Friday, May 14, 2010

Why I Am Not a Libertarian


It is popular, because it is pithy, to divide the world into twos. Those who lounge and those who pull their own weight. The kind who can count and the kind who can’t (or is that three kinds?). Those with loaded guns, and those who dig (Clint Eastwood). “Those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are,’” (Frederick Collins). “Those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says ‘Thy will be done,’” (C.S. Lewis). And, most hilariously, Robert Benchley’s distinction (also attributed, with minor variations, to Murphy, Anonymous, and probably, given the viral nature of rumor on and off the internet, to Bill Gates as well): “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”

Interestingly enough, setting aside humorous divisions, the distinctions above seem to roughly reduce to one another. Loungers are generally unprepared, and end up digging; they are also often immature, and liable to present themselves as centers of attention; and the self-centered are very likely to end up in the highly uncomfortable position of getting exactly what they want when God hands out addresses on the last day. As one of my professors was fond of saying, “Dante’s Satan wanted to be the center of everything. He got what he wanted.”

As appealing as some of these distinctions are (and I must confess that my mind is of the sort that finds almost any distinction appealing), I have a new favorite to offer. I don’t remember where I first encountered it. Like many of the pairs above, it has by now ascended—descended, if you prefer—to the level of a bromide: “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who take the world for granted and those who take the world with gratitude.”

This fits perfectly well with the reduction above: the selfish, lazy, and immature person is precisely the one likely to “take the world for granted” and not to “take it with gratitude.” Out of all the vices of the immature and the young, ingratitude is one of the more prominent. It seems a strange thing to say, perhaps—the old, after all, have far more to be thankful for, and it would not be surprising if they occasionally lapsed in their duty. Many of them do. But the young are almost universally ungrateful, ungrateful because they are ignorant. As Mark Twain put it, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

When a baby is born, it has little or no reflection. Since its perception of itself it practically non-existent, it is incapable of contemplating or questioning its position in the world, incapable also of conceiving of a situation in which it is not at the center of everything. In this blissful absence of experience and the reflection that experience brings, the baby is the paradigm of ingratitude. Things happen. Everything happens. Everything is given, everything granted and taken for granted. A baby is a supreme egoist, though not through any fault of its own.

A teenager, a young adult, is in the unfortunate position of being a baby all over again. Just as the baby was born from the womb into human world, to discover there new activities, desires, and abilities, so the young man is being born into the new world of adult activities, desires, and abilities. He is so absorbed in these new activities and abilities and desires that he is liable to forget the hard lessons of childhood, the lessons that grew him out of a baby and into a boy: the lesson of humility first of all. If he is to grow up, it will be by learning that he is really not so singular a being as he supposes. He is far from being the first to fall in love, to want to strike out on his own, to be misjudged by his friends and teachers and family—just as the baby was far from the first to wave its fist in the air and to bawl when its stomach growled. He forgets all this, and in his forgetfulness he assumes again the attitudes and the ingratitude of an infant. He has tantrums. He doesn’t throw his food anymore (well, probably not); but he slams doors and drives to fast and smokes. Like the infant he thinks he is indestructible. Most of all like the infant, he feels that he is owed. He takes the grades, the job, the new clothes, the ipod, the car, the home—all for granted, much to the dismay of his parents. What happened to Johnny? Johnny’s being born again. These are the labor pains.

The Libertarians.

This is an odd beginning for a post entitled “Why I Am Not a Libertarian,” but I do believe in starting in the middle of the chase. It provokes curiosity (which inclines readers to continue, if they don’t click away in disgust) and confusion (which makes them ripe for whatever befuddlement the writer may desire). In some genres, as in the detective story or the news article, this beginning-in-the-middle order enables a skillful writer to so disguise the actual events as to make it impossible for all but the cleverest readers to discover how little his conclusion agrees with his facts. I make no pretense to such skill myself; but like all amateurs I must envy such achievements and, standing in awe of them, make some poor attempts at imitating the techniques which make them possible. *Ahem.*

When I first came to know a few libertarians, I was struck most of all by their age. They were almost all young, which may have been a coincidence; but those that were not young were often what is politely called “young at heart”. They were energetic, ideologically highly-charged, simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic, and generally fun people to be around, if one didn’t mind a little political incorrectness. They were unusually polite and tolerant of opposing views, even if the tolerance sometimes took the form of superiority of manner.

There were many policies on which I agreed with the libertarians. I was (am) a strong believer in free markets, the right to bear arms, and the desocialization of American government. When arguing with Catholic friends I often found myself taking a “classical liberal” or libertarian position—and not merely because of my native love of conflict. I began to suspect myself of some strange personal defect when I found myself repeating, dialectically, my Catholic friends’ arguments in libertarian circles. Was I really in conflict with everybody? Was there no one who happened to agree with me? Worse yet, was there no one I could ever agree with? I knew better than to think that I knew better than everyone else.

I took some comfort in the fact that while I did not actually trust most of the arguments I put forward, I was hardly an agnostic. I had very strong opinions; but I found them difficult to justify to either set of opponents. To be fair to my own positions, my opponents found it equally hard to justify theirs. I felt like one of the pre-Socratics, squabbling with all the other pygmies while we waited for Plato—years and years before the god-like Aristotle appeared, and centuries before he was canonized by Aquinas.

Presently I began to notice a strange thing. My debates with fellow Catholics usually annoyed me, put me out of sorts, albeit only for a brief time. My debates with libertarians unnerved me, frightened me. Worse yet, I could not put my finger on the reason why. They went as well as, or better than, my debates with fellow Catholics. It was the strangest feeling, a sort of intellectual vertigo, as if I were standing on a peak and liable to slip into the abyss at any time. Yet I knew I was in no danger of becoming a libertarian. That was not the abyss I was viewing. Nor was I in any danger of becoming a misologist. I had not so high an opinion of my own intellectual and rhetorical skills, or of the rationality of my interlocutors, as to think that because I was unable to convince them of a thing, therefore the thing was unproved, much less unprovable.

