For those who pay attention to such things, for the last couple of weeks there has been quite some consternation on the internet regarding the compatibility of Catholic social doctrine with libertarianism. Cued by Pope Francis and his pivot to emphasizing issues of poverty and economic marginalization, voices within the Catholic Church have taken to strongly distinguishing Catholic social teaching from libertarian principles, particularly but not exclusively within the economic arena.
It is not unheard of for libertarian ideas to be a sign of contradiction for many who identify as conservative. Both Richard M. Weaver and Russell Kirk, for example, disagreed on whether libertarianism could be successfully allied with conservatism in the broader political area. As Mr. Kirk went through life, his views on libertarianism became sharply more critical, culminating in an essay he wrote on the incompatibility of libertarianism and conservatism titled, with no holds barred, Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries. That said, while tensions still exist between more dogmatic libertarians and traditional conservatives, libertarians and conservatives have generally been, if not friendly, at least more or less respectful of one another and Catholic thinkers have found homes in both camps.
The recent statements by Pope Francis and other members of the Catholic hierarchy thus occur in a context where Catholics of a conservative or libertarian disposition have already been engaged in a discussion regarding the compatibility of libertarian ideas with other, more traditional political, economic and ethical commitments. Now, however, the stakes in the discussion about libertarianism have risen significantly, particularly for those libertarians and conservatives with libertarian inclinations who are also practicing members of the Catholic Church. Are such folk now to be classified as dissenters (in varying degrees) from Church teaching? Or can space be made for such folk within the intellectual life of the Church, perhaps as a sign of the creative tension that can exist within Catholic thought? Can the insights of libertarian thinkers actually help those who function within the framework of Catholic social teaching to more completely understand key aspects of that teaching? In answering these questions, I propose that a better path forward at this point is not condemnation but critical dialogue. Rather than casting out libertarians or putting libertarian ideas on some kind of revised and updated Index of Forbidden Books, a greater appreciation by Catholic scholars and religious leaders of the libertarian critique of governmental invention is a more fruitful approach. More fruitful both in acknowledging those aspects of the libertarian approach that are prudentially correct, and in helping Catholic social teaching to remain grounded in the totality of the faith’s patrimony when it comes to resolving questions of social need and governmental power.
Before exploring this approach in more detail, a bit of disclaimer is in order. I am not a libertarian. If forced to state my political approach, I would identify most with the kind of conservatism expressed by Russell Kirk. I am also a practicing Catholic, thought hardly an exemplary one. However, regardless of my own commitments, I believe that Catholicism and libertarianism have much to learn from each other. Just as Catholicism has absorbed insights from other systems of thought (Aristotle, for example), it may be that libertarianism can offer certain insights to Catholicism to help that faith better understand aspects of its own social teaching that are in peril of being overlooked, just as Catholicism can contribute a depth and richness of insight to libertarianism about the necessary relationship between freedom and virtue, justice and choice. The point of such a dialogue is not to convert, but to inform, and to allow creative tension to allow new insights to come forth, insights that draw on the depth of the Church’s teaching about human community and interaction while also taking into account the significant intellectual power demonstrated by many libertarian critiques of government action. In two areas in particular libertarian critiques of government power can help restore aspects of Catholic social thought that have been overlooked or downplayed in much of the recent conversation about the application of Catholic principles to economic and political issues. The following is intended to be a sketch of some avenues of inquiry that might be pursued as part of this critical dialogue.
