Response to Mark Shea, re: Catholics and Libertarians

Mark Shea responded to some portions of my article on Catholics and Libertarians, published yesterday.

Shea spends quite a bit of time talking about Ron Paul, whom I did not mention in my article, since these issues extend well beyond electoral politics or this current election cycle. On the other hand, I suppose it is to Paul’s credit that many discussions about libertarianism keep coming back to Paul.

The final portion of Shea’s piece is actually a pro-Paul bit that mocks the bizarre attempts by pro-lifers to cast Ron Paul as being pro-abortion while also denouncing the advocates of torture.

Obviously, I have no problem with that, and I’ve long particularly enjoyed Shea’s opposition to war and torture and his opposition to killing babies either ex utero or in utero.

On the other hand, he still lacks a firm grasp of libertarianism. Let’s look at some of the more interesting spots in his response.

First of all, what is with Shea’s obsession with Ayn Rand? Every single reference to libertarian theory made by Shea ends up going back to Rand as the final word on libertarian theory. Let me take this opportunity now to say this: To all of you who think that Ayn Rand is the dominant, or even one of the dominant voices in libertarianism right now, please feel free to leave the 1970s behind and join us in the 21st century. Indeed, even when Rand was at the height of her powers, she was still only one of several important voices in the movement. During the days of Rand’s greatest popularity, Rothbard could certainly lay claim to being a far more important theorist within the movement, although he was certainly far less famous. Indeed, Rand was a novelist, so to keep referring back to Rand in an attempt to score points against libertarianism for its alleged devotion to egoism, only displays a lack of knowledge about the intellectual history of the movement.

We might also point out that the modern laissez-faire/libertarian movement predates Rand by decades, going back at least to the 1930’s with the establishment of the Old Right, and later with the Foundation for Economic Education, Human Events magazine, Felix Morley,Frank Chodorov, Albert Jay Nock, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, the Austrian economists and more. [I cover some of this early history here.] This was all going on in the 1940s and 50’s, or even earlier in some cases. Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, doesn’t even materialize as a philosophy until after the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957. It becomes popular and influential in the 60s, 25 years after the foundations of modern libertarian philosophy had been laid.

Shea’s attempt to make libertarianism into some kind of Randian circle rests on some pretty scanty evidence. Furthermore, he repeatedly justifies his appreciation of Ron Paul on the grounds that Ron Paul is an atypical libertarian while maintaining that Ayn Rand is a typical libertarian. What is this based on? Any examination of the larger movement would lend much more credence to the assertion that it is Paul who is the typical libertarian while Rand was the atypical one. Indeed, this would certainly seem to be the case since Rand didn’t self-identify as a libertarian but as an Objectivist. Objectivism, her militantly atheist and hyper-egoist philosophy that rested on very separate foundations from the larger libertarian philosophy in her own time and in the period since, extends well beyond the normal bounds of libertarian theory which is a political theory only. Brian Doherty, in his history of the movement, Radicals for Capitalism, even wonders if Rand is really strictly a libertarian. Ron Paul, on the other hand, a disciple of “Mr. Libertarian” Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises, is obviously a libertarian.

Undaunted, however, Shea plows ahead, going so far as to link to some article about someone who was raised by Randian scumbags. Fair enough, but, again, what this has to do with the libertarian movement is beyond me. It all rests on Shea’s assertion, without mentioning a single other important libertarian, mind you, that Rand is the central force, and that libertarianism (which in Shea’s mind equals Randianism) is so bad that it even makes people bad parents. This approach holds no water and is akin to pointing to Marciel Macial and then concluding that everyone affiliated with The Legion of Christ is a pervert. In statistics, this is what we call a sample size of 1. By the way, if I had a dollar for every person abused by Catholic parents or abused by Catholic priests, I’d have a lot of bucks, but it doesn’t prove that Catholicism is evil, just that some of its adherents are. I actually happen to strongly dislike Rand’s theories, but Shea’s tactics here are shoddy at best.

Shea also doesn’t seem to understand how intellectual movements work, or religions for that matter. He claims that since libertarianism is “lacking a Magisterium, there is no such thing as “orthodox” libertarianism. There is merely the loudest libertarian in the room saying whatever it is he or (in the case of Ayn Rand, she) believes.”

Really? Judaism doesn’t have a magisterium either. Are Jewish religious beliefs determined by whoever is the loudest person in the room? No, Jews have schools of thought, books, scholarship, and debates. In the world of libertarianism, libertarians write whole books ‘n’ stuff about stuff. We even read books written by non-libertarians! (I’ll refer to a couple in a minute.) No, no, intellectual movements like libertarianism, or classical liberalism, or conservatism or even communism are not simply guided by whoever is loudest. People posit theories and are influenced by the arguments of others. There are debates with some sides winning out. Historical events play a role as well.

Shea further claims that since there is no such thing as an “orthodox” libertarian, we can’t really make claims about what is really libertarian and what is not. He notes that since Catholics, on the other hand, have a magisterium that can define what is and what is not Catholic truth, then sure, we can say what is Catholic, but we cannot say what is libertarian.

