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Different Kinds of Liberalism: Chesterton and Burke v. Storck

I very much appreciate Thomas Storck’s response to my essay on the two Catholic camps. I regret, however, that Storck does not discuss the word “liberalism” with more nuance.

Storck writes that “liberalism is responsible for both” the evil of legalized abortion and the public deconstruction of marriage. He continues, “We cannot at the same time encourage the gratification of greed and restrain the gratification of lust. We cannot have economic liberalism and at the same time a ‘culturally conservative’ social order.” Storck equates gratification of greed with economic liberalism. I would then suspect that the gratification of lust would mean some form of political liberalism. Well, if these are the only forms of liberalism, I would want nothing to do with them; but this construction is a false dilemma.

Consider economic liberalism. Storck writes that throughout Catholic Social Teaching is:

[A] rejection of the notion that fundamentally all that is needed are market forces plus a legal framework that helps make these market forces function efficiently. Intermediate groups such as guilds, worker participation in management, coordination between unions and owners, proper regulation on the part of the government—the popes have offered all these suggestions … But [a Catholic] is not free to suggest that market forces are fundamentally productive of justice or sufficient to regulate the economy.

I happily agree with everything written above, and would even go further by saying that market economies make use of a social capital that they do not create and often erode. The advertising industry, for instance, seeks to reduce civil society into mere atomized individuals built for consumption. Here the market is an opportunity for an appetitive decadence. But such vices are rooted in our fallen nature, and would manifest themselves in any economic system.

The challenge is this, that the rule of law, the mores and intermediating institutions of civil society, and initiatives of private citizens provide a buffer between the market and realms of value wherein certain things (life, marriage, and human dignity, for example) cannot be bought and sold. These realms of value are known in a traditional social order. Classical liberals such as Adam Smith and David Hume saw a tension but not a fundamental contradiction between a traditional social order and a competitive market—the virtues necessary for the latter are fashioned in the former: trust among strangers, for example. Shopkeepers cannot do business without trusting that the customer will reciprocate for the purchased good.

Regarding political liberalism, the distributist G.K. Chesterton writes in “The Ethics of Elfland”:

I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity … This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common.

This liberalism consists in human beings meriting some form of civic participation and republican accountability (i.e. democracy) since all human beings in any given community share the same form and finality independent of one’s position in the social echelon. And given a community that is formed to coordinate for achieving common human goods, civic membership should be prudentially extended to all individuals sharing that common nature and common ends. Achievement of this extension of social membership can be informed by natural law reasoning and the moral witness of the Catholic Church.

But another kind of liberalism (i.e. social contract theory from Locke to Rawls) is problematic: Since human beings are individuals prior to the communal order, the basis for self-government justifies the breakdown of inherited social capital as a means to try and achieve greater self-government. This consequence, among many others, is problematic for faithful Catholics and cultural conservatives. Edmund Burke made the critique that these theories abstracted political life from our social natures and made men atomistic and singular rather than mutually dependent creatures. Burke continues that if society is a contract, it is “a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.” Burke describes a classical liberalism that finds humans rooted in the organic society that is subordinate to providential ordering.

Given Chesterton and Burke, there exists a liberalism consistent with right reason and revelation. Extension of economic and political liberalism into all-encompassing worldviews would be an American heresy. But one can take them to be prudent means—of negative liberty for the sake of trade and civic liberties under the rule of law—when rightly ordered toward proper ends known by natural reason and revelation. As Chesterton writes in What I Saw in America: “The unconscious democracy of America is a very fine thing. It is a true and deep and instinctive assumption of the equality of citizens, which even voting and elections have not destroyed.”  Liberalism gone awry can be reeled in, and it exists in modes that can be informed by prior allegiance to Catholic and natural law principles.


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  • I agree with this critique, although a small redress for Mr. Shinkel… the full embrace of capitalism, efficiency, growth, productivity, etc is not about “liberalism” per se, that seems like an over-simplified appeal to the average Catholic who considers himself a “conservative”, and also it is blaming a ghost of Christmases past. The current ogre is really, neoliberalism. (And when we attack the word “capitalism” too, and despite fact that many conservatives would say we do not really have capitalism, they emerge to fight like hungry wolves anyway… 🙂 )

    For reforms of economy or education or government, we should not be closing off erstwhile allies, whether on the left or right, with either simplified labels, or a focus on histories.

  • Aaron Taylor

    Agreed, with the basic idea. Not so confident that “liberalism gone awry can be reeled in” … good luck with that!

  • lyle

    do you People ever discuss religion, and the implications of teaching others wrong, evil, has great consequences to your soul, and the soul of others? Religion is more than obedience to laws, its a acceptance to follow Jesus, pick up our cross that recognizes salvation rests on struggle and pain.. denial of our wants and desires, but Gods will be done..