DISCLAIMER: Of all the articles I've posted on this blog, this has been the most controversial. It's been picked up by a few libertarian sites and, as you can see, I've had a few robust exchanges with indignant libertarians in the combox.
I don't really enjoy this kind of confrontation at all. The purpose of this blog is not to upset people with whom I disagree. Although I won't shrink from proclaiming my beliefs and denouncing blatant evils, such as abortion and euthanasia, I do want to avoid acrimony as much as I can. Given that, I would probably delete this post if there weren't so many comments on it. I don't like deleting comments.
Therefore, I'll keep it up, but I withdraw the sentiments in it. It was a pretty silly argument anyway. I am no libertarian and I do believe that libertarianism is incompatible with the social teaching of the Catholic Church, but there are many Catholics I respect who consider themselves libertarians or something close to it. As for non-Catholic libertarians, I try to respect them as I try to respect all people, and I regret that my words were so strident. Peace to you all.
Of all social philosophies, libertarianism is the one towards which I feel most hostility. I feel a certain tenderness for all the others. I think that liberals, conservatives, cynics, nationalists, communists, feminists, progressives, environmentalists-- and pretty much any other school of social thought you care to mention-- have something valuable to say. Libertarians, too, have something valuable to say-- but nothing interesting, and nothing noble-- not even misguidedly noble.
Why do I say this?
Because I think one of the great things about political and social opinions is that they are disinterested. Anyone who has a vision of what society should be, an ideal of human flourishing or human virtue-- or even someone who is partisan for a particular cause, be it proper punctuation or liberation for the left-handed or the preservation of historical houses-- is a man (or woman) who cares for something outside themselves. An Englishman who passionately believes in the monarchy, or who passionately believes that the monarchy should be abolished, cares about something that will have little effect on him either way.
One of the common arguments made against evangelistic atheists is "What difference does it make to you if people choose to believe a delusion?". But I don't like this argument myself. I think the atheist is gravely mistaken; but I don't at all blame him for trying to convince me that I am gravely mistaken (although hopefully not in the shrill, angry manner of the New Atheist). In fact, I think he is right to do so.
I like the theory that the etymology of "idiot" is from an ancient Greek word meaning "private person"-- the ancient Greeks believing that a man who was entirely devoted to his private interests, and who showed no interest in public affairs, was a contemptible fellow. Whether that is a folk etymology, or overstated, I don't know. But if it is a myth, it is a very expressive myth.
The libertarian has no vision of a good society, no ideal of the human good. He simply has a principle-- and a crude, simplistic one at that. What could be less inspiring, less interesting?
I can already hear the reply of the libertarian. He is preparing to emit a heavy, weary sigh, and to explain in slow tones-- making it clear how tiresome he finds it to have to spell this out again and again-- that he is not lacking in public spirit, or hostile to community or national or family bonds, or opposed to social causes in themselves. He is simply believes that all these things should be voluntary, that there should be no hint of coercion in such matters. A schoolchild should not have to learn Irish by law. A man's taxes should not go to supporting causes or institutions with which he disagrees. In fact (the libertarian assures us) we needn't worry that, without the glue of coercion, people would drift away from each other into some miserable, private, self-centred existence. He might even say that his faith in humanity makes him believe that social and national and community bonds would be stronger if all compulsion was removed. A libertarian may be just as much a patriot or a monarchist or a traditionalist or a communitarian as anybody else; he simply refuses to countenance coercion as a means to pursue any of these philosophies.
That may be so; I seriously doubt it, but it may be so.
But what I don't like about the libertarian is that, as a matter of fact, he chooses to emphasise non-coercion over anything else. This is his rallying cry. This is the cause for which he chooses to raise his voice, the principle he cherishes to the extent that he identifies himself as a libertarian. I am not convinced by his protestations that he may have as positive and specific a vision of the good society as anybody else. If he had one-- and if he really cared about it-- he would surely put as much (and more) energy and eloquence into broadcasting that as he would into propagating his anti-social, misanthropic, depressing creed of "live and let live". For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I prefer every crank, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, bigot, utopian, doomsayer and fanatic to the man whose most passionate belief is-- to use the words of Clint Eastwood, that noted libertarian-- that everyone should just leave everyone else the heck alone.