San Francisco’s liberalism

What is liberalism, where does it come from, and is it all bad and of a piece or can you mix and match? I’ve argued that liberalism is One Big Thing growing out of the decision to base political order not on substantive ultimate goods (like God) but on subjective human preferences. History is complex, though, and any particular can have a startling variety of connections. So it’s worth noting that there’s recent historical discussion that suggests that Saint Francis was the real inventor of economic liberalism. It seems that his emphasis on the individual and the voluntariness of the individual’s connection to wealth led, among Franciscan thinkers of the later Middle Ages, to an acceptance of the morality of a more contractual and therefore capitalistic economy.

It’s an interesting situation—if money is optional and bears no necessary relation to the good life, then we become freer to play with it as we choose. Follow that through and you can end up with a sort of economic antinomianism, and then you can extend that to other aspects of life. No wonder the popes had some doubts about the more extreme Franciscans.

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