Why Liberalism Can’t Limit Government
A common liberal misconception has distorted the Thomistic view
An essay appeared today on the website Public Discourse that offered a defense of “limited government” on what was described as “Thomistic” grounds. When such defenses appear on websites such as Public Discourse, Law and Liberty, Acton.org, and the numberless astroturfed right-liberal websites, you can be virtually certain that such arguments deserve one response:
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The essay, written by Catholic University philosophy professor Melissa Moschella, was a distillation of “new natural law” arguments developed by John Finnis and Robert George. Another way of describing this project is “Whig Thomism,” the effort to wed the Aristotelian-Thomist philosophical tradition and classical liberalism.
Here is an example of the line of thinking deployed by Moschella to justify “limited government,” and a preference for personal liberty, on “natural law” grounds:
Finally (though this list is not exhaustive), because not all of the basic goods can be pursued to the same degree or at the same time, natural law requires establishing and following a reasonable order of priorities among goods in one’s own life and in the lives of one’s communities, based on personal vocation, organizational mission, and other circumstances. This implies that the freedom and authority to order one’s own pursuits and those of the communities under one’s care are crucial for leading a flourishing life. And it is also why a well-ordered political community is obligated to respect the freedom and authority of individuals and smaller groups to direct their own affairs, an obligation that natural law thinkers sometimes refer to as the principle of subsidiarity.
Note the swift move from endorsing certain “basic goods” essential to human flourishing, to the need to “follow a reasonable order of priorities among goods,” to the heavy lifting suddenly done by what follows from the word “implies”: the “crucial” need for “freedom [to] order one’s own pursuits,” and the “obligation” of a “political community . . . to respect the freedom and authority of individuals and smaller groups to direct their own affairs,” all linked finally to “the principle of subsidiarity.”
The entire paragraph is a non sequitur, in which the entire second half does not follow from the first. Yes, Aquinas acknowledges that requirements of the natural law must admit of prudential application—such as the great difficulty in eliminating prostitution from human societies. But this is a different claim from suggesting that such prudence “implies” that “political communities” are “obligated” to give a place of primacy to the “freedom and authority of individuals to direct their own pursuits” or “affairs.” The political order, rather, is in the first instance obligated to organize itself through law (or through upholding of custom) that rightly directs people toward their ends of flourishing.
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