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Give praise where praise is due. I am a frequent critic of Professor Robert George, founder of the American Principles Project, but in a recent post at Mirror of Justice, Professor George is doing the work of the angels by challenging conservatives to be wary of libertarianism.

George refers to an article he wrote for the 40th anniversary edition of National Review in which he called libertarianism a heresy. "By that, I meant that libertarianism is not simply false.  It affirms a genuine truth---in this case, the value and importance of liberty or personal autonomy---but affirms it so emphatically and indeed singlemindedly that it winds up denying other equally important truths and values," Professor George writes. This plays on the famous definition of heresy as "a truth run amok." The insight is a profound one, and a caution against all forms of intellectual zealotry. Heresy may become evil but it does not necessarily start as evil.

That said, I think Professor George has opened a can of worms that is more challenging than he may realize. 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. In Sir Isaiah Berlin’s writings on liberalism – which are the most important writings on liberalism of the last century – he distinguished between two types of freedom: "freedom for" he called positive freedom and "freedom from" he called negative freedom. Positive freedom is typically Kantian, negative freedom is American, and is the basis of our Bill of Rights.

I have wrestled with this difficulty, and how the two types of freedom do, and do not, cohere with Christian anthropology, ever since reading the transcript of a seminar held at the University of Notre Dame, shortly after Vatican II. (The seminar, not my reading of it, happened at the end of Vatican II. I was three years old when Vatican II concluded.) Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., who has been one of the principal drafters of the Decree on Religious Liberty, participated in the seminar. He was asked a question on this point and replied, "Yes, I was afraid somebody might head toward difficult and somewhat troubled waters, that the Declaration itself tried to skate around." Murray explained his position: The right to religious freedom is an immunity, and that the state’s obligation to promote religion was derived elsewhere, not from a belief about human dignity but from what Murray calls "the religio-social fact" that religion may benefit society in its pursuit of justice and other important social goals. His answer does not satisfy and I am afraid we are all still skating. (The text of the exchange can be found in the book "Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal" published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 1966. It is difficult to find but well worth the effort.)

Another important contribution to the debate came about ten years ago from Professor David Schindler whose book "Heart of the World; Center of the Church" remains the most trenchant and intelligent critique of Enlightenment thought and its progeny from a Catholic perspective. Schindler is especially good when he goes after conservatives who champion laissez-faire economics. For example, in discussing the views of American Enterprise Institute fellow Michael Novak, Schindler writes: "Novak’s positions rigs the game: all the while it claims to be creating space or a market for competing moral visions, it is in fact, simultaneously, pouring the Scottish Enlightenment into this putatively ‘empty’ space or ‘free’ market." Where capitalism is concerned, the issues are almost easy: The Catholic problem with capitalism is not that sometimes its captains act in unethical ways. The problem is that coincident with its creation of material wealth, it creates spiritual poverty, not as an add-on, but intrinsically, by its own inner dynamic. (Schindler's book is not hard to find; It's on Amazon and it is hands-down, the best, most provocative book of Catholic theology I have read in 10 years.)

In politics, the issue is more complicated not least by the fact that the United States, which is the country most wedded to a negative conception of freedom is also the one Western country where religion has remained lively. That is a large fact. (I would note, however, that a particular variety of religion has flourished in the U.S., but that is for another time.) Schindler, like George, is concerned that Murray’s commitment to negative freedom resulted in a logical priority for freedom above all other values. Professor George notes some of those other values. He writes that libertarianism "ends up treating human sociability and the values connected to it (e.g., friendship, marriage, community, solidarity) as purely instrumental goods, rather than intrinsic and constitutive aspects of human well-being and fulfillment." There is a lot riding on that adjective "intrinsic"! But, George fails to mention the failure of libertarianism and of a modern, liberal polity more generally that most concerns Schindler and me. I do not see how a polity premised on negative freedom can keep from issuing in a privatization of religion.

The problem for libertarianism – and for Murray and George, despite their critiques – 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.

