The Catholic vs. libertarian debate continues

John Gehring recently published a nicely done article at the American Prospect on the influence of libertarians on Catholic institutions and thought. Gehring rightly notes that the Koch brothers are pouring money into Catholic University's new business school, as is their Catholic buddy Tim Busch. I would have thought the Koch brothers' embrace of abortion rights and same-sex marriage might have impaired the shotgun marriage of libertarianism and Catholicism, but apparently money really does talk.

Gehring also highlighted the role of the Acton Institute in nurturing the relationship between libertarianism and Catholicism. Unsurprisingly, Samuel Gregg, the research director at Acton and author of some dreadful books I have reviewed in these pages, has responded to Gehring at Public Discourse.

The surprise is not that Gregg replied. The surprise is that he claims there is some great misunderstanding. He announces to the world that he is no libertarian with the same sense of indignation with which Captain Louis Renault pronounced his shock that there was gambling going on at Rick's in "Casablanca."

Specifically, Gregg claims that while he can't say enough good about the economic ideas of Hayek and von Mises, that does not imply that he shares their libertarian philosophic ideas. He notes, too, that the same can be said of Adam Smith: A good Catholic can embrace Wealth of Nations and shun Theory of Moral Sentiments. You can separate the one from the other as easily as you can separate an egg white from its yoke. Of course, Hayek, von Mises and Smith did not so separate their ideas from each other. And just two years ago, Acton sponsored an event arguing that religious liberty and economic liberty are "one and indivisible," so presumably, Gregg and his ilk think there are ways in which philosophic ideas about the human person and the meaning of freedom are consonant with economic ideas, at least when it suits them.

What makes Gregg's core argument especially ridiculous is that a few paragraphs later, when discussing Pope Francis, Gregg makes precisely the kind of linkage that he just said was not essential. He writes:

Support Catholic journalism. Join our new membership program for as little as $5 a month.

Another example is Pope Francis's invocation in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si' of 'global north and south' language to designate particular workings of the global economy. Such terminology reflects the influence of dependency theory. This held that resources flow to a 'core' of rich states from a 'periphery' of poor countries. The wealthy thus benefit at the poor's expense. Dependency theory economists insisted that 'peripheral' countries should reduce trade with the developed world and limit foreign investment. The point was to minimize reliance on commodity and agricultural exports and to use the government to promote domestic industrialization.

Whatever one thinks of dependency theory, Gregg sees that theory as linked to the pope's writing about the global south and north. And instead of criticizing the pope directly, he criticizes the ideas that he believes stand behind the pope's thinking. Why are those ideas joined at the hip with the pope's critique, but Gregg is permitted to divorce his economic heroes from their antecedent philosophic ideas? 

Economics presumes a philosophical or theological anthropology. Always. The phrase "free market" presumes some meaning attached to the word "free." And that anthropology conflicts with Catholic social doctrine insofar as free market fans put efficiency on the pedestal of desired goals, thus giving the economic system a certain priority over human needs. No one is permitted to criticize what they term an efficient operation of the market. They deride government intervention in the economy in virtually all cases, and just so they deny the significance of the common good as a legitimate goal of the body politic.

When the Vatican condemned certain types of liberation theology, it wasn't because the liberation theologians practiced bad economics, but because they substituted bad theological anthropology for good. The Acton crowd has never really grasped that or else they would realize that if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were so inclined, they could dust off their statements on liberation theology from the 1980s, cut, copy and paste with a few changes, and apply it to the writings of Gregg and his libertarian fifth columnists.

Long-time readers will remember that I debated Fr. Robert Sirico, the founder of the Acton Institute, a few years back. Few themes have appeared more frequently in these pages than my consistent articulation of a Catholic critique, rooted in the magisterium of the church, of the ideas spouted at Acton or the Napa Institute or any others who espouse this nonsense. I also helped organize a series of conferences entitled "Erroneous Autonomy," sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies and which aimed to expose and contradict the idea that libertarianism and Catholicism were compatible. Many Catholic writers and academics defended Laudato Si' when Acton sought to discredit it. The success of our efforts is seen in the mere fact of the current discussion.

Ground zero for libertarian thought is the Cato Institute here in Washington. The Acton crowd loves Cato, and the Koch brothers founded it and continue to underwrite it. Last year, before the Holy Father's visit, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at Cato about the pope's views on economics. The Catholic libertarian position was articulated by Jay Richards, who teaches at the Catholic University business school and whose Twitter handle is @FreemarketJay. I thought I held my own, but the truly devastating moment came in the question-and-answer period when a bright young man asked Richards how many times the phrase "economic freedom" appeared in magisterial documents. After all, even if you can divorce libertarian economics from its philosophic antecedents, economic freedom is what they prize. The answer, of course, is zero. Not once. The church, in her great wisdom, does not view economic freedom as the goal of our social arrangements. It isn't even worth a mention, except to the degree that it takes on the role of an ideology, in which case it stands condemned. And so, the project Gregg and his colleagues at Acton are trying so desperately to advance is, to put it charitably, wrong-headed. Acton would have failed long ago because it is unserious and it could be ignored, except for those deep pockets which keep it going and not only going, but extending its pernicious influence. And so the rest of us must play whack-a-mole. Gehring and I and many others will keep our mallets at the ready.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.

We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.


Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.