Can Catholics Be Libertarians?

For several years, I’ve been increasingly tempted to identify myself as a libertarian. A growing number of Catholic intellectuals have taken this position, and the case they make is compelling. Other Catholics I know, however, vehemently oppose libertarian philosophy and candidates, pointing to manifest examples of unjust wages, the historical problems posed by the Robber Barons, child labor, and sweatshops, saying that a libertarian approach to economics would enable all of this, and worse.

I recently came across a piece by Joe Fulwiler at Catholic Exchange that asked the question, “Can Catholics Vote Libertarian?” Fulwiler, who confesses that he doesn’t “really understand Libertarianism,” nonetheless makes some bold assertions:

When I reflect upon these facts over morning coffee, I often wistfully imagine what it might be like if Catholics would only unify and bloc-vote for candidates that are both pro-life and also serious about social justice and poverty relief in all its various forms.  No such “Catholic Party” exists, but one recent morning it occurred to me that the opposite of the Catholic Party does exist.  It is a party that believes that the State should leave people alone about issues of morality and also stop asking people to contribute any significant percentage of their income to the common good.  This is a party that is socially liberal and economically conservative.  It is the Libertarian Party.

This realization prompted me to wonder, “Can a good Catholic who really follows the teachings of Christ and his Church embrace Libertarianism without offending the dictates of a well-formed Catholic conscience?”  Libertarianism is, after all, a strongly individualistic creed that is highly compatible with an atomistic society of solitary units that have little claim on one another.  The Catholic Church seems to represent the opposite extreme, because her creed requires the faithful to die to self, hand over their entire existence, and spend their lives in service of family and community.

At it’s core, libertarianism (and I’m referring to the political philosophy, not the American political party) is about promoting individual liberty and restricting the coercive power of the state. Taken alone, this is not an immoral construct. God grants men the gift of free will, and He loves us so radically that He allows us to use this gift with such unfettered liberty that we are able to choose Hell rather than Heaven. One could argue that this is a form of divine libertarianism: God does not use His omnipotence to compel us to live morally, but He instead makes clear that if we desire a happy outcome to our lives, we must choose to do so.

Catholic libertarians argue that individuals in a free society who do business in a free market have the greatest latitude to act morally. They also argue that such freedom, when actually granted, produces a prosperity unrivaled by other economic systems or political regimes. And they point out that the economics which drive their philosophy is a value-free science that observes behavioral laws that arise from human action. The law of supply and demand, for example, can be neither moral or immoral, it simply is. Noted Catholic historian and scholar Dr. Thomas Woods, Jr., writes in The Church and The Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy:

Economics is a discipline that reckons with the fact of scarcity in the world, and which demonstrates to man, given his ends, how they can or cannot be achieved. Thus if our end is to improve the lot of the least fortunate, economics can tell us whether a $25/hour minimum wage will or will not achieve that end. Economics, therefore, does not presume to dictate to us what our ends should be. Neither does it attempt to claim, by being “value free,” that all values are equal, or that morality does not matter, or that all that matters is money. It is simply delineating the limits of its subject matter: it is a science whose purpose is to employ human reason to discover how man’s ends can be reached. What those ends should be is a matter for theology and moral philosophy to decide. Father James Sadowsky, S.J., professor emeritus of philosophy at Fordham University, expressed it well when he said that ethics is prescriptive while economics is descriptive. “Economics,” he says, “indicates the probable effects of certain policies, while ethics determines what one should do.” These are two very distinct things.

So if Catholic libertarians believe that the observational science of economics has proven that great freedom has engendered great prosperity, it stands to reason that a political system which provides this freedom is the one toward which they would work. In a sense, this makes libertarianism a marriage of economics and history, insofar as the tenets of the libertarian position are derived not just from theory, but from observing historical behavior in real nations and economies.

