Self-Government, Political Economy, and the Christian Tradition.

AuthorGochenour, Zachary Jacob
  1. Introduction

    Christian political thought has a long, contentious history as it relates to self-government. Questions like "What type of government shall we have?" "How do we keep the government from becoming tyrannical?" and "What shall be the citizen's role in his own governance?" have occupied the minds of Christian writers as much as or more than they have the writers of any other tradition. This paper explores the Christian and specifically Catholic contribution to the discussion of self-government. What is self-government and why should we desire it? What is the relationship between self-government and property? What does Church authority have to do with self-government, and what does the Church have to say about the proper role of secular governance in promoting or limiting self-government?

    Our contribution extends to connecting Christian thought on self-governance to the Enlightenment or liberal conception of self-government. As economists we are particularly interested in potential conflict with or overlap in the Christian conception of self-government and modern thinkers working in public choice, constitutional political economy, behavioral political economy, and new institutional economics. What insights does modern social science give us into the Christian view of self-government?

    Section 2 explores the evolving Christian conception of self-government and its relationship to alternative conceptions. Section 3 discusses the relationship between Catholic social teaching and self-government in the modern era, with emphasis on guidance for secular governance and the role of private property. Section 4 discusses the relationship between property ownership and self-government in the Christian tradition.

  2. On Self-Government, Christian and Otherwise

    Self-government is a defining characteristic of Western liberal political philosophy. What then is self-government and why should we desire it? Rousseau attempts to answer these questions: "The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before" ([1762] 2009, location 212). At the individual level it is the political recognition of free individuals to the rights of self-reliance and self-determination. Collectively it is the ability for communities to solve their problems without outside interference.

    The institutional setting of self-government draws its authority from the individuals who initiate its existence. Individuals within a self-governing society must possess a self-reliant disposition that limits the institutional government to a domain outside what local self-governance can accomplish. The interplay between self-governing individuals and restrained institutional government creates a web of interdependencies informed by the will of its individual members. Without these qualities, alternative institutional settings may produce tragic results: "Where self-government does not exist, the people are always exposed to the danger that the end of government is lost sight of, and that governments assume themselves as their own ends," writes Lieber (1883, p. 253). The features of self-governing societies produce protections for the individual and his liberty.

    1. Characteristics of Self-Government

      At its core, the concept of self-government emerges from the idea of autonomy, (1) an individual's ability to independently and authentically define oneself (Jelen 2017). Self-government requires freedom from undesired coercion such that individuals are free to choose those things by which they may self-define (Buchanan 1979, p. 112). As an extension, collective self-government features institutions that allow for self-definition in ways that do not cause social unrest (De Tocqueville [1835] 2003). The encounters of autonomous individuals within institutional government allow for the emergence of the sympathies necessary for well-functioning government. As a result, the competing freedoms become tempered in a manner that reduces the occurrence of conflict due to competing individual and collective passions.

      The Christian understanding of self-government also emerges from the tradition of autonomy. The difference between Christian and secular conceptions of self-governance comes from the foundational assumptions about the self and reality. The fundamental aspect of the Christian understanding of reality is that God is the omnipotent Creator of all and that humanity is created in His image. From this understanding flows the Christian conceptions of autonomy and self. While secular autonomy focuses on the expression of the self and the authority of state agency via collective expression and consent, Christian autonomy focuses on the personal acceptance of desire for a covenantal relationship with God. Through this relationship, humanity in its individual and collective capacities (and the entirety of creation) realizes its autonomy:

      If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order (Paul VI 1965, sec. 36). The Christian self reaches fulfillment in relation to God. God created humanity in His image, and this is the source of human dignity (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994, sec. 356). Because God created humanity to love and serve Him, humanity cannot express true individuality outside of its relationship with God or others (John Paul II 1995, sec. 35).

      To join the covenantal relationship between God and man, Christians must seek objective truth made available to human reason by God. In the Roman Catholic tradition, this intelligible version of the truth is known as natural law. Natural law "expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body" (Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith 1987, introduction, sec. 3). Using human reason, we may apply the truth revealed through natural law in ways that free us from the entanglements of base desires (Catechism 1994, sec. 1954). In this way, Christian self-governance encounters the virtues, such as temperance and prudence. (2) For Christians, self-discipline is not simply a part of the expression of sympathy with other individuals in a social group. It is an essential part of the Christian definition of freedom. Christians must be free of moral impediments as much as they must be free of undesired influences that shape character:

      The human person cannot and must not be manipulated by social, economic or political structures, because every person has the freedom to direct himself towards his ultimate end. On the other hand, every cultural, social, economic and political accomplishment, in which the social nature of the person and his activity of transforming the universe are brought about in history, must always be considered also in the context of its relative and provisional reality, because "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace 2004, sec. 48) In the exercise of their freedom, Christians do not become independent of God. Humanity is not free to determine good and evil for itself and must still submit to the universal law created by God (John Paul II 1993, sec. 35). It is in this submission that humanity finds its freedom.

      Just as there are many denominations of Christianity, there are many foundations for ethics, definitions for the self, and understandings of reality. For example, the main denominations to emerge out of the Reformation, Lutheranism and the Reformed, reject natural law with few caveats. The rejection of the authority of tradition and human reason in addition to the acceptance of the authority of scripture led the Protestant denominations to place the foundation of ethical thinking within the holy scripture, restricting access to right thinking to members of their congregations. (3) To examine their arguments and the foundations of their beliefs would go beyond the scope of this work.

    2. Relationship to Liberalism

      The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.

      --J. S. Mill, On Liberty, p. 10

      As we have shown, the Christian conception of self-government does not put aside the social aspect of the individual. It is through the various interdependencies within which individuals find themselves that the Christian realizes the responsibilities necessary to make freedom fulfilling. These responsibilities place demands on both the individual and society to work for the common good. The Church defines the common good as "the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection" (Paul VI 1965, sec. 74). For today's liberal status quo, self-government has come to be synonymous with self-determination and individualism. Dependence on others and, necessarily, unchosen obligations toward others are not compatible with a completely liberal worldview. But as Catherine Pakuluk (2016) writes, "in a society founded on a constitution of liberty of dependence, one should...

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