Catholics tend to be left-wing. Left-wingers tend to be pro-abortion. Therefore Catholic constituencies frequently elect pro-abortion politicians.
Now, this is not true in, say, Germany, where both great parties are, in Anglo-Saxon terms, left-wing. But it does seem to be true in both the United States and the United Kingdom. I am pretty certain the pattern can be seen elsewhere too. There is a problem here, and resolving it may by generalization resolve and describe higher-level things. I suspect, for instance, that it may help explain the Italian situation regarding abortion, although one might suppose Italy to be here similar to Germany.
The reason my premise seems paradoxical is that the Catholic Church not only officially but also in the minds of most of the flock condemns abortion: Catholic talk of “dignity” refers to the whole gamut of human rights, of which that to life is the first and most fundamental. What we have is people voting the opposite way from what they explicitly believe and what, I am sure, they have for the most part internalized.
As a first step I resolve the problem into 3 questions:
1. Why are Catholics left-wing?
2. Why are left-wingers pro-abortion?
3. Why do people who believe in human rights vote for left-wing candidates even when those candidates oppose human rights, the defense of which should be to the Catholic prior to any left-right question?
Catholics are left-wing because many of the things called left-wing are desirable from a consistent Christian perspective. A slew of papal and episcopal letters have pointed this out. In addition, many Catholic Anglos are of Celtic descent and so have been low down the social hierarchy, another factor which makes for left-wingery; the Chicanos in California today in this sense resemble the Irish of Massachusetts a century ago.
When I wonder why left-wingers like abortion, I am not wondering about specifically pro-abortion forces or secular inhumanism generally: I am wondering about those who have abortion on a palette of favorite things, most of which are more understandable from a left-wing stance. Contrary to my original intention, answering this question has become the bulk of this essay.
All political movements run a danger of dishonesty, even if only to sidestep explaining difficult ideas. The pro-abortion movement has produced the most contemptibly dishonest arguments of any political trend I have come across. I have in fact only once come across a pro-abortion argument both honest and informed, and that was Libertarian, not left-wing. I see no point in searching dishonest arguments for clues.
Left-wingers are pro-abortion because left-wingers like to be anti-establishment and the establishment until a few decades ago forbade abortion. This is not an adequate answer. Also, pro-abortion propaganda claims sympathy for the unwilling mother and abortion is touted as a relief for her; the unreflective left-winger goes along. Neither is this answer adequate: it should work just as well for right-wingers, and left-wingers are certainly much more pro-abortion than right-wingers(except when the right-wingers are thinking of socially poisonous races).
The real answer goes deeper. Consider the Irish potato famine. Potato blight increased over several years until the potato crop was worthless. There was hunger in the land. The hungry people had not produced any material values which they could exchange for food produced by others. Other people on the island of Ireland, not relying on a single crop, had indeed produced food enough that there was actually “export” of some kinds of food from Ireland. The food could be sold in Great Britain for prices far higher than people in Ireland could afford to pay. So it went east, out of reach of the hungry.
So great is our horror at people (especially of more or less our own race) going hungry in large numbers that we are inclined to say that Her Majesty’s Government should have done something about the situation. My mother used to say that HMG, noticing the annual decline in the value of the potato crop, should have organized the introduction of new varieties and new crops. To this the libertarian would reply that every farmer should have chosen to plant a different crop, as some in fact did, resulting in the possibility of surplus food from some farms. Even if HMG had advised the farmers about alternative crops and farming methods they might have ignored governmental advice – as has happened in recent years in Mexican Chiapas, where peasants insist on continuing unproductive methods, then revolt because they remain poor. It is also said that HMG should have bought vast quantities of food and distributed it to the unfortunate farmers and their frustrated customers. Most of all, however, critics of HMG say it should have forbidden the “export” of food from the island of Ireland. This would have got prices down to a level at which a significant proportion of the hungry people could have afforded at least some food. This kind of argument is common among left-wingers, even among Christian-influenced right-wingers. Many liberals will agree with this socialist argument.
What the socialists and their liberal fellow-travelers forget is that the farmers who had produced the exported food were its owners until they sold it. They had chosen to farm better than their neighbours, and so had a surplus. They were entitled, one might think, to all the benefits resulting from their choice. To prevent them selling their produce where they wanted would be stealing. Even to compulsorily purchase it would be stealing unless the price paid were equal to what could be obtained by “export”-ing it.
Left-wingers sneer at this kind of argument. They seem to themselves and even to many right-wingers to hold the moral high ground because starvation is abhorrent, and because they seem to be advocating charity – a kind of charity they might call justice, ignoring the injustice done to the good farmers, from whom this charity would have been exacted. In recent decades it was for such reasons illegal to export more than a certain quantity of beef from Guatemala, because beef was so expensive in the importing country that it was worth while dedicating land to pasture rather than to corn to sell at a price people could afford to pay. The call for trade restrictions looks like a call for social justice.
The left-wingers may be right: perhaps food exports from hungry areas should be limited. But they are impatient of the intellectual effort required to justify what looks very like stealing. They then go further and ignore private-property rights. George Orwell, for instance, bemoaned the re-fencing of people’s lawns in London after World War II. He said that if it was theft to compel the owners to maintain what would in effect be small public parks, he was in favour of theft . And how had these owners acquired ownership anyway? he wanted to know. Again we see impatience of intellectual effort to justify what seems socially beneficial.
