Refuting the Summa of the Libertarian Catholic – Part III.c –

Refuting the Summa of the Libertarian Catholic Part IIIThe Summa of the Libertarian Catholic, article III, makes three arguments in their attempt to unite libertarianism to the Catholic faith. They attempt a general philosophical argument, an appeal to papal authority, and also appeal to the writing of Saint Thomas Aquinas to support their position. Previous articles have already addressed the mistakes of the general philosophical argument and the misguided appeal to papal authority while also clearly demonstrating the weakness of the libertarian position. This article will examine the use of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s writings in support of libertarian ideals.

As a reminder, here is what the third article of the libertarian Summa states:

Article 3: Whether government promotes the common good.

Objection 1: Libertarianism cannot be correct because the point of life isn’t freedom from harm, it is to do good. Just as man’s purpose is not simply to avoid evil but to do good, it is the purpose of government to make men better by inculcating them with virtue.

Objection 2: It would seem that government is necessary to promote the common good as Pope Pius XII wrote in Summi Pontificatus, “it is the noble prerogative and function of the State to control, aid and direct the private and individual activities of national life that they converge harmoniously towards the common good.”

On the contrary: St. Thomas Aquinas states, “Human government is derived from the Divine Government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue” (ST II-II Q. 10)

I answer that: The absolute minimum for civilized society is the acceptance of Vulnero Nemo (harm no one) and the only legitimate purpose of government is to enforce this principle. In other words, the only legitimate role of government is to protect its citizens from harm to their negative rights. Whenever government steps outside its natural bounds it necessarily works against the common good.

The answer to the first objection states,

Answer to Objection 1: It’s true that freedom from harm isn’t the purpose of life. We are called to do more than just not harm people. We’re called to do good and be proactive in love, but that’s not the domain of the government. Once the government attempts to assert positive rights or initiates preemptive war or stops victimless crimes, it is using illegitimate force. One cannot force another to be good and when one attempts that they do evil in order to promote good, a contradiction.”

Following references of Aquinas, which will be examined below, the libertarian Summa asserts a highly problematic position,

“To force the Church’s moral theology on people takes away free will and negates any possibility for a moral choice in the matter. God gave us free will; he intended us to use it.”

And finally, the answer to the second objection,

Answer to Objection 2: Government should be ordered toward the common good but whenever it steps outside of its only legitimate role of protecting against the infringement of negative rights, it necessarily does harm to the common good. The more government seeks to help people through its bureaucratic coercion, the more it harms those very people. We see this everywhere it’s tried from East Germany (in contrast with West Germany), North Korea (in contrast with South Korea), Venezuela and to a lesser extent in US cities. The bureaucrat’s intent may be right in promoting positive rights toward the common good, but it has the opposite effect…”

The passages utilized to maintain the position of Saint Thomas Aquinas being a proto-libertarian are these:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. – ST II-I Q.96

Aquinas later elaborates, “…in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.” Hence, though unbelievers sin in their rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of some good that ensues therefrom, or because of some evil avoided.” – ST II-II Q.10

Take note that these two passages come from different places in the Summa Theologica. This is relevant because the questions being addressed by the Angelic Doctor in these sections are different and do not support the position being advocated for here by the libertarian Summa. As already clarified in previous articles, ST II-II Q.10 is examining the question of “Whether the Rites of Unbelievers Ought to Be Tolerated?” which of course has nothing to do at this point with the arguments being put forth in the third article.

At first glance it might seem as though the highlighted passage from ST II-I Q.96 supports the libertarian position, but this is only the case if a cursory reading takes place. It is important to examine what Aquinas argues prior to question 96 in order to get a better understanding of his teaching.

Question 92 of the Summa Theologica considers the effects of the law, and the first article examines “Whether an Effect of the Law Is to Make Men Good?”

First, consider the objections:

Objection 1. It seems that it is not an effect of law to make men good. For men are good through virtue, since virtue, as stated in Ethic ii. 6 is that which makes its subjects good. But virtue is in man from God alone, because He it is Who works it in us without us, as we stated above (Q. 55, A. 4) in giving the definition of virtue. Therefore the law does not make men good.

Obj. 2. Further, Law does not profit a man unless he obeys it. But the very fact that a man obeys a law is due to his being good. Therefore in man goodness is presupposed to the law. Therefore the law does not make men good.

Obj. 3. Further, Law is ordained to the common good, as stated above (Q. 90, A. 2). But some behave well in things regarding the community, who behave ill in things regarding themselves. Therefore it is not the business of the law to make men good.

Obj. 4. Further, some laws are tyrannical, as the Philosopher says (Polit. iii. 6). But a tyrant does not intend the good of his subjects, but considers only his own profit. Therefore law does not make men good.

Aquinas proceeds to offer his views against the objections,

On the contrary, The Philosopher says (Ethic. ii. 1) that the intention of every lawgiver is to make good citizens.

I answer that, as stated above (Q. 90, A. 1 ad 2; AA 3, 4), a law is nothing else than a dictate of reason in the ruler by whom his subjects are governed. Now the virtue of any subordinate thing consists in its being well subordinated to that by which it is regulated: thus we see that the virtue of the irascible and concupiscible faculties consists in their being obedient to reason; and accordingly the virtue of every subject consists in his being well subjected to his ruler, as the Philosopher says (Polit. i.). But every law aims at being obeyed by those who are subject to it. Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is that which makes its subjects good, it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect. For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply. If, however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not simply good, but useful or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to Divine justice; then the law does not make men good simply; but in respect to that particular government. In this way good is found even in things that are bad of themselves: thus a man is called a good robber, because he works in a way that is adapted to his end.

