Catholic journalist and apologist Mark Shea is a good acquaintance, really, but when he gets a bug in his bonnet, the results are rarely pleasant. Lately, on his immensely popular website, he’s taken to railing against the “blasphemous individualism” of libertarianism – an ideology for “selfish people with no kids.”
When readers of a laissez faire bent protested the generalization by pointing out that they give to charity and … have children, he called them “inconsistent libertarians” and denounced their ideology as a “photo negative of Stalinism and communism:” one imposes a crushing obligation to the state, the other to the self. Shea then demonstrated what some might consider a troubling familiarity with the demonic by explaining that old Scratch “always sends lies into the world in pairs so that, fleeing one, we might embrace the other.”
I relate this here not to mock Shea, but to demonstrate what I’m up against. I’m to both explain and defend the phenomenon of pro-life libertarianism, more popular south of the 49th parallel, but surely not unheard in the nation of the big red leaf. Some readers will think it an oxymoronic idea and dismiss it out of hand. How can an ideology which defends selfishness also defend the unborn? How can the bastard stepchild of anarchism promote moral norms?
Call it a paradox if you wish, but as someone who’s flirted with joining the church of Rome, the parallels between Protestant misunderstandings of Catholicism and general churchy misgivings about laissez faire types are striking, and they usually boil down to an utter lack of hands-on experience. In some rarefied reality, the pro-life and libertarian ideals may be set against each other. But in our very messy, muddled world, I don’t see the contradictions.
True story: Several years back, when I was a student at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, I was the editor of the student paper’s letters section. Members of the pro-life club – one nurse and one English major – submitted an article which explained that the birth control pill can function as an abortifacient. It encouraged students to seek alternative means of avoiding pregnancies.
In the editing process, either through an honest mistake or a deliberate act of sabotage, the piece was stripped of documentation. It was also turned into a point-counterpoint, with a typical feminist copy editor writing the rebuttal. She argued that: (a) philosophers can’t agree when personhood begins; (b) the Catholic church once opposed tampons (she said that, honest); and (c) the pill can cut down on acne, so pop away.
Now, I had not an opinion one way or the other about the pill. But, as a libertarian, I believed in free speech with very few caveats and no cheating. When members of the pro-life club came to me and explained what happened, I ordered them to carpet bomb the paper with letters to the editor. For the next two issues, the letters section forced the rest of the paper to eat an enormous amount of baked, fried, and pickled crow. Control of the forum was eventually wrested away from me for my insubordination, but the point had been made.
Pop quiz: Was it (a) my libertarian principles – specifically, that I detest gatekeepers who try to gag the opposition in a debate – that caused me to rock the boat; or (b) was I being a suddenly selfless “inconsistent libertarian”? As you attempt to answer that question, bear in mind that I’m really not most people’s idea of a nice guy.
Granted, this incident might be a chance overlap of pro-life ends and libertarian ideals, but it illustrates what anti-war critic Jim Henley has said about why classical liberals are so prickly at times: “We are all moralists at heart.”
Libertarians make a big deal about government regulation of drugs, and trade, and video games for a number of reasons, I’m sure, some of them no doubt selfish. But the main cause of our outrage, and of our persistence past when many people would’ve called it quits, is that these intrusions offend our moral vision of how the world should work. Provided people don’t harm others – and it had better be demonstrable harm, none of this second-hand smoking stuff – the government should get off of our clouds.
Most Christian critics of libertarianism tut-tutt at its celebration of individualism, but as my colleague Shawn Macomber has argued, it cuts both ways. In order for classical liberal philosophy to place such importance on individual decisions, it has to vest individuals with tremendous importance. It must assign them rights, work out a basis for those rights, and sort out what happens when the claims compete. In fact, at some point, it begins to sound like that “dignity of the human person” that Catholic apologists love to go on about.
The impact of this analysis has not been lost on libertarians with regard to the unborn, if this author’s experience is in any way representative. My home in the Washington, D.C., area is a nexus of free market economists and libertarian think tankers, and the circles I move in are lousy with the latter-day apostles of Adam Smith. To pilfer Mencken, I couldn’t heave an egg out of a Pullman window without hitting a libertarian, though doing so would arguably violate the non-initiation of force principle.
The D.C. libertarian scene isn’t a hotbed of pro-life activism, but it sure surprised me. I expected a stony-faced pro-choice consensus and instead got long conversations trying to work out that messy area where ideology and life collide. And I was surprised to hear relieved admissions that they were pro-life as well. I sometimes describe my politics as pro-life and pro-drugs, to which one surprised correspondent recently replied, “I thought I was the only one.”
Jeremy Lott is assistant managing editor and assistant web editor of The American Spectator.