"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, November 09, 2015

Libertarianism vs. the Natural Law

The libertarian-minded Cato blog endorses Kara Hopkins' swipe at Michael Gerson's book, Heroic Conservatism:
[None of this is] to say that social justice isn’t a Christian concern. But Gerson is more stirred by abolitionists and activists like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr., and the sweeping social change they wrought, than he is by Christ’s own model, which was conspicuously short on political impact and long on individual acts of mercy. He implies that his giants—--poverty, AIDS, illiteracy, genocide—are too big for hand-to-hand combat. Thus the Biblical call to “do unto the least of these”—--the hallmark of which is personal sacrifice—--must be replaced by government programs—the wellspring of which is coercion. If this constitutes an act of worship, it honors a failed god.
Now hold on here. Me, I like Gerson. He speaks to a void in the GOP that many in the party feel. It’s important to know who Gerson’s target audience is.

Quite so that it’s impolite to invoke God to someone who doesn’t believe in Him. [Which is why arguing from “natural law” is becoming a favored method by believers: both Suarez and Grotius submit that the natural law exists independently of deity.]

The fact remains that a certain acceptance of the New Deal and even the Great Society is entirely within the center, the mainstream, of American politics, and to ignore that fact is to lose elections. So too, we’ll find enough in Adam Smith himself to justify concern for the poor. It’s a human thing, not just religious, not to mention prudent for the cohesion of a society:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it…That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane…the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
—--Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Now it’s true that Jesus didn’t order his minions to go rip off the rich man’s house and give the goods to the downtrodden. But as citizen-rulers in this here republic, just rule requires we look out for the little guy. One need not be a Christian to embrace that duty.

Gerson is simply speaking the language of many Republicans, the language of God, and that seems entirely proper since that’s where the God-ites tend to hang out these days. It may be so that he makes the libertarian wing uncomfortable with such talk, but they should heed Gerson if only for practical reasons, and in response to him, perhaps should try natural law arguments themselves.

For compassion is part of the natural law, of man’s nature, so there’s a structural problem here, and the libertarian-minded must tread lightly in making their practical [and sound] arguments. As Smith notes elsewhere about how man is wired, unless we admire the other fellow’s motives, we cannot hear his arguments or respect his deeds, no matter how much they accrue to another unfortunate man’s good.

Or as GK Chesterton put it, "Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it."

So easy with that libertarian bludgeon, Ms. Hopkins, et al. People vote with their hearts and not their heads. It's our nature, and it's not an entirely bad thing.
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1 comment:

Tim Kowal said...

There's a scene from the Simpsons where Homer's nemesis, Ned Flanders, opens a business and Homer wrestles with jealousy. He imagines the store going out of business, and then Flanders' going bankrupt, all to Homer's shameful delight. But when his thoughts briefly turn to Flanders' house catching fire and his family screaming in horror, his essential decency gets the better of him. "Too far," he mutters, and returns to imagining Flanders' economic discomfort.

Many Americans feel similar about New Deal and Great Society, I suppose. They see the programs aren't working as intended. Some, in their lower moments, might even imagine their demise would be a useful teaching moment. But in the end, their essential decency wants to see the least among us lifted out of poverty and given a chance for earned opportunity.