Finally, Aquinas answers the objections directly,

Reply Obj. 1. Virtue is twofold, as explained above (Q. 63, A. 2), viz., acquired and infused. Now the fact of being accustomed to an action contributes to both, but in different ways; for it causes the acquired virtue; while it disposes to infused virtue, and preserves and fosters it when it already exists. And since law is given for the purpose of directing human acts; as far as human acts conduce to virtue, so far does law make men good. Wherefore the Philosopher says in the second book of the Politics (Ethic. ii) that lawgivers make men good by habituating them to good works.

Reply Obj. 2. It is not always through perfect goodness of virtue that one obeys the law, but sometimes it is through fear of punishment, and sometimes form the mere dictates of reason, which is a beginning of virtue, as stated above (Q. 63, A. 1).

Reply Obj. 3. The goodness of any part is considered in comparison with the whole; hence Augustine says (Conf. iii) that unseemly is the part that harmonizes not with the whole. Since then every man is a part of the state, it is impossible that a man be good, unless he be well proportionate to the common good; nor can the whole be well consistent unless its parts be proportionate to it. Consequently the common good of the state cannot flourish, unless the citizens be virtuous, at least those whose business it is to govern. But it is enough from the good of the community, that the other citizens be so far virtuous that they obey the commands of their rulers. Hence the Philosopher says, (Polit. iii. 2) that the virtue of a sovereign is the same as that of a good man, but the virtue of any common citizen is not the same as that of a good man.

Reply Obj. 4. A tyrannical law, through not being according to reason, is not a law, absolutely speaking, but rather a perversion of law; and yet in so far as it is something in the nature of a law, it aims at the citizens’ being good. For all it has in the nature of a law consists in its being an ordinance made by a superior to his subjects, and aims at being obeyed by them, which is to make them good, not simply, but with respect to that particular government.

Aquinas’s arguments in this article alone demonstrate that he cannot be placed within the categories of modern libertarian theory. First, Aquinas argues that the purpose of the law is to make men good, which the contemporary libertarian credo is directly opposed to in principle. As the libertarian Summa clearly states, “To force the Church’s moral theology on people takes away free will and negates any possibility for a moral choice in the matter. God gave us free will; he intended us to use it.” Second, the reply to the second objection indicates that the threat of force can result in a citizen following the law and therefore resulting in their conforming to the common good, which accomplishes the purpose of the law by making men good. Contemporary libertarianism, however, decries not only the illegitimate use of force, but also the threat of force. The denunciation of the threat of force puts the libertarian position at odds with that of Aquinas. Finally, the reply to the third objection indicates that it is not enough to examine the goodness of the person in a dichotomous way of private and public acts of virtue. This dichotomy is a sort of Cartesian dualism applied to social realm whereby a person might be able to get away with an unusually debauched habituation in their private residency, but be lauded as an upstanding citizen in the public sphere of judgment. But this makes no sense given the fact that a moral person does not suspend virtue when no one is looking. The goodness of a person is examined in a holistic manner in relation to the common good of the entire community. The law may not succeed in making men good in every instance, but it can promote the virtues of a society toward that end by binding specifically scandalous vices through the force of law.

In order to counter these arguments, the libertarian might respond by saying that Aquinas clearly indicates that the law cannot stamp out every vice, and therefore the law cannot be used as a cudgel in a totalitarian manner. This rejoinder, however, is not a serious reply because it renders insignificant the serious discrepancies between what a modern libertarian might consider to be an allowable vice as opposed to that of Catholic moral teaching. For example, a libertarian could argue (and most often does argue) that a person should be allowed to do drugs, indulge in pornography, or even visit prostitutes just as long as these actions are not infringing on the rights of others in the community. This list of libertine activities, however, ignores the fact that these actions inexorably result in the destruction of the moral fabric of a flourishing community because they reduce men to slaves of their passions. A community of degenerate cohorts is antithetical to the advancement of the common good since the common good will unavoidably be destroyed from within by these vices.

Another argument that could be made by the libertarian would be that Aquinas might argue that while prostitution, for example, is clearly immoral there might be an instance where legislating against these illicit activities would create a greater evil in society, therefore sound judgment would require a laissez-faire approach to the issue. This argument also fails to establish Aquinas as a proto-libertarian because it misunderstands the nature of an argument based on prudence and potentialities of societal circumstances with the absolutist negative rights claims of the modern libertarian position. As indicated above, article III of the libertarian Summa states that the government cannot in principle extend its powers beyond the legislative boundary of protecting negative rights. Any time such action is taken, the libertarian Summa argues, the state necessarily works contrary to the advancement of the common good. This would mean that crafting laws that would outlaw prostitution could not be enacted in principle, even if a prudent examination of social circumstances would suggest otherwise.

The above evidence and argumentation indicates that the use of Aquinas’s writings to support modern libertarian political, economic, and ethical theory is to misuse the teachings of the Angelic Doctor. In addition to this, the three general arguments offered by article III of the libertarian Summa have been shown to be failed attempts at uniting the Catholic faith to these noticeably modernist liberal political doctrines.


– Lucas G. Westman


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