Laudato Si on the Libertarian Myth that Individualism Will Take Care of Everything

Laudato Si on the Libertarian Myth that Individualism Will Take Care of Everything July 3, 2015

219. Nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today. Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds. This task “will make such tremendous demands of man that he could never achieve it by individual initiative or even by the united effort of men bred in an individualistic way. The work of dominating the world calls for a union of skills and a unity of achievement that can only grow from quite a different attitude”.[154] The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.

The proposition that the common good can be completely handled without the community (and therefore the state) is false.

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  • Less government doesn’t mean no government. We need to have a proper balance of subsidiarity and solidarity.

    • Artevelde

      The thing with subsidiarity is that it is very easy to grasp as a concept, a very solid and noble concept at that, but pretty hard to apply correctly. On the whole subsidiarity tends to favor more decentralisation, but that’s not dogma.

      The principle of subsidiarity is enshrined in European Union law, and if applied correctly it prevents the EU bureaucracy from usurping power that belongs to the member states or administrative levels below that of the nation state. It was never meant as meaning simply ”less is better” though, because interpreting it in that way would be contradictory to the founding principles of the Union, which are explicitly based on the idea that a degree of centralization is needed and desired.

      • Jamesthelast

        I’m not too familiar with the political workings of the EU, but I know for sure that the Euro currency totally does not follow subsidiarity. The whole reason behind the Greek tragedy (and similar employment disaster in Portugal, Spain and Italy) is because the Euro is preventing the individual countries from being able to adjust their currency to stimulate their economies out of recession.

        • sez

          I agree. And it’s because it isn’t really subsidiarity they’ve got, but states rights. The two are not the same thing!

        • Artevelde

          That’s why the application of subsidiarity as a governing principle is such a difficult undertaking. In this particular case one could argue either:

          1. The principle of subsidiarity is being violated because monetary policy is handled by a central bank, thus wrongfully taking away the member states’ ability to engage in competitive devaluation. Devaluation as a competitive tool brings problems of its own, of course, but that’s not a debate I want to have here and now. It’s a valid argument about subsidiarity. Final conclusion: let’s decentralize more.

          2. The principle of subsidiarity is being violated because establishing a monetary union without a fiscal transfer mechanism was folly. Final conclusion: urgent further centralization of fiscal policy is required.

          • An economist would put it as seeking the optimal currency area (OCA) or optimal currency region (OCR). Whatever it is, the current borders of the euro aren’t it. OCA theory would seem to handle subsidiarity quite well and is neither one of your two alternatives. By that theory, the euro shouldn’t exist because there is no supranational fiscal balancing institution to match the monetary balancing institution of the ECB and you need both across a territory in order to have and OCA.

            • Artevelde

              Good. We agree on the fact that a currency union requires both monetary and fiscal coordination. That was exactly the point I was making about subsidiarity. Either both should be centralized or neither. You’re not making a thorough case for the ‘neither’ side though.

              • I’m not trying to make a case for either centralization or decentralization here. I’m just saying that Margaret Thatcher and the rest of the euroskeptics were right on the fundamentals. Having one without the other is just not sustainable and thus the EU is doomed unless it stops trying to straddle and pick one from column a and one from column b.

                Greeks will remain Greek and Germans will remain German. They have different monetary and fiscal needs and that, in essence, is the case against a multi-country currency union.

                • Artevelde

                  ”Having one without the other is just not sustainable and thus the EU is doomed unless it stops trying to straddle and pick one from column a and one from column b.”
                  That is something an ardent Euro-federalist would find himself in agreement with. He wouldn’t agree with you on the ”X will be X” statement though, which, depending on who is talking, is a purely political statement, a hunch, a preference, or a fear.

                  • I don’t think euro-federalists have cooties. I am not upset that they have sense to see reality (even as I disagree with their choices). As for whether european peoples are something real, that’s really the essence of the dispute, isn’t it?

                    • Artevelde

                      It is, and I don’t have the answer to that. Margaret Thatcher once said that Europe is created by history, America by philosophy. I’m going to mostly watch history unfold. These are interesting times.

        • Fra Grebma

          Actually, “The whole reason behind the Greek tragedy” – and there is no similar disaster in Portugal, Spain or Italy – is because Greece never meet the criteria for joining, forging its figures.

