The Catholic Case For Libertarianism and The Golden Rule

Why Catholics should be libertarianOn June 3, 2014, Catholic University in Washington, D.C., hosted a conference entitled: “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” The initial buzz centered around the keynote speech by Cardinal Archbishop Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras. Catholic libertarians Tom Woods and Ryan McMaken have penned solid responses to the Cardinal’s speech, here and here.

The videos of the conference are now available. After watching the conference, I noticed a pronounced lopsidedness in the content, not because all the speakers were hostile to liberty, but because the speakers came mostly from a Catholic left perspective and seem chiefly interested in trashing free markets and the libertarians who advocate them. One has to wonder if the title ought not to have been: “The Case Against the Acton Institute.

Every speaker (except one, Msgr. Stuart Swetland) carefully avoid mentioning anything close to the one essential element of libertarianism: the nonaggression principle–which simply stated–means that one may not initiate physical force against another. I suspect that the nonaggression principle sounds too close to the Gospels and the Golden rule for comfort.

Bread for the WorldThe backdrop to the conference podium displayed a message from the conference sponsor, “Bread for the World” that underlines exactly whose job the group believes it is to help the poor. The poster read: “Bread for the World — a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.” According to the Bread for the World website, they are mainly lobbyists who do not actually feed anybody.

[Correction: Upon further thought, any fair analysis should at least credit these guys with feeding congressmen]

In their presentations, the conference speakers tended to mistake the non-Christian individualism of writers like Ayn Rand as being the very heart of libertarianism.

Catholic libertarians are not individualists just because we value individual virtue above government welfare, taken from its “donors” by the state at gunpoint. We are not anti-social individualists simply because we are not busybodies. I am sure that even the speakers at this conference understand the difference between tolerating a selfish jerk and being a selfish jerk.

One speaker explained that it is hard for a libertarian to see his neighbor as himself. I have no words for such an accusation. That just seems mean.

The speakers liked to throw around the phrase, the “common good” as if it were synonymous with the welfare state. None bothers to parse the catechism definition which teaches that the common good entails the protection of individual rights and security; and that these are protected when a person is allowed to live life peaceably and without interference. There is nothing in the catechism definition to support the redistribution of wealth by the state. The reason it is called the “common good” is because it is good for everybody, not just the beneficiaries of redistribution.

Another speaker, Matthew Boudway, an associate editor at Commonweal magazine, has posted his own talk at the Commonweal blog. Mr Boudway advises that “if you watch just one of the videos, watch” the remarks of John Dilulio, a political science professor who also served in the Bush administration.

John Dilulio presentation

Mr Boudway chose well, because Dilulio levels his sights dead center on those he calls “radical libertarians.” Dilulio takes just twelve minutes during which he caricatures the libertarian viewpoint, then tamps down the dirt on the Catholic libertarian grave, neatly ignoring what Catholic libertarians actually believe and their moral basis for it.

Dilulio argues that libertarianism is incompatible with a Catholic view of society:

The Common Good:

Dilulio charges that “radical libertarians harbor no conception of the common good.” This astounding indictment is so baseless as to raise a question as to John Dilulio’s conception of the common good. As noted earlier, the “common good” is not a club for critics to waive at libertarians, for the common good is best served when people are safe and their dignity as human beings is respected. Libertarians have no trouble with this idea.

Sinful Inequalities:

Dilulio says libertarians refuse to acknowledge “sinful inequalities” in society. He says libertarians disfavor government efforts to end them. “Sinful inequalities” is a phrase from the Catechism that is misused to support redistribution by the state. “Sinful inequalities” refers to “economic and social disparities” which are not conducive to “social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.” The Catechism calls us to “strive for fairer and humane conditions.”

