Is Libertarianism Un-Catholic?

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The new regime in the Vatican has made much about the need to be open, to be welcoming, and to encourage the faithful to discuss their views—even when they contradict Church teaching.

As usual in situations like this, such encouragement extends to the left only. If you disagree with the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, you can concelebrate Mass with the highest authority in the Church. If you want to babble and writhe on the floor in a liturgical setting, you will be greeted with open arms, once you stand up. But if you are concerned about bishops’ conferences and statements about the economy that seem cribbed from the 1976 Democratic platform, none of the happy talk about openness applies to you.

I present to you, as Exhibit A, a recent conference on libertarianism and Catholicism, sponsored by the Catholic University of America. The conclusion of the conference was decided in its very title: “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.”

In addition to a slate of speakers you’ve never heard of, attendees got a chance to hear Mark Shields, the Democratic mouthpiece and commentator from CNN’s old program Capital Gang. Then there were some labor union representatives, who no doubt oppose Pope Leo XIII’s teaching that workmen’s associations are fine as long as no violence is used or threatened and people are free to accept any job they wish.

Now who, in this new atmosphere of openness, was permitted to defend the libertarian view? I trust you get the picture clearly enough by now to know the answer. The conference was straight out of Stalin’s Russia. We must smash the deviationists! None of the “pastoral concern” shown for anyone and everyone else in the world was in evidence here.

What is this dangerous doctrine, against which Church leftists must combine? Libertarianism teaches that individuals should avoid violence when interacting with each other, and should resort to force only in self-defense.

That is all it is. Libertarianism is not strictly about “individualism,” “atomism,” or any of the typical caricatures. It is concerned solely with the use of violence in society. It says that you should not steal, and you should not hurt anyone. It says all of us—whether or not we wear an official-looking uniform—should be bound by these elementary moral rules.

When stated that way, libertarianism doesn’t sound so scary, which is why its opponents never do state it that way. Libertarianism doesn’t mean selfishness, it doesn’t mean not helping anyone, it doesn’t mean not working together with other people on projects that benefit the community. It doesn’t mean “autonomy,” “erroneous” or otherwise. It simply says that civilized people don’t stick a gun in their neighbors’ ribs to get them to cooperate. That’s how thugs behave.

(There are objections to the libertarian view, to be sure. I’ve answered some of them in “The Libertarian Speech I Would Deliver to the Whole Country” and “Applying Economics to American History.” “‘Monopolies’ will devour us” is a common one; I’ve answered that here. As a matter of fact, a professor at a pontifical university contacted me several months ago to say that that article changed his mind on the subject.)

Libertarianism can be understood as an extension of the Church’s just-war tradition, which deals with violence among states, to questions involving violence among individuals. This is altogether proper, since states are, after all, simply aggregates of individuals.

As the just-war tradition has developed over the centuries, a principle especially relevant to our discussion began to emerge: war—that is, organized violence—is to be undertaken only as a last resort. This is not so remote from the libertarian message, which confines the legitimate use of violence to defensive actions only, never to aggression.

The keynote address at this conference was delivered by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Madariaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and a close confidante of Pope Francis. Just about everything the Cardinal is quoted as saying at the event, however, is wrong. Inequality is not more extreme today than it was 100 years ago (although other than envy or spite, what reason could we have for spending a solitary moment caring about this, especially when the welfare of all of mankind has increased dramatically?). It is not true that the rich and not the poor benefit from globalization; the twentieth century saw the greatest progress against world poverty in the history of mankind. And if the rich enjoy luxuries today, they are luxuries that allow them to do what they could already have done 75 years ago, except today perhaps faster or more stylishly. The rich could already fly where they wanted, drive where they wanted, study where they wanted, etc. Today, more people than ever before in history can do all these things. If the poor 500 years ago had to travel on foot while the rich traveled in horse-drawn carriages, while today the poor ride in run-down cars while the rich ride in fancy cars, inequality has obviously decreased in the only sense that matters.

The Cardinal called “trickle-down economics” a “deception.” I know of no one in the world who describes his system of economics as “trickle down,” so the Cardinal is simply being uncharitable in referring to a point of view he opposes. The central point, that an increase in the standard of living across the board can occur only by means of an increase in the amount of capital per worker, is not even debatable, so I fail to see how it can be a “deception.”

I have explained the process numerous times: in this video for the Mises Institute, for example, and in this article, among many others. This is how the free market, of its very nature, leads to rising living standards for everyone.

