Liberalism Brings Slavery When It Confuses License with Liberty

In my latest essays I’ve noted that there cannot be a “social teaching” unless we know what a society is.  Pope Leo XIII, in his many social encyclicals, expresses the constant wisdom of the Church when he affirms the reality of society—neither a numerical aggregate nor a collective—and when he sees this reality as rooted in man’s nature, created by God.  For it is God, writes Leo in Libertas praestanstissimum (1888), “who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others.”

Leo is thinking not only of material goods, as needful as these may be, but of moral and spiritual goods.  For the laws that men enact cannot oblige us simply on utilitarian grounds.  “Authority,” he writes, “is the one and only foundation of all law,” and authority is of God.  Laws that enjoin good and forbid evil “by no means derive their origin from civil society; because just as civil society did not create human nature, so neither can it be said to be the author of the good which befits human nature, or of the evil which is contrary to it.”  This principle provides a check against the whims of ambitious men, whether they rule as monarchs, or as party leaders in a democracy.  We do not create law; we recognize it: “Laws come before men live together in society.”

Catholic Social Thought pt 8Law is the prerequisite for genuine freedom.  Leo’s reasoning is plain.  If freedom meant the capacity to choose anything at all, including evil, then God and the blessed angels would not be free.  But whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin (Jn. 8:34).  When man acts according to reason, “he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty.  Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions.”  Freedom is the unimpeded capacity to fulfill our God-ordained end.  Even the pagan philosophers understood the principle.  There is no freedom apart from justice and virtue.  The conclusion: “The eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty, not only in each individual man but also in the community and civil society which men constitute when united.”  True freedom does not consist in doing as we please.  That, in whatever arena we choose, the economic, the sexual, the political, the personal, is license, and license is slavery.  True freedom consists in doing as we ought.

The laws of the Gospel, says Leo, have raised men to “a state of holiness unknown to the ancients; and, bringing man nearer to God, they make him at once the possessor of a more perfect liberty.”  What was the greatest reproach of the heathen nations, if not slavery?  Yet that slavery, practiced universally, could not finally stand against the teachings of Jesus, who first asserted “the true brotherhood of man,” which the apostles echoed “when they declared that in future there was to be neither Jew, nor Gentile, nor Barbarian, nor Scythian, but all were brothers in Christ.”   But liberalism, Leo implies, introduces slavery all over again, by confusing license with liberty, and then by denying any reference to the divine law, that “most effectual barrier being opposed to tyranny.”  A vicious, profligate, and licentious “society” is no society at all, but a corral of slaves, regardless of their wealth or of such mechanical devices as the vote.

Now then, how shall we ameliorate the lot of the working classes?  I’ve written that one cannot enlist Belial to put down Beelzebub.  One must not hire a slave driver to defeat a slave driver.  The working classes must be free.  But freedom is far more than a negative against others.  Freedom comes from God and finds its flourishing and its end in God.  Law—the eternal law—is the precondition for human freedom.  And just as grace perfects nature, just as the preaching of the Gospel elevated the culture of the ancient pagans so that ordinary men and women attained to a heroism of holiness that the very imaginations of such worthies as Pericles and Cicero could not reach, so too the law of the Church exalts the relation between labor and capital, between working man and owner.  We are not talking here about political leverage, or about some abstract formula for the disposition of income.  We are talking about human beings, and the righteous Judge they must one day face, to give a reckoning of their deeds, good and evil.  “Exclude the idea of futurity,” writes Leo in Rerum Novarum, to which I turn for the remainder of this essay, “and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish.”

Freedom apart from law is a delusion, and law originates in God.  What, then, does religion teach the workman?  He should deal honestly and fulfill all fair contracts.  He should not damage the owner’s property, or threaten his person.  No riots, no disorders, no communion with men of evil principles.  And the owner?  I’d like to cite this passage in full, and mentally include all political leaders, teachers, advertisers, social workers; all who derive their livelihood from the work of the lower classes, or from their fealty, or their debility:

Religion teaches the wealthy owner and the employer that their work-people are not to be accounted their bondsmen; that in every man they must respect his dignity and worth as a man and as a Christian; that labor is not a thing to be ashamed of, if we lend ear to right reason and to Christian philosophy, but is an honorable calling, enabling a man to sustain his life in a way upright and creditable; and that it is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattels to make money by, or to look upon them merely as so much muscle or physical power.  Again, therefore, the Church teaches that, as Religion and things spiritual and mental are among the workingman’s main concerns, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings.  Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work-people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex or age.  His great and principle duty is to give everyone a fair wage.

