Libertarian faults

I’m sure to some I’ve been labeled CV’s token libertarian and, thus, a bad Catholic. But, I guess one nice thing about being Catholic is that you can get labeled a bad Catholic for following pretty much any political party or philosophy.

I mentioned earlier that I would point out some libertarian faults as I see them. This isn’t a post about capital-L Libertarians vs. Republicans or Democrats, and it isn’t about any of the minute details of libertarian philosophy that I’m sure will flood the combox. This is simply about discontent with modern liberalism and conservativism and the search for an acceptable (to a faithful Catholic) alternative by which I could describe myself.

E.g., it is easier in some circles to describe myself as libertarian than it is as one who believes in free markets, even if I intend the same thing by both terms. Conservatives tout free trade until the domestic steel industry wants tariffs, to cite only a relatively recent example under GWB. Further, conservatives like Pat Buchanan or Michael Savage tend toward the same protectionism (or economic nationalism that Dan mentions) that Adam Smith sought to expose for actually hindering the wealth of nations it attempted to promote. In a nutshell, modern conservative capitalism has become crony capitalism. What is good for big business isn’t necessarily best for promoting free trade, as Adam Smith himself knew:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

Note that though Smith recognizes collusive tendencies among people in business, it is also contrary to liberty and justice (and practically impossible) to legally prevent such abuses.

Conservatives cannot be trusted to be free market even though they claim to be. Liberals usually outright despise the free market so there’s no need to argue the numerous flaws in their economic policies. So, I am not free market because I am libertarian; I call myself libertarian because it most closely encapsulates the free market philosophy, the economic system that has done more to lift people out of poverty than any other system.

But before you go all Leo XIII on me and tell me that capitalism is worse than Arianism and Justin Bieber put together, I fully acknowledge that free markets don’t lead to utopias. Markets are not organic entities with minds of their own, always seeking freedom from the state in order to increase the moral decay of citizens. Markets are people; if we think markets lead to immorality the problem is not with markets, it’s with our immorality.

But, speaking of immorality, if libertarianism can be vindicated for its economic position, it falls short on the moral position. I’ve stated my objections earlier on “fundamentalist libertarians” who think rights trump life. The libertarian is presumed to be pro-choice on abortion because, well, they’re pro-choice on everything else. This emphasis on freedom is supposed to be limited by an emphasis on nonaggression: do what you want as long as no one else gets hurt. On abortion, though

I don’t see how, after the two haploids become a diploid, this being is anything but human, and thus deserving of the rights any other human has. So, in that sense, abortion violates the nonaggression axiom that virtually all libertarians profess. Sure, some humans are born with genetic defects just as some are born with attached earlobes, but to me that makes them no less human.

A second sticking point is the fundamentalist libertarian hatred of altruism. These fundies see Mother Teresa as a social leech; she and her nuns extracted money from the productive people in society for uses that reduced wealth (since, likely, the money the Sisters collect went to care for the sick and dying who had little to no hope of recovering and becoming productive themselves). In these fundamentalists’ eyes, most of our saints were relatively worthless members of society at best.

Clearly, this elevation of selfishness rubs against common(?) human decency, but it would seem to fail libertarian utilitarianism too. If people should be free to direct their money where they see fit, and if someone gains great (nonmonetary) benefit from investing in charitable efforts and would find it less optimal to spend that money solely on himself, then a policy of zero altruism would fail the goal of utility maximization. A principles microeconomics class will tell you that utility is subjective; I derive great utility from donating to my parish, working in our pro-life group, or spending time before the Blessed Sacrament, all ridiculous endeavors to the fundamentalist libertarian. But why should they prevent me (even if just in an argument) from sending my money where I see fit?

If libertarians should be totally selfish, why convince anyone else to be libertarian? The only justification would be if the effort spent to convince resulted in greater happiness for the proponent than spending that effort on other pursuits, which is by no means certain. It’s hard to see how a libertarian writer who sacrifices utility in spending dozens of hours writing a book on the evils of altruism would yield even more utility if the book and its ideas were adopted by society. I suppose the book could be either written in a very short amount of time or have a tremendous impact such that the economic benefit outweighed the time and effort cost, but I don’t think such a book could conceivably be written.

Conservatives automatically disregard any liberal idea, while liberals disregard any conservative idea. “Fundamentalist libertarians” automatically disregard any religious idea, while many religious people disregard any libertarian idea. Can we not adhere to Catholic principles and morality while also recognizing the huge material advantage that the free market provides? In blindly adhering to a “no libertarianism!” policy, do we sacrifice our and our children’s economic future? For some people, this might be worth it since “the poor you will always have with you,” but I’ll choose a libertarianism that recognizes the overwhelming empirical evidence of the benefits of the free market on all people, rich and poor alike, even if I reject its ridiculously anti-religious biases.



