Roman Catholic

Skeptical of the 'Common Good'? Don't Be!

Libertarians think freedom creates the conditions that lead to human flourishing. The Catholic Church has a name for that.


This article originally appeared in the August 6 edition of America: The Jesuit Review.

School children in Africa

I was sitting in a nondescript hotel ballroom, press credential strung around my neck, listening to the opening remarks at a conference in Washington, D.C. On stage, the cartoonishly villainous-sounding Wolf von Laer, the executive director of the group Students for Liberty, leaned into his microphone and announced something he knew would come as no surprise to the audience: Recently, for the first time, extreme poverty had fallen below 10 percent of the global population.

He was hoping to pump up the crowd, and he succeeded. Around me, people erupted into cheers.

A thousand or so college kids and recent grads had gathered for 2017's iteration of the largest meetup for young libertarians in the world. They would spend the next 48 hours socializing with fellow attendees, scouting job opportunities in the "liberty movement," and watching panel discussions with titles like "Got a Permit for That Bouquet? Why Occupational Licensing Laws Restrict Opportunity" and "How to Defund the Government and Help Your Community: The Arizona Model." Later, the libertarian activist Matt Kibbe would declare that "changing the world is not only possible, it's inevitable, if we all do this together."

One of the widespread misconceptions about libertarianism is that it denies the importance of community—assuming, in the words of the Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, that "the individual lives, or could live, in splendid isolation" from others. Another is that it preaches a selfish unconcern for the plight of one's fellow humans, especially the least among us. If these portrayals were correct, the libertarian philosophy would indisputably not be compatible with the Catholic Church's social doctrine—in particular with its teaching on the common good. But sneaking a peek into that Students for Liberty conference (or, for that matter, reading Reason) should make clear that, in fact, neither of those positions is integral to the libertarian worldview.

One way to think about libertarianism is that it is a political philosophy that prefers voluntary, nonviolent human interactions over coercion. Because government dictates are by nature coercive—we do not get to choose whether to pay taxes or comply with zoning restrictions—libertarians advocate relying on private solutions to problems whenever possible. Civil society institutions—family units and neighborhood groups, labor unions and trade associations, churches and charities—must do the heavy lifting. State interference in people's lives should be a last resort and then undertaken only for grave reasons.

Consistently applied, this idea has radical implications. As David Boaz of the Cato Institute has put it, libertarians generally believe "the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force—actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud." Everything else people should be free to work out organically, through trial and error, give and take, pressure and persuasion.

Treating People as Ends, Not Means

Ask a libertarian why we believe what we do and the answer may be rooted in abstract moral principles: We think people deserve to be treated as ends, not means—which is to say we think their autonomy should be respected as long as they are not infringing the rights of others. But very often, the explanation you get will be pragmatic. An honest assessment of reality tells us that maximizing the scope of freedom from government coercion creates the conditions for material progress and human flourishing.

That is not limited to progress and flourishing for a select few. Good-faith skeptics might be surprised to learn how active libertarians have been in the fight to end mass incarceration and advance criminal justice reform in the United States, for example, or how many libertarian groups filed amicus briefs siding with the Little Sisters of the Poor during their showdown over the Obamacare contraception mandate. When on a randomly chosen Saturday in June I visited the homepage of, a project of the Cato Institute, three of the featured stories were "Charitable Giving in U.S. tops $400 Billion for First Time," "Paraguay Declared Free of Malaria by World Health Organization," and "Zero Carbon Natural Gas: Is This the Solution We Have Been Searching For?"

I came to identify as a libertarian after studying economics in college. I was moved by the realization that market capitalism is the most efficient engine of economic growth the world has ever known. Both theory and empirical observation told me that government regulation is more likely to interfere with this process than it is to correct flaws in the system.

That reality is of great importance to libertarians, who are wont to share a graph depicting global per-capita gross domestic product over time. The curve looks like a hockey stick: It is nearly flat for centuries and then turns skyward suddenly around the time of the Industrial Revolution. As restrictions on trade among countries are loosened following World War II, the trend picks up speed.

When capitalism spreads to new corners of the world—especially as it begins to reach the 2.7* billion residents of India and China—it brings enormous prosperity along with it. In 2016, the World Bank reported that nearly 1.1 billion people moved out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2013, and that the overall rate of poverty fell by half. As a result, we are living through a decline in global inequality. "This is the best story in the world today," the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said in 2015. And it comes as middle-class citizens of more affluent countries are also gaining access to an ever-wider array of foods, medicines, communication technologies, and more.

Though libertarians do not usually speak in theological terms, this surely contributes to the common good—what the Church defines as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily."

A key aspect of the common good is that "it's there for us all if it's there at all," says David Hollenbach, a professor in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who has written widely about this aspect of Catholic social teaching. "You can't take it and divide it up and give everybody a private piece of it—it's inherently shared."