     To deny a fair wage—to deny a workingman a wage fit to support his family in a way becoming to a human being—is a “crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.”  Now, to detach this sentence from the whole of Leo’s moral and social vision is to commit the very sin of the nineteenth century liberals who justified low wages on utilitarian grounds.  It is to forget what man is.  It will not do, then, for a government to hand money to some people, confiscated from other people, without taking any account of the ends for which we are made.  What Leo is trying to do here is to bind owner and workman together in bonds that are personal and religious; something that mere human law cannot do.  It will not serve to cure somebody of typhus if you are then going to infect him with pneumonia, scarlet fever, and tetanus.

The Church instructs us to avoid the near occasion of grave sin.  We’d then have to avoid almost every workplace in our land.  Convenience stores sell smut.  Instructors in public schools teach it.  Men and women in the army are thrust together in close quarters, with no regard to their moral welfare, or the welfare of their families.  Whole industries feed upon the weakness of the flesh; that includes the poverty industries.  Far from encouraging continence before marriage and chastity and fidelity within, the entertainment industry scoffs at such things, and thus steals from the poor their main source of capital—which is not monetary but metaphysical and moral.

The Church casts a cold eye on the farming of jobs out to sweatshops in distant lands; and a cold eye on the sweaty stews in lands whose wealth is wasted on vice and folly.  We must learn again to treat one another like the fully human beings we are, or should be.  What that means for the rich, I’ll turn to in my next essay.  And by rich, I do not mean only those with fat bankbooks.  That would let too many of us off the hook.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Patrick

    Working men have been surrendered, isolated
    and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of
    unchecked competition…so that a small number of very rich men have been
    able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little
    better than that of slavery.

    • TomD

      There is no such thing as “unchecked competition” within the modern American context. And the biggest “check” against business is the refusal of the public to frequent a business. No one is forced to do business with anyone. You may despise WalMart, for instance, but no one is forced to shop there. People freely choose to shop there. If you expect to influence people with your posts, you need to use rhetoric that is true, and not overly bombastic.

      • Proteios1

        Apparently, were forced to buy healthcare insurance.

    • Mark

      As cold as it may seem at first, we are only worth what it costs to replace us. When we are in the position of spending our money for services (plumber, auto mechanic, grocery store etc.) none of would spend than necessary if all other things are equal.

      Even in relationships, all other things being equal, low maintenance always beats high maintenance.

    • Alecto

      I strongly suggest you read Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey’s book on conscious capitalism. It’s a model for all businesses. And, when the populace is misled by nefarious political leaders into believing they’re entitled to anything they haven’t earned, that is the beginning of slavery. Working men and women surrender themselves.

  • crakpot

    I would add that an obligation for those who derive their livelihood from workers, meaning the owners and especially the ruling class, is that they should not present obstacles to workers who want to take risk, start their own businesses, and compete. Regulation is the primary mechanism of this bondage, creating monopolies too big to fail, which the ruling class eventually controls.

    As for workers who don’t want to take the risk, they should accept that they will have to compete with workers in foreign lands who freely will work for less, while helping fight to free slave workers in other countries to do the same.

    • To Crakpot: My father was one of those Democrats who never moved but found that their party had taken up residence in Moscow, San Francisco, and Sesame Street. He liked Harry Truman and hated FDR. He hated the Social Security tax for being regressive, he didn’t like big business, we all knew the unions were corrupt (my uncle was the machinist in a non-union shop whose workers were constantly worried that the ILGWA would either shut them down or make them go union — they knew they had things much better as they were), he was a church-going Catholic who believed that a vow was a vow and that was that. Anyway, he told me when I was still a boy that although big business complained about regulation, they actually profited by it, because they would act in collusion with politicians to write the regulations. Those would hurt everybody initially, but the smaller businesses have a lot less money to spare for compliance, so eventually the big businesses would prosper by shoving the smaller businesses over the brink. We could ask, for instance, just what was the health risk from the many thousands of local and independent dairies that used to dot the United States? These weren’t put out of business for inefficiency. They were remarkably efficient, after all. They delivered local milk, fresh, in bottles and not cardboard or plastic, to your house, regularly. But they could not compete against the combo of the big milk businesses and the FDA. The dairy my father worked for when he was a boy was one of those put out of business by an unreasonable one-size-for-all regulation.

