Libertarians and Catholicism

I have argued before that, in their fullest, libertarianism and Catholicism are incompatible — but to what degree are they so?

Leaders of the libertarian movement have certainly said silly, anti-Catholic things. Ludwig von Mises, for example, compared Christ to the Bolshevists and also said, “..[I]t is the resistance which the Church has offered to the spread of liberal ideas which has prepared the soil for the destructive resentment of modern socialist thought” (Socialism, Chapter 29). Translation: opposition to liberalism of one stripe must be blamed for inspiring liberalism of another. Huh?

Much of the conflict between libertarians and the Church can be traced back to key misunderstandings. Mises assumed the worst and demanded that the Church accept “the indispensability of private ownership in the means of production” (Socialism). The thing is, She already does: that is what distributism is all about.

This conflict need not be so heated, because both sides have mutual points of interest. And you can see this in some of the writings of the famous Murray Rothbard.

Rothbard noted in his Memorandum on Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (1957) that Protestantism had resulted in the elevation of work itself as “divine” and over the worker, causing a serious perversion of economics. He considered Catholic thought on the subject, overall, to be superior to ideas based in the supposed “Protestant work ethic”. This is a huge admission, especially given the time period and the strength of misconception — still in force today — on that topic.

But he went even further, in Readings on Ethics and Capitalism: Part I: Catholicism (1960). He said that much of the Church’s teaching is “fundamentally libertarian and pro-capitalist”, mentioning later therein that it has “been interpreted (by Ropke, Baudin) as compatible with capitalism”.

Rothbard admired Rerum Novarum‘s emphasis on Man over the State, its condemnation of socialism, and its insistence on “the absolute right of the individual to private property”, which he recognized as “derived from natural law, the nature of man”. He had his frustrations with Quadragesimo Anno, though. He said that the Church had a “fascist tendency” in response to the World Wars, about which he was not thrilled. He saw Pius XI as undoing Leo XIII’s work. But the idea of Pius “misinterpreting” Leo here, on social justice, is absurd. Leo himself lamented the “misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” and made multiple comments about it in his own letter. Both pontiffs demanded a return to Christian principles and worked to ensure “that a high standard of morality should prevail, both in public and private life”.

Where he critiques Pius, Rothbard is not very well-grounded. Pius held concern for “those who needed [workers’ associations] most to defend themselves from ill treatment at the hands of the powerful”, yes, but that hardly makes him a socialist. Still, I do not blame Rothbard too much for these mistakes. Leftists like Franklin D. Roosevelt had been trying to take advantage of Pius’ letter. For clarification, one merely has to look at Pope St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus.

John Paul recognized transactions “mutually agreed upon through free bargaining” as “important source[s] of wealth in modern society”, and affirmed them as long as they were subject to “the judgment of Christ”. He wrote, “It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs. But this is true only for those needs which are ‘solvent’, insofar as they are endowed with purchasing power, and for those resources which are ‘marketable’, insofar as they are capable of obtaining a satisfactory price. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. It is also necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources. Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity.”

So, Rothbard clearly respected the Church’s teaching on economic matters, but just failed to look at some of it in the fullest context. The Church is not necessarily hostile toward capitalism. She just wants safe-guards put in place — and for them to be put in place at the lowest possible level, in subsidiarity.

On another issue — secularism — Rothbard argued a most interesting point: by demanding respect for human dignity and the natural law, the Church limited the power of the State to a degree that made libertarianism — in practice, at least — more possible. (Take that, statists!) This is no surprise, really. Monarchies, favored in Catholic countries, traditionally, have spent less than 10% of their GDP on average. Secular democracies, meanwhile, tend to turn into welfare states. Monarchs, usually, are more responsible.

With all of this in mind, a logical libertarian simply could never support those who (to, again, quote Rothbard in 1957) “place their theology — and their ethic — on a more emotional, or direct Revelation, basis”. Protestantism is intellectually stunted, and, in many ways, it disables people. We know that. Consider the inherent subjectivity of the religion: Everyone is individualized by their own interpretation of a book of which they, typically, have hardly any knowledge. This shatters community, destroys economics, and benefits only secularism. Liberty cannot thrive in such an environment.

Libertarians, join the Church.

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Matthew Olson is a college student in the Diocese of Little Rock. He was raised in multiple Protestant denominations before eventually converting to Catholicism on 7 April 2012. His primary interests are theology, Church history, and ecumenism. He is privately discerning the possibility of God calling him to the priesthood. He has a blog, Answering Protestants. He also has a Twitter account, @crucifixwearer.

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8 comments on “Libertarians and Catholicism
  1. nixfu says:

    Is it Christian to hire a thug off the street, put a uniform on him with a shiny piece of metal pinned to it, hand him a gun, tell him your going to pay him to point that gun at your neigbor and tell him if he does not behave a certain way even if such behavior hurts no one but himself that you will shoot him?!!!

    The lesson from Frédéric Bastiat (read The Law), is that the government should have NO MORAL AUTHORITY to do anything that you can I can’t do alone. If its wrong for me to walk up to you and force you to give me your money that you just going paid for doing hard work, then it’s not ok for someone I hire to do it either, and its not right for a group of us vote on and decide to collectively hire some thug to do it either….

