RCs vs. Libertarianism, Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Today, I conclude my comment upon the conference, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism,” held last week and sponsored by Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, where I am a visiting fellow. Friday, I looked at some of the main themes of the conference. Today, I would like to respond to the criticism that we did not invite any Catholic libertarians to speak at the conference and float some ideas about what can and should come next.

When planning the conference, we discussed whether or not we should invite a speaker from the Catholic libertarian camp. If I were of a mind to be churlish, I would note that the Acton Institute has never offered me a speaking gig. But, I am not of a mind to be churlish and our reasons for proceeding as we did were different. As far as any of the conference planners could tell, ours would be the first conference that explicitly addressed the issue of libertarianism from the standpoint of Catholic Social Doctrine. We thought it was best to make a clear statement of the case, not to engage in a debate. Similarly, in the past two years, our Institute has co-sponsored a conference with the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services to highlight the issue of international religious freedom. We did not invite a representative of the Chinese government or the Castro regime to make apologies for their denial of religious liberty in their countries. When we hosted a conference on the death penalty last year, we did not invite advocates for the death penalty to speak. So, this charge that the conference on libertarianism was somehow illegitimate because we did not invite Catholic libertarians strikes me as an effort to avoid engaging the issues raised.

One of the striking things about last week’s conference, and it was not by accident, was that while the speakers all reflected concerns about libertarianism, they voiced many different points of view. This was not a lefty confab. Anyone who knows Msgr. Stuart Swetland knows that he is no unreconstructed 60s liberal. Professor John DiIulio, who gave one of the liveliest presentations, worked for President George W. Bush, not President Barack Obama. Professor Mary Hirshfeld, who has a doctorate in economics, was far more sympathetic to free market ideas than some of the other panelists. Lew Daly from Demos is hardly accurately portrayed as a statist.

Additionally, I do think it is a good idea for a future conference to involve Catholic libertarians in a format that more closely resembles a debate. Eighteen months ago, I debated Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute about the issues at an event sponsored by the Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Colorado. I will add that I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Fr. Sirico at the dinner that preceded the debate and would look forward to debating (and dining) him again: He is a very likable fellow. I will happily come to any conference to join the discussion and I am sure that many of the speakers at our conference last week would do the same. So, there is the first “next step” after the conference last week – yes, let’s engage in debate and discussion of these ideas with Catholics who are more sympathetic to libertarian ideas, and with non-Catholics who are as well.

There were issues raised last week that warrant further elaboration. Professor Hirshfeld correctly noted that sometimes the debate treats instrumentalities as ends, which confuses the discussion – and tends to make it more of a zero-sum game. I agree with her point, with a qualification. Sometimes, a choice of instrumentalities does tip the scales in assessing ends and values, or the choice of means is not consistent with the stated ends or values. Rick Garnett recently wrote:

I agree with Michael Sean that conversations about public policy should be couched in terms that treat ideas like "competition" and "consumer choice" as means and mechanisms.  But, it's worth remembering that they are, often, very effective means and mechanisms.  To the extent they are, let’s use them!  Sometimes, “libertarian” (or "free market" or "non-state" or "private ordering") policies are the better ones, not so much because of imperatives connected with deep anthropological premises or because of an idolatrous attachment to autonomy, but because . . . they work better (at bringing about human flourishing and common good, properly understood).

I am not sure what that first sentence means: Sometimes we discuss means and mechanisms, sometimes ends and values. But, I do know that in this paragraph, Garnett expects the adjective “effective” to carry a lot of water. “Effective” at what? As I noted before, it is worth asking the question whether our current economic system does not create spiritual poverty at the same time that it creates material wealth, and if this co-creation is acceptable to a Christian.

For example, during 2012, Congressman Paul Ryan said that while he was once inspired by Ayn Rand, he was now inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas. Congressman Ryan did not indicate that this seismic shift in inspirations led him to re-consider any of his policies. Too often, the effort to divorce specific means from the anthropology that undergirds them is mere rhetorical smokescreen. As Professors Hirshfeld and Garnett suggest, this is an important conversation, but it is not the only important conversation and I think it will prove a very nettlesome conversation, which is the kind worth having.