    • Alecto

      Why should Americans be forced to compete with foreign workers here? Catholics have no
      problem employing illegal aliens, and in fact the bishops encourage it. What about the poor guy (or gal) who is
      running a business trying to compete with a low wage cheater who
      circumvents the law? The Catholic bishops, who live in a bubble, talk out of both sides of their mouths about illegals on one hand, whom we are supposed to welcome because they just do the jobs Americans won’t do, and which allow businesses to compete unfairly, and then talk about “fair wages” and “justice”? The irony is astounding.

      “Fairness” and “justice” are ignored by the bishops when we talk about the invisible unemployed – there are 24
      million of them now – who with mortgages, families, student loans,
      elderly parents, perhaps health problems or any number of other
      obligations are trying to compete with H1bs and other
      visa holders, illegal aliens, to the tune of 2 million
      additional people in the U.S. annually? We haven’t created that many
      jobs every year for the past 4 years. And yet, to read the statements on the USCCB or any
      diocesan website, we’re immoral and evil for refusing to “welcome the
      stranger”. The nerve! The unmitigated nerve of those men! Those bigots, those bounders. Taking the bread out of children’s mouths and the roof over their head! You tell the 42 yr old white guy at the food bank with 3 kids who is
      about to lose his home because he’s been laid off to make room for
      Chandrakapur Gottimatelli from Bangalore who will work for 30%-60% less (whom he has also had to train),
      about competing with foreigners.

      • You won’t get any disagreement from me on that score, Alecto. The principle of subsidiarity applies here, too. The people of a nation have the right to protect themselves from unconstrained immigration. I don’t really put much stock in what any national conference of bishops says, because I don’t find that entity in the scriptures or in the CCC. I also take quite literally the command that we love our neighbor. Jesus did not tell us to shaft our neighbors so as to “love” people a thousand miles away.

      • crakpot

        I agree Americans should not have to compete with workers in our country illegally. However, workers here have to understand that it would be wrong to force the customers for whatever their company is making to buy from them. As well, it would be wrong to force their employer to use employees for certain tasks as opposed to subcontracting it out. Competition among free peoples is good.

  • Alecto

    The problem with the Catholic church getting involved in these issues is that it alienates business owners, and entrepreneurs by painting them all as guilty, greedy capitalists. I reject attempts to reduce complex economic transactions and relationships to simple catholic boxes. The constant message from the Catholic hierarchy about “preferences for the poor” are dangerous. Jesus did not redeem the poor; he came for all, rich and poor, men and women; everyone. By constantly dividing everyone into these preferential groups, the Church has succeeded in alienating many.

    • Ford Oxaal

      But what about Leo XIII — the teachings presented here are sound. They simply need to be dovetailed with natural law discoveries regarding supply and demand and “fair” trade. Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think the bureaucratic church-speak “social” musings that come from the American bishops council are authoritative. God is obviously working in mysterious ways with this body — maybe revealing in the fullness of time who’s naughty and who’s nice.

      • Carolyn McKinney

        Aren’t the musings from the USCCB authoritative by virtue of the fact that they come from a group of bishops, all of whom are part of the Magisterium and have inherent teaching authority within the Church? Of course, there is a difference between infallible sacred Magisterium and the noninfallible declarations of bishops, but most people (Catholic or not) don’t really understand that distinction, which I think is probably the problematic part.

        • Ford Oxaal

          We do know that teaching authority belongs to individual bishops, and to the universal college under the pope. Ratzinger was of the opinion that there is no teaching authority to the conferences, that faith and morals cannot be taught by vote, and that the conferences are collegiate only in an informal sense. Then there was Apostolos Suos which dealt with some of this. I think there are some ongoing “issues” here, but I have only a very cursory understanding.

          • Carolyn McKinney

            Your understanding is surely more than mine. Thanks for the clarification!

          • rich

            Yes! Conferences have only been around for 50 or so yrs. and have never been part of the Magisterium!

    • TheodoreSeeber

      If you actually read the teachings and do not try to fit the round peg of Leo XIII into the square holes of Marx and von Mises, you will see he is actually calling for ALL men to be entrapreneurs in their own life.

    • rich

      I tend to agree. As a business owner, I many times told my employees that I wish I could pay them more! The reality was that they were being paid by what the job was worth not what they were worth and always incouraged them and never held them back from seeking a better paying job. Someone working at Mcdonalds can not and should not expect a living wage! why? Because as a Senior on a set income, I know if hungry i can get a burger,fries and a coke for under $3!!! don’t consumers have rights to!

      • mm

        Rich, If you only knew at what a horrifying price you make your insistence!!!

