There was a lot in Ryan McMaken’s defense of libertarianism last week that I disagreed with, and I’ve got notes here and there about why, but of all of them, the one “myth” of McMaken’s that I disagree with most is the one about the principle of solidarity. He says Catholics unfairly accuse libertarians of neglecting it, one of the firmest and most important of the social doctrine principles.
To defend libertarians, he avers that they do a great deal for solidarity by speaking out against the one institution which throughout human history has done more harm to solidarity than any other, namely the state. The state is not just bad at fostering solidarity, it is the single most destructive force ever conceived by man.
Does [the state] promote solidarity by sowing class warfare through the stealing from one class to give to another? Is it the crony capitalism that impoverishes the poor for the sake of billionaires? Do the endless wars promote solidarity? Did the dropping of atomic bombs on women and children help solidarity? How about all the famines caused by governments from Ireland to China? Did the mass murder of priests in Mexico during the twenties promote solidarity?
McMaken is correct that none of these things promote solidarity. But then, did the burning of heretics promote solidarity? Did the crusades promote solidarity? Does the exclusion of women from the priesthood promote solidarity? How about the Church’s hatred for gays, does that promote solidarity? Did the pope’s fathering several children do it; or the sex abuse scandal do it or… do you see where I’m going with this? The notion that a litany of abuses perceived and real says all there is to say about the state or the Church is ridiculous and just the kind of facile argument that libertarians should be above.
You know, Chesterton had a great chapter in Orthodoxy in which he talks about modernists and their very many loony ideas. He rightly points out that some strains of thought are wrong not because they are illogical but because they are too narrow. Like the paranoid lunatic convinced that everyone is out to get him, modernists tend to reduce everything down to one overarching principle that explains everything. For Freud it was sex. For Marx it was class-struggle. For the libertarian, the world’s problems are the state. Libertarians are logical, but so narrowly focused on the notion that the state causes all ills, that they fall into the lunacy about which Chesterton wrote.
For the libertarian, the state is evil. We need not bother ourselves with evidentiary truth to the contrary, because everything bad in the world is a direct result of the state’s meddling. It’s not just that the state is bad at helping the poor, it causes poverty. It’s not just that the state is bad at eradicating drugs, it’s causing drug abuse. It’s not that the state is failing to defend marriage, it’s causing the demise of marriage with its meddling. Unemployment? It’s all the state’s fault. High blood pressure? The state’s fault. This notion that it is the state that gets in the way of solidarity is just one more example.
Of course, maybe we should figure out what solidarity means in the first place. According to Pope John Paul II, who wrote most extensively on solidarity, it is not just a vague feeling of care for one’s neighbor. It is, rather, the firm and determined commitment to work towards the common good with the understanding that “we are all really responsible for all.” You read that right. Solidarity means that we work towards the common good because I am actually responsible for you. All of you and every part of you.
What the state does, then, is it enforces this rule. Want to pretend that you’ve no obligation to help the poor guy who can’t find work? Sorry pal, in this society we believe you are responsible, which is why we tax you so as to provide unemployment insurance. Don’t think a kid being beaten by their parents is any of your business? Sorry, the state steps in, removes the kid and places them with foster parents all at taxpayer expense because in this society you are responsible. Don’t think you have an obligation to give basic care to a dying man just because they were born in a different country? Sorry Ron Paul, we have a federal mandate that says you do have to care for them, even if they are here illegally, because that’s what solidarity is.
McMaken, though, has another reason why libertarians escape this accusation about solidarity.
Libertarians champion the free association of private individuals and institutions, “intermediary institutions” is what the Church calls them in the social teaching documents. People are still free to help one another. Isn’t that good enough? Sorry, but no. Telling someone that they are free to help their neighbor but also free to ignore them is not fostering the principle of solidarity any more than telling your kid that they can listen to you or not listen to you is fostering the principle of obedience.
John Paul II was clear. This isn’t just some vague feeling of connectedness with those around me, or the “opportunity” to do good. This has to be a firm and clear commitment to action based on the fundamental paradigm that matches that of the Gospel, namely I must love you as Christ loved you. Period. There’s no wiggle room here.
Do the libertarians escape the accusation that they ignore solidarity? Nope. Ignoring the good the state does and banking on the good intentions of individual institutions is not solidarity. It’s wishful thinking. Which brings up one last point.
Libertarians are famous for saying that the failures of the state are a result of its predicating good intentions on citizens when in reality we all know that people are fallen creatures. So, what does the state expect people to do when they get paid more for not working and having another child? People are people and will seek to swindle and abuse whatever benefits they’re granted. Just consider human nature, they might say, and you can see how a state’s policy can be disastrous. I can agree with them on this point in many situations.
However, they seem to be blind to the same point when it’s applied to their own ideology, for what do you suppose people will do, or not do rather, when they are free to ignore their neighbor? They’ll ignore them. They will let the person die on the side of the road… or on the hospital floor. Don’t believe me? A manager at a McDonalds let two women bludgeon a rival in his restaurant so horribly that the victim was left convulsing in seizures, bleeding profusely. The only person who came to the victim’s defense was an elderly woman. The other McDonalds staff watched, filmed it and laughed.
It was the state that came in and prosecuted.
No no, libertarians say. As tragic as that is, it is still better to keep the state at bay. At one point McMaken writes:
Some Catholics will say, ‘You libertarians are too extreme. You want to cut back government too much just because some states have been really awful. If we can just vote in the right people, bad things like that won’t happen.’ In response I have one question: How has that been working out for you?
Well considering the fact that I’m sitting comfortably in the wealthiest nation human history has ever known in a heated house with amenities like this fantabulous computer…I’d say it’s working out pretty well. Could it be better? Sure. Obama could be unemployed…in Greenland. The Indians could be a contending team in the American League. They could make bacon-flavored ice cream. But for now, in truth, it’s not so bad.