    If you ask me, Christians today ARE JUST DAMN LAZY and just unwilling to get their hands dirty and go down and help their fellow man. And they think the government is all the charity they need and keeps them from having to actually do the actual work Jesus told them to do. Christians should be 10000% opposed to government, because government is not loving, or caring, or understanding…..government treats everyone like a number on a form, or a statistic. Government is not compassionate, government is dehumanizing.

    But, REAL christianity is 100% compatible with libertarianism.

    In fact, its probably MORE compatible than socialism because in libertarianism, its up to the PEOPLE to take care of each other and care for their neighbors, not the godless state employees and their forms and clipboards.

    The real question is….what exactly can anyone say how libertarian is NOT compatible with Catholicism and christianity!?

    • Cojuanco says:

      Given that Saint Paul tells us to be subject to the governing authorities, and that Christ Himself tells us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (and let us remember that Caesar’s taxes paid for everything from aqueducts to distribution of bread to the poor), and that Saint John the Baptist only sought to restrain, not abolish, the soldiery, Catholics should not be opposed to the concept of government. We must resist where they compel us to commit sin, but where they merely, in their own imperfect way, seek to advance the common good, we should not resist.

    • Micha Elyi says:

      “Is it Christian to hire a thug off the street… ?”
      nixfu

      Wow. With such a prejudicial attitude, dear nixfu, your argument fails to get off the ground. Worse than your attempt at argument is that you as arguer demonstrate a lack of the honest clear thinking, good will toward others, and moral sense that is necessary among the large majority of people for a libertarian society to have a prayer of functioning peacefully.

      Please keep in mind that those of us who disagree with you are not moral monsters.

  2. I am catholic and I have a strong belief in charity. The catholic church has huge history of charity and its a big part of catholic church identity. I have been involved in doing good works in our community throughout my life, so I have learned first hand that WE are the ones who should be helping those in our community who need help…not some faceless nameless uncompassionate government bureaucrat.

    Frankly, I think government assistance has grown over time as Christians have gotten more lazy and as american society stops participating in religious institutional and is no longer tied to any church based charity work anymore so they turn right to uncle sam as their savior of choice for all societies problems.

    It amazes me how many Christians at the chance to praise government socialism as being equal to charity instead of getting out there and doing the hard work to help their neighbors themselves.

    Not to mention the fact that this government assistance they seem to feel good about, is accomplished via violence and robbing people of their wealth at gunpoint(which is against the non-aggression principle behind all of libertarianism). They hate when you point that out.

    ALSO, my anti-abortion and anti-death penalty beliefs are almost totally aligned with the non-aggression principle central to libertarianism. I do not believe another person can take someones life just because they are in a position of power over them, be it the mother, or the jailer. The only defense of killing another being to me only comes from the natural rights of survival.

    I am also anti-war, and it disgusts me how many Christians are so blood thirsty warmongers who want to bomb every brown skinned person on the planet at the drop of a hat over irrational fears.

    To me a libertarian philosophy of leave one another alone, helping each other in your community voluntarily, non-aggression, and the logical consistency seem more Christian than most stuff that many Christians seem to politically believe today which is usually logically inconsistent such as being pro-life but a warmonger, confusing government confiscation of wealth by pointing guns as people as charity etc..

  3. Ita Scripta Est says:

    You fail to mention a lot of Rothbard’s truly despicable positions (like on abortion and his racism). For a man who was supposedly so influenced by and admired Catholic thought, he clearly didn’t let Catholic teaching influence him on the important issues. Many of his modern followers also promote moral evils like gay marriage and adoption, including who those bill themselves as traditional Catholics (see Jeffery Tucker).

    Rothbard’s understanding of Catholic teaching was warped and so horribly muddled, if he thought Leo XIII’s thought was somehow congenial to his, Rothbard clearly didn’t even begin to grasp Leo’s thought.

    • Donald Link says:

      A very good if somewhat convoluted article. God is, of course the originator of authentic libertarianism as He grants all of us free will. The above article and replies are merely statements about how this philosophy is implemented, rightly or wrongly, and how Libertarian thought has evolved over time. The principles of individual freedom, the right not to be wronged or to cause wrong, and the right of personal action and possession are central. We need only look to the ten commandments to see this is a long standing set of principles to live by. Unfortunately the combination of greed and lust for power have distorted matters over the years and even well meaning people are willing to bend principle, such as defrring to the state rights that belong to the people, in order to achieve some perceived “good” end.

  4. […] Today – Mark Gordon Sacred Tradition: The Forgotten Doctrine? – Stephen J. Morrissey Libertarians and Catholicism – Matthew Olson, Catholic Analysis Scientist Honored by Vatican: Nearing Stem-Cell Breakthru […]

  5. The Romans in Jesus time where a brutal foreign oppressor. The aqueduct in Jerusalem was built with temple funds not Roman taxes. Taxes collected in Rome went to Roman use not for helping the Jews. No bread was given to non Romans. Read the whole paragraph. Render unto Caesar means do not fight the government when they try to collect taxes. You will only bring misery unto yourself and others. It was a rebuke to The zealots and others who told the people paying taxes was a sin. Jesus was saying dont value your grubby little coins so much instead value the treasure you can store with God.

    The Catholic attitude toward govt. is to have the least amount of govt. needed, and have it as close to local as possible (subsidiary). All government is violence. Taxes can only be collected by the threat of force, are often used for distasteful purposes. Besides, collecting money from others by force to perform even the greatest works is not Christian charity.

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