A Conversation with a Libertarian Observed

A Conversation with a Libertarian Observed January 16, 2020

Here’s some of a conversation that happened in my comboxes recently, illustrating what I believe to be one of the core failings of Libertarianism: its essential narcissism.

Reader 1: Why not vote Libertarian? They don’t have a clear position on abortion, but won’t fund PP, and also oppose the death penalty.

Reader 2: Libertarians tend to be amoral, which is better than immoral, and favor the powerful which can lead to dehumanizing the vulnerable.

Reader 1: I understand your concerns, and this America Magazine writer can answer them here.

Reader 2: The author suggests that Libertarians can learn from and be checked by good will adherence to CST, which I believe is true for all political systems. The problem is that subsidiarity, while always necessary in practice, is always woefully inadequate beyond a very small community. Those I call ‘casserole Christians’ believe their small and subjective acts of charity, however noble and well intended, will resolve the massive social inequalities and cycles of poverty we face in the US. Subsidiarity can work well in tandem with larger governmental systems of care that should be focused on the common good, but can’t replace them. One example in Massachusetts, church-sponsored Take and Eat ministries work in tandem with state/federally funded Meals on Wheels programs to provide weekend meals for the elderly and those with disabilities. Wonderful concept and practice as a supplemental effort, but beyond that is inadequate. And my parish struggles even to find the funding and volunteers to fulfill our once every 6 week commitment.

The notion that a combination of libertarian neutrality and voluntary neighborliness will inspire our consciences to provide for the poor died with the wild west.

Any reasonable assessment of the real world would have to conclude that Reader 2 is simply right about this. Before Social Security, 50% of seniors were poorBlue states do vastly better economically than red ones do and, what is more, blue states, by their contributions to the federal budget, keep afloat the social programs upon which the poor in red states depend to keep body and soul together. Cultures full of the agitprop about how money will trickle down and spontaneously generous Libertarians will supply what the state need not supply have a name: poverty-stricken.

But Libertarianism is founded on a couple of crippling lies. One of the greatest of these is that property rights trump the right to live. In some extreme cases such as Murray Rothbard, the insanity is so deep that even the claim of a child to deserve care of its parents is denied since the child cannot pay for these “goods and services”. But even if a Libertarian is not quite that demented, Libertarianism insists that all help given somebody outside the immediate circle of family is “charity”. That is the other and core falsehood. Why?

Because much of the help we are expected to give, according to the Church’s teaching, is not charity, but justice.

The rich man was not damned because he did not give Lazarus charity, but because he denied him justice. The priest and the Levite were not condemned, nor the Good Samaritan commended, because they did not and the Samaritan did give the beaten man charity, but because they did not (and the Samaritan did) give him justice.

Justice pertains to what is owed. We owe our neighbor his life if he needs saving and we have the power to do it. You aren’t giving charity when you find somebody lying in a pool of blood and call 911 or find him hungry and give him something to eat. You are giving them simple justice. If you walk past them and do nothing, you are not denying them charity that you didn’t owe them. You are being a sinner in grave danger of the fires of hell–because you selfishly denied what you owed them in justice. And if the best way to get that person help involves food and shelter paid for by the state, somebody who cares about the person in need cares about them getting food and shelter, not about getting the credit for helping them. But Libertarianism has a very different agenda. To wit:

Reader 1: Libertarians don’t necessarily believe that government has no place in anything, but rather than it’s involved in much more than it needs to be. The state’s duty is to protect the weak from the strong. That does not include mandating a minimum wage that could kill businesses who can’t afford it, nor does it include forcing people to pay income tax on the threat of jail. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Andrew Yang, but he actually has better alternatives to these things.

Translation: I’m theoretically for the weak and vulnerable being protected against the the strong and powerful, but I don’t want to actually pay for it, or do anything about it, or think about it.