Michael Sean Winters


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Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 4 months ago
I have trouble following the arguments here (probably more my problem than that of the writer), but agree thoroughly with some of the conclusions, especially that the Catholic Church remains the most counter-cultural influence in the West.
Perhaps Catholicism must be lived, as well as an intellectual argument, in order to be realized.  As a social/economic system, I don't think that anyone interprets Catholicism better than Peter Maurin when he says that people would become better if they stopped trying to be better off, that everyone would become rich if nobody tried to become richer, and that no one would be poor if everyone tried to be poorest. 
Devon Zenu
13 years 4 months ago
Thanks MSW for this provocative post. The difference between negative and positive freedom is little understood in American Christianity and much to our detriment. It is ablsoultely foundational for much of Catholic moral thought. We do not spend nearly enough time talking about the ways that our emphasis on negative freedom undermines our positivel freedom. (The topic comes up in sexual ethics, but is usually not applied to economics or other areas of human activity.)
At the same time I think it is important to remember that historically the emphasis on negative freedom actually has deep roots in Christianity and does have value. When we start questioning the value of autonomy in a political sense we are treading on dangerous ground. It is precisely a wel-grounded account of original sin and the libido dominandi that cautions against allowing governments to place too many restrictions on autonomy. Modern Western liberalism was born out of the experience of repressive government (particularly in the arena of religion). So while the modern cult of license is certainly a danger, in critiquing this blind devotion we must be sure to remember the value that negative freedom has.
13 years 4 months ago
We could get into a rather intense discussion of minutiae on this topic.  In order to help clarify some issues and throw in my two cents worth I offer the following.
First the terms libertarianism and liberal that are used in current day politics have nothing to do with each other.  In fact they are really opposites.  Libertarianism whatever it may mean to its practitioners flows from Locke and classic liberalism.   Current day liberals, which this site is full of, flows from Rousseau, the French Revolution, Karl Marx, Bismarck and the Progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century.  Franklin Roosevelt changed the term progressive to liberal because progressives had a bad name in the 1930's.  He did not change the philosophy though.  Progressives have always been an authoritarian system where the elites determine what is good for society.
The modern day liberalism is also an authoritarian ideology that wants to change society for the better by a top down implementation of progressive ideas.  This is the complete opposite of libertarianism and foreign to classic liberalism even though they share the same identification.  Typically, classic liberals experiment at the local level and what works is then expanded.  Current Liberals impose what they think is best.
The Catholic Church is not a libertarianism organization and as such much of what it holds is anathema to libertariansm.  It is an authoritarian organization much to the discomfort of many who comment here who seem to be disgruntled Catholics and want to change the Church from the bottom up.  However, here comes the interesting thing, libertarianism allows the free practice of religion and would not impose anything that would impede it.  But in a liberal system two authoritarian approaches can never exist side by side.  That is why modern day liberalism is really the enemy of the Catholic Church an one of the objectives is to undermine its dogma and authority.  It is an authoritarian ideology and two such ideologies can not exist side by side.  
What can exist side by side is an overall classical liberal philosophy and a subset of it that is authoritarian.  In fact if the overall ruling philosophy is classically liberal, several sub groups that are authoritarian can exist within such a system as we have seen since the country's founding.  But they cannot exist within an authoritarian system unless that system is in sync with it as was Christendom from the 400's to the 1500's.
13 years 4 months ago
Here something Mr. Winters would enjoy:  Catholic traditionalist, Prof. Patrick Deneen of Georgetown taking on libertarians on their own turf (Cato) and promoting "Red Tory" theories of Philip Blond over the individualism of the centralized state or "free" market:
I want to like MSW, I really do; it is just too bad that he could not apply the same critique to his own statist ideology.   After all, the liberal statism is the other side of the coin or other extereme of libertarianism.
The Catholic tradition is subsiderarity and localism; however, it is unfortunate that this is a dirty word to liberals - esp. to the centralizing power of the Obama administration.
13 years 4 months ago
Catholics who promote subsidiarity a la Chesterton and Belloc should also check out this site:  Front Porch Republic
13 years 4 months ago
Both Republican and Democrats are "libertarians" in our current system; Republicans believe in the atomized free individual acting within the market and Democrats believe in the atomized free individual in the social sphere.
Both promote forces that destroy tradition - therefore, both are anti-Catholic.  Republicans and free trade / globalism that attacks local community and local business.  Democrats and free love that attempts to tear down all tradition ("oppressions") and religion in the name of unlimited sexual and social expression and individualism.  They do not believe in the equality of man on religious terms, only on the terms that the state imposses.
Both worship the individual - liberals and republicans are essentially in agreement.
James Lindsay
13 years 4 months ago
Freedom of thought is not far from free will and can easily occur as a societal organizing principle in a Thomistic framework. Indeed, if we are endowed by God with freedom, a liberal state must be a logical consequence, since the divine right to rule is inherant in every free soul - subject to limits that can be found in natural law (harming others, destroying oneself by taking actions which destroy the will and intellect - like ignoring education when one is capable of acquiring it and using drugs and alcohol to the extent that they become addictive).

