The Pope’s Four Big Mistakes About Libertarianism
By Stephen Hicks and María Marty
Pope Francis has given us several glimpses of his position on liberalism, but his negativity is increasingly evident. In his message to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the criticisms were direct and sometimes crude. And while the Pontiff got some points sort-of right, his message revealed mostly a lack of knowledge—or an intentional denial—of the principled and historical achievements of libertarian individualism.
Here are four big, big mistakes.
- Libertarian individualism, the Pope fears, leads people to believe that they make their own lives—“to establish freedom and individual responsibility, it is necessary to resort to the idea of ‘self-causation.’” Now, no one denies that our genes and our environments influenceus, but humans are not causalproducts of society, of our genes, or divinely mandated fate. Libertarian freedom does incorporate liberty of the will: the view that individuals have the power to choose their beliefs, actions, and to develop their own characters. That capacity is precisely at the heart of morality— taking responsibility for one’s choices is what makes one a moral agent. But if, by contrast, the causal responsibility lies with genetics, society, or the gods, then humans become amoral beings.
A leader who is serious about morality should be praising a philosophy that so strongly stresses responsibility for one’s choices.
- Yet that connects directly to the Pope’s second fear: “individualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and so it is only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad.” Here lie deep issues about standards of goodness and the creation of genuine value:
* Are relationships things that happen to you? Or are friendships, romances, and business deals things you do?
* Does the value of relationships pre-exist, or does their value come into existence when the individuals involved give something of themselves to the other?
* And who should decide good or bad— e.g., whether it would be good or bad for you to marry and if so whom? Should that be your individual decision—or someone else’s? Or what career would be good or bad career for you? Or what music is good or bad? Or which politicians?
If individuals don’t make those decisions for themselves, then someone else must make those decisions for them. We know of course that the Pope comes from a decision-making tradition that says we should all be obedient—slaves to masters, women to their husbands, subjects rendering unto Caesar, and everyone to God’s infallible spokesman on Earth. And that emphasis upon deep obedience has always resisted the expansion of individual freedoms. Yes, the Pope’s tradition has in the modern world softened its stance on those points—but always reluctantly, and always under pressure precisely from the more individualistic and liberal humanisms the Pope is attacking in his Message.
- The Pope further worries that the exaltation of individual freedom leads to the growth of power “even at the expense of the exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority.”
He’s right that too many are vulnerable or worse. But let’s not forget that the poor and the excluded are individuals too, with dreams and goals of their own, and that what they need is exactly liberty to achieve their uniquely personal dreams and goals. The poor and the excluded’s biggest obstacles have never been other people’s freedom and successes. They have always been political systems that limit their freedom— caste systems, socialist systems that prohibit their entrepreneurship, and other dictatorships— and ethical systems that embrace poverty and suffering and urge the wretched to accept their lot, perhaps to show that they are especially beloved by God.
Pope Francis seems to ignore that libertarians regard the rights to life, liberty and property as inviolable and supports government’s role to protect them vigilantly—that is precisely to stop those who attempt to gain at the expense of others.
Further, if we are genuinely concerned with the marginalized, then we will note that the large, large majority of them reside in places in the world where individualism and liberalism have not taken hold—or they live in places that are recovering from anti-liberal and anti-individualist regimes.
- The Pope rightly notes the tragedy of continuing slavery: “It is alarming and symptomatic that today the human body is bought and sold, as if it were a commodity for exchange.” Slavery is a moral abomination. Yet the Pope’s stress on slavery being symptomaticof todayexhibits an odd historical amnesia.
In the modern era, the first nations to form anti-slavery societies were those that emphasized the individual rights of life and liberty. They were also the first to abolish it within their own territories and the first to expend huge energies and resources to stamping it out worldwide. Slavery had existed everywhere in the world in pre-modern times (and apparently it co-existed happily with the Pope’s own tradition for the first 1600 years of its existence). What is actually symptomatic of today is that most of us have embraced Renaissance and Enlightenment humanisms’ moral horror at slavery and, as a result, we have made progress in eliminating much of it and are committed to eliminating more.
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Only liberal individualism has broken the bonds of slavery, poverty, and other exclusions. Only it has enabled individual men and women of every race, religion, and ethnicity to become entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, inventors, and more, on the scale that has been achieved in modern times. Only in liberal individualist societies do we find an increasing range of career possibilities with an increasing standard of living.
By not sacrificing individuality for the collective, by not melting down every human being’s uniqueness into a common stew, and by honoring each person’s life, freedom, mind, and dreams, liberal individualism has created abundance, extended peace, increased solidarity, and made human life longer and enjoyable. The data are on liberalism’s side. Pope Francis should pay more attention—and even say “Thanks.”
Stephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, Illinois. He is author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (Ockham’s Razor, 2010), and The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W. W. Norton & Co., 1994).
Maria Marty is an Argentinean with a bachelors degree in social communication, a scriptwriter, and a libertarian. She is the executive director of the Foundation for the Responsible Intellectual (FRI). Follow @mariamarty16.