A TENSION BETWEEN libertarian individualism and pursuit of the common good characterizes all Western liberal democracies. This tension is nowhere more acute today than in the United States, where the forces of libertarian individualism are far more powerful than in Europe, or than they have been in our country at any time since the late 19th century. But Christian tradition affirms that human beings are social, cannot flourish in isolation, and should seek the well-being of the whole rather than merely their own well-being—and that government exists especially to pursue the common good of the whole community.
By “libertarian individualism,” I mean the belief that societies and their governments are a necessary evil: Individuals are what matter, and all that these lone rangers seek from their neighbors is to be left alone to pursue the “good life” as they define it. Individuals reluctantly choose to give up a little of their freedom—as little as possible—to governments, whose very limited purpose, according to this view, is to provide the security services that are absolutely necessary to prevent threats against persons and property.
Laissez-faire capitalism in its pure form extends the same kind of thinking to corporations. What might be called “corporationist individualism” views a business as a kind of individual actor that should be left alone to pursue its goals.
Understanding this vision helps us make sense of the rhetoric and policy proposals of the major players in the Republican Party today. The reason Ron Paul can argue for the abolition of major government departments, such as Education and Housing and Urban Development, is because he believes providing such services is no proper business of government. One reason many Republicans want a flatter tax structure is because the idea of progressive taxation—where the wealthier pay at least a marginally higher tax rate than the poor—enshrines a vision of government in which its actions seek to contribute to a more level economic playing field. But such a goal, from a libertarian point of view, is completely inappropriate for government to pursue.
Such individualism is a relatively recent innovation, traceable at its earliest to the 17th century. It is a mere child compared to the much older, and much preferable, Christian theological-ethical tradition of the common good. The stark contradictions between the two visions became noticeable quite early in the emergence of modern liberal democratic capitalism. These differences eventually evoked fierce battles on the part of Christian leaders to curb the worst excesses of libertarian and corporationist individualism.
The Catholic social teaching tradition is one important voice that affirms strong commitment to the common good. I resonate deeply with this tradition when it affirms that God created humans as social rather than solitary creatures; that the well-being of the individual is inextricably connected to the well-being of all; that all Christians must be interested in contributing to “social conditions which allow people ... to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily”; and that “the role of the state is to defend and promote the common good,” as the Catholic catechism puts it.
The upsurge of libertarian individualism is wrong theologically, wrong ethically, and wrong in terms of the public policies it inspires. It will and must be challenged by the common good tradition.
David P. Gushee teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia.