View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Problems with "small government" libertarianism (and doubts about Ron Paul)

Small government is a nice-sounding ideal. But as is often the case with “nice-sounding” things, the reality is sometimes something quite different.

The small-government mantra voiced by libertarians and their fellow travelers (usually Republicans) like Ron Paul is a euphemism for minimal government interference with individual rights – especially as they pertain to property - and even more, with business.

Libertarianism is basically a materialist philosophy that emphasizes ownership of resources and property. Libertarians oppose taxation and favor a laissez-faire economic system.

Laissez-faire economics relies on nonintervention by the government in individual or industry business affairs. The belief is that if businesses are left alone, competition, the market place and individual effort will lead to prosperity and freedom. Adam Smith argued that individual welfare was more important that national power, and that the “invisible” hand of competition would act as an economic regulator.

So the small government folks are really calling for government to keep their hands of how they run their businesses.

It sounds nice, as I noted. And in its less radical forms, it provides a lens to view government policies.

But there is a problem: Human nature.

If all people acted in moral, ethical ways, the system would work. But for every individual who acts that way, there are others who take advantage of the system for their own gain – the selfish philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand and her children – and others who are swept along by the selfish intentions and actions of others.

Think of the corporate greed of the late 80s – or in 19th century England. Money is made into the god, the end that justifies all means.

Moreover, look at the social implications. If the goal is maximizing profits for my own gain, and if there are no government or ethical limits - other than what the marketplace will allow, or some vague notion of not hurting others -- then I can do what I want in my business.

If I choose not to serve people because they are black, or Middle Eastern, or Catholic, I can.

If I want to underpay and exploit my workers, I can.

If I want to produce goods that are not of high quality, I can.

If I want to have unsafe work conditions, I can.

If I want to pollute without interference, I can.

If I want to conspire with other business owners to set prices higher than they need be or quality lower than it needs be, I can.

If I want to sell drugs, or my body, I can.

It is freedom without responsibility (except to myself and my desires).

Yes, the marketplace may decide that what I am doing is wrong or of poor quality – but sometimes consumers don’t pay much attention, don't know, or they don’t have much of a choice.

And I love the “small government" because it does not have the power or will to stop me.

That’s the danger of the small government philosophy.

Historically, the dangers are well documented.

What we need is a balance between freedom and social responsibility. And sometimes that responsibility requires government to step in.

As for libertarianism and Catholicism, the Church has not condemned it outright, but it has clearly been critical of it, especially in its most extreme forms.

In 2002, for example, the Vatican released The Church and the Internet in which it states "The ideology of radical libertarianism is both mistaken and harmful. The error lies in exalting freedom 'to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values.... In this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear.'"

And in his homily before ascending to the Papacy, Pope Benedict XVI warning against the moral relativism of modern secular life and urging the cardinals to withstand the "tides of trends and latest novelties ... from Marxism to freemarket liberalism to even libertarianism, from collectivism to radical individualism, from atheism to a vague religious mysticism ... and so forth."

So I look at Ron Paul with a skeptical eye – given the pattern of neglect that some Republicans who worship “small government” have wrought.


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