4 thoughts on “Libertarian faults

  1. Randy England says:

    Tim: You make some important points about misguided libertarians:

    1. While some libertarians are pro-choice, that position–far from being inherent in libertarianism–is a direct violation of the non-aggression principle. (See this 1978 exchange between Murray Rothbard and Father James Sadowsky at

    2. While certain “Ayn Randian” types seem to denigrate what they call “sacrificing oneself for others,” such aversion has nothing to do with libertarianism. Freely helping one’s neighbor is very libertarian. Being forced to help at gunpoint is not.

    I really do appreciate church teachings that government ought to do this or that. In a perfect world they might fulfill those roles with wisdom and integrity (but of course in a perfect world, no one would need them). In this world, however, government is driving us to material, moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Governments–in the last century alone, and not counting war dead)–killed more than 150 million of their own citizens. That is enough for any reasonable person to question whether we have better options.

    Libertarianism is the most just system in a fallen world and the only political philosophy that takes human dignity and free will seriously. Liberty will not feed a man, nor will it get him into heaven, but does guarantee him the freedom to do both.

    Thanks for your articles.

    Randy England,

  2. Kevin Davern says:

    A libertarianism that honors the natural law satisfies the dignity of the human person, the right to life, the limits of authentic state authority and competence(render to Caesar…), and the freedom to worship and implement the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

    I consider myself a Libertarian (natural-law libertarian) to the extent that it is possible and in accord with the Faith. The American ideal of ordered liberty is a worthy one.

    My primary objection is the statement that the individual owns himself. We don’t own ourselves; we did not make ourselves. Many of the faulty libertarian notions would disappear if we point out that the individual has stewardship of himself. As stewards we will render an account, but not–of course–to some vague master somewhere, but to our Father who made us in His image and likeness and to His Son who died on the cross for us.

    Great piece. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Joannie says:

    So I guess that Judge Naplotitano on Fox News and Tom Woods of EWTN are also failures because they both happen to be Libertarians in their approach. If not then you are a NEOCON who supports illegal and unconstitutional wars ( as well as torture) capital punishment that the Church has clearly spoken out as being against. There is a heresy called “Americanism” which Pope Leo XIII spoke out against with Cardinal Gibbons- this idea you are American First and Catholic Second. Wrong, its the other way around. Read the Pope’s Third Encyclical letter Charity In Truth and see for yourself. The only option left is the Democrats but they and the Republicans really do not stand for what the Constitution and the natural law calls for as well as what the American People want. Listen to the Pope on this Please, its very important and also PLEASE read that entire “Charity In Truth” it is Church teaching but is also a solution ( or a idea ) of how to deal with social issues not just economics.

  4. tz1 says:

    Friday is the feast day of St. Lawrence. “So he went out and gathered all the poor and sick people of Rome, then returned and showed them to the prefect, telling him that these were the sole and greatest treasure of the Church. The poor people were the gold, the virgins and widows were the pearls and other precious stones”. Today they are the property of HHS. Few libertarians really object to altruism as such, only that it is often stupid – e.g. giving a drunk cash, or trying to impose a guilt trip with emotion and not reason, or much worse, they want to hire third party robbers (usually the state taxing authorities) to extract “charity” at gunpoint. And the altruists don’t take responsibility for the damage. What is the unwed birth rate lately? (pilcrow)

    The foundational principle of libertarianism is that you trust the individual over the collective a priori. Be it a villiage council or the federal executive, you are suspicious of concentrating power. And this fits in perfectly with the Catholic teaching on Subsidiarity and the fallen nature of man. You must assume the most corrupt, evil, hateful enemy will have the reigns of power. (pilcrow)

    Look at the SEC and wall street, the FDA and agribusiness or vaccines, the EPA or OSHA.

    If you empower individuals to personally (through the legal system) fight torts or fraud and such, it is more likely to be effective. The conservatives and liberals both trust concentrating power, be it to “help” the poor by destroying their families, or to protect us from terrorists via virtual rape in airports (And if contraception was a DHS mandate, the rightwing cafeteria catholics would be saying “amen” instead of fighting it). That is the dividing line – either you trust that somehow angels will end up running and riding leviathan, or you trust that leviathan will corrupt whomever makes the attempt so must be starved and kept on the edge of extinction for everyone’s safety.

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