The errors of economic liberalism have been a topic for many distributists for a very long time. However, these errors have generally been attacked on their own, as if they were standalone propositions with little philosophical basis. It is rarely noted that those errors rest on underlying philosophical propositions, propositions which themselves may be erroneous. By correcting the principles of these errors, we may correct the errors themselves, and even other errors that have yet to be seen.
One of the root errors of economic liberalism is known as individualism. Individualism is a complex topic, but it is essentially the notion that the individual human being is the fundamental unit of human society. Associations of individuals, including the state itself, are formed by individual free choice for individual advantage. Man does not need societies by his nature, or if he does he needs them only for his own personal advantage. He certainly doesn’t belong to any by his nature.
If this is true, then economic liberalism has indeed a very strong support; for if man does not need society, then what justification is there for society, including the state, placing itself into his affairs against his will? Under the principles of individualism, everything argued by the economic liberals, the capitalists, makes perfect sense. There could be no legitimate interference in the individual’s actions by the state, except to ensure that the individual didn’t impinge anyone else’s independent pursuits. Thus, a more or less absolutely free market, and more or less unbridled competition, would be the appropriate situation for man.
But is it true? Is man really a unit unto himself, sufficient unto himself and without natural membership in any society?
2. The Principles of Individualism
Individualism is fundamental to classical liberalism, which is really just a particular application of it. It regards society, in particular the state, as at best a necessary evil; the only good societies are the ones that man deliberately and consciously enters based on his own calculations of his own rational self-interest. There is no such thing as a society to which man belongs by nature; that is, simply by virtue of his being a man. He belongs to societies only by his free choice, or by force.
The theory comes in soft and hard varieties. One of the earliest and most famous of the “soft” thinkers was John Locke, a seventeenth-century English philosopher famous for his “natural right” theory of property and very influential among the founders of the American republic. Locke held that society exists solely for the benefit of its individual members, stating that “[t]he commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing [of] their own civil interests.” By “civil interests” Locke meant simply “life, liberty, health,…and the possession of outward things.” Locke held that “all civil power, right and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things.” The state has only these rights because only these rights have been given to it by its members, members who prior to freely deciding to enter the state existed in what Locke calls “the State of Nature.”
Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, curiously subtitled salus populi suprema lex esto, very explicitly holds that man by his nature exists in a state of complete anarchy. Locke held that the
state all men are naturally in, …is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
Locke does subject men to the “law of nature” even while in the state of nature; however, it’s clear that Locke believes man to be a part of no society whatsoever by his nature, and that is the material point. As if to quell any doubt on this score, Locke affirms the point explicitly:
I moreover affirm, that all men are naturally in that state [of nature], and remain so, till by their own consents they make themselves members of some politic society.
For Locke, even the family is only a partial exception to this rule. He admits that children are not really born in the state of nature, but are in fact born in a society (though he does not name it as the family). However, he states that although “[c]hildren…are not born in this full state of equality [in nature], …they are born to it.” As soon as a child has grown sufficiently to cast off that society and become a free agent himself, he is no longer part of that society and is himself in a state of nature. The child owes to his family (the only parts of the family Locke references specifically are father and mother) only “respect, support and compliance” insofar as his father has incurred “care, cost, and kindness in his education,” just as a man owes his landlord money only insofar as he’s used that landlord’s land. There really are no exceptions to this principle in Locke’s philosophy; man by his nature is simply an autonomous individual, owing nothing to anyone except that which he freely contracts for himself.
Locke does admit that God “put him [man] under strong obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination to drive him into society,” specifically naming marriage as an example. And it’s interesting to note that even Locke, who is demonstrably hostile to Catholic thought in general, can easily see that the primary end of marriage is procreation, and takes that principle as a given without any argument. But even that society called marriage is simply one that has been formed by the parties themselves; not merely consented to by them, but in fact designed by them. They have a right to divorce in any case when “natural right, or their contract allows it,” and the terms of that contract are not made by God, but rather are “made by themselves in the state of nature, or by the customs or laws of the country they live in.” For Locke, marriage is really just another society, entered into by parties by free consent. There are no exceptions for him; “no one can be put out of this estate [of nature], and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” Man isn’t made to be in society; society exists to serve man’s individual requirements, man does not exist to be part of a complete and just state.
