Not too long ago, after delivering a talk on a phenomenon I describe as “Catholic libertarianism,” I was informed by one critic that I had over-stated the problem and that a few peripheral voices, like Tom Woods, had no real impact on Catholic socio-economic thought. As much as I wish that were the case, I don’t think it is. On the Catholic libertarian landscape, Woods may be an extremist, but he’s hardly an isolated case. One doesn’t have to look very far to see libertarian ideology being fused with, or favored over, Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Take, for instance, Mark DeForrest’s recent contribution to The Imaginative Conservative: “Can Catholicism and Libertarianism Co-Exist?” While it doesn’t break any new ground in the field of Catholic apologetics for libertarianism, it usefully reveals some of the problems with that line of apologetics.
After surveying some recent critiques of libertarian ideals by Pope Francis and other hierarchs of the Church, DeForrest makes a plea for libertarians to be given a voice in the Church, as if they are actually at risk of being cast into outer darkness. But assuming that there may be, just over the next hill, a concentrated force waiting to put libertarianism’s false tenets to the bayonet, what should we make of DeForrest’s plea for mercy? Not much, I’m afraid. DeForrest, for reasons which are difficult to discern, appears to believe that libertarianism represents a unique system of thought which somehow has something to add to CST. But what exactly is this additive? Apparently it is nothing more than libertarianism’s alleged “critique of governmental intervention.” In what exactly? Well, just about everything: private life, religion, the economy, etc. Unfortunately, nothing concerning the so-called libertarian critique is unique to libertarianism; in fact, much of it is borrowed from either the presuppositions of classical liberalism and, with regard to economic matters, the hyper-capitalist ideology of the “Austrian School” of economics. While not all of that stuff is utter bosh, a good deal of it is, and it’s not clear from DeForrest’s explication why CST needs to repair to libertarianism in order to bolster its own indefectible principles.
Perhaps what DeForrest really wants to do is make a lower-level plea for libertarianism’s compatibility with CST rather than the far stronger, and thus far more implausible, that CST somehow needs libertarianism. On the compatibility front, DeForrest is on firmer, but still swampy, ground when he notes the overlap between libertarianism’s small-government instincts and the principle of subsidiarity. Where the problems start manifesting itself is on the (Catholic) libertarian tendency to absolutize subsidiarity, as if the principle never contemplates scenarios where progressively higher authorities must intervene and exercise authority over certain aspects of social, economic, and political life. Subsidiarity dictates a polity ought to start low and work its way up, not start low and stay low.
Another difficulty which emerges with respect to the Catholic libertarian embrace of subsidiarity is that it tends to be morphed quickly into an absolutization of individual freedom. In fact, DeForrest says as much in his piece in his attempt to blend subsidiarity with the harm principle. But CST rejects the perverse notion that freedom is an end in itself—something which DeForrest, and other Catholic libertarian apologists, conveniently misses. If that’s not bad enough, he goes further off the rails by taking a line from the Angelic Doctor recognizing the practical limits of law to constrain vice and using it as a justification for limiting the civil code radically. Why, I wonder, does DeForrest have nothing to say about St. Thomas’s discussion of the power of human law to prescribe virtue? No doubt it is because, for the libertarian, “virtue” is a relative concept that each man must determine for himself and that the “common good,” to which, following Aquinas, the state ought to look, is always subordinate to, if not obliterated by, the glory of the “individual good.”
On the question of the economy, DeForrest is unashamed to step back onto pure libertarian territory, issuing along the way the usual claim that libertarianism opposes “crony capitalism”; it would never foster it. The problem with this line is that we’ve never had “non-crony capitalism” and libertarianism has never provided a plausible account of how an unchecked market will yield results which do not continue to favor the powerful few at the expense of the many. It’s taken as a point of faith—and a convenient one at that since it is not susceptible to empirical falsification. So like as there is no concrete libertarian economic ordo to study, it is a grand vision of a utopian future that can never be defeated.
In closing, let me restate a point I have made time and again on Catholic libertarians: their instincts are usually in the right place, but that’s no excuse for the conscious discharge of authentically Catholic social principles. In today’s dystopian political landscape, libertarianism offers an attractive route to Catholics who see few, if any, virtues in either the Democratic or mainline Republican parties. To them, libertarianism offers both a safety zone from a bloated administrative state while also promising some (likely passing) political relevancy. As attractive as that may be, Catholics have no right to ignore the teachings of the Church out of convenience or expediency. The way of CST may be a hard way, especially in these dark times, but it is the way we are called to follow by our Holy Mother the Church. Libertarianism has nothing to offer us.