On liberalism v. libertarianism, they are hardly opposites. Look at the Free Liberal publication's web site for more on this - and check the archives as well. http://www.freeliberal.com.

Confidential to MSW: There are many versions of libertarianism. All libertarians are not followers of Hayek and von Mises. Indeed, they are Johnny Come Latelies to the libertarian fold. Google left libertariansim if you doubt this. Follow it to this wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-libertarianism
Do some research before you continue to pontificate on this topic.
Stanley Kopacz
13 years 4 months ago
Government centralization of power is a fact. The problem is that the government is presently a wholly owned subsidiary of the large moneyed interests, perhaps worse than the turn of the last century.

Whatever one thinks a governemnt should or should not do, wouldn't it be a good idea to wrest back control first?

As for localism and subsidiarity, I'm all for it. But Walmart, megabanks and globalism are bigger threats to these principles than our government is, except as our government is a collaborator. Localism and subsidiarity cost. See what happened to the "Buy America" phase. You can't even buy local to America anymore.
James Lindsay
13 years 4 months ago
Also look up Mutualism and Anarchism if you want to further understand liberty.

Seems like a slow news day if you continue to come back to this topic.
13 years 4 months ago
Stanley, I believe they are the same threat; big government and big business act in concert despite all of the empty rhetoric coming from this, and every other, administration. 
And each leviathan - centralized state and centralized business - depend on an atomized indiviudal to feed their profits/control and to make the population unable to organize resistence. 
Commerce and government run on our radically individualized impotence.
It is not "government" that will save us - it is the intermediary institutions such as the Church and local civil societies that we can use to fight back.
13 years 4 months ago
Classical liberalism and libertarianism are close relatives.  But the term ''liberal'' today means something quite different and they self identify as progressives.  And progressives are nothing like libertarians or classic liberals.
Vince Killoran
13 years 4 months ago
"Progressives are nothing like libertarians or classic liberals."
Somewhat overstated-Progessives draw on 18th century republicanism and political thought from the Enlightenment.
Tom Maher
13 years 4 months ago
"Negative freedom", "positive freedom"? These terms make no sense at all. Also the distinction "freedom from" and "freedom for" is nothing meaningful.

MSW trys to attack libertarianism, which he does not like, by denying the significance, and imporatance of freedom on the individual. Any sense of self is bad. MSW implies that individual are worthy of freedom only as part of a group - the collective, the state, the masses. Individual freedom is not a worthy concept to MSW.

Further MSW tells us self-autonomy is bad. Too much self-direction is bad. Appapretly the individual needs lots of group control, the more the bette.

The Catholic concept of "denial of self" is out of control here not th eun likely total absorbtion of self characture of what libertatrianism is.

One of th esecrets of success of American concepts of freedom is that the founding fathers experience the blessings of personal freedom in their own personal lives. Washington, Jeferson, Adams, Ben Franklin etc. were blessed as Moses was with great personal talents, intellect. They were finacially able to develop their talents. And did. They used their personal freeedom and talents and gifts for the great benefit of American society for generations.

So the founding fathers knew and expereienced what freedom is. Freedom allows individual to make th most of who they are. Individual freedom is perfectly good and a worthy social goal to seek and maintain Individuals are worthy of freedom which is God-given gift to individuals.

Their is nothing inherently bad about individual freedom sought by libertarianism. Nothing in Christ's Gospel leads to th conclusion that individual freedom is bad.
Dwight Lindley
13 years 4 months ago
Great piece, Mr. Winters. 

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