And yet, even a quasi Catholic libertarian like me wonders: in a hypothetical world where such a thing as a Catholic confessional state were possible, wouldn’t libertarianism be a proposition of dubious moral value, insofar as it would impede a correctly ordered civil government? Is government really, at essence, nothing more than force? A necessary evil? And doesn’t libertarianism fail in certain vital areas to protect the best economic interests of the nation? It is, for example, quite lax on immigration restrictions and and supportive of the very free trade that has destroyed our manufacturing sector. And isn’t the notion then men free to act morally will act morally just a bit too much like something Rousseau might say? I do worry that the libertarian view of moral actors in a free market is rooted in Enlightenment thinking, not an understanding of human concupiscence as rooted in Original Sin.

Though I have a lot more reading to do before I reach a final conclusion, all of this makes me question the objective superiority of the libertarian position. I am not a political philosopher or an economist, so take what I say for what it is – a personal observation. I don’t think there is a perfect political system in this world, and libertarianism, while it has much to recommend it, also leaves much to be desired. That said, when confronted with a secular statism like we have in America, subjectively, libertarianism may just be the right antidote to the poison that is currently killing us. Catholic writer John Zmirak puts it best:

In an American context, given our constitutional heritage and the large body of legal decisions solidifying its interpretation, on nearly any issue, Christians of any denomination should reject the assistance of the State. Our efforts to capture it, the courts have made it clear, will always fail. Any attempt to infuse the activity of the government with the moral content of a revealed religion will be rejected, in the end. Indeed, the more our own institutions cooperate with the government, the more they will be compromised; hospitals which take federal funds will be subject to secular ethics on issues like contraception, end-of-life, and even abortion. Religious colleges accepting federal grants will eventually be federalized, and so on.

It seems clear that the public sphere in America is irretrievably secular. So the only logical response of Christians must be to try to shrink it. Instead of attempting to baptize a Leviathan which turned on us long ago, we’d do much better to cage and starve the beast. We should favor low taxes—period, regardless of the “good” use to which politicians promise to put it. We should oppose nearly every government program intended to achieve any aim whatsoever. We can make exceptions here and there: We can favor the protection of innocent lives, which would cover things like fixing traffic lights and throwing abortionists into prison. But that is pretty much that.  Christian public policy should focus not on capturing the power of the State but shrinking it, to the bare minimum required to enforce individual rights, narrowly defined. Likewise, the share of our wealth seized by the state must be radically slashed, to allow for private initiatives and charities that will not be amoral, soulless, bureaucratic and counterproductive (like the secular welfare state). Instead of asking for handouts to our schools in the forms of vouchers, we should seek the privatization of public schools—which by their very nature, in today’s post-Christian America, are engines of secularism. And so on for nearly every institution of the centralized State, which has hijacked the rightful activities of civil society and the churches, and which every year steals so much of our wealth to squander on itself that we can barely afford to reproduce ourselves. (So the State helpfully offers to replace us with immigrants, but that’s another article.)

This is not to endorse the universal claims of doctrinaire libertarians, and assert that every State in history has been a tyranny (except perhaps medieval Iceland). It’s not to deny that any community anywhere has the moral right to employ the State to pursue its vision of the Good. (There’s nothing wrong with Kaiser Franz Josef endowing a monastery here and there, or the Israeli government helping educate rabbis.) In many cultural contexts, the State can fruitfully employ its power to promote the faith and morals held in common by a community. But that can’t happen here. Not in America. Several of our Founders, and generations of our lawyers, have seen to that.

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29 thoughts on “Can Catholics Be Libertarians?

  1. Craig says:

    I think the morality of the libertarian position depends on what fills in the room that is left over. The libertarian takes the shocking and controversial position that government is not the solution to most of our social problems. It shrinks the space of government so that more effective actors can move in and fill up that space (like, I don’t know, maybe the Catholic Church?). Secular liberals really do not like libertarianism because it gives value-ordered institutions a much wider space to operate. Especially in an American context.

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