The Pope Criticizes Libertarianism

As one of the leaders of the libertarian movement, I am exceedingly grateful to the Holy Father Pope Francis for his recent criticism of libertarianism. He does so in this “Message from the Holy Father to the participants in the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences” (28 April – 2 May 2017). The full text of his important remarks is available here.

Why so? According to one of the hoary insights of marketing, “there ain’t no such thing as bad publicity.” We libertarians are the Rodney Dangerfields of political economy. We simply “can’t get no respect.” Virtually all polls ask people if they are of the right or the left. We are neither. We are almost totally ignored not only by pundits, commentators, but also by scholars in such fields as history, politics, philosophy, economics, etc.

At the core of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle (NAP): just law consists, only, of prohibiting the initiation of violence against innocent people. That is it, in its entirety. The remainder of this political economic philosophy deals with logical implications of the foregoing. Thus, in economics we favor laissez-faire capitalism, deregulation, free trade, the only system guaranteed to overcome man’s natural state of poverty. In the area of personal liberties, we support the legalization of (but not at all the engagement in) victimless crimes pertaining to sex, drugs, gambling, etc. And in foreign policy we advocate a strong defense, but non-intervention in the affairs of other nations. It is a very narrow perspective, focusing, only, on just law; it is not at all a philosophy of life.

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Does Pope Francis reject any of that? Not at all. Instead, he attacks libertarianism not for what we espouse, but, rather, a made up version of this philosophy of his own devising. He ought to take a course in libertarianism 101 if he wishes to engage our real views, not a parody of them. Defending the Undefend... Walter Block Best Price: $12.55 (as of 03:25 UTC - Details)

For example, he warns against: “the invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism.” First, cultural Marxism is the order of the day in most institutions of higher learning. Libertarian professors on college campuses are scarce indeed. Second, libertarians accept the rights of voluntary collectivist groups (the kibbutz, the commune) just as much as individual rights. They are on an equal footing as far as we are concerned. Of course, it is hard to deny “that it is only the individual who gives value to things…” Groups, can do so too, but there is no such thing as collectives, over and above the individuals who comprise them.

We do not at all “den(y) the validity of the common good.” Surely, it consists, at least for most people, of peace and prosperity for all. Yes, of course, there is such a thing as “the exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority.” However, this is a product not of economic freedom but of its very opposite: socialism and fascism.  For example, it organized labor unionism, and the minimum wage law, beloved of social justice warriors everywhere, which is responsible for the skyrocketing unemployment of unskilled workers, disproportionately the young, the black, the male. It is the central bank with its perversion of interest rates which is the cause of the business cycle. It is a welter of business regulations and licenses which keep the poor from setting up their own businesses.

Nowhere in libertarianism is there the view that “Bonds would have to be cut inasmuch as they would limit freedom.” Au contraire, voluntary associations are entirely compatible with this philosophy. Intermediating institutions such as the club, the sports team, and, yes, religion too, are the sinews that hold society together. One will search long and hard, and in vain, for libertarian opposition to such voluntary organizations.

I again thank the Holy Father for bringing the world’s attention to libertarianism, the last best hope for peace, prosperity, and, even, the very survival of our species.

Let me now return the favor. The pope was kind enough to assess libertarianism. the least I can do, as a libertarian, is to, in turn, evaluate Catholicism.

I start off as a Jewish atheist with a partiality in favor of religion in general, and Catholicism in particular. As for the first, my motto here is that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Who, pray tell, is the main enemy of libertarianism? Communism, in all its roots and branches, of course. And how did the Soviets treat religion? Very shabbily, would be a great understatement. There are two important institutions in competition for the “hearts and minds” of the people. The government, and religion. I opt for the latter, if only because the former kills innocent people massively, while the latter does so only slightly, and intermittently. For example, take the Inquisition. The best estimates for the number killed was between 3,000 and 10,000, over several centuries. Not good. And this is certainly a black mark against the Catholic Church. But, this took place quite a while ago, and in contrast to statist murders it pales into insignificance.  According to estimates by Rummel, Courtois, et. al and Conquest, governments killed some 200 million in the last century alone, and this is apart from the wars they are always fomenting with each other. (It also excludes some 35,000 annual deaths on the highways in the US alone, but that is another story). Labor Economics from a... Walter Block Best Price: $26.47 Buy New $65.00 (as of 08:30 UTC - Details)

Why do I start out with a predisposition in favor of Catholicism in particular? This is because my friend and mentor Murray Rothbard (a fellow Jewish atheist) considered this religion the most rational and the most ethical.

Now, of course, that spate of priests raping little boys, must count on the negative side of the ledger, and, also, that practice of the higher ups in terms of transferring the malefactors to other dioceses instead of turning them in to the police as the criminals they were.  But, hopefully, this is now past us. Then there is the charge of hypocrisy. The social justice warriors and the liberation theologians are well known for their cri de cour to help the poor. But this is coupled with numerous mansion-type churches located on prime real estate, worth billions if not trillions. Why isn’t Bernie inveighing against the Catholic Church’s “millionaires and billionaires?” A defense consists of the fact that every penny for these holdings was earned honestly, through charitable donations. True, but the hypocrisy remains. However, that is compatible with libertarianism; it does not violate the non-aggression principle (NAP).

What of the practice of selling indulgences? Some might look upon this as downright fraud. But not libertarians, at least not qua libertarian. Again, this is part and parcel of the free enterprise system; it consists of voluntary trade between consenting adults. However, this practice has long disappeared into the folds of history.

Then, there is the good side of the ledger. There are the millions and maybe billions of people’s lives enriched by the Catholic Church; some physically, others spiritually, mostly both. There are the schools, hospitals, charitable work for which this institution is properly revered. Then there is the just war theory of this institution. Perhaps this has saved millions and maybe billions of people’s lives, to the extent that the powers that be have inculcated even a small portion of this blessed doctrine.

Report card. How does the pope rate libertarianism? It is difficult to see any other mark than an “F.” Looking over my evaluation of the Catholic Church, I think it is fair to say that I award this organization a “B-,” and maybe even a “B.” I was of course tempted to play tit for tat. Given that the Holy Father excoriates the libertarian philosophy so heavily, I was mightily inclined to return the favor. But, fair is fair. Just because he does not at all understand libertarianism, does not mean I should follow that path of his and berate his beliefs, and institution, in a similar ignorant manner. No, I have tried to focus on the Catholic Church as it is, warts and all, but also on its greatness, and let the chips fall where they may.

A word about the baleful Randian influence on libertarianism. Many present libertarians, of my generation, came into this philosophy through the writings of this author (for the generation after that, in my assessment, it was due to Ron Paul.) That is good. The more libertarians the better. However, Miss Rand rejected religion, entirely, all of it, as “irrational.” What is bad is that many older libertarians are infected with this intellectual virus. Many, then, would not be as kind in their assessment of the Catholic church as I have been. Although I too came into the movement under her influence, I have managed to jettison this baleful influence of hers.

An earlier shorter version of this essay was published in the Loyola student newspaper, The Maroon, on 5/5/17.