Catholicism and libertarianism clash over property and the common good

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Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation this week. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.

It seems our ongoing religious consideration of the merits of libertarianism has come at precisely the right time. With The New York Times wondering if the "libertarian moment" has come -- and substantially lesser venues hoping that it has -- now is the time for a definitive Christian ethical case to be taken up with regard to libertarianism. Such a case is being mounted with increasing vigor. Yet while Vatican officials disown libertarianism and all Pope Francis' statements on politics militate firmly against it, a loud portion of American Catholics in the political realm seem doggedly committed to it. Why?

One source of libertarian sentiment among Catholics is likely, as argued by Meghan Clark, the popularity of a certain mistaken anthropology. By this, Clark means a story about what type of creature man is and what his purpose is that has been fundamentally divorced from the biblical narrative and tradition by vested political interests. Clark points out that the chief feature of this warped anthropology is its naked individualism and its inability, therefore, to grasp the necessity of solidarity in producing whole and morally upright people. For the radically individualistic libertarian, solidarity is a burden, not a boon. If it is a boon, it is only so insofar as it produces certain desired outcomes for the individual -- but this utilitarian understanding of solidarity is, as Clark demonstrates, a far cry from the real thing.

Clark is right to note the failed anthropology at the heart of libertarianism. But yet another thematic failure animates libertarian philosophy as well: a vital misapprehension of the nature and purpose of property.

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One thing to note about libertarianism is that it is first and foremost liberal, in the sense of classical Enlightenment liberals like John Locke. Liberalism arose as a political philosophy at a time when hostility to the Catholic church was well received, and many assumptions that contradict truths held obvious and foundational by the Catholic church remain tied up in liberal, and therefore libertarian, reasoning. Chief among them is the philosophical preference for the primacy of private property rights over all other institutions or conditions, including the common good. Consider Murray Rothbard, arguing that all rights disputes are little more than disputes of private property:

There are other vexed problems which would be quickly cleared up in a libertarian society where all property is private and clearly owned. In the current society for example, there is continuing conflict between the "right" of taxpayers to have access to government-owned streets, as against the desire of residents of a neighborhood to be free of people whom they consider "undesirable" gathering in the streets. ... They are, in brief, complaining about the "human right" of certain people to walk at will on the government streets. But as taxpayers and citizens, these "undesirables" surely have the "right" to walk on the streets, and of course they could gather on the spot, if they so desired, without the attraction of McDonald's. In the libertarian society, however, where the streets would all be privately owned, the entire conflict could be resolved without violating anyone's property rights: for then the owners of the streets would have the right to decide who shall have access to those streets, and they could then keep out "undesirables" if they so wished.

It is a foregone conclusion in Rothbard's ethics that owners of property have the absolute right to exclude people from what they own, be it land or material objects, even in the case of individuals who have nowhere else to go -- as "undesirables" here surely refers to homeless people who congregate in or near fast food restaurants for warmth and shelter. Rothbard flatly does not see the need to argue for such a right on behalf of owners, but smoothly progresses from the problem of "undesirables" to the "cure" of private property ownership: If only land held in common were held privately, he laments, you would presumably never have to see another "undesirable" for any longer than it took you to banish them. That your ownership claim supersedes their right to shelter, warmth, perhaps even food -- is simply assumed.

Libertarian luminary Hans Hermann Hoppe makes this claim explicit, writing:

It becomes apparent that nothing could be further from the truth as soon as one explicitly formulates the norm that would be needed to arrive at the conclusion that the state has to assist in the provision of public goods. The norm required to reach the above conclusion is this: whenever one can somehow prove that the production of a particular good or service has a positive effect on someone else but would not be produced at all or would not be produced in a definite quantity or quality unless certain people participated in its financing, then the use of aggressive violence against these persons is allowed, either directly or indirectly with the help of the state, and these persons may be forced to share in the necessary financial burden.

Hoppe is similarly opposed to "public goods," including those that address the needs of the poor and sick, because he sees property as prior to the import of those needs. For Hoppe, the "aggressive violence" that is deployed to produce public goods is taxation, and it is aggressively violent insofar as it appropriates that which belongs to individuals prior to the taxation. The good of the public -- a common good -- is secondary, for Hoppe, to the private, individual good. The individual's absolute guarantee to ownership of what he can acquire is always logically prior to anything common or public.

In the Catholic tradition, this is reversed. The guarantee of private property ownership, and the good of it, can only be premised on the common good, and must be formulated in relation to the needs of the vulnerable. As John Chrysostom writes:

Therefore ... those who have something more than necessity demands and spend it on themselves instead of distributing it to their needy fellows and servants, they will be meted out terrible punishments. For what they possess is not personal property; it belongs to their fellow servants.

This Patristic formulation echoes similarly through Ambrose and Augustine, all the way down to medieval heritors like Aquinas, who writes that private property is a good insofar as it leads to a better dispensation of things which can then contribute to the common good, and like his predecessors believes that "on this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 6:17-18): 'Charge the rich of this world ... to give easily, to communicate to others,' etc."

Taken together, this current of tradition tracks well with Pope Francis' words on property in Evangelii Gaudium: "The social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good."

So libertarianism mis-imagines two fundamental poles of its consideration, at least by Catholic lights: both the human person and property. By imagining the right of property to precede the common good of humankind, libertarian philosophy departs sharply from the Catholic imagination, which sees in all things the goodness and generosity of God, and in his people a right to the use of things that provide for the material necessities of life. For this reason, libertarian philosophy and politics cannot be brought into harmony with a Catholic socio-political imagination.

[Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig received her Master of Philosophy in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is now working toward her doctorate in religion, philosophy and politics at Brown University. She writes for Millennial, Salon, The Week and Ethika Politika.]

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