What’s a Recovering Libertarian?

At a recent family reunion, sitting over pizza at a Pizza Ranch – one of the great Iowa institutions where politicians come to meet Iowans before the Presidential Caucuses to explain their political views and aspirations – my niece asked me to explain my political leanings. (1) What is Communitarianism? (2) How does it differ from Libertarianism? and (3) Why do you call yourself a “recovering Libertarian”? (That’s in my Facebook profile). Those are difficult questions because both movements are rather amorphous and the simple definitions don’t explain anything.

  • Libertarians, for instance, include people primarily interested in small government (my thing, if you’re curious) as well as people primarily interested in the decriminalization of drugs or a whole variety of other activities. It’s an extremely big tent.
  • Communitarianism, similarly, covers a lot of ground. It’s primarily a Roman Catholic movement promoted by groups such as the Chesterton Society; but it also includes back-to-nature localists, grown up hippies who want to live off the land, and anti-urbanists.

How does one succinctly compare and contrast two such disparate movements? (Especially when distracted by “Cactus Bread”!)

A while ago another relative handed me a CD with a set of lectures by (Notre Dame professor) Thomas F. X. Noble, on the history of the papacy. I’m Orthodox, so (he thought) I would obviously be interested in these lectures. Well, not so much, but one ought to be polite, so I listened anyway. Actually, they turned out to be pretty darn good.

It’s too bad I hadn’t listened to the lecture about John Paul II before sitting down to pizza with my niece. That lecture cut to the heart of why I consider myself a recovering Libertarian (and a practicing Communitarian, even though I’m not Roman Catholic).

I am a small government sort of guy because I think that local institutions are better suited to doing many of the tasks that the U.S. Federal government has co-oped for itself. That was my attraction to Libertarianism. What I came to realize is that Libertarians were radically individualistic and in that sense were not the inheritors of Jeffersonian classical liberalism. In spite of the rhetoric, they were far more interested in the absence of government than its structure. More Nietzschean than Lockean, the Libertarians were committed to a personal autonomy that is not very compatible with Christianity.

With this background I turn to the lectures by Thomas Noble:

John Paul II castigated aggressive individualism and acquisitiveness. He wasn’t opposed to wealth or capitalism per se, … What he was really critiquing was the modern secular tendency to place the isolated individual on a pedestal; to take that individual out of all social connection and all social responsibility. ‘It’s all about me, isn’t it?’ ‘Well,’ John Paul said, ‘no it’s not actually,’

I became Libertarian because I thought that the Libertarian Party and Libertarianism in general was about reining in American federal messianism, the government gone mad with power, under the control of the two major political parties bent on growing the influence of government at home and abroad. What I discovered is that what Libertarians were actually about was placing “the isolated individual on a pedestal,” as well as the “removing of all social connection and responsibility.”

Communitarianism, on the other hand, recognized that the local community, with all of its rootedness in place and people, was the foundation of political culture. Liberty is not an attribute of an individual (unless you equate liberty with solipsism), it is an attribute rooted in a community. Liberty does not define me, it defines my relation to those around me.

With that distinction in mind, let me continue the quote from Thomas Noble;

[John Paul II] was seeking a more authentic kind of community. Not the kind of community that’s forced by Soviet collectivization, but the kind of community that is formed by people thinking in the right kind of way joining together for the right reasons.

Following the line of Leo XIII and Pius XI in defending property and defending a living wage, he is harkening back to the notion that the rich have moral obligations to share with the poor.

Talking to the American youth at one of the youth rallies, John Paul II said,

The great gift Americans have is freedom, and freedom is the opportunity to do what is right, which confers on [us] the obligation to do what is right. Freedom gives us, not the liberty to do whatever we want but the obligation to do what is right.

I have always liked John Paul II. But in the past I’ve always focused on his critique of the “culture of death,” which I believe was one of his greatest gifts to the Western world. Until listening to Thomas Noble I had not realized JPII was such a staunch defender of subsidiarity specifically and Communitarianism in general.

I suspect I’ve had a sense for many years, which I’ve not been able to put into words, that Communitarianism was the correct political posture. It insists that governance (whether church or state) be carried out by the most local authority possible, thus shrinking and limiting national bureaucracy. At the same time it insists that institutions and community bonds are not bad, but are actually necessary to our well being because we were not created autonomous individuals. (That sense of autonomy is a result of the fracturing of sin. Read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, to see a great picture of autonomy gone horribly wrong.)

But being (1) an American and (2) a Protestant with that one-two punch of autonomy and private responsibility that they both celebrate, I had no framework in which to formulate a political philosophy that reflected my sensibilities. Not surprisingly, the church, with it’s long history of struggling for the truth against all manner of cultures and societies, had a long established political philosophy that was actually far more Christian than culture-bound.

That being said, I’m still an American and that Protestant mindset runs deep in my being, in spite of the fact that I left Protestantism behind almost two decades ago. That’s why I self-identify as a “Recovering Libertarian.”