The political left always equates individualism with selfishness. Individualism is a broad concept. As Catholics, we are not individualists in any religious or ethical sense. Regarding Church teaching on faith and morals, Catholic libertarians voluntarily embrace these precepts of the Church, else they would not be Catholic.
Libertarian individualism lies on the spectrum between two warring conceptions of the state. One end of that spectrum views the state as an end in itself, with the individual used as a mere means to accomplish the will of the state. This view is seen in such societies as ancient Greece and Rome. The 20th-century totalitarian governments of the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany provide modern examples.
The opposite end of the spectrum is the complete absence of any governing authority. In such a condition, every man would do whatever he wished, limited only by his personal power; and without regard for injuries that may accrue to others.
Libertarian individualism is neither totalitarian nor a lawless strife without governance. In a libertarian society, the non-aggression principle is foundational; and its “individualism” is simply a respect for the person; that is, for others.
This respect for the rights and property of others would seem an unlikely ground to support the charge of selfishness, but that is how Catholic critics on the left describe libertarians. They look into the libertarian heart and conclude that we are unable to see our neighbor as ourselves. They note how libertarians disfavor stealing from one man to help another. From this, they conclude that we have no love for the poor. “There, but by the grace of God, go I,” they imagine, is a sentiment that never stirs in the libertarian soul. These are serious and uncharitable charges to level at a brother Christian. And wholly without merit.
Catholic libertarians—on the other hand— cannot imagine a more counterfeit
expression of love for the poor than a willingness to put a gun to our brother’s head with the purpose of making him a charitable man. Libertarians prefer voluntary charity, mutual aid, and the removal of all the barriers (see upcoming post on the “sinful inequalities”) that prevent people from making a dignified living.
The most constant objections to libertarianism come from the left. They fear the decentralization of control and see the welfare state as the best and only compassionate approach to helping the poor.
There are critics on the right as well. They are more concerned that morals will suffer unless the state punishes vices as crimes.
In the next post, we will consider those who argue: “Catholics cannot be libertarian because libertarians reject the “common good.”