As libertarians, we do not refuse to acknowledge “sinful inequalities” in society. True, we often oppose the increasing demands of the state, but Dilulio could not be more wrong in saying that we disfavor government efforts to eliminate sinful inequlities. Here are a few areas ripe for government action:

Crony Capitalism:

The sinful inequalities to be eliminated must include benefits that are not enjoyed by all. These include government subsidies to business, protective tariffs, too-big-to-fail corporate bailouts, and the use of eminent domain which destroys whole neighborhoods and takes land for big business at bargain prices. Intellectual property laws–which have the chief effect of protecting monopolies while stifling creativity and productivity–should also be repealed. On top of this, product regulations and occupational licensing requirements limit competition and raise prices, all to the benefit of established  businesses. Zoning and other state-mandated land-use restrictions tend in the same direction.

Barriers to Self-employment:

It is time to demolish all the “sinful inequalities” that prevent honest work; time to tear down the state-erected walls that separate workers from earning a living:

  • Allow street vending along the public right of way. No permits, no licenses, just food carts, trucks and flea markets, etc.
  • Eliminate taxi-cab permits and licensing so that a car or van owner can make a living giving rides without asking permission from the state.
  • Eliminate occupational licensing. Those who can cut and braid hair, midwives, carpenters, plumbers, beer brewers, nail clippers, babysitters, funeral directors, dental hygienists and other practitioners should be left alone to do their work without arbitrary educational requirements, testing, dues paying and permission from the government. Even professions like medicine, law, engineering and architecture would be better certified by private entities.
  • No ordinance should require state permission to operate garage sales, growing vegetables, chickens or other small animals and selling the resulting goods from the same premises.
  • People should be allowed to practice trades out of their homes; to build things, to can food and bake bread, to cater to customers out of their home kitchens.

The some on the left are critical of the whole idea of working for wages. They argue that the employer/employee relationship is coercive because the poor have no better options. On the other hand, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, so having more alternatives to working for wages has to be a good thing. If it puts employers and employees on a more even footing, that is good too. All Christians should support the removal of barriers to making a living.

If government is going to level the employment field, it is also time to repeal the minimum wage laws. The reasons are many: here, but the bottom line is that the minimum wage is nothing more than a barrier separating unskilled workers from a job.

While jobs are the top priority in raising up the poor, another way government can help is by getting out of the way of affordable housing by:

  • Eliminating minimum house and lot sizes and other building code restrictions that prevent the poor from owning a home. The entire “tiny house” movement shows people can live economically and well.
  • Repealing zoning laws that prevent homeowners from creating small apartments out of basements and attics, thereby creating income and increasing the amount of affordable rental housing.
  • Making it easy to establish boarding houses were people can live well and cheaply.

These are just a few areas where government could create widespread prosperity with libertarian ideas by eliminating “sinful inequalities.” Of course, this is just a start.

Libertarians want to end foreign military interventions and return the military to a purely defensive role, saving lives and resources that would be much better kept at home. Libertarians would limit the United States’ prison system to people who actually hurt other people and would treat the drug problem as a social and mental health problem, not a criminal one. A country with 5% of the earth’s population and 25% of the inmates–mostly poor and minorities–needs to find a better way.

Love for the poor:

Dilulio goes on to accuse libertarians of having no “manifest love for the poor.” We are, he says, “blind to the ‘another self‘ in others.” And he charges that the humble aphorism,  “There, but by the grace of God, go I,” is “not a sentiment that much stirs in their souls.” These are serious charges to level against a fellow Christian.

Catholic libertarians believe there is no poorer expression of love for the poor than a willingness to put a gun to our brother’s head with the purpose of making him a charitable man. We prefer voluntary charity, mutual aid, and the removal of all the barriers (noted above) that prevent people from making a dignified living.

Subsidiarity:

Pope Leo XIII taught in the encyclical Rerum Novarum that “Man precedes the State.” Leo wrote that “the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of community, and founded more immediately in nature.” This natural ordering of society is known as the principle of subsidiarity; that human activity ought to be governed at the lowest level possible, leaving higher orders of community with only those functions which only they can accomplish.

Dilulio knows that libertarians are all in favor of what could be called subsidiarity’s preferential option for governance at the lowest possible level. His criticism centers around libertarians who prefer to make up their own minds about when to kick a particular task upstairs to a higher authority.