Last week, the labor leaders in attendance were thrilled by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez’s keynote address as well as the response from Bishop Blase Cupich. In introducing Cardinal Rodriguez, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave what amounted to a Christian testimony, recalling his father and grandfather being pursued by thugs trying to intimidate them to stop their organizing activities. He recalled them running to the Church where the priest ushered them inside and then stood at the door to confront the thugs himself, reminding them that a Church is a sanctuary. Trumka finished by asking the cardinal to convey to the Holy Father that the working men and women of America love him. And so they do. Why is that?

Consider this passage from Evangelii Gaudium, that Cardinal Rodriguez quoted and discussed in his keynote address:

The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

 Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual. (ED, 188-189)

Labor organizers know better than anyone that “the word ‘solidarity’ is a little worn.” So much in the culture invites young people to think of themselves as consumers first, and workers second, and they fail to see that unless there is solidarity in the workplace, there will be exploitation everywhere. Pope Francis, Cardinal Oscar and Bishop Cupich are giving labor leaders not just a shot in the arm, but freshness to the language of organized labor. The possibility for labor leaders and Church leaders to engage each other at a deeper level may prove to be the first, and most wonderful, fruit of last week’s conference.

One of the attendees said that while he thought our conference did a very good job confronting libertarianism as an explicit ideology, he is more concerned about the subtle ways libertarian ideas manifest themselves in the culture. Here is another, related topic that deserves a conference all its own. The pastoral significance of the issue of hyper-individualistic influences on our culture is too obvious to be mentioned, and yet, left unmentioned, no one really studies it. Cardinal Rodriguez said we must teach our children about Catholic Social Doctrine even when they are very little, and he is right. If anyone doubts the necessity, I would point out that in U.S. culture today, for most children, the great Solemnity of Christmas is no longer a celebration of God’s grace but an exercise in teaching little kids how to be acquisitive and greedy. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is Exhibit A in my contention that sometimes the “free market” enslaves the human person.

Another important “next step” is for university presidents and, especially, the deans of Business Schools at Catholic universities, to ask themselves whether or not the kinds of issues raised at our conference are being addressed in those Catholic business schools. It is not enough to have a course in “business ethics,” which focuses on the extrinsic impulses of businesspeople. No, the concerns raised last week were deeper and more complicated. At a time when many Catholics, conservatives and not, fret about the “Catholic identity” of our Catholic colleges and universities, I would suggest that here is an area for much needed attention. Catholic identity must be about more than whom a school chooses to give a graduation speech. Just as in the 1960s, our Catholic philosophy departments continued to teach metaphysics, which had been banished from the philosophy departments at secular universities, our Catholic business schools must approach their subject matter distinctively. (N.B. Paul Weiss at Yale’s philosophy department was a happy exception in the 1960s, a devoted metaphysician, and even he ended up at Catholic University!) If Catholic identity is only about spiritual wrap arounds, and does not affect the actual content of a university’s core mission of educating, then we have missed the forest for the trees.

We are having the video of the conference edited, and collecting the texts from the speakers. We will be launching a website with the contents soon. The day after the conference, we met with educators, and will meet with others in the weeks ahead, to make sure the design of the website is conducive to helping educators as well as researchers access information on this important topic. I will be sure to link to the website when we launch it. While I think all the attendees last week found the conference provocative, my argument today is that the conference be seminal, that it start a conversation or several conversations that the Church in the United States especially needs to have. Pope Francis is calling us to have such conversations, to be sure, but you have only to look around to notice how needed a trenchant critique of libertarianism is. When companies lay off workers rather than cut shareholder profits, when communities decline because the factory got shipped off to a non-union state or to a low-wage country, when little children know more about Santa Claus than about the Baby Jesus, when the audience at a GOP primary debate cheers the prospect of a man being left to die at the emergency room because he lacked insurance, when the humanitarian crisis in Syria fades from the headlines as soon as we are assured no U.S. troops are being deployed, in all these ways, the culture of indifference is fed and nourished by the philosophy of libertarianism. It must be confronted. As Pope Pius XI wrote back in 1931, this hyper-individualism is a “poisoned spring.” I am more proud than I can say to have had a small part in helping to ignite that confrontation and so proud of our Institute, and especially its director Professor Stephen Schneck, for launching what is, I believe, the most important discussion our country and Church will have in my lifetime.


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