One area where public benefit requires private loss is public projects, such as roads and ports. In deciding whether a proposed project should be carried out, governments typically list all the losses anyone would suffer by the project and all the gains people would realize. If the gains are clearly greater, then the project should go ahead, with such confiscation of private property and loss of private amenity as is needed. Obviously, those who lose property or amenity should be compensated for their losses. The great left-wing economist Kaldor (who gave bad advice to the governments first of Ghana then of the UK) said no, it was not necessary to compensate those who lost by the public project. He went the whole way, approving stealing for the alleged common good. And many people would agree with him, especially if those losing were some kind of outcaste (the Afro-Irish villagers displaced with low compensation to construct Central Park in New York, the allegedly idle rich almost anywhere, the “boss class” hated by the Socialist Workers Party).
One of the functions of government is to construct great common works. All functions of government should fulfil government’s sole purpose, namely the securing of such human rights as those to life, to liberty and to property. But Kaldor says that the functions of government can legitimately involve the violation of human rights. He would be impatient – or at least many of those agreeing with him are impatient – of arguments showing the basic fallacy of this thesis. They choose what seems somehow right and then ignore what makes it wrong.
For a number of minor reasons, often classed as social, left-wingers see something attractive in abortion. With the impatience gained in scorning the right to property they scorn the right to life, even lying about important facts and constructing – or at least regurgitating – the contemptibly dishonest arguments I mentioned earlier, so distracting themselves from their refusal to think. The fashion has taken hold, and there is little that can overcome it.
As for the third question, people do not vote on issues in any hierarchy but on a congeries of issues without any systematic weighting. Having once decided to be left-wing (or right-wing, for that matter), the voter thinks of a candidate’s stand on abortion as one among many issues. Disagreeing with the candidate on several issues, the voter may still choose him for his general tendency. Voters thus give the same weight to methods of securing human rights (which is the purpose of the state) as they do to the question of whether to secure a fundamental right at all. To see the raison d’être for the pursuit of power lost in the pursuit of that power renders the whole thing meaningless, but somehow people get lost in the plethora of arguments about a plethora of secondary, tertiary and n-ary issues. In internal discussions of a party, there is a tendency to mock moral arguments against party doctrine, and even those comparatively clear in mind about why power is being pursued often cannot express themselves and feel ashamed about being the exception on “single issues”, unable to explain, even to themselves, that abortion is so basic, so important that unless we get this right we will not get anything else right .
What, then, is to be done? Firstly, I must be honest on this matter and in all political questions, clearly distinguishing means and ends. I must not make health-care provision, for example, an end which justifies state-funded abortion, just as I must not make tidy streets an end which justifies euthanasia of the homeless. I must in political discourse, whether internal or external, always remember that the purpose of government is to secure such God-given rights as those to life, to liberty and to property. It is better that the state do nothing at all than that it violate these. All my wonderful plans for a better world must be discarded if they imply wrong-doing by me or by the state, my servant.
One thing that has led people astray in reading (often indirectly) papal social encyclicals is that when the earliest of them were written it was generally agreed and understood that personal human rights were inalienable, however often violated. The popes therefore saw no need to reiterate the primacy of personal rights when developing their theories of collective rights. Furthermore, the earlier social encyclicals, at least, preferred the collective rights to be secured less by the state than by other societies, so that the state’s special duty of securing human rights, and in particular personal rights, fell by the wayside. It was even thought that personal rights were so well understood that securing them need not be mentioned among the state’s functions. This was a serious error. All future ecclesiastical pronouncements on collective and social rights should clearly make them subsidiary to personal rights. Among ecclesiastical pronouncements I include guidance from the pulpit at election time. And when politicians are interviewed by clerics, personal human rights should be emphasized even to the extent, where necessary, of forgetting the favourite social projects of the clerics.
In ordinary preaching the clergy should from time to time explain the meaning not so much of the 5th as of the 7th Commandment: Thou shalt not steal. I did not create Bill Gates’ wealth (he got it by making other people’s work more valuable), for example, and it is not my business, apart from taxation, to tell him how to spend it. Similarly, the “windfall” taxes in Britain not long ago were effectively stealing, because they were directed at people who were already paying taxes on the same scale as other enterprise owners, employees and customers. Did one sermon in the realm point this out? If envy (not ambition) and stealing are suitably rebuked, Catholics will develop the reflexes required to protect them also against pro-abortion propaganda disguised as left-wingery.
More generally, to change left-wingers in this regard we must understand how they became pro-abortion, concentrate their attention on the basic human rights, and have them work out in detail why coercion to certain charity-like actions is in truth justified. Then they will see that they cannot apply the same arguments to abortion: we restrict the rights to liberty and property to secure the right to life, and the reverse motivation is insane.
In all political discourse human rights should be prominent. Discussion of them should be prior to left/right, devolution/subsidiarity, democracy/aristocracy, even anarchy/government questions, and when that becomes customary those other questions will doubtless become more tractable. There may be partisanship about methods of implementing, but the principle of securing human rights, firstly by ourselves (including the state) avoiding violations and secondly by punishing egregious violations, should never be subject to partisan politics.
More generally still, in all our discussions about means we should remember our ends. Unless we know roughly what we have in the pantry our trip to the supermarket is pointless. We should not use a scouring pad to polish the car. And in all our votes we should remember the purpose of the state.
John A. Wills 1999.01.01