Since about half of the American population detests what they call liberals, it would no doubt come as a surprise to them to learn that they too, or at least the vast majority of them, are as much liberals as the Hollywood and San Francisco types toward whom they harbor so much anger. In other words, almost all American conservatives are really liberals—as of course are also those who actually identify as liberals. In lieu of a long argument, as proof of this I offer the following from the free-market economist Milton Friedman, who wrote in his book extolling the virtues of market capitalism, Capitalism and Freedom,
It is extremely convenient to have a label for the political and economic viewpoint elaborated in this book. The rightful and proper label is liberalism. Unfortunately, “As a supreme, if unintended compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label”, so that liberalism has, in the United States, come to have a very different meaning than it did in the nineteenth-century or does today over much of the Continent of Europe.
As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez-faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world together peacefully and democratically.
Here we have the essence of liberalism, at least as it is applied to political and social matters: “freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society.” But like every other political and social theory this rests upon more fundamental philosophical postulates. Here I want to show how this commitment to political freedom is linked with one of the foundational principles of liberalism, the lack of inherent purpose in things.
The notion that everything acts for an end is a principle of the tradition of philosophy originating with Aristotle and which was appropriated and developed during the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas.
Technically it is called the principle of final cause, final referring to the end (finis) or purpose for which something acts. Aristotle and St. Thomas asserted this not only with regard to the conscious acts of human beings, but to everything, even plants and inanimate things. Of course they did not imagine that plants and rocks could think about what they did, but rather that their actions were not simply random acts dissociated from any pattern or inherent purpose. For if that were the case, Aristotle argued, if the movements of the natural world were simply accidental, then they would exhibit the confusion that obtains in things that do occur by chance. But in fact the natural world does exhibit order, the hallmark of purpose, although of course only in rational beings can that purpose assume a conscious character. Space does not allow me to deal with the attempted refutations of this made by many modern philosophers, and notably by Darwin who believed that the principle of natural selection could explain the order that philosophers saw in the natural world. Prescinding from any discussion of the truth of evolution as proposed by Darwin, I will simply point out that natural selection, far from eliminating final causes, simply pushes them back one stage. Darwin, without realizing what he was doing, supposed a final cause for at least all animate things, namely survival and propagation of their kind, and natural selection and the resulting evolution of species that he posited would be simply the means used by all creatures to attain an end which is really their final cause.
But what does all this have to do with freedom in the political and social order? If there are no inherent purposes in created things, if everything is a result ultimately of chance, then this has important implications for man and for human society. If man as the only earthly creature capable of conscious purpose has no particular end inherent in his very nature, no inherent tendency to live in society, no necessary subordination to the common good of society, then why should he submit to being ruled in his actions by anyone else? This question was the whole background of the eighteenth century revolt against monarchical authority, an authority which makes sense only if the monarch and his subjects are both obedient to the eternal law of God, as expressed in the natural law. As soon as the monarch is seen simply as someone more powerful who exercises a usurped authority obtained by force or fraud, then the argument for “the individual as the ultimate entity in the society” becomes irresistible. Why should individual A be able to tell individual B what to do if individual A has never consented to this? Only when kings, and governments in general, were seen as having God-given functions in human society and as guiding man toward his inherent and natural end, could one justify the traditional notion of political and social authority. Note by the way that this question is not about monarchy versus democracy. Rather it is about one’s whole concept of government. Monarchy or democracy is a question only about how a community designates those who represent the supreme political and social authority. Our question rather is about two fundamentally opposed notions of government. No matter how the government is chosen or constituted, is it merely a necessary administrative function whose purposes derive from the individual desires of the people, or is it a divinely appointed authority which fills a necessary role in preserving society and guiding individuals toward their natural ends? This is the decisive question in political theory.
The United States is firmly committed to the liberal theory. Governments derive “their just Powers from the consent of the Governed” and the purpose of government is simply to “secure” the rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Indeed, it would seem to follow from the argument in the Declaration of Independence that if any people did not think a government was necessary in order to safeguard those rights, then it would be perfectly just for it to have no government whatsoever. This seems to fit in very well with the logic of those libertarians who maintain that in actual fact government is not needed to procure the goods usually associated with it.