Material well-being is part but not all of the story: "An increase in the gross national product is valuable for everybody," Fr. Hollenbach explains. "But it can get divided up into very definite pieces that some people get part of and some people get none of…. It's not enough to say the GDP grew and therefore the common good went up if half of the population is starving to death. So there's a distributive element as well."

But where are people actually more likely to starve to death, choke on pollution, contract malaria, or go without education—in industrialized countries with relatively unencumbered markets or in places that globalization has yet to reach?

"The proof of the pudding is always in the eating," says Robert Whaples, an economist at Wake Forest University and editor of Pope Francis and the Caring Society (Independent Institute). "In the systems where there are more economic freedoms, you see much more rapid economic growth. And if you don't think economic growth is important, you see a much more rapid drop-off in absolute poverty—and who's going to argue about that?"

'The Right Ordering of Economic Life'

All well and good, you may think—but man cannot live by bread alone. Papal teachings are rife with warnings about inequality ("the riches which are so abundantly produced…are not rightly distributed and equitably made available to the various classes of the people") and the rise of consumerism (we are "slaves of possessions" in a "throw-away culture"). As the Catholic writer Thomas Storck put it at The Distributist Review, "Do we recognize that the fall of our first parents has affected our appetites for external goods just as much as our appetite for sexual pleasure, and that a free-market…is much like free sex or free love, in that both regard the appetites of fallen mankind as fundamental axioms of human behavior"?

For more than a century, the church has held that "the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces." Are good Catholics not required, then, to accept government wealth redistribution and other economic regulations—that is, to reject fundamental tenets of libertarianism?

I do not believe we are. The particular program of aggressive public intervention favored by many on the left is not the only answer to social ills. Individuals working creatively through private institutions provide an alternative, and people exercising their values in the market can also be a check on the market.

In the first great social encyclical, "Rerum Novarum," in 1891, Pope Leo XIII taught that men and women can solve most problems by forming "associations and organizations" and working together in goodwill. Public authorities should step in when suffering "can in no other way be met or prevented," but they "must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil." Even almsgiving "is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law."

It is true that the church sees state intervention as at least occasionally necessary. Many libertarians also think government has a (small) legitimate role to play—making sure contracts are enforced and assaults are punished, for example. But more to the point, the church has never tried to enumerate the precise conditions under which government institutions should take over. Official teachings are intentionally vague on this question, calling for "a wise provision on the part of public authority" (without fleshing out what would make an intervention unwise) and "a just and rational co-ordination of public and private initiative" (while leaving lay Christians to make prudential judgments about what such a system might actually look like).

In "Octagesima Adveniens," in 1971, Pope Paul VI wrote explicitly that "in concrete situations…one must recognize a legitimate variety of possible options. The same Christian faith can lead to different commitments." Or as Michael Novak and Paul Adams put it in Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is (Encounter Books), Christians are impelled to give "a central place" to concern for the poor, but we do not have "a moral mandate to support any particular policy or party line on how best to help the poor."

While the church's authority on moral questions is the bedrock, it seems clear that some additional political theory is needed to help us know when government can, should, or must leave private individuals and groups to figure things out on their own. Libertarianism is such a theory—one that gives a presumption of liberty to virtually all peaceful behaviors.

The Moral Imperatives of Freedom

To be free is not necessarily to be consumed with oneself. On the contrary, libertarians understand that freedom can be morally, not just materially, empowering. A robust state makes complacency easy: Some far-away institution with billions of dollars at its disposal is responsible for solving that problem, not me. If instead we have a shared expectation that civil society is on the frontlines and that our choices have meaningful consequences, each of us is challenged to step up.

As I was researching this article, a controversy ignited within American politics: News broke that the Trump administration had begun separating immigrant children from parents caught entering the country in unauthorized places, sometimes holding them in detention centers thousands of miles apart. The ostensible purpose was to keep minors from getting caught up in prosecutions, which are being carried out under a "zero tolerance" policy for illegal entrants. But some Trump officials have acknowledged the real goal was to deter future crossings.

This development was a gut punch to me as a Catholic but also as a libertarian. Allowing goods and people to move freely is fundamental to my political worldview. The reasons for that are practical (trade and immigration allow resources of all kinds, from chewing gum to computer programming talent, to move to where they can be most productive) as well as philosophical (because I value liberty, I do not think the government should be able to prevent me from hiring, sharing my home with, buying things from, or selling things to another person just because he or she was born in a different country). I doubly oppose such restrictions when they impose human costs on an already suffering population—and if refugees fleeing humanitarian disasters do not qualify, it is hard to imagine who does. Yet the most powerful entity in the world was using force of arms in my name to tear foreigners' children away from them.

Until someone did something about it. "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news," Mr. Rogers famously said, "my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers.'" In this case, help came from Charlotte and Dave Willner and over 500,000 of their closest friends. That is the number of people who have donated to a fundraiser the couple set up on Facebook to support the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). They hoped to crowdfund $1,500, the minimum needed to post bail for someone detained at the border. To that end, the name of the page was "Reunite an immigrant parent with their child."