          • Alma Peregrina

            Actually Portugal was a disaster too…

          • Greece is first in line to go off the cliff due to the criteria dishonesty of years ago but the rest of the PIIGS group is in line behind them. At some point I believe Germany will leave the euro because one or more of the PIIGS will start issuing euros electronically beyond what they are authorized by the ECB and creating the inflation that German internal politics will not tolerate. I have no idea whether Greece will be the one to do it but predictably one will.

      • ManyMoreSpices

        Looking to the EU as a successful model of anything at the moment is a bit suspect.

        • Jamesthelast

          I don’t think everything about the EU is a bad idea. It has done a good thing never before seen in history, which is keep all the member states from fighting each other.

          • Alma Peregrina

            “It has done a good thing never before seen in history, which is keep all the member states from fighting each other.”

            … for now.

          • Patrick

            The Hanseatic League did a great job of that, and was a voluntary association.

          • Joseph

            Umm… you obviously don’t live in Europe. Believe it or not, there is a lot more animosity between European nations now than there was before… thanks to the unelected despots in the EU bureaucracy. If anything is keeping the nations from warring with each other it’s the sanity of the citizens. The EU can’t continue with the singular super powers Germany and France continually punishing countries that don’t align with their cultural understandings of governance, handing out money hand over fist with all the intentions of the most mean-spirited loan shark in the world. The nations are starting to see how the game is played. The EU kings know that a Grexit will result in a crisis for them and their power. They’ll never let it happen. They’ll write off a massive portion of their blood money in order to keep them in. Then Portugal and Ireland will scream, ‘Hey, if you did it for them, do it for us’. So, if they give Greece a freebie, then they’ll be forced to give everyone else one. If they don’t give Greece a freebie, then you’ll see a Grexit. And if that happens, a fresh wind will be in the sails of the UK and Spain. Then, over time, one by one, the dominoes will fall. Eventually, war will come again to Europe… and it will be the fault of the EU.
            .
            Dumb people say that the EU has done well in preventing wars in Europe. Dude, it’s only been 70 years since WW2. Only an ignorant fool would claim that, thanks to the EU, wars in Europe have come to an end. There are tinder boxes everywhere over here. It’s only a matter of time.

        • Artevelde

          Now that’s grossly unfair. Even if it may fall short of being the perfect embodiment of God’s plan with mankind, surely you’ll admit it serves admirably well as the scary bogeyman in certain political discourses that have a much more valid claim of being the Gospel incarnate.
          Also, I’m a conservative. Upholding models to emulate without taking culture, history and local circumstances into account strikes me as a bit of liberal fancy.

          • ManyMoreSpices

            Dude, have you been following the news out of Europe in the past fortnight or so?

            • Artevelde

              Yes. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

            • Joseph

              I think it’s safe to say, no, he hasn’t. I’m in Ireland. This is what the wonderful EU governance has stated with the recent Greek referendum… ‘it’s OK, we’ll just make the Irish cough up 2 billion to cover Greece’.
              .
              I say, good for Greece for recognising a despotic tyrant when they see one and deciding to take the struggles they will most certainly face for the next generation or so… but at least they won’t be on the hook for a debt they can never repay from professional loan sharks and blackmailers.
              .
              Definitely *not* a good time to be an EU member state as the unelected despots just plan to push austerity on everyone else. Only the despots should have nice things and live extravagantly. Democracy… pffft. Just like the French Revolution, these are guys who just want all the wealth of the monarchs, they don’t have principles.

      • That doesn’t seem to be working out very well. The democracy deficit seems to be a persistent cancer eating up all those good intentions embodied in the EU principles.

  • ivan_the_mad

    The Church teaches that the family and the state are both prescribed by the natural law. The social doctrine urges the establishment of trade societies and other conventional societies ordered towards the common good. Subsidiarity and solidarity both presuppose differing societies coordinating towards the common good. The hermit is exceptional because he is the exception.

    • The libertarian pushes the balance between the societies that have the right of violence (governments) and those that do not as far as possible in the direction of favoring the non-violent ones. This impulse to rely less on violence is what Mark is condemning here and he’s using a philosophical cheat to do it.

  • jrb16915

    Equating community to the state is false.

    • Fra Grebma

      Oh, strawmen…

    • chezami

      Good thing the pope doesn’t do that then.

      • The pope doesn’t do that. Your commentary does. jrb16915’s error is to take your spin as an honest restatement of the Pope’s words.

        Motte and bailey is what you’re doing right here and it does not become you.