So why hasn’t anyone actually observed anyone in a state of nature, or anyone freely agreeing to leave that state to join a civil society? Neither today, nor in 1690, has anyone ever actually seen a group of individuals totally equal and perfectly free, not submitting to the authority of any other man, get together and agree to submit some of that freedom to a civil government à la the Second Treatise. Locke dismisses this rather damning critique by saying that this is unsurprising, given that man can only get the leisure to write history once he’s already part of a society that has done that. Locke then briefly discusses a few dubious instances of his theory actually occurring, including some American Indians, whom he alleges had no governments except when they felt like it. The inadequacy of his response is evident: the first part makes his theory unfalsifiable; and the second is historically questionable at best. Furthermore, even if his historical examples were accurate, it hardly proves his theory correct, as the events could be interpreted in hundreds of different ways.
Given Locke’s theory about the formation of civil government, one must further wonder what is to prevent a man from simply withdrawing his allegiance to that government. Since he entered it only by his own free will, surely he can leave it by his own free will just as easily? Take, for example, the child born under a government. When he reaches his majority, according to Locke’s theory, he must freely consent to the authority of the society in which he lives. Is he free to withhold that consent, and live in a state of nature? Perversely, Locke says that he is not, and that the authority of a state, once constituted, extends “as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.” Those who exist within that territory give the state their tacit, even if not explicit, consent to its authority. He can only separate himself from the authority of that state by divesting himself of any land he owns and leaving its territorial confines. This is, of course, really simply coercion, but a coercion that Locke allows. But though he is inconsistent on this point, Locke certainly believes in the principle that man lives in society only when he consciously decides to leave the state of nature and join one; that is, that man is fundamentally an individual, by his nature unbeholden and unobligated to any other man.
But why does man ever leave the state of nature? He evidently does so, and does so much more often than not, since we very rarely if ever find men actually living in that state. He does so for the preservation of his property. Property is a natural right according to Locke, existing even in the state of nature. But in the state of nature, it is difficult for man to protect his property. There is no established set of rules for that preservation; there is no neutral judge for deciding disputes about property; and a man often lacks sufficient physical power to redress offenses against his property. These three reasons compel man to abandon the state of nature and freely agree to enter society; the authority of the state does not extend beyond fixing those problems with the state of nature. Indeed, it’s impossible for the state to have any authority beyond fixing those three problems, “for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse.” For Locke, this is what the state is for: preserving the property of its members.
Locke does occasionally use terms like the “common good” or the “public good”; however, it is clear that by those terms he means securing for individuals their rights to property by redressing these three evils of the state of nature. Locke says so specifically:
The supreme power [of the state] cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent; for the preservation of property [is] the end of government, and that for which men enter into society.
Yet elsewhere Locke states that government has “no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people.” Clearly, Locke equates “public good” with “preservation of individuals’ property”; for him, the two are the same. It is important to remember this definition of the common good—which is, by and large, the Enlightenment’s definition—when we examine what is meant by “the common good” in Catholic thinking later on.
The founders of the American republic thought largely the same way. John Adams, for example, argued forcefully for the importance of protecting property, holding that
[t]he moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.
That is, an individual’s right to his property is of the same importance and sanctity as the laws of God themselves. And our modern economic liberals certainly agree that the role of society is simply to guarantee property rights, if it has any role at all. The most radical of such thinkers, indeed, hold that the state doesn’t have any role at all, precisely because it violates property rights. Rothbard is an excellent example of this type of radicalism; if Locke is representative of “soft-core” individualism, which holds merely that government is purely voluntary and is limited solely to protecting individuals’ property rights, Rothbard is representative of “hard-core” individualism, which holds that the state has no legitimate role whatsoever because by its very nature it infringes individuals’ property rights. Rothbard held this principle so thoroughly that he denied the possibility of crimes against the community entirely. He further held that all taxation is by its nature theft by the state from its subjects. The state, the society par excellence, “is a coercive criminal organization that subsists by a regularized large-scale system of taxation-theft.” Rothbard argues that “[t]he State is in no sense required by the nature of man; quite the contrary.”
