Sen. Paul Enters the Race & the Totalitarian Itch of Libertarianism

by Michael Sean Winters

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Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky announced his candidacy for the presidency yesterday in a hotel ballroom in Louisville. The hotel was aptly named: The Galt Hotel. Presumably, the name is merely fortuitous as the hotel predates Ayn Rand’s writing Atlas Shrugged in which her libertarian hero is named John Galt. Paul’s candidacy will be a test of the power of libertarian ideas to persuade in America in the early twenty-first century and, just so, is a test for the truths of Catholic Social Teaching which could scarcely be in greater opposition to those libertarian ideas as was manifest at a conference at Boston College in which I participated on Monday.  

Dan Balz, of the Washington Post, is an acute observer of politics, but his analysis of Sen. Paul’s candidacy in this morning’s Post suffered from his repeating a lazy meme. He wrote: “Paul’s announcement was a reminder of why he often has been called the most interesting politician in the country, with a libertarian message that seemed to sweep across the ideological spectrum and that challenged the establishment of both parties.” Libertarianism is many things, but interesting is not one of them.

At the conference at Boston College, entitled, “Why Libertarianism Isn’t Liberal,” the first keynote speaker, Princeton Professor and political philosopher Alan Ryan, took issue with the title of the conference. For him, libertarianism is to liberalism as heresy is to orthodoxy, a truth run amok. They focus so exclusively on property rights, they end up neglecting other important liberal values and insights. He identified quite rightly one of the challenges Sen. Paul will face in his candidacy, the “libertarian schizophrenia” about whether the movement is a saving remnant, a view held by Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, or are they a natural third party, a view held by David Boaz at the CATO Institute, the leading libertarian think tank, and the Koch Brothers who have pledged some $800 million to test the proposition in the next two years. Professor Ryan also pointed out that Paul, like all libertarians, will have a hard time answering questions about market failure, which the nation and world experienced in 2008, leading a bewildered Alan Greenspan, longtime Secretary-Treasurer of the Ayn Rand Society in Washington, to admit he could not explain how the economic meltdown happened. The libertarian insistence on property rights as the only useful lens for evaluating public policy is similarly ill-suited to pressing concerns, such as environmental degradation. Much of the pollution in San Francisco, Ryan pointed out, originates in China and it is difficult to see how an assertion of property rights could resolve that problem for those coughing on polluted air in the City by the Bay.

The other keynoter, Alan Wolfe, delivered a trenchant indictment of libertarianism, root and branch. To him, the movement has more in common with the totalitarianism it ostensibly opposed than with liberalism. Libertarians like to place both Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek in their pantheon of heroes, but while both embraced laissez-faire economics, they did so in different circumstances and for different reasons. “Smith’s free market would liberate individuals from the caprice of an inflexible mercantilism,” Wolfe explained. “Hayek’s free market would chain individuals to a system of rules over which they have no control and cannot, by themselves, fully understand.” But, the problems with libertarianism are deeper than a misreading of their heroes. “Liberalism raises questions.  Libertarians seek answers, and always find the right ones,” Wolfe said. “Their philosophy is an antidote to the doubt, inconsistency, and vagueness that has always been built-into liberalism.  There is nothing tentative, nothing haphazard, nothing weak-kneed about libertarianism..  If you believe in God, respect hierarchy, and venerate tradition you can oppose liberalism by becoming a conservative.  If you prefer a social order that hides its authoritarianism behind opaqueness, you become a libertarian.”

The other speakers at the conference, approaching the topic from different perspectives, all took libertarianism to the intellectual woodshed. Boston College theologian Mary Jo Iozzio looked at how America’s happy, and largely successful, efforts to make life better for people with disabilities rests on a view of human society that is anathema to libertarians. Providence College theologian Dana Dillon noted the limits of rights as a political lens, asking how much more effective the Church’s opposition to the HHS contraception mandate would have been if Catholic institutions were at the forefront of efforts to provide liberal maternal leave policies, providing day care to employees, and other pro-family provisions. And, Mark Silk of Trinity College, who has happily published his talk, introduced a new phrase into the political lexicon: spiritual libertarianism. More on that tomorrow when I discuss the fallout from the Indiana RFRA fight.

The other panel featured Catholic University’s Stephen Schneck, who explained in detail why John Locke and James Madison also do not fit into the libertarian pantheon despite their efforts to claim them as their own. Schneck is working on a book on this topic and his talk reflected the careful research and analysis we have come to expect from him. St. John’s University theologian Meghan Clark explained that libertarianism and Catholic Social Teaching are at odds at the root, with radically different conceptions of humankind’s creation in the image and likeness of God, the universal destination of goods, and the purpose of government. And Harvard’s Mary Jo Bane, who described herself as “a hopeless pragmatist,” noted that liberals – and Catholics – could draw policy threads from libertarianism on issues like school choice, criminal justice policy and social welfare policy. An expert in these policy areas, Bane is familiar with the way establishment thinking can resist improvements to systems that are not working, and she can be forgiven for seeking allies where she can find them. Nor did she evidence any sympathy for libertarian values or ideas, saying, “Both markets and governments can be exploitative and corrupt.”

In the end, however, what became obvious in the course of the day is that libertarianism is not very interesting at all. It is little more than an effort to turn selfishness and self-assertion into a political platform. That is not to say it does not strike some deep roots with plausible misreadings of liberalism and specifically Americanism. But, the problems the nation faces, from income inequality to environmental degradation to the rise of Islamicist terrorism, none of these problems can be solved, or the issues even clarified, by someone schooled in libertarian thinking, even a senator speaking at the Galt Hotel. The reporters covering his announcement should have come to our conference at Boston College the previous day. They would not use the word interesting to describe him, more like scary and juvenile. I wish, too, that some of those Catholics who serve as fellow travelers for libertarianism, our friends at the Acton Institute for example, had been there too. They must confront these issues or admit they are undermining Catholic Social Teaching. And, they must confront something else, a point the shone through the varied presentations. There is a totalitarian itch at the heart of libertarianism, an itch that could not be more different from the complex, rich, nuanced understandings that emerge from both liberalism and from Catholic Social Teaching. I will give the last word to Alan Wolfe: 

Libertarianism goes out of its way to reduce the complexities of the world to one thing and one thing only, whether it be how we make decisions, what decisions we make, and what our decisions imply for others.  The often-noted attraction of libertarianism for young minds is, I believe, a reflection of this.  There is something so satisfying when one is young about the Faustian idea that all of reality can be unlocked with one simple key.  It is when we grow out of that fantasy and begin to understand just how complex the world actually is that adherents to libertarianism begin to understand the limits of what had once been so appealing to them.


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