One beneficial result of a Catholic appreciation of libertarian ideas could be a recovery or at least greater appreciation of certain aspects of Catholic social thought that risk being eclipsed by recent papal approaches to Catholic social teaching, approaches that tend to mask a more restrained vision of government power present within the Catholic tradition. One such aspect is the idea of subsidiarity. As Stratford Caldecott explains in his book on Catholic social theory, Not as the World Gives, Catholic social thought is oriented towards the common good of society, and sees the realization of that common good through three primary mechanisms: solidarity, subsidiarity, and sustainability. Pope Francis has focused a good deal of his attention as Pontiff in discussing solidarity and sustainability, as did his predecessor Benedict XVI. Solidarity and sustainability are crucial aspects of Catholic social teaching and are the two most responsible for Catholicism having a positive view of the role of government in the life of a community. Subsidiarity, however, is an operative principle that helps guide how the government functions within a given society. As the answer to Question 403 in the official Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,
The principle of subsidiarity states that a community of a higher order should not assume the task belong to a community of a lower order and deprive it of its authority. It should rather support it in case of need.
Subsidiarity calls for political and legal authority to be diffused throughout a society, rather than concentrated. When law and government are needed, they should operate at the level closest to the problem that needs to be addressed. Ideally, most problems will be resolved by social actors outside the government: families, friends, community associations, businesses, churches and other religious institutions, and the like. In other words, mediating institutions that help to foster justice, order and virtue without the heavy hand of government intruding unless necessary. Subsidiarity, to quote Mr. Caldecott, “involves the devolution of human freedom and responsibility to the lowest and most local level compatible with the common good.”
Subsidiarity has tended to get lost in the discussion of Catholic social teaching that has been sparked by the remarkably productive pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis. Yet, as the quotation above from the Compendium shows, subsidiarity remains part of Catholic social teaching and it is a topic of discussion not only among writers of Catholic commitment but also among writers from other religious traditions. Dialogue with libertarians might help Catholics revive this crucial operative principle in Catholic social thought. How so? Libertarianism itself is not a single political theory, rather is an approach that views government power with skepticism, whether that power is exercised by the state in economic matters or in matters of personal conduct. Looking askance at both the regulatory state and an expansive criminal code, libertarianism’s guiding principle can be described as the “do no harm” principle. So long as somebody’s conduct is not a direct threat to the safety or well-being of another, it should be permitted as an expression of individuality and personal freedom. While that kind of expansive understanding of individual freedom is broader than that generally proposed by Catholic social teaching, such an approach can help Catholics to better appreciate and apply the principle of subsidiarity by placing at the center of any discussion of government power the question that a broadly-informed libertarian consistently asks: should the government act, and at what level, or would the solution to whatever problem government proposes to solve be better left in the hands of private actors and/or mediating institutions?
Such an approach might seem somewhat foreign to the bulk of Catholic social thought; but it is not an alien concept. No less a theologian than St. Thomas Aquinas proposed something similar to the “do no harm” principle in his Summa Theologicae. In Question 96, Article II, Thomas addresses whether human law should seek to suppress all human vices. His reply (from the translation of the fathers of the English Dominican Provence) is worth quoting in full:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.
Thomas here is not proposing a libertarian theory. He does not look at the question of law’s scope from the perspective of individual freedom, but rather from the viewpoint of the law’s effectiveness as a method of fostering order in the community. However, Thomas does share a key insight with libertarianism broadly understood: human law is limited in its effectiveness as a means to perfect human beings. For Thomas, this means that the law should seek to restrain not all vice but rather from those vices that are most harmful, and which result “to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained.” While the orientation of his approach is different, Thomas shares with the general libertarian disposition an appreciation for the limited utility of the law to make people perfect or to solve every problem. Better for the law to focus on restraining human action that results in harm to others, and harms of a particularly egregious sort: “murder, theft and such like.”
An Appreciation of the Free Market and Avenues for Its Reform
Pope Francis has gotten a great deal of attention for his powerful and striking criticisms of the corruption of much of what passes for “capitalism” today. Taking his duty to speak of the marginalized and exploited in an increasingly totalistic global marketplace, Francis has decried the reductionism of modern consumerism, a reductionism that exalts the strong while it places decreased value on the weak: the poor, the old, the young, the sick, the outcast, the unborn, and the migrant. Pope Francis challenges us all to look at a global system that increasingly awards the wealthy with greater wealth as hundreds of millions continue to languish in poverty so profound as to constitute not simply a lack of material amenities but a degradation that insults the fundamental dignity of the human person. For drawing attention to this reality, Francis deserves high praise.