One day the light broke through—in the course of an argument, naturally. I discovered, with all the fascination of an explorer discovering the first armadillo or the last dodo bird, just what the libertarians took for granted that I could not accept. We were discussing the Lockean account of property rights, which I had always taken as pragmatic rather than absolutely just. But the libertarian insisted otherwise. It was not just according to convenience that we assigned to men the property with which they had “mixed their labor,” nor was it something right but occasionally suspendable: it was the law, the first law, the law which was not questioned.

If I granted then, for the moment, that labor does absolutely transform property, still, why should the labor be counted as the laborer’s?

Because free will makes it impossible for his labor to be anything else. Even in the presence of coercion (as, for example, at the point of a loaded gun) the laborer is the one who moves his own body.

But what makes it his body? For if it is not his body absolutely, then it cannot be his labor absolutely either, nor can the property be absolutely his property.

At this point the libertarian looked at me in bewilderment. It had never occurred to him to question whether or not his body was his own. The simple fact that he and he alone was able to decide what to do with it, was proof to him that it was his.

But no Christian—for that matter, no Jew or Muslim, no pagan, no theist—has ever thought that.

The Bible.

The Bible is a book full of varied but ultimately coherent messages, apparent contradictions that finally resolve themselves in the person of Jesus Christ. One of the most persistent of the messages is the message that we are not our own to dispose of. The Lord is our shepherd; we are His people, the flock that He guides. From the beginning we belonged to God, since He made us (how’s that for “mixing His labor”?). After the Fall, in which we rebelled against Him and contracted ourselves to Satan, God promised to redeem us. He began that redemption by adopting Abraham and his children, the Israelites. He reaffirmed His “property right” to the Israelites in a special way by His guidance of them and in particular by his bringing them out of Egypt. Finally He extended that reaffirmation to the whole human race by sending His only Son to redeem us, “that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” that is, that we should be able to share in the life of God Himself, from whom our lives first came.

In one way we are God’s property. Looked at strictly from the view of justice, we are His because He made us and can unmake us; doubly His because He gave His life for us.

But God didn’t leave it at that. He gave us a share, not only in His intelligence (reason), but also in His life (grace): we are twice made in the image of God. As rational creatures dependent upon Him, we are his property—yes, His slaves. As creatures filled with His grace we are more than that: we are His children.

These two facts mean that we “who believe in Him” can never look upon our fellow human beings with indifference. Both as a matter of justice and even more as a psychological matter, we cannot pretend that our interactions with them are matters of choice: I’ll sell you my goods, if I feel like it. I’ll share my lunch, if I feel like it. I’ll help you build your house, if I feel like it . . . the Christian doesn’t think this way.

Like real children, who have an involuntary contract—I can express it in no way that makes sense, using libertarian language—with their parents, so we Christians have an involuntary contract with God, who brought us into being. To each one of us He offers a second contract, following automatically upon the first: He will make us like Himself, if we let Him. This is the contract of a Christian. But if, then, we are to be like Him, we must act as He would act. If we truly are to be His children, His willing children, we must treat all His other children as our brothers and sisters.

I have entered into no contract with the bum in the metro station. But I sure as hell (if you’ll pardon the expression) have entered into a contract with our Maker. And the terms of that contract are strict: I consider the bum to be my brother, our God no longer considers me His child.

That’s why I’m not a libertarian.


As a matter of practical governance, much of the libertarian attitude makes sense. The state is ill-equipped to stand in for God, or even to play eldest son (remember Big Brother?). The language of the good state may often therefore take on a cautiously libertarian strain: we speak in absolute tones of men as being free; we legislate, we litigate, we even theorize as if we were each our own person.

Yet metaphysically and spiritually nothing could be further from the truth. This is my body? More than it is your body, to be sure. But it is God’s body first of all; and if He commands me to help you with it—or, what comes to the same thing, if His law is such as to suggest that He would wish me to help you with it—then I am your servant for the hour necessary.

The fact of the matter is, “voluntary” and “involuntary” are hopeless distinctions. I described man’s first contract with God as an involuntary one. God can’t help having made us dependent: it would be a logical contradiction for the Almighty to have created anything which could exist independently of Himself. Yet if we are born, if we enter that first contract involuntarily, we do have an out, an exit clause. We can always leave home. Then, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will say to some of us, “Thy will be done.” If anyone truly prefers not to think of himself as a child, the eternal goodbye is open to him.

But if I choose to remain, if I choose to sign the second contract also—then that also is my choice.

The irony of it is, that although the whole arrangement between the Christian and God resembles the arrangements of a human family (though it would be more accurate to say that the human family mirrors the eternal one), and although we therefore must become “like children” in that family, the very act of becoming like a child requires a certain “growing up”. It is the angsty teenager who would prefer not to be a child. It is the mature man who knows he always will be his parents’ little boy.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that the libertarians I know—like your typical college Marxist, also in rebellion—tend to be young. I said that the libertarians were “young at heart”, young, say, like James Dean. We can love James Dean only because he never grows old. Just as temper tantrums in a six-year-old cease to be cute, teen angst and petulance in a forty-, fifty-, or sixty-year-old soon cease to be attractive. Youth covereth a multitude of sins—yes, even for a time the sin of ingratitude—but fortunately youth doesn’t last.

Youth takes the world for granted. The libertarian takes his body for granted. They are right in a way; both have been granted them, for a time. But I recommend that second contract: resign yourself to the human race; rejoin the family; show a little gratitude. The grant has an end date; the lease is running out. You’re not immortal yet.

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