        1. You are denying basic human rights and dignity to other humans to whom you should be acknowledging their equal dignity as you do to yourself;

        2. You have a duty to become aware of the terrifying cruelty to animals you are allowing: Have you ever visited the horrors of intensive farming of animals where they see no light of day? where the pens only allow the animals to stand and to have no space to lie down? of pigs reared in darkness; with standing-room only unable to rear their young normally? of chickens not allowed to forage in grass and animals not allowed to run around as nature intended?

        When you investigate, you will die of shock and shame!!!

        No Rick, we have an obligation as Christians, to be good custodians of the earth and have reverence for all God’s creatures and to treat them all with kindness.

        Forget the expediency. Consider what really is important. That way you will be able to live with yourself.

  • msmischief

    “The Church casts a cold eye on the farming of jobs out to sweatshops in distant lands;”

    blink, blink, blink

    Why? Are them furrieners not human? Do they not do the job because, unpleasant as sweatshops are, they have no better alternative? Indeed, the sweatshop job is often far better than anything else they can do. Some have the only choice of picking through garbage in a dump that’s often on fire. Why is it the duty of the employer to let them starve while maintaining his fellow countrymen in the manner of life to which they wish to become accustomed without the bother of learning to be more productive?

    If any country ever managed to industrialize without going through a sweatshop stage, that would be wonderful beyond belief. However, disliking sweatshops is no excuse for forcibly keeping people in grinding poverty doing bone-breaking labor.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Them “furrieners” are none of our politician’s immediate business. A country has to know its limitations, to paraphrase Dirty Harry. We should have stayed a closed economy, protected our borders decently, and other countries could then imitate what was good about us. Instead, we got greedy, dropped the ball, and traded family, motherhood, and apple pie for sex, drugs, and the big gov/corp feedbag, exporting manufacturing and labor overseas in the process. What is the average worker supposed to do, learn computer science? What a stupid idea that turned out to be.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      It is precisely the fact that the Church sees them as human- and EQUAL to you and me, that sweatshops are seen as bad. There is a lot less poverty in an agarian community than an industrial one, despite the technical luxuries available in industrialized countries. Poverty is relative. It is the difference between the rich and the poor that causes misery- in an agarian setting, everybody is poor.

  • Karen

    So, how do we get the arrangement between workers and employers you believe is correct? How does any of this work in real life?

    • Ford Oxaal

      You arrange it so that a hard working family can prosper and build up a legacy over three generations, not tomorrow. The reason Christian virtue took mankind from the stone age to the moon is because we could see past our own death, and struggle over many generations. Now we can’t. We want it all now.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      One way would be to regularize 1099 contracts in American Tax law and employment law. Inherently, a relationship between two businesses is going to be more just than any employer/employee relationship.

      • Alecto

        And of course, you would be the judge of what is “just”? Have you ever started a business? Run a business? Tried to get investors or capital? Put together cash flow statement or balance sheet, a business or marketing plan or determined what it takes to keep the business afloat? Innovated, engineered or created a product or a service? Obtained permits or licenses, for which the requirements are stringent in many places? Made a payroll? Gone without so your employees were paid? Paid income, property, payroll taxes, health benefits or anything else? If the answer to any of the above is “no”, what makes you think YOU can judge which employer is just, sir?

        The 1099 is a construct which exists and is flourishing because it allows businesses not to treat the 1099 as employees. If you change that definition or relationship, you will eliminate the business need to engage a 1099, which is flexibility. For many people out of regular work, the 1099 model allows them to continue to earn a living without employer-paid benefits. You would put them out of work.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          No, the point is not to grant them employer- paid benefits. The point is to eliminate employer paid benefits, across the board, and replace them with government means tested benefits where needed.

          I have run successful businesses, and the 1099 model allows both people in the relationship to be equals, both as business owners. You cannot get more just than that.

          • Alecto

            I’m all for transitioning away from employer-sponsored benefits to individual plans to remove the government from any control, decisions, designs, or legislation regarding retirement, healthcare or any other private activity out of which it needs to remove its corpulent digits.

    • Paul Tran

      The first step is to get everyone to develop a moral conscience, and religion is the best means of this.

  • I do not wish to make the mistake the leftists make, of assuming an infinitely malleable human nature (which is not true), but a static economy (which is also not true). Yes, it is better to work in a sweatshop than to pick garbage out of a dump. But we have a moral duty to our neighbors and our countrymen first — that too is a part of subsidiarity. Again, I am speaking of moral laws here, and not about government mandates. What if there were no sweatshops in China? We do not know what would happen; I think we can pretty safely say that what would not happen would be that things would remain exactly the same except for the sweatshops.

