in helping people find their own faiths and morality and this is probably the greater good.