Milton Friedman saw clearly the nature and implications of liberalism. Thus he favored free-market economics and he likewise believed that abortion should be legal, and in general, that individuals should be free from legal restraints on their conduct, consistent only with the preservation of the social structure. Most Americans who call themselves conservatives do not think as clearly or consistently. While they want freedom in the economic realm they often support numerous restrictions in other areas, particular those that concern marriage and sexuality. To some extent this is because these latter areas are seen as operating under specific divine commandments and thus as constituting exceptions to the general social freedom that they otherwise espouse. Of course Holy Scripture is equally clear about restrictions on man’s economic behavior, but for the most part conservatives ignore those commandments or hold that they applied only in the past. And American liberals, of course, those who openly call themselves by that label, also favor “freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society,” but are as inconsistent as the conservatives in applying this to the social order, since although they see the necessity of seeking the common good in the economy, they conveniently forget this when it comes to questions of marriage and sexuality.
The older view, the view of Aristotle and St. Thomas, however, looked at individuals and society in a different light. Not only did they believe that there existed an inherent law of nature binding on individual men—a law accessible to natural reason, but reinforced by divine revelation—they also believed that human society itself was subject to a like law. Human society was natural, indeed the political order was natural. Neither was simply an accidental agglomeration of individuals. The political order existed in order to help man be virtuous, even to help him reach his heavenly home, not merely to preserve order or secure his rights. Indeed, the last of the rights as enumerated by the Declaration, the right to the pursuit of happiness, seems to enshrine the individualistic notion that the good is whatever an individual thinks it is, and no other human being ever has the right or the authority to restrain any other adult in pursuing his own notion of happiness unless he violates someone else’s rights.
The whole notion of Christendom, however, rested, as I said, on the notion that the good for man was knowable, and that the state had an integral role to play in attaining that good. This is not to justify a tyranny; St. Thomas is clear that it is wrong to make every sin a crime. Ironically Protestant America has frequently gone far beyond any traditional polity in prescribing and proscribing the conduct of individuals, e.g., by prohibiting the sale of alcohol, on the theory that when a specific divine prohibition existed this was an exception to individual rights and individual freedom. Perhaps this shows the special danger of a disconnected understanding of the law of God existing within a generally liberal understanding of law and society. The combination of the two can lead to some very strange permutations of law.
When we recognize that everything acts for an end, that the social order is natural and has its own purpose and role in perfecting man, we realize that it is false to say that “freedom [is] the ultimate goal and the individual [is] the ultimate entity in the society.” The application of this to the economic order was summed up by Pope Pius XI in these words:
For it is the moral law alone which commands us to seek in all our conduct our supreme and final end, and to strive directly in our specific actions for those ends which nature, or rather, the Author of Nature, has established for them, duly subordinating the particular to the general. If this law be faithfully obeyed, the result will be that particular economic aims, whether of society as a body or of individuals, will be intimately linked with the universal teleological order, and as a consequence we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good. (Quadragesimo Anno, §43)
The economic order is not rightly seen as simply the sum total of individual choices and desires; rather it is part of “the universal teleological order” by which “we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good.” This is the assumption, or rather the clear insight, of the Catholic view as embodied, among other places, in Holy Scripture, in St. Thomas, in the papal social encyclicals. Things have “ends which nature, or rather, the Author of Nature, has established for them.” The universe and the natural order are not the results of chance, still less is human society the chance outcome of numerous individual and fundamentally conflicting desires. Certainly there is a legitimate place for freedom in society, but it is not the highest place. The state and the social order have important roles in guiding and coordinating men toward heaven and in governing their actions toward virtue. Liberalism denies these truths and seeks to found a social order on individuals and their conflicting notions of the good and on their presumed right to pursue their own individual ideas of this. The libertarian argument against any government is simply the logical working out of the liberal principle and shows clearly the presuppositions of that theory. But this is opposed to the traditional Christian notion of human nature and of the nature of society. If Catholics attempt to combat the many ills of modern society, either in the economic realm or elsewhere, within the confines of liberal political and social theory, then we will necessarily be defeated. For we cannot win with a theory that at the outset stands against all that the Church and Christian tradition have maintained. Liberal theory leads only to libertarian practice, it does not lead to the Catholic notion of the state. For that we must look elsewhere, to the papal encyclicals which embody that teaching, to St. Thomas and other theologians and philosophers who explain it. Although it might seem convenient to try to make use of liberal theory to fight the Church’s battles today this is an extremely short-sighted approach. No doubt it will be difficult to explain and justify the traditional approach to our neighbors and fellow citizens, but that can be all for the good, for they have certainly never heard it anywhere else. So in the modern world that the Catholic Church most decidedly did not build that is the onerous task that Almighty God has given us. If we attempt it, whether we are successful or not, we at least will know that we are doing the works of God as he has given us to do them.