Looking at how to reduce global poverty, one of the strongest engines for lifting the poor out of the desperate poverty is the application of free market principles in the economic sphere. Where entrepreneurship, private property and the rule of law have been embraced, millions and millions have rising out of poverty through the virtues of hard work and service to one’s fellow human beings. The libertarian focus on economic activity rather than governmental activism can help provide a stronger appreciation for the merits of business activity as both a vocation and as a means for elevating those most economically marginalized within a community. And here again, a respectful hearing of libertarian ideas might help Catholics appreciation aspects of their own tradition that have sometimes been overlooked in discussions about Church teaching and the free market. As the Argentine economist Alejandro A. Chaufen noted in his book Faith and Liberty, free market ideas have an extensive history in the economic thought of the late scholastic period, particularly Spanish scholars working in 16th and 17th century Salamanca. Free market concepts are not alien to Catholic thinking, they have flourished not simply in the past but also in the present, through the writings of Michael Novak, George Weigel and others.
On the issue of reform, libertarians have been some of the most vociferous opponents of partnerships between big government and big business. Much of the corruption that Pope Francis condemns is the result of just such partnerships — collusions where big business and big government work together to prevent proper competition by erecting barriers to entry for smaller business, through increased regulatory burdens or taxation regimes or the provisioning of complex corporate welfare schemes. The libertarian critique of such “crony capitalism” is one from which Catholics of a non-libertarian approach could learn quite a bit. In matters of economic regulation, many of the distortions found within the marketplace are not themselves products of the free market but rather are the consequences of governmental intervention to aid favored players or ameliorate the consequences of poor economic outcomes by private businesses. Incorporating such insights into its critique of the failures of the globalized economic system, the leadership of the Catholic Church might find that not only is their critique more accurate, they may find themselves with a new set of allies to work with in advocating for needed reform of the capitalist system.
The kind of collusion between big government and big business denounced within libertarian theory can also serve as a helpful reminder to Catholics that governmental power regarding the regulation of business or economic matters is subject to the temptation of misuse. This is becoming increasing the case when one looks at government attempts to extend its authority over areas of autonomy for religious groups and individual believers. Since Vatican II, the Church has been a strong advocate for freedom of conscience in matters of religious faith and practice. However, in the modern world, lines between occupational activities and personal faith have become increasingly difficult to draw. The more the government intervenes to regulate businesses, the greater the danger that such regulation will impinge on the ability of religious believers, Catholic or otherwise, to live out their faith in a key aspect of their daily lives: the workplace. Business is no less a field where conscience is in play, and the workplace is no less a place where the individual’s conscience should be able to act without overly intrusive government regulation. This appears to be a truth that is increasingly on the radar of the Church’s leadership, especially here in the United States where the hierarchy has been confronted with the Obama administration’s decision to impose the HHS contraception mandate on Catholic educational and social service institutions. The libertarian critique of government efforts to regulate and control private enterprise can serve as a helpful source of insight for Catholic leaders and scholars concerned to preserve the legitimate autonomy of businesses and organizations that seek to operate in light of religious principle within the economic system.
There is space within Catholicism to take libertarian arguments seriously, not to agree with them in every instance, but to look at them as a helpful perspective and corrective approach to understanding the dangers of government overreach at the expense of individual initiative and responsibility. By so doing, thinkers who work within the framework of Catholic social teaching can both better understand the libertarian critique of government power as well as aspects of Catholic social thought that have been eclipsed in recent decades. Just as Catholicism had nothing to fear from Aristotle or the Greek philosophers, it has nothing to fear from Friedrich Hayek and other libertarian thinkers and from the true if incomplete insights that they bring to questions involving the use of government power.
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