Is “inequality” just grounds for interpersonal violence? If so, why would it not likewise be grounds for international conflict? If it is unacceptable for me to be much wealthier than my neighbors, why—especially for someone like Cardinal Maradiaga, who is fascinated by large aggregates—would it not be just as unacceptable for my country to be much wealthier than its neighbors? This is a recipe for endless violence.

The 80/20 Pareto rule that seems to apply to all areas of life—20 percent of the workers do 80 percent of the work; 20 percent of Italians in 1906 owned 80 percent of the land (this is where Pareto first noticed the principle); 20 percent of your clients amount to 80 percent of your business, etc.—has held true for wealth distribution consistently and across time and space. It may be quixotic to wage war on a phenomenon so universal.

It is a phenomenon, moreover, that hurts no one and helps everyone. Someone who earns $50 million a year did not earn it by stealing it from me. I would have to have it in the first place for that to be true. And I would be spiritually sick if I spent my time dwelling enviously on his annual earnings. A spiritual leader should be scolding me, not egging me on, if I’m sitting around demanding my fair share of wealth I did absolutely nothing to create. In a free market, which the Cardinal should support, the man in question acquires that wealth by satisfying consumers and improving other people’s standard of living. I should be celebrating that, not ignorantly resenting it.

(Oh, but CEO salaries are too high, say people who simultaneously favor laws making corporate takeovers more difficult, thereby shielding CEOs who receive excessive pay.)

The Cardinal then says individual acts of charity are not enough. We need the state. We need violence.

“Maradiaga,” writes Religion News Service, “also argued that personal charity was insufficient to solve global problems.” “Solidarity is more than a few sporadic acts of generosity,” the Cardinal said.

Now it’s true: we can defend the Cardinal against the claim that he’s calling for violence when calling upon the state’s intervention, if we pretend that violence isn’t really violence when it’s threatened or carried out by the state. We can pretend coercion and voluntary action are the same thing. We can do all these things if we want to redefine the normal meanings of words. But unless transforming the world into a giant Orwell novel appeals to us, this is an unpromising route.

I trust I shall not be accused of “private interpretation” of the New Testament when I note my failure to locate either of the following statements or even remote insinuations in the words of Christ:

(1) Concern for the poor is the same thing as favoring a welfare state.

(2) If moral suasion fails, employ violence to carry out your egalitarian program.

The constant talk about inequality, as if a burger-flipper’s low wage has to do with the fact that a rich person has millions of dollars, instead of the fact that unskilled labor is easily replaceable, only feeds into the juvenile mentality that will keep these low-wage earners exactly where they are. Think the way ahead in the world is to get into the street and scream that other people owe you more stuff? Then you will never get anywhere. If you want to get ahead, work at it. Don’t wait for people to give things to you. Don’t go out with a sign and scream for them to give you more, when apparently no one else on earth considers you worth more, else some other employer would already have hired you.

(As an antidote, by the way, I recommend Charles Hugh Smith’s Get a Job, Build a Real Career, and Defy a Bewildering Economy.)

I can anticipate a libertarian objection to my line of argument: what about the distinction to be made between those people who came by their wealth by satisfying the consumer and improving people’s lives, and those who came by it thanks to some government privilege? I agree. I do not defend those whose wealth was acquired by the unfair means of the state. But this distinction is lost on Cardinal Maradiaga.

Moreover, His Eminence evidently considers it possible to speak at length about the condition of the economies of the world without once mentioning central banks. Is there any moral dimension to monetary policy? The University of Angers’ Guido Hülsmann, a Catholic who for some reason was not invited to the conference, has made an excellent case that there is. From Cardinal Maradiaga we hear only silence. Does he think central banks were created to help the poor? We can only guess.

Cardinal Maradiaga says we libertarians are trembling before Thomas Piketty’s fashionable book Capital in the 21st Century. You know what? Not really. Let’s see: Piketty invented a tax history of the U.S. that suits his narrative but has no connection to reality; he invented a history of the minimum wage in the U.S. that suits his narrative but has no connection to reality; how he deals with depreciation is at the very least unconvincing (see here and here) yet central to his argument; and his view of the relationship between capital and interest was exploded 100 years ago.

I am not trembling, no.

