RCs vs. Libertarianism, Part I

This past Tuesday, the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, where I am a visiting fellow, hosted a conference entitled, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” My colleague Josh McElwee has already penned a report on the conference here at NCR. And, I do not intend today to provide a summary in part because I was unable to listen to large parts of the closing panel because I was busy making sure the reception was getting set up, the members of the press were getting the time they needed to interview Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, etc. In a week or so, the video and texts from the conference will be available at the IPRCS website and I will be sure to provide the link.

Today and Monday, then, I confine myself to some impressions of the day, a rebuttal of the complaint raised at the conference that we did not invite any Catholic libertarians to speak at the event, and, finally, to suggest some ways for this important conversation to develop.

The opening panel featured a variety of critiques, all rooted in Catholic theology, of libertarian economics. Professor Meghan Clark made the important point that part of the problem in generating a dialogue between advocates of traditional Catholic Social Doctrine and those disposed to a libertarian perspective is that we do not speak the same language and, even when we use the same words, we assign them different meanings. When we speak from the tradition of the human person, or freedom, or creativity, we mean something that coheres with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, not something drawn from either Adam Smith or von Mises or Ayn Rand.

Clark’s point is key. In his comments, (this link brings you to Rocco, who has both the cardinal's and the bishop's texts), Bishop Blase Cupich echoed this point, saying:

Pope Francis is not interested in providing an economic plan or system. Rather, his first goal is to call believers, call us all, to a renewed encounter with the Risen Christ, so that our lives may be marked by the joy that sets us “free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” to the point that we are compelled to invite others to enter into and participate in  that same encounter, life and joy. Everything else for the believer is relative. Everything else, our economy, politics, social programs, our life styles are all measured by how they help or hinder others in participating in the life God has destined for humanity and in experiencing God’s loving encounter.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez also emphasized this Christo-centric starting point in his explication of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium:

Evangelization in the meaning of the Pope therefore always asks for an analysis of the situation based on the Gospel; Francis does not ask for a neutral sociological analysis, but for an evangelical discernment: Discipleship and evangelization according to Francis means, taking the point of view of Jesus Christ and looking at the people’s and the world’s reality with His eyes. This goes for all areas of human day-to-day life and for all dimensions of evangelization.

This is why the complaints from the libertarians that Pope Francis and Cardinal Oscar do not really understand economics are so misplaced. They are not advocating for a particular economic theory. They are telling us what it means to be a Christian, that it is the concern for the poor that must govern all our analysis, not our concern about abstract laws of the market. Once you have been washed in the waters of baptism, you cannot wash off this total commitment to the poor. The cardinal said:

Basing his arguments on theology and the Social Teaching of the Church, Francis turns to economy. Someone who like him has profound knowledge of the life of the poor says that elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed. The hungry or sick child of the poor cannot wait. Apart from this pragmatic view Francis recognizes in those unjust structures an illness of the system as such. “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems” (202). Any economic policy therefore must be re-structured focusing on the dignity of each individual and on the common good (cf. 203). We no longer are to trust the blind forces and invisible hand of the market. Economy should reject a mere economic growth and increase of profit at any price, which means even at the price of excluding workers, because it is growth in justice that should set the direction.

You can't debunk this with a careful reading of Milton Friedman, because it is not based on a careful reading of Milton Friedman. It is based on a careful reading of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. 

Msgr. Stuart Swetland also touched on this in his comments. His concern was not to engage in a discussion about whether or not a free market system creates greater material wealth than a system that is more heavily dependent upon government regulation of economic life. The concern is that the system we have generates spiritual poverty that is coincident with its generation of material wealth, that the emphasis on competition at the expense of solidarity the market demands – and rewards – distorts the Christian project of generating a Christian culture. In the final panel, Lew Daly touched on this as well, noting that libertarians tend to undervalue the importance of social capital in the creation of wealth, celebrating the lonely entrepreneur, but not the social bonds that permit that entrepreneur to flourish.