This isn’t true in practice. Of course there are orthodox libertarians and unorthodox libertarians. Someone who opposes tax increases and conscription and the drug war is an orthodox libertarian. Anyone who supports such things is an unorthodox libertarian, or more precisely, a non-libertarian. Are there people who self-identify as libertarians who support tax increases and the drug war? There are surely some, just as there are Catholics who insist that it’s perfectly fine to be pro-abortion. Yet, even in the absence of any type of church declaration on such a person, we can say that person is unorthodox. The same applies to libertarians.

Shea relies on this magisterium idea far too much. It’s not as if a wide variety of topics are not constantly debated within the Church. Yes, there are some infallible teachings, such as the divinity of Christ, but there is an endless list of topics on which there is no final word.

What about the limbo debate, for example? What is the Church doctrine on that? Well, it turns out there is no definitive Church doctrine. The pro-limbo types run around quoting the Council of Florence and the Council of Carthage while the anti-limbo people run around quoting Pope Benedict and other recent contributors. People on both sides of this issue are all potentially Catholics in good standing. We can say the same thing about the death penalty, or just war theory, or even slavery it seems, since the church has not always taught that slavery is evil.

Shea doesn’t touch on this, but this issue about the magisterium (which I am heavily simplifying here for the sake of discussion, by the way), is of great importance when some pro-state Catholics come along and start claiming that some recent popes said that we need the state to regulate markets. These recent encyclicals, while deserving of careful consideration, are a pretty weak reed on which to hang an entire political theory in the face of 2,000 years of diverse teaching on this matter.

And finally, I need to address Shea’s incomplete conception of what the state even is. Shea quotes me declaring the state has done more to destroy human solidarity than any other institution. This supposedly illustrates my great extremism and naivete.

Shea claims that the Church does not “oppose” the state. Well, it might not right now, but historically it has. And understanding this rests on an understanding of the nature of a state. Particularly observant readers will note that early in my original article, I use Max Weber’s definition of the state as an organization with a monopoly on the means of coercion. I even linked to a definition. I did this for a reason, since many Catholics, including, apparently, Mr. Shea, lack a historical understanding of the state and its origins. The state is a specific type of polity, and is not synonymous with civil government. “Civil government” by the way, is the preferred term used by Aquinas and Bellarmine, not “state.” (I see that the latest catechism, a non-infallible document, erroneously treats all civil governments as “states.”) The Church has indeed historically opposed the state because states have claimed, up until today, that the Church is subject to the monopoly on force held by the state. Any coercive power that the Church does exercise, such as control of its property, its tribunals, and more, exists only at the pleasure of the state and is subject to state control.

Historically, the Church denied that this was legitimate and denied that states could regulate or interfere in Church affairs in any way. St. Thomas Becket died making this very point. The traditional position of the Church is that the Church stands outside of civil authority and has autonomous control over sacramental affairs such as marriage, (St. Thomas More died making this point) [See my article on marriage] and also had a separate legal system for members of the clergy. Church lands were also inviolate by states, according to the Church. This is a big reason the German princes were so gung ho on Luther’s ideas. They could finally seize all that off-limits Church property.

Of course, if a state actually agreed to this claim made by the Church, it would cease being a state since it would be abandoning its claim to a monopoly on coercion and sharing power with the Church. The state would then just be a civil government. This situation, by the way, is what actually existed for centuries from late antiquity to the late middle ages. Historian Ralph Raico, for example, has noted that this tension between Church and civil authorities, which prevented the rise of the state for centuries, was a great contribution to the West in that a major by-product of this situation was a much larger amount of freedom for common people than was the case in most of the world.

History, incidentally, is filled with non-state governments from basic tribal systems, to feudal arrangements based on personal oaths, to complex and advanced tribal systems such as ancient Israel prior to the monarchy.

Libertarians are not opposed to civil government. Law and government is necessary for human life. Humans naturally submit to government of all types. The question is whether or not a state, which is rested on the exercise of monopolized violence, is a legitimate institution. Historically, the Church has said no, and libertarians still say no.

Thus, my contention that the state is both unnecessary and exceptionally damaging stands. The Church, until recent centuries, when it caved and made peace with states, has often denied its legitimacy in a variety of historical epochs.

And this conception of the state is hardly a libertarian innovation. There is a veritable library of scholarship on this topic from Weber to many modern scholars. Two scholars I would recommend on this topic are Charles Tilly (see Coercion, Capital and European States) and Martin Van Creveld’s Rise and Decline of the State. I would especially direct Catholics to the section in Van Creveld’s book that looks at the rise of the state as a battle against the Church. Israeli historian Van Creveld notes that the state in the West has fundamentally built its coercive power on the subjugation on Churches. A truly “Christian” institution, that.

Addendum: Shea claims I say that it is “a ‘myth’ that some libertarians are pro-abortion.” I never say that at all. I say that some libertarians are in favor of legal abortion and some are not. I make the point that one is not required to be in favor of legalized abortion to be considered a libertarian.


1:32 am on January 6, 2012