        • Patrick

          You can stop wasting your time trying to get any kind of concession out of Mark when it comes to any of his pronouncements on what he likes to call “libertarianism”. He’s too invested in his caricature, there’s no way he can back out now…even when his own reply to a comment strips away any doubt that he has to simply ignore what he wrote and pretend that he didn’t.

          • I have more respect for Mark. He’s been called on things and backed down when he realizes that his critic(s) correctly have pointed out a sin. That’s why he’s worth coming back to. He’s not an irredeemable hack.

        • LogicusPrime

          Thanks for the “Motte and Bailey” reference. I’d never heard of it as applied to argumentation. I had to look it up. It’s a useful way to describe certain arguments.

          • I expect that the more it’s called out the less popular it will be. Unfortunately, you need more than a snippet or two to identify motte and bailey and so in a sound bite obsessed world it’s harder than usual to call out effectively.

  • LogicusPrime

    “The common good” is an empty phrase often used to portray opponents in a bad light. It ranks right up there with the “common sense proposal.”

    • I do not accept that the common good is an empty phrase. I agree that it is much abused but there is something real there as well. A philosophical hostage rescue team would seem to be in order.

      • LogicusPrime

        Unless there’s a commonly understood definition it is an empty phrase, and the author doesn’t even make an attempt at a definition. As used in this article, it’s nothing more than a rhetorical pot-shot at those with a different view.

        Oh, and good luck at coming up with a commonly understood and agreed-upon definition no matter what team is assigned the task. It’s a subjective value judgement.

        • Oh, I’ll agree that Mark’s taking pot shots here and calling it Catholicism. But if that’s what you’re after, you should have worded things differently. I read your statement as saying that the common good as used by all is necessarily empty without exception and is often used as an attack phrase. If you grant that it is sometimes used properly, I certainly have no problem with agreeing that it’s sometimes used as an empty attack phrase.

          • LogicusPrime

            I’m actually doing both. The author here is definitely using it as a rhetorical weapon. On the other hand, I’ve never seen anyone who used the term actually define it in a meaningful way. The common definition of, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” just kicks the can down the road a bit. It’s no more meaningful than “the common good.” It’s turtles all the way down.

            It’s a lot like mainstream economics where they talk of utility as if it’s possible to assign a cardinal utility value to everything. It’s a convenient fiction that lets them pretend there’s a mathematical rigor to their work.

            • Generally the Church tries not to be totalitarian so it, as a habit, leaves wriggle room where it can. The greatest good for the greatest number is not the Catholic definition of the common good. It’s aimed at what is good for all, which makes the common good something that is real, but of less utility than many imagine because it’s limited to the subjects that are not win/lose or exclusionary. There are a number of encyclicals that direct us to an understanding of the common good and all of those are to be trusted more than my own musings.

              • LogicusPrime

                “It’s aimed at what is good for all, which makes the common good
                something that is real, but of less utility than many imagine because
                it’s limited to the subjects that are not win/lose or exclusionary.”

                Well, if that’s a reasonably accurate characterization, then that pretty much makes it sound like an empty phrase. If there’s no win/lose, then was there ever a problem in the first place? Who cares?

                • Just because something works for the common good does not magically mean that it gets done or that there aren’t backsliders. Here’s a pretty uncontroversial one, that there should be a standard set of weights and measures. That didn’t stop Whole Foods from overweighting various products and thus overcharging its customers.

                  • LogicusPrime

                    OK, I’ll give you the win for the “Duh!” and “Don’t do something stupid!” categories generally being the common good, but that’s pretty far afield from the way the author used it and how others commonly use it. In those cases I stand by my statement that it is an empty phrase.

                    • But Duh! and Don’t do something stupid! is just about the entirety of the subject here. Remember, this is free market totalitarianism (which I think Benedict XVI first noted as such) which is an oddball edge case to begin with. It’s a personal life system without politics and without social systems distinct from economics. Given that, stuff that’s obvious is worth going over because if there’s one thing that virtually everybody agrees on, it is that edge cases are weird.

                      Now, with the framework of the common good being, well, I guess you’d have to say taken seriously in Catholic social thought, you’ve got a pretty good start at a test framework. Is any particular proposal is a greatest good for greatest number issue or an actual matter of the common good.

