"Nine Libertarian Heresies"-A Response to Daniel K. Finn

By Santelli, Anthony E., II | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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"Nine Libertarian Heresies"-A Response to Daniel K. Finn


Santelli, Anthony E., II, Journal of Markets & Morality


Daniel K. Finn's article is a profound piece that makes arguments that are long overdue. Being one libertarian Catholic whom he critiques (I would not call myself a neoconservative), I recognize that not all his criticisms are meant for me. Further, I find myself in complete agreement with some of his points. He is correct in his view that many Catholic thinkers on the right have "unacknowledged libertarian presumptions in their work" that are not always in congruence with Catholic teaching.

That being said, however, there are nonlibertarian Catholic thinkers who have unacknowledged socialist principles in their work that are not always in congruence with Catholic social teaching either. Furthermore, I would argue that some of Finn's own thoughts fall into that category. This reply attempts to develop a coherent Catholic position on these nine heresies, revealing where libertarianism and Catholicism are in accord and in discord.

Heresy #1: Different understandings of freedom. The Catholic definition of freedom is not the same as the libertarian one. To the Church, freedom is having the ability to do what you should. (1) To a libertarian, freedom is having the right to do what you want, provided it does not harm someone else. Both agree that you need freedom to flourish. A non-Catholic libertarian thinks that having the right to do what you want enables you to flourish; a Catholic thinks that having the ability to do what you should enables you to flourish.

The difference is due to different understandings of the word you in the paragraph above: The Catholic "human person" is not the same as the libertarian/Austrian "individual."

The individual gets to completely define himself and what is right and wrong for him. (2) This is why a libertarian defines freedom as having the right to do what you want. What one wants to do is what is important because it is, by definition (to a libertarian), what makes him flourish. If one chooses something, it must be right for him because he chose it. This, of course, denies the reality of errors, or sin, as applicable to oneself.

The human person is defined by his essence and his relationships. Therefore it is his essence and relationships that define what actions are right and wrong for him, and consequently, what he should do to flourish. In other words, he is not only made by God--who has predefined what is good and bad for him by what is in accord and what is in discord with his nature, respectively--but is born into a particular reality of time and place and is affected by the real events of life as he lives, and it is those relationships and events that (1) place bounds on the realm of his possible choices and (2) place obligations on what it is that he should do in order to flourish. This is why a Catholic focuses on the importance of discovering what one should do because doing what one should enables him to flourish. Choosing otherwise would be a mistake or a sin.

This difference in ontology lies at the root of all differences between Catholicism and libertarianism. For example, you are your father's child. You did not decide this, but it is a part of who you are and you cannot change it even if you wanted to. This relationship places certain obligations on what you must do in order to flourish. For another example, a woman may not have wanted to get pregnant when she chose to engage in sex, but she can neither change the fact that she is pregnant nor the moral obligations that come with that state. An individual may think it acceptable to have an abortion, but a human person most certainly cannot.

An added complication is that there is serious disagreement amongst libertarians as to what constitutes harm to another. Some libertarians want to define harm as only physical harm (theft, bodily injury, or fraud that leads to loss of wealth or bodily injury). Other libertarians recognize that contract/covenant violations constitute harm as well (adultery).

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