Why Libertarianism Fell Short


Many Catholics, like many Americans, pass through a libertarian phase. Some of us stay longer than most.

Like nominalism in philosophy and materialism in physics, libertarianism is almost inevitable when you first begin to examine things with your own eyes and think for yourself.

One day you wake up from the statist dream. You begin to notice that government isn’t always benign and wise, that wars are often pointless, and that many policies proposed to help the poor are actually designed to help politicians and profiteers, anyone but the poor.

For some people, this awakening comes with reading anti-Christian philosophers such as Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard.

Fortunately, some of us have wiser, more nuanced guides, people like the late Michael Novak and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Tom Woods, and Samuel Gregg.

These intelligent people of faith highlight the disciplines of Catholic Social Teaching, teach the wisdom of subsidiarity, show us how liberty and a market economy do more for the poor, over time, than any social or socialist program.

And as political ideologies go, my sympathies are still libertarian. I dislike the surveillance state. I distrust most politicians. I supported Ron and then Rand Paul in the last three presidential elections.

Yet libertarianism is, in the final analysis, like chemotherapy: a necessary but temporary treatment for sick patients, not something you want to stay with for life.

Once the cancer of statism has been eradicated from a community, regular IV drips of libertarianism can actually do more harm than good. For healthy societies, it can be downright poisonous.

Many of us now realize that libertarian ideology is at the root of the entire globalist enterprise that has been gradually hollowing out western nations for a generation.

It wasn’t prolife, pro-family conservatives pushing a radical laissez-faire mentality that put corporate profits above all other considerations, but global tech conglomerates and NGOs and human traffickers.

At bottom, libertarianism sees the entire world as nothing more than a gigantic marketplace in which human beings are simply interchangeable economic units – without regard to language, culture or religion — that multinational corporations can import and export the way they do silicon wafers and steel.

If U.S. workers earn $50 an hour building cars in Detroit, then the solution is obvious: build sweatshop factories in China where workers earn $50 per month… and don’t demand niceties like lunch breaks or retirement programs.

Free trade laws mean these cars can then be shipped back to the U.S. without any tariffs or taxes. Tough break for those American workers with families to feed, but at least the CEOs can look forward to $20 million annual bonuses.

Both Patrick Buchanan in the 1990s and Donald Trump today hearken back to a third way of thinking about politics, an economic nationalism that is neither statist nor libertarian but classically Republican.

In fact, it was once known as the American system, embraced by Abraham Lincoln, his mentor and hero Henry Clay and most Republicans until the 1950s.

This old but now new way believes in free markets but not in corporate welfare.

It demands that government policies be evaluated on the basis of whether they help a nation’s own citizens, not whether they smooth the way for bigger corporate profits overseas.

It asks that most fundamental of questions: whether a given governmental action serves the common good… or merely advances private interest.

Yes, Adam Smith was correct: the seeking of private interest does tend, through the invisible hand of the market, to advance the common good. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, it’s true.

And as an economic system, freer markets do create more wealth and prosperity than less free markets. A rising tide truly does lift all, or at least most, boats.

But there is more to life, and a nation, than economic efficiency. What does it matter if you gain the entire world yet lose your soul, as Jesus asked.

Americans today, and Europeans as well, feel they are losing too much of their souls in the neoliberal economy of unfettered global markets, mass immigration and corporate censorship.

Their innate sense of solidarity with their fellow citizens make them question policies that raise quarterly GDP an extra percentage point and maximize shareholder value but destroy entire communities in the process.

We already know what the Democrats think of their fellow citizens in the heartland, decimated by the ravages of outsourced jobs: clinging to their guns and religions and all.

But the Democrats aren’t the only ones.

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” National Review columnist and NeverTrumper Kevin Williamson famously wrote. “Economically, they are negative assets.”

No, libertarianism, like adolescence, is a painful, necessary but hopefully temporary phase we all go through.

Eventually you grow up and think about what’s actually best for the country, what’s best for your local community, what Catholics used to call, way back when, the common good.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Robert J. Hutchinson is the author, most recently, of The Dawn of Christianity (Thomas Nelson, 2017). He can be reached at CatholicSpeakers.com.

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