Catholic Social teaching would seem to leave some prudential room on the question of when to apply government aggression to gain the cooperation of the people. Coercive violence by government, against its own citizens, is never the preferred option; and–as the Church teaches–the use of force is a sign of a government that does not respect the rights of its citizens. Such a government “can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects.” See Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 1930.

In his closing remarks, Dilulio concedes that there are things to be learned from libertarianism and that government is not the answer for everything. Still, he insists, there can be no doubt that this world would be worse off were it not for the blessings of forced redistribution by government.

“Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism” was a refreshing opportunity to see how we libertarians appear to the Catholic left. They got a few bits of it right and much of it wrong; egregiously wrong in taking the measure of our motives. Most importantly, we are getting traction and they know it. We may expect more such efforts ahead.

Catholic Statist poster

Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium and the free market

dont-tread-on-neighbor300I am sure we are all busy this Thanksgiving week, so I considered my self lucky to have found the time to read through Pope Francis’ letter titled Evangelii Gaudium on Tuesday, but I hadn’t really figured out my reaction to parts of that letter that might be read as hostile to the free market.

This morning I was checking my email–waiting for most of my family to arrive for Thanksgiving dinner–when I received this message from a fellow named Kris who was troubled by the same concerns. I took a few minutes to hazard a response (which time may later help me to refine). Here is Kris’ letter and my early thoughts:

From: Kris Mxxxxxxxx
Subject: EVANGELII GAUDIUM

Dear Mr. England,

I came across a couple of your posts on catholic.com while searching for conservative/libertarian responses to Catholic Pope Francis’ newly released Encyclical.

Coincidentally, I own a copy of your book, Free Is Beautiful, and have read some of it. I admit I was disappointed by it because I don’t think it acknowledges that although Catholicism and libertarianism are compatible, the Church has worked against libertarianism in many ways throughout its history.

I’d like to know what your reaction to the Pope’s new Encyclical is. In particular, the remarks about “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world” and “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”

As a fellow libertarian Catholic, I found those statements disturbing. Should I?

Sincerely,
Kris Mxxxxxxxx

————————————————————————–
Randy England <randyengland@gmail.com>
11:59 AM

Hi Kris:

Thanks you for your thoughtful message. I’ve only read the letter once, and it is clear there are no doctrinal issues that I have any trouble with. There a couple things I wish could be clarified. One is his harshness with what Pope Francis calls “unfettered capitalism.” Neither you nor I, nor the Pope has ever seen unfettered capitalism. I assume he must be condemning our modern corrupt, crony capitalism which any decent person ought to condemn.

I would like to see a free market in which anybody–especially the poor–can practice their occupations, subject only to the need to please the people they serve. They should be able to do it without government permission.

They shouldn’t need a license or government permission to practice a trade out of their homes; to sell their wares as a street vendor; to braid, cut, color hair or apply makeup; to have all the garage sales they want, to care for children in their homes, to bake & sell bread, to to use their vehicles to drive other people around inexpensively; to raise small animals in town; and on and on.

These are ways the market could be “unfettered” and I think our Pope might agree.

As to “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” I don’t think that the rich getting richer necessarily helps the poor, but I cannot overlook the fact that a poor man today lives a better, longer, cleaner, healthier life than did a king 200 years ago. He can travel further, faster, use the phone, electric lights and probably see his children’s children born and raised, instead of watching them die. This is progress and the poor man participates as much as a king, arguably more.

I would give anything to be able to discuss these things with our Pope, but I have to trust in God that the Church will grow its understanding of liberty as government becomes more obviously corrupt and oppressive.

I am not worried about the past. It took the Church over a 1000 years to BEGIN to eradicate and finally condemn slavery (because of the “hardness of our hearts” as Jesus said). This may be that sort of thing. It can take time for understanding to develop. I really believe that liberty under non-aggressive institutions is the future.

God bless you and your family this Thanksgiving. It’s time for dinner!

Kind regards,
Randy England

———————————————————-
Kris Mxxxxxxxx
8:10 PM

Dear Randy,

Your response has made me much more comfortable being a Catholic libertarian. Thank you. I also believe that liberty under non-aggressive institution is the future. How could the kingdom of God be any other way? Please feel free to use this exchange in your blog if you feel it would help others like me.

