Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why I Am Not a Libertarian


How can the free world do justice to its moral responsibility? Freedom preserves its dignity only as long as it retains the relationship to its ethical foundations and to its ethical task. A freedom that consisted solely in the possibility of satisfying one’s needs would not be human freedom, since it would remain in the animal realm. An individual freedom without substance dissolves into meaninglessness, since the individual’s freedom can only exist in an order of freedoms.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 48

Reflection – Values in a time of upheaval: well, it certainly has been a time of upheaval in the past week (even more so than usual). Tensions in the Middle East push the world further down the path to war and the chaos and turmoil that would bring. The economic climate remains rocky, and the future is uncertain. These words from Ratzinger are a helpful and necessary reminder to keep our heads and our focus in uncertain and dangerous times.

We have to remember always and never forget who we are and what we are made for, and the standard of charity and justice that this calls us to. When people are afraid, they all too easily devolve into fight or flight responses, into lashing out in anger or withdrawing into a safe cocoon, an illusory soap-bubble-thin fa├žade of protection against the world.

We are Christians, and we can do neither. We are called to the great adventure of love, of openness, of receptivity, of hospitality, of service, of care for the poor, of forgiveness of enemies, of laying down our lives for the world.

This is freedom, you see. Some today, in the discussion about freedom in the world, wish to reduce freedom simply to this animal level: I do whatever I want. I have a measure of sympathy with that view, especially in the context of government controls and the passing of laws that would restrict human choices and actions coercively (thinking here of the Nanny State, or also speech codes, curtailing of religious freedom).

But… there is more to freedom than ‘I do whatever I want.’ And we have to bring this into the discussion. Ratzinger has labored hard to do just that. A freedom that is left at the animal level of doing whatever you want is a freedom doomed to failure. Someone else will come along and ‘do what they want’ to me, and where is my freedom then? Or my doing what I want will lead me to self-destructive choices, and my freedom will pass away quickly.

While I’m all in favor of the government generally leaving people alone to live their lives as they see fit, we have to realize that this kind of free society depends on people living morally responsible lives. The two go together; if people generally act like miserable vile barbarians treating each other like trash, the state has a vested interest in intervening. If people wish to be left alone in peace to live their lives, this has to occur in an ethical framework.

This is why I am not a libertarian, but a conservative. In the current context of out of control governments legislating every aspect of our lives, I have great sympathy with the libertarian perspective (as many of the lawn signs around this part of Ontario say, “This land is our land – BACK OFF, GOVERNMENT!”). But… every action we do on ‘our land’, so to speak, affects not just ourselves but the whole of society. Every choice I make is fashioning a world in which the rest of you have to live. Every choice you make fashions a world in which I have to live.

Libertarianism does not, it seems to me, take this into account. Freedom has to be directed by moral concern, responsibility, deep awareness of the solidarity and inter-connectedness of the human family, or it is doomed to failure. If this direction is not to come from intrusive and coercive government control, it must come from a shared moral vision derived from the traditional wisdom narratives of the human family—in North America and Europe this would be our shared Judeo-Christian ethos.

Without this, freedom is doomed to failure, as society degenerates into a Hobbesian jungle of competing self-interests and unrestrained appetites. We have three choices: anarchy; government tyranny; spiritual-religious-moral renewal. What’s it going to be?