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