Cardinal Maradiaga is likewise a fan of Pope Paul VI’s disastrous document Populorum Progressio, which, in its misreading of the causes and cure for Third World poverty, along with its endorsement of the kinds of state-led development aid that were in fashion at the time, unambiguously increased the amount of avoidable suffering in the world. (I discuss this in chapter 4 of The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy.)

Unlike Paul VI, a handful of free-market economists, particularly Peter Bauer, stood up against fashionable opinion at considerable personal expense and warned that programs like these would entrench poverty, not ameliorate it. Even the most intractable opponents of common sense, like the New York Times and the International Monetary Fund, were eventually forced to this conclusion. (This is why, under Margaret Thatcher, this important prophet became Lord Peter Bauer.)

Cardinal Maradiaga has already had his way. Trillions of dollars’ worth of wealth redistribution has already taken place, domestically and internationally, and the results speak for themselves. In the U.S., the percentage of hardcore poor is essentially unaffected, and around the world the greatest strides in living standards have occurred in those places where development aid has been cut off.

The vast majority of the progress that has been made against poverty in the world occurred without violence. The statistics are there for everyone to see: as economic liberalization spread throughout the world, poverty declined. In 1820, 85 percent of the world’s population was living in “extreme poverty.” That had fallen to 50 percent by 1950, 33 percent by the early 1980s, and 18 percent by the beginning of the twenty-first century. As I have explained in The Church and the Market and elsewhere, this is the natural outcome of the extension of the market economy and the division of labor. Shake your fist at reality all you like, but the only way to increase the overall standard of living is to leave the private sector alone to increase the amount of capital per worker.

In the United States, poverty had been falling consistently until the federal government’s war on poverty took shape. But over the past 50 years, that progress has come to a halt: the poverty rate has fallen so negligibly as to be statistically insignificant.

In the United States, the purchasing power of the lowest quintile of income earners increased by 15 to 20 times over the course of the twentieth century. When we look at the figures from 2011, the American poor—not the American public in general, but the American poor—97.8 percent had refrigerators, 96.6 percent had gas or electric stoves, 96.1 percent had televisions, 93.2 percent had microwave ovens, 83 percent had DVR capability, 80.9 percent had cell phones in addition to land lines, and 58.2 percent had computers. (This is not to say that material things are all that matter, of course, but since Cardinal Maradiaga’s own point revolves around the material deprivation of the world’s poor, it needs to be raised.)

John J. Myers, Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, explained that within the Church’s general framework, the faithful are obviously at liberty to decide, on the basis of their knowledge of the subject, which economic policies they think are best in terms of improving the condition of the poor. He does not adopt the angry, dismissive view of Maradiaga.

There are legitimate disagreements about the best way or ways truly to help the poor in our society. No Catholic can legitimately say, “I do not care about the poor.” If he or she did so this person would not be objectively in communion with Christ and His Church. But, both those who propose welfare increases and those who propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy may in all sincerity believe that their way is the best method really to help the poor. This is a matter of prudential judgment made by those entrusted with the care of the common good. It is a matter of conscience in the proper sense.

The Maradiaga program, by contrast, boils down to this:

(1) Violence.

(2) Adopt conventional economic ideas.

(3) Never mention central banks.

(4) Oppose “inequality” even if it means making everyone worse off.

The libertarian program, bolstered by insights from the Austrian School of economics, boils down to this:

(1) Peace.

(2) Skepticism toward conventional economic ideas.

(3) Note how central banks enrich the few at the expense of the many, and cause the business cycle through their manipulation of interest rates.

(4) Leave everyone in peace, with the result—yes, continuing even today, with all the government and central-bank barriers to prosperity—that everyone becomes better off over time. (Thought experiment: would you rather live in 1977 than today?)

“The elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed,” says the Cardinal. On this he is correct. State violence, actual or threatened, is the primary structural cause of poverty in the world. As it has been beaten back, the welfare of the poor, and of everyone else, has increased to heights no one even 50 years ago could have imagined.

And this is why Catholic University had to hold that conference last week: young people are finding this picture morally attractive, and increasingly recoil from approaches based on violence. Violence can’t possibly be a last resort in this case when both domestically and internationally, violent (state-driven) solutions have retarded the advance from poverty, and peaceful solutions (the free market) have emancipated more people from grinding poverty than any other force in the history of the world. If His Eminence can find room in the Church for the heterodox and the just plain weird, I’ll bet his pastoral heart can find room for libertarians, too.

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