Libertarianism is the teenage fantasy that I will be so super-generous that the state will “wither away”–one of the whimsical notions that Libertarian fantasists share with Communist fantasists.  In reality, Libertarianism is the ideology committed to the use of the state against the weak by the strong.  It doesn’t really want the state to wither away.  It wants it to protect the rich from the poor and the powerful from the weak.  But that is not the function of the state.  The function of the state is to ensure justice.  And since justice means treating equals equally and unequals unequally, it is perfectly right and fitting for the state to obey the “preferential option for the poor” since they have no defender while the rich and powerful have tons of money and armies of lawyers.

Reader 1 to Reader 2: And by the way, Denmark, that country leftists such as yourself look up to for it’s $20 minimum wage, has no minimum wage laws. There’s so much money over there that businesses can afford to pay that much. The same can’t be said here in America.

Note the rhetorical feint to “leftists such as yourself”.  Reader 2 has not used that term as a self-descriptor.  Libertarian Reader 1 chose to do so in order to dismiss the Church’s teaching on the right to a living wage as “leftism”.  That’s because, contrary to his claim, the real and only function of the state for Libertarians is to protect the rich and powerful from the cry of the poor for a just wage.  Curiously, the refusal to pay workers a just wage is one of four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance.

Reader 2 to Reader 1: I support a living wage because I’m Catholic, kiddo. You can start lecturing me after you earn your first paycheck.

Reader 2 returns the “leftist” serve with a hard return volley that Libertarian Reader 1 is in no way prepared for, because Reader 1 gets his thinking, not from the teaching of the Magisterium, but from the bits and pieces cannibalized from it by Libertarians.  The reply is simple:  a living wage is not charity, it is justice.  And it is the right and proper duty of the state to ensure justice.

But I digress.  Here is where Libertarian Reader 1 gets down to the essential narcissism of the Libertarian–and is rightly defeated in clean combat by Catholic Reader 2:

Reader 1 to Reader 2: And if you seriously think libertarians are that selfish, google “libertarian disaster relief”. Libertarianism isn’t about being selfish, it’s about making sure government isn’t your mother or babysitter.

You know, being this young, I should be as left-wing as you, but I’m not. You cannot force people to be charitable. That is wrong. That is what government does.

Reader 2 to Reader 1: My point is that being young, you likely haven’t had the opportunity to experience the hardships people face. There is that no evidence that corporate America or even average citizens would band together to voluntarily provide sustainable systems of care for the working poor, the elderly, the disabled, and in fact much evidence to show that the United States under trump is motivated primarily by greed and self preservation.

No, you can’t force charity, which is why basic human needs should not be dependent on charitable whims, but on equitable and just laws and systems of care.

You might benefit from watching this:

Note that the sole concern of Libertarian Reader 1 is not with those in need of help, but with himself.  He’s not interested in the question of whether Libertarian charity actually provides sufficient help to those in need, only that Libertarians get the credit for being “charitable”.  Does a family face a choice between living in a tent or getting treatment for their 4 year old with leukemia?  The one and only thing that matters is not the family or their need being met, but whether Reader 1 gets the warm fuzzy feeling of being charitable for throwing five bucks in their GoFundMe set up to raise $300,000 (and currently standing at $230).

This is the essential evil of Libertarianism.  Because it denies any claim of justice and insists that anything beyond helping one’s own family and a small circle of friends is “charity” it teaches its adherents to take a completely narcissistic view of what we owe to others.  Rather than allow a nickel to be taken from his paycheck by the state, the allegedly “generous” Libertarian would rather make a poor man’s family starve to death or freeze in his car than have a system where the state insures universal health care–because it is not the poor man but the power and vanity of the Libertarian that is all that matters.  The Libertarian gets to decide life and death for the poor he deems “deserving” or “undeserving”.  The Libertarian’s only real interest is in getting to take credit for his “generosity”, not in whether Lazarus gets the help he needs.

Libertarianism is essentially narcissistic.  It offers nothing good that Catholic teaching does not already offer while it distorts and denies nearly all Catholic teaching about the Common Good and Solidarity.  Skip it and stick with Catholic Social Teaching.

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