                      I haven’t seen you around on this forum so you might not have seen my idea that Pope Francis is working to rescue leftism from marxism and give it a viable way forward and, coincidentally saving the free world’s political bacon by creating a framework where it’s likely that such countries in a few decades can reasonably look forward to choosing between a sane center left party and a sane center right party as a minimum number of viable alternatives. Laudato Si is just another step along that road.

  • P Johnston

    I’m still coming to grips with the encyclical itself, but may I question your interpretation: “The proposition that the common good can be completely handled without the community (and therefore the state) is false.” I can see the need for community connections where individuals pledge themselves to something bigger and grander than themselves. I remain deeply suspicious of the long term utility of “the state” in pursuing the common good.

    The consistent historical pattern seems to be that states, no matter how inspiring their original intention to pursue the “common” good might be, eventually succumb to the temptation to use their power to impose the good of the elite on the masses, no matter the harm to the latter. At this point they cease to be useful in handling the common good. This may be my Reformed Protestantism showing through, or maybe my English Tory heritage, but it seems states only have a long-term usefulness in handling the common good when they are restrained by a strong commitment to individual accountability and responsibility to follow Christ’s law.

    Individuals working together in “community networks” seems a more helpful framework than the bureaucracy of the state.The state is about power, and power tends to corrupt. So state power needs to be limited and restrained to limit the scope of that corruption.

    • capaxdei

      Community isn’t a matter of pledging yourself to something bigger and grander than you. What is bigger and grander than a child and heir of the Eternal Father?

      Human nature, made in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, is communal. The communities we form are not mere aggregations or herds. They are, or at least should be, ordered. The purpose or final cause of a well-ordered community is the thriving of all its members, which it aims at by creating the circumstances in which its members may thrive; these circumstances are collectively called the common good (because they’re common to all in the community (which doesn’t mean each member of the community participates equally in them; a just justice system might be a common good for a city, but every citizen doesn’t need to be a judge)).

      For a community to be ordered, it must be governed. A family should be governed by the father, a parish is governed by the pastor, a town might be governed by a mayor or a feudal lord.

      (Whether a particular member of a community actually does thrive depends both on how successful the community is at providing the common good and on the choices the particular member makes. There remains a sovereignty of choice that a well-ordered community doesn’t attempt to do away with.)

      Communities are themselves hierarchical. What we nowadays call “the state” is the mechanism by which a certain hierarchy of communities is governed. According to the principle of subsidiarity, different common goods are best met by communities at different levels of the hierarchy. There are then common goods best met at the highest-level community in the hierarchy, which is to say by the state.

      Whether those goods are in fact met by the state is a different question than whether they can be met without the state, just as whether an individual in a well-ordered community actually does thrive is a different question than whether an individual needs a well-ordered community in order to thrive.

      • Every tin pot dictator decries the free market as anarchy and protects his people with the order of the state. For those things that we are familiar with (like the market in food) the reasoning is self-evidently absurd. The market *is* ordered and generally ordered much better than the state can reliably manage.

        Communities that are not governments do not inherently have the right to break your leg or pick your pocket (in Jefferson’s classic turn of phrase). That does not make them any less real. It just makes them less violent.

        • LogicusPrime

          “Communities that are not governments do not inherently have the right to break your leg or pick your pocket (in Jefferson’s classic turn of phrase).”

          Neither do governments. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean that they won’t do it anyways.

          • The differentiating feature of governments is that they have the right to physically punish you, metaphorically to break your leg. What’s the point of them otherwise?

            • LogicusPrime

              Good question.

  • You’re repeating a calumny that libertarians have been griping about for well over a century and a half. Frederic Bastiat was complaining about what you did in his book “The Law” which was published in 1850. The state is an expression of the community. It does not follow that if something is not done by the state, it is not done by the community. There is nothing in this paragraph the Pope wrote that the most doctrinaire libertarian would object to as violating a libertarian tenet (though some might object to it on non-libertarian grounds). Virtually all would object to your spin on what the Pope said. So why are you creating stumbling blocks, Mark?

    As a practical matter, we’re not set up to do all the things that the Pope is calling for to be done without involvement of the state. But those things that we are forced to involve the state in are pretty predictably going to be done less efficiently and less effectively than their private sector alternative implementation competitors. It’s not a law of nature but it does happen time and again that way to the point where it’s a very useful heuristic to just start from that position.

  • Naters

    uhhhhhhhhh. libertarians aren’t really individualists. they just don’t want to run your life.