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Catholics, Libertarians, and Coerced Charity


A few weeks ago, the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America hosted a conference entitled, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.

Unfortunately, I learned about the conference too late to attend, but for the life of me I cannot understand how a Catholic can be anything but a libertarian.

Let’s consider, first of all, the concept of charity.

Libertarians believe that charity should be something entirely voluntary. That is, we believe that people should be free to decide for themselves what to do with their own money — save, spend, invest, donate, or whatever.

We believe that it is morally wrong to force people to care for others. We believe that it is also morally wrong to forcibly take people’s money from them and give it to the poor or others in need.

Let’s assume that you’re walking near an ATM machine. I hold a gun to your head and force you to go to the ATM and withdraw $10,000 from it. I take the money to a part of town in which people are suffering desperate poverty. I give a little bit to everyone.

I’m a good person, right? So is the person whose money I took, right? We have both helped the poor, right?

I think most people would disagree. They would say, “Jacob, you’re just a thief. You had no right to forcibly steal someone else’s money. The fact that you gave the money to the poor is irrelevant. You need to confess your sin and be punished for your crime.”

So far, so good. Even the most stalwart statist would undoubtedly agree.

The problem arises when government is introduced into the equation.

Libertarians hold that moral principles are immutable. If it’s wrong to force people to be good and caring or to steal their money in order to give it to the poor, it remains equally wrong when the state uses its force to accomplish the same result.

Statists hold to the contrary. They say that while it’s morally wrong for individuals to force others to be good or to steal money and give it to the poor, the situation changes when it’s instead the government doing such things.

How do statists justify this? They say that government represents the collective will of the people in society, well, at least in democracies. Since the majority rules in a democratic system, statists hold that the majority can legitimately force everyone to care for the poor. According to statists, the process of doing so reflects the good and caring nature of society and actually makes everyone in society more compassionate.

Let’s see. Suppose that the government overwhelmingly approves a law that forces everyone in the United States to attend religious services on Sunday. The rational? That church attendance will encourage people to be more moral and more compassionate.

So, what’s wrong with that? Let’s even assume that 95 percent of the citizenry approves the measure.

Even the most ardent of statists, I think, would find such a law objectionable. Why? Because of the principle that man has been endowed by God (or nature) with certain fundamental rights — that is, rights that are immune from majority vote.

Among such rights are deciding for yourself whether to attend church on Sunday. The fact that 95 percent of the citizenry wants to force people to attend church and the fact that church attendance might be beneficial to society is irrelevant. Religious choices lie outside the realm of the democratic will of society, even if most people personally decide against attending church services on Sunday.

But why shouldn’t what a person wants to do with his money fall into the same category? It’s his money, isn’t it? Why isn’t that as sacred a right as what a person does with his religious decisions?

Indeed, isn’t that what the great God-given gift of free will is all about? Sure, God tells us that His second-greatest gift is, Love thy neighbor as thyself, but He certainly doesn’t force anyone to comply with His commandment. He leaves people free to make the choice on their own. Under what authority does Caesar — the organized means of coercion and compulsion we know as the state — interfere with the process of choosing whether or not to love or help one’s fellow man?

Consider the young rich man who approached Jesus and said that he was following all the laws and commandments. He asked Jesus what else he could do. Jesus responded by telling the man to sell everything he had and to give it to the poor. Unable to let go of his attachment to his wealth, however, the young man walked away dejectedly.

What did Our Lord do? He let the young rich man go. Christ respected the fact that it was his choice to make. That’s what free will is all about — the right to make the wrong choice with respect to the broad range of peaceful choices that confront people throughout their lives, including whether or not to help the poor, the elderly, or anyone else in need.

Now suppose a modern-day statist were somehow transported back in time to that particular episode. It’s not difficult to imagine what the statist would exclaim:

Lord, don’t let him get away with that. He is a rich man. We need to seize him and force him to be good and caring. We need to take away his wealth and distribute it to the poor. We need to equalize wealth. Centurion, seize this man and take him to the tax collector for treatment.

In the process of doing that, however, the statist denigrates God’s great gift of free will. By not letting the young man make the choice on whether to help the poor or not, the statist has destroyed the person’s free will.

Statists sometimes forget that the real nature of government is force. They block out of their minds that what they are really doing is endorsing the killing of a person who refuses to help the poor. The only reason we don’t ordinarily witness such killings is because people submit to the force rather than be killed. But behind every act of state-coerced charity is the threat of killing the person who refuses to be charitable.

Here’s how the process works. Suppose a person says, “I refuse to pay my Social Security taxes because I have the right to decide for myself whether to honor my parents or help the elderly. If I choose not to do so, that’s my right under the principle of free will.”

What happens? We all know what happens. The IRS places a lien on his home. The man still refuses to pay his Social Security taxes. The IRS forecloses the lien and conducts a foreclosure sale. The home is sold at public auction to the highest bidder, who receives a foreclosure deed to the property. He is now legally the new owner of the house. He knocks on the front door and asks the man to get out of his home. The man refuses, saying that it’s his home. The new owner secures a court order of possession and returns to the house, only this time with a team of well-armed law-enforcement personnel charged with the task of enforcing the court order. The man refuses to voluntarily relinquish possession of the house and resists arrest by meeting force with force (e.g., with a gun).

At this point, the statist will scream: “Kill him for resisting arrest!” And they will kill him, and they will call it resisting arrest. But in actuality, they will have killed him for refusing to participate in the state’s scheme of coerced charity. The man is dead because he chose not to participate in the state’s coerced-charity scheme known as Social Security.

Statists exclaim, “But we have to force people to be good and caring because they won’t do it if left free to make the choice on their own.” What they are essentially saying is that God made a mistake when He vested man with free will. If God had known how bad and uncaring mankind was going to be, statists think, he never would have given man free will. So, statists say, it’s incumbent on the state to fix God’s error by instituting a system that forces people to do the right thing.

How in the world can a Catholic in good conscience support the concept of coerced charity, given that it constitutes a grave denigration and destruction of God’s great gift of free will as well as a violation of God’s sacred commandment “Thou Shalt Not Steal”? Indeed, how can a Catholic be anything but a libertarian, given that libertarianism honors and protects God’s gift of free will by leaving man free to decide whether what to do with his own money, including the choice of donating to the poor or not?


This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.