Rothbard, of course, does not deny the necessity of society; however, he argues that the necessity of society does not imply the necessity of the state. Rothbard’s society is “the voluntary interrelations of individuals, in peaceful exchange and on the market.” The state, on the other hand, is a coercive institution with no benefit and great detriment for society. Rothbard admits that man is a social animal, but he denies emphatically that this extends to communities which are not purely voluntary in nature. He calls the connection between society and the state “[t]he great non sequitur committed by…classical Aristotelian and Thomist philosophers.”
This individualism, whether Lockean, Rothbardian, or some other, entails a view of the state and of society as nothing more than an amalgamation of individuals, each of which is pursuing his own ends. (As such, it is a version of pluralism.) For example, one liberal thinker, writing in a very prestigious liberal and Capitalist journal, referred to the state as merely a “habitat.” Indeed,
[T]he benefits of a market social order [Capitalism] …depends on a social theory based on a view of society as a habitat, and …alone can explain and rationalize not only the market economy but also liberal democracy, political pluralism, and a wide variety of “liberation” movements.
The individualist cannot admit any view of the state as an organic whole, as a single thing which exists for a particular end. Admitting such a view means that all forms of individualism, including Capitalism, must fall. Rather, the state is merely a collection of individuals, each of which pursues his own particular good as he sees fit. The state exists, if at all (and we have seen that some believe it should not exist at all), should simply prevent all these autonomous individuals from stepping on each others’ toes. It certainly has no business trying to direct and order individual actions toward any particular end of its own.
There are many variations between schools of individualism, some even less extreme than Locke and more extreme than Rothbard. But all schools of individualism have a few traits in common. Most significantly, they all believe that individuals choose to enter society, and the only legitimate societies are those which are constituted by the free consent of their individual members. Societies do not exist by nature, but are formed by individuals, and individuals form those societies for their own individual goods, not for any good external to themselves. If individualism in this sense is correct, then economic liberalism is also correct; if the individual enters society for his own purposes, to protect his property in himself and his goods, then it would be morally wrong to force him to act for the economic good of another against his will. But is it correct? What does Catholic philosophy tell us about individualism?
 John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (William Popple trans., 1689), available at http://www.constitution.org/jl/tolerati.htm.
 John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), available at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/extext05/trgov10.txt.
 Id., Sect. 4.
 Id., Sect. 15.
 Id., Sect. 55.
 Id., Sect. 67.
 Id., Sect. 77.
 His Letter Concerning Toleration is teeming with this hostility. See Locke, supra note , in which Locke makes an exception from religious toleration for the Catholic Church, because its members “deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince,” calling the distinction between the Pope’s temporal and spiritual powers “frivolous and fallacious.”
 Locke, Second Treatise of Government, supra note , Sect. 78.
 Id., Sect. 82.
 Id. This is the man so revered by the founders of our Republic; one wonders what our modern conservatives would say about the state defining marriage as it wills in light of Locke’s words here.
 Id., Sect. 95.
 Id., Sect. 101.
 Id., Sect. 102.
 Id., Sect. 119.
 Id., Sect. 121.
 Id., Sect. 124.
 Id., Sects. 124–26.
 Id., Sect. 127.
 Id., Sect. 131.
 Id., Sect. 138.
 Id., Sect. 131.
 See infra, Section 3, at 9.
 John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States (1787), available at http://www.press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s15.html.
Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty 51, fn. 1 (New York: 1998), available at http://www.mises.org/rothbard/ethics.pdf.
 Id. at 162.
 Id. at 172.
 Id. at 188.
 Id. at 187.
 A. M. C. Waterman, Market Social Order and Christian Organicism in Centesimus Annus, Journal of Markets and Morality 221, Vol. II, Iss. 2 (Fall, 1999).
 Id. (emphasis added).
 See, e.g., Rothbard, supra note , at 173 (arguing that “[i]n a truly free society, a society where individual rights of person and property are maintained, the State, then, would necessarily cease to exist”).