Eight days later, the couple had raised more than $20 million. By the time you read this article, the total will likely be much higher.

I tried to get in touch both with the Willners and with RAICES, but understandably—since it takes time and energy to process an outpouring on such a scale—I did not get a response. When the page had been active for less than 72 hours, however, the legal aid group posted an emotional message of gratitude: "We've been occasionally crying around the office all day when we check the fundraising totals," it read. "This is such a profound rejection of the cruel policies of this administration."

The incredible show of solidarity did more than provide money for a worthy nonprofit. With his executive order on June 20, President Trump partially backtracked on family separation. Parents are still being prosecuted, but they will now be held together with their children if possible. Though far from perfect, it is a start.

People often stare, eyebrows cocked skeptically, when libertarians say individual initiative and private generosity can be better than government largesse at solving collective problems. The doubters exhibit too little faith in the human capacity for miracles of caritas. Acts of kindness, small and large, are happening all the time for those with eyes to see. And they would happen more and perhaps in even grander ways if people were not frequently desensitized to injustice by the presumption that whatever can be done is already being done by the state.

'A Society of Liberty Under Law'

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order."

Compare that to the following from the Cato Institute's Boaz: "Libertarian thought emphasizes the dignity of each individual, which entails both rights and responsibility….It is not a claim that 'people can do anything they want to, and nobody else can say anything.' Rather, libertarianism proposes a society of liberty under law, in which individuals are free to pursue their own lives so long as they respect the equal rights of others."

In fact, there is significant overlap between what the church proclaims and what libertarians believe—which is startling, given that only about one in 10 libertarians identifies as Catholic.

Richard D. Mohr, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, once wrote in Reason that "we believe that government exists for the sake of the individual, rather than that the individual is to be viewed as a resource for society." Is that really so different from Pope John XXIII's "one basic principle" articulated in "Mater et Magistra," that "the individual is prior to society and society must be ordered to the good of the individual"?

To be clear, I am not saying libertarianism provides a complete and accurate picture of human anthropology. As I define it, libertarianism is merely a philosophy of government. It tells us about the proper role of the state, that entity Max Weber defined as holding a monopoly on violence. It cannot answer the far more numerous and consequential questions about how to "live well" in the private sphere.

There are, admittedly, disagreements among libertarians on a number of important questions. Some think we should not just limit the size and scope of government but abolish it altogether. They are called "anarcho-capitalists." A few believe people are never morally obligated to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. They are called "Objectivists." And so on. But these are all strains within a larger philosophical tradition. The common ground is a commitment to maximizing freedom from government coercion.

Critics sometimes aver that libertarians think interpersonal bonds "have to be cut" because they "limit freedom," to borrow Pope Francis' words. They think we deny that humans are social creatures who need each other in manifold ways. After nearly a decade in the liberty movement, I can say that this is simply not an accurate description. As Virginia Postrel, a former editor in chief of Reason, has put it: "The market is liberating. But it is not, as its critics charge, 'atomistic,' except in the sense that atoms have a tendency to form molecules, which in turn create larger structures."

Libertarians extol capitalism because it provides a framework for people to interact peacefully and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. (Have you ever noticed that after a commercial exchange, each party instinctively thanks the other?) As proud globalists, we want people who are struggling to escape desperate, backbreaking poverty to get the same material opportunities we are lucky enough to have. There is a thoroughly moral dimension to our worldview that is hard to miss when observed with an open mind.

In the final analysis, libertarians see the human person as worthy of respect. For the most part, they do not recognize the deeper truth: that this is so because we are made by God in His image and are incomparably valuable to Him. But in a real sense, without meaning to, libertarianism takes that idea more seriously than most other political philosophies.

In 1981, the free-market economist Julian Simon published The Ultimate Resource. His book challenged the notion, advanced over centuries by people like Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, that overpopulation would eventually deplete the planet and lead to mass starvation. Simon took a radically different view, writing that "population growth is likely to have a long-run beneficial impact on the natural-resource situation."

Though he was not Catholic, his reasoning has a remarkably Catholic quality to it. Simon believed in the immense potential of human ingenuity to address social problems. The bigger the challenge, the greater the incentive to find a creative solution. It follows that government attempts to curb fertility are deeply misguided if not immoral in themselves, the product of a "complete lack of imagination" on the part of lawmakers—because more people means more brains working away at making the world a better place.

"Our capacity to provide the good things of life for an ever-larger population is increasing as never before. Yet the conventional outlook—perhaps because of a similar lack of imagination—points in exactly the opposite direction," he wrote. The doomsayers "do not imagine the adjustments that individuals and communities," left to themselves, can make.

Libertarians believe that a program of freedom redounds to the benefit of us all. It fosters peace and prosperity while creating vast space for intellectual and moral pursuits. One might even say, in the words of the Catechism, that it helps produce the "conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily."

*CORRECTION: This piece originally misstated the number of people living in India and China.

Listen to me discuss this story on the Cato Daily Podcast yesterday and Sirius XM's Catholic Channel on Wednesday of this week.