As you can see, all these comments made me realize that our contemporary Catholic concerns about libertarian economics are very much like the Church’s earlier concerns about certain strains of liberation theology. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s concerns about liberation theology were never economic in nature: They dealt precisely with the issue of theological anthropology, what do we, as Christians, mean when we say the words “human person.” Those same concerns manifest themselves in considerations of libertarian economic theories and, while I know the CDF has a large work load already, I think they should interest themselves in some of these ideas before they start getting propagated in business schools at Catholic universities or even among bishops who get flown in to conferences sponsored by libertarian-leaning groups like the Acton Institute. These ideas are dangerous.

None of this critique is new really. Here is Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, in 1931:

Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualistic economic thinking. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self-direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated.

Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

One of the thrills for me on Tuesday was meeting Professor Mary Hirshfeld of Villanova. We had exchanged emails previously, and I knew we wanted her on one of our panels because of her expertise in both economics and theology, and because she is less suspicious of markets than I am. Monday, when I discuss ways I think this discussion can develop, I will focus on some of the ideas she introduced, but today I would like to mention only one, her discussion of lifestyles appropriate to a Christian. She rightly noted that the call to a conversion of lifestyles is one of the more overlooked parts of the social magisterium of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict. Certainly, part of the world’s attraction to Pope Francis is his evident desire for simplicity. For myself, this was a very important thing to hear, not just at the level of ideas but in making sense of my own experience. As regular readers know, I used to run a very successful restaurant and made a lot of money. Like most people I spent that money. I had a closet full of clothes I never wore. I threw away excess food. I lived the materialistic American Dream.  Now, as a writer, I make a lot less than I did then. My closet holds my one suit, two pair of long pants and two pair of shorts. I no longer have a car and all the expenses that go with that. When I go into the grocery store, I have a list and a budget. And, the truth be told, I am much happier. I may not have rib-eyes from Whole Foods once a week, but I eat a balanced diet. The wines I drink with dinner are not as fine as those I once drank, but they are sufficient. I believe that all of us as Christians, whatever our politics, need to really ask ourselves some deep questions about our lifestyles. Last night, watching the NBA finals, the stadium’s air-conditioning failed. Of course, men and women survived just fine without air conditioning for millennia, but you would have thought the eschaton was upon us as the announcers kept track of the temperature on the court. You could have flipped to almost any channel and found an advertisement, or even a whole show, dedicated to the proposition that if you spent a certain amount of money, a certain amount of happiness could be yours. Things, just things, better to say, unjust things because our luxuries rob from the poor.

Whenever my dear friend Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete would have a speaking gig, and I would ask him how it went, he would always respond with a chuckle – “It was a victory for Jesus!” This Tuesday’s conference really was a victory for Jesus, by which I mean this: A very diverse group of very intelligent Catholics came together and each, in different ways, analyzed the current social, economic, political cultural reality through the shared lens of what we know about the human person in the light of the self-revelation of Jesus Christ. This was Gaudium et Spes #22 incarnate, if you will. The presentations were stimulating because they were smart but even more so because they were faith-filled. Matthew Boudway has posted his comments and let me just say: That young man is a rockstar. Maria Elena Durazo and Kathy Saile reminded the room of the real world consequences of these ideas and the real world hopes that emerge from experiences of solidarity. Mark Shields and Professor Stephen Schneck reminded the room that there is a libertarianism on the left as well as on the right, having to do with lifestyles as well as with economics. Honestly, I can’t imagine how one could have a more thoughtful, provocative conference – and with Cardinal Oscar and Bishop Cupich, two of the smartest, most committed, passionate members of the hierarchy! I am still sort of floating on cloud nine from it.  

Monday I will have some more to say about the conference, why we wanted a range of voices but exclusively voices dedicated firmly to Catholic Social Doctrine, and also discuss some ways I think this conversation can continue.    


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