Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Dependence on God and Man: Toward a Catholic Constitution of Liberty

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Dependence on God and Man: Toward a Catholic Constitution of Liberty

Article excerpt

Liberty Constituted by Dependence

With the benefit of hindsight, it might be said that Milton Friedman, 1976 Nobel Laureate in Economics, made one of the most insightful pronouncements on the 1991 encyclical letter, Centesimus Annus, of John Paul II. After praising many features of the letter, he writes, "But I must confess that one high-minded sentiment, passed off as if it were a self-evident proposition, sent shivers down my back: 'obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom.' Whose 'truth'? Decided by whom? Echoes of the Spanish Inquisition?" (1) Writing in a special issue of the National Review, Friedman is referring to a lengthy sentence in Centesimus [section] 41.

This pronouncement is insightful because John Paul's statement about the "constitution of liberty"--to borrow Hayek's phrase--would have been easy to miss among the many other elements of Centesimus that appeal to Friedman and other classical liberals. Yet, it is an arresting statement once one thinks it over, as it seems to endorse an account of liberty that is irreconcilable with our immediate, intuitive notions of liberty as well as the main notions of freedom advanced in the modern liberal tradition. (2)

Observe that John Paul predicates liberty on obedience. Obedience has two broad meanings. First, in the more common usage, obedience is a characteristic of a person who follows the will of another or who is submissive or subject to another's rule or authority. (3) Second, obedience is also a characteristic of a thing that exhibits natural or involuntary obedience, as in the dependence of the heavenly bodies on the motion of the universe. Thus, we say that the planets "obey" the laws of planetary motion. (4)

The first meaning of obedience describes persons who make a voluntary choice to follow the will of another; the second describes objects that find themselves (or, more accurately, are found to be) "involuntarily" subject to laws. Centesimus [section] 41 seems to advance the notion that human liberty is characterized by both senses of obedience: aligning of the will (first sense) with the laws that we find ourselves involuntarily subject to (second sense).

This idea about liberty is of course predicated on a prior idea about the nature of man--man is a rational actor with free will, a responsible agent, and a dependent creature who is governed like the beasts by rules and laws he does not get to make up. On these terms, then, liberty is characterized by a paradoxical willed dependence that seems to be oriented toward uniting the rational and animal natures of man. The free man rightly discerns the laws that govern him, and wills to be subject to them.

It is uncontroversial and relatively self-evident that human thriving depends on discerning and obeying the laws of nature that govern inanimate objects. Take the genius of flight, for instance. Flight seems like the very definition of liberation, as if the law of gravity has been dispensed with. It is only by virtue of discerning and depending on the laws of physics that we attain to what seems like freedom from the law, and this is generally uncontested. That which appears to be controversial and profoundly unsettling to at least one of the great liberal thinkers of the twentieth century is the idea that there are laws of nature governing persons--what John Paul II calls "the truth about God and man" and that these laws bear some relation to liberty.

I believe that Milton Friedman, as an empirical matter, would not hesitate to agree with the proposition that there are observable and knowable laws that govern human interactions--such as those belonging to markets, states, and institutions--and that obedience to such laws is one of the bases for a free society. By empirical, I mean that Friedman would argue that knowledge of such laws arises from the observation and study of persons as they are in the world and not from religious or cultural propositions. …

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