    • Alecto

      Tony, that is an excellent point. Can I take it one step further? What if China has religious freedom? Imagine what that would do to transform that nation!

  • I’ll be writing several more essays on RN — actually, they are already written. MsMischief below is quite right that an employer has no moral duty to give people a living wage when such people do not bother to earn that wage. But here we return to human beings and not abstractions; the employer and the employee have moral duties to discharge with respect to one another. More generally, the poor who receive assistance bear a moral responsibility to those who give them the assistance; they have no right to continue in the vice (if it is vice and not misfortune) which has impoverished them in the first place. And again we see the utter impotence of government to effect what is really needed, a moral transformation among both rich and poor …

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  • Dr J

    Liberalism is slavery because it is the confusion of license with liberty.

  • Proteios1

    Im a university professor and have witnessed over time the transition from a perceived problem, such as a lack of diversity, to bending over backwards to artificially promote diversity at the expense of freedom of speech. Yes, there is a lot in between those extremes, but the point is that right now, university campuses arguably have less freedom of speech than most places. Well, less if its the wrong kind of speech. It’s a type of intolerance in itself, which is ironic when the tolerance mantra is repeated ad nauseaum.

  • Steve

    Let’s be clear that “liberalism”, when used by Leo XIII, usually meant laissez faire libertarian economics. This is the liberalism of Adam Smith, who held that pursuit of personal self-development usually also leads to general advancement for all. True libertarians believe that freedom includes the power to do wrong — not only the power to do right. Leo XIII clearly opposes the unrestrained competition called for by Smith’s classical economics. Also let’s be clear that when Lei XIII uses the term “socialism”, he is generally not referring to social democracy but to full-scale communism. I would hate to see misuse or misunderstanding of these terms lead to some sort of disingenuous attack on policies that protect the poor or the marginalized. Bear in mind that Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, clearly approves of certain policies typical of social democracies, such as “workingmen’s unions” (#49).

  • Facile1

    In the parable of the “The Judgment of the Nations” (Matthew 25: 31-40), Jesus clearly tells us feeding the poor, etc. will be rewarded.

    Actually, feeding the poor does make economic sense.

    IF we only fed the poor, we would save a lot of taxpayer dollars. Today, the government is NOT feeding the poor so much as SUBSIDIZING private sector employers (such as farmers), public sector employees (such as the Social Security Administration) and the military with foreign aid to the foreign poor. And if the distribution of food is done through churches and non-profit organizations, distribution will cost the government only the cost of transportation.

    IF we really only fed the poor, we would force so-called job creators to pay fair market rates for LABOR. WHY? Because an employer will have to offer the worker more pay than just enough to feed himself and his family (i.e., if free FOOD really can be had for no work).

    IF we really REALLY only fed the poor (without being ‘judgmental’ as to whether the poor deserves to live or die), we will encourage their talents and gifts. The government spends so much now on worthless research and the development of questionable value in the arts and sciences. So, why not give the poor the gift of TIME to find their talents for that small cost of food and watch them surprise us?

    It makes more sense and will do far more good to feed the poor than whatever it is our government is doing right now. And similar studies have been made on the economic benefits that come with legal and illegal immigration.

    BUT this brings us to what the REAL problem is.

    Government (democratic or NOT) is a human invention. The TRUTH is NOT.

    Humankind’s confusion with its own nature begins with the belief that we invented God.

    This arrogant secular belief in the power of man’s inventive mind forms the intellectual foundation of many government policies — policies that have the power in turn to enslave its citizenry.

    Until EACH human being freely chooses the TRUTH (ie GOD) to invention (ie human), ‘liberalism’ can mean ANYTHING at all and liberal establishments have shown no scruples in the use of government power to enforce its ideology.

    What the Roman Catholic Church should seek in its entanglements with the State is to LIMIT the State’s exercise of its brute force rather than to argue for its expansion in the name of ‘human freedom.’

    Again, to quote Matthew 6: 31-33, “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”

    Only one love is psychologically healthy and that is the LOVE for the TRUTH (ie GOD).

    Love GOD FIRST.

    It is only when one truly loves GOD FIRST can one put one’s love for anything else in its proper place — whether it is the love for one’s government or the church (paganism), the love for one’s countrymen or the poor (humanism), or the love for one’s own self or self-interest (narcissism).

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