Libertarianism Cannot Defeat COVID-19; Only Communitarianism Can

I have a friend who is something of a theological sparring partner. He and I don’t agree on much, but we enjoy each other’s company and have a good time debating points theological and political.

He is a Christian Anarchist. That is, he believes that any government that does not have the consent of all its citizens is immoral. This is not the system we live under, of course. Even in its better days, the American republic and its constitutional system have only ever really had the consent of a substantial majority. There has always been someone somewhere who thought the whole thing was wrong and should be tossed out.

And so, for my friend, ideally, people would be given the opportunity to organize themselves however they saw fit, provided everyone subject to that government agreed. This would not prohibit any particular form of government-only governments that lacked 100% consent. For example, Kansas could be run as a communist workers’ collective, so long as everyone in Kansas consented to this. Now, I was never able to get a satisfactory answer as to how it would work once children started being born into this system, but we’ll leave aside my quibbles for now.

I once asked him if he had identified any flaws in his political theory. Was there any case, any consideration that put a hole in his anarchist system of 100% citizen consent?

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “Plague.”

The Problem with Libertarianism

Plague and pandemic are a challenge to libertarianism, for libertarianism is ill-equipped to deal with pandemic. To be clear, I’m not talking about libertarianism such as it might be defined by the Libertarian Party or in formal political theory. I’m talking about the ordinary run-of-the-mill libertarian strain of American individualism that dominates much of our political thinking. It is difficult for a system built on self-interest to effect the behaviors that are required to stem the tide of infection.

Now, people will argue that libertarianism is built on enlightened rational self-interest. That means that when people realize that their decisions to sacrifice personal freedom ultimately benefit them (e.g., in not dying from disease), they will take the proper course of action. Our entire legal system is built on this idea of the rational actor-given access to the necessary information, people will make informed, rational decision and can be held accountable for those decisions as a result. It’s a wonderful theory apart from the part where it isn’t true. People are not rational actors; they’re intuitive actors who use reason to justify their preexisting beliefs.

The result of this is that people will not all do what they need to do in order to prevent the spread of contagion. In response, governments enact broad restrictions, stay-at-home orders, bans on gatherings, and so on, in order to effect the measures needed to combat a given outbreak. People chafe at these responses precisely because they are anti-libertarian. Because, it seems, they need to be.

But is our only option in such instances a choice between reckless individualism and government coercion?

The Communitarian Voice

Our religious traditions have long affirmed individual human dignity. From a belief in the human being as one created in the image of God to the prophetic critique of unjust authority and idolatrous power, there are plenty of sources of affirming the value and dignity of the individual person as a beloved child of God.

However, our religious traditions, place a high value on the group as a whole. Whether it is Judaism’s focus on the centrality of the people Israel, or Christianity’s concern with the Church, or Islam’s attention to the Umma, our western religious traditions place a high value on the community as a whole. Further, each of them promotes the value of humanity as a whole. The Great Commandment of Christianity, itself borrowed from Judaism, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In both Judaism and Islam is found the injunction that to save one life is to save the entire world. Our religious traditions are always compelling us to think of the other.

In effect, where our national political ideology elevates the ideas of rugged individualism and I-can-do-what-I-like thinking, the religious traditions respond with an emphatic: “It’s not about you.”

Or at least, they should be.

One of the great problems with the conflation of the interests of church and state is that the state’s ideology always seems to win out. The historic witness of the church, for one, has been replaced in many quarters with the exact same self-interested, atomistic view of the individual wherein it has become a religious virtue to defy the needs of the community or of your fellow human beings. In some quarters, selfishness has replaced charity as a primary Christian virtue.

But on balance, the great gift to our culture is the communitarian witness of the synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples of our land. They remind us that we are not atomistic islands of self-interest alone, but that we are connected one to another, bound up in relationships of mutuality and caring, united in a common humanity.

Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353). The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death.

This is the true role of religion in the public square: not to demand the enactment of a particular theological agenda but to provide the much needed communitarian voice in our public discourse. The voice that elevates us out of our narrow interests into the care and concern for the entire world, that reminds us that the Samaritan is our neighbor, the stranger our friend. That reminds us that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

These communitarian values help us to make the decisions necessary to prevent the spread of the pandemic. They help us to recognize when to subvert our individual desire to do whatever we want into efforts to preserve the common good-a good, it turns out, that we participate in. They help us to orient ourselves to positions of self-sacrificial love that may bring painful consequences on ourselves in order to protect and preserve the lives of others. These are the very values that inform decisions that the state must now compel so many of us to do.

Listening to that voice

It takes no more effort to accept the proposition that we belong to each other, that we are responsible for one another, that we are called to care for one another. It’s just a point that needs to be made as frequently as the point that we are all free individuals in charge of our own destinies.

We will make it through this pandemic and the next one after that. But only when we acknowledge that there is a “we” that matters. Libertarianism cannot accomplish that-my friend had long acknowledged that-but neither was it meant to. Its role is to preserve the rights of the individual and to advocate for personal autonomy-a vital and important role.

But when the crisis is the well-being of the entirety of the human race, Libertarianism is out of its depth. Only a Communitarian response will do. Only the ancient and enduring wisdom of the kind found in our religious traditions can provide the foundation for what must be a collective action.

You cannot solve this crisis. I can’t. But we can.

Originally published at http://sometheologica.com on May 28, 2020.

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

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