Yours in Christ,

Kris

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Free is Beautiful AudioBook – Chapter Three: The Church, Property, and the Free Market

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Chapter Three: The Church, Property, and the Free Market

Origin of Private Property | Tragedy of the Commons | Thou shall not steal | Duty to help the poor: charity or force? | The Free Market | A Just Price | A Just Wage | The Minimum Wage

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Private property and a moral society

In the last post, we noted that a free society–far from being an amoral nightmare–would be one where people have more control over their lives and neighborhoods and be better able to live as they ought.

This can be accomplished by eliminating public property. Every town has one or more streets in its business district. What would happen if the town deeded one street and its sidewalks back to the landowners along that street? It would be child’s play for the merchants to make alternative arrangements for security and upkeep, assuming they no longer have to pay for those through taxes. The most visible change would be that the now-private street owners are not bound by the rules that bind the state in policing that street. In public places, conduct that is not criminal must be tolerated no matter how obnoxious. The police—bound by the laws that protect us all—are powerless to act.

When the street is public property, then drug dealers, troublemakers and thieves must be tolerated even if it drives the rest of us out of the neighborhood. Only if such people are caught breaking the law can they be removed (temporarily) from public property.

If a business district were fully owned by the merchants of the district, they would see that it was well maintained with good access and plenty of parking. They would want the sidewalks to be free of people who harass or drive away customers. If the property included a formerly public park, the merchants would want it clean, safe and attractive to their customers. Individuals would conduct themselves by the rules or be barred from the property.

The private business district—like a private mall—would have the same rights as a person in their own home. Even in today’s society, we can do just about anything inside our homes as long as we do not infringe the rights of others. On the other hand, we have almost no rights inside another man’s home. We cannot smoke, drink the water, use the toilet, speak or even move without the owner’s leave. As much as we value our freedom of speech, our right to peaceably assemble or to bear arms, no such rights exist on another man’s property. If we do not abide by the owner’s rules, no matter how stupid or arbitrary, we are trespassers and can be made to leave.

Of course, a business owner does not want to exclude people. He wants them to come in and spend money. Whether he allows smoking, guns or alcohol is no one’s business but his . By these choices he caters to some and not to others. Such privatization would let the merchant control the entire environment and allow customers to choose those businesses or districts that meet their needs. The same sort of choice—now forbidden by government—would become the norm if private property replaced public ownership and voluntary agreements replaced governmental aggression.

In the next post, we will see how these principles might extend to our homes, neighborhoods and entire cities.

What is a just wage? And who decides?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides that a just wage is one that takes in account “the needs and contributions” of the people involved. Those who favor interference  with voluntary wage agreements cite the Catechism for the proposition that “agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.” CCC 2434. Agreements made under force or fraud certainly are unjust, but further meddling by others is unlikely to yield a more just result.

It is difficult to see how an outsider to any wage agreement will have more competence to judge what is fair and just. This kind of meddling reminds me of the sort of courtroom judge whose conceit overpowers common sense and a proper humility.

An Unwise Judge

In a criminal case there are two parties: the state, represented by the prosecutor, and the defendant, represented by his own attorney. In most cases, they reach a settlement of the case without a trial. Each considers the evidence supporting their side and the likelihood of success and punishment. By the time they reach a plea agreement, each side has carefully weighed the issues, sometimes over a period of many months.

The deal is made and they appear before the judge. The agreement is announced. It typically involves a compromise regarding the charges, or the sentence, or both; and unless something seems dishonest or fraudulent, the judge accepts the plea and sentences the defendant according to the agreement. The judge will often accept a deal that is more harsh or more lenient than the sentence they would ordinarily give. It may not be a perfect solution, but the wise judge knows that the precious few minutes he spends with this case is dwarfed by the hours and months that the parties have invested to understand the issues and the evidence.

The foolish judge sweeps all of this aside and substitutes his own views and prejudices. His arrogance blinds him to the fact the parties to the case have far better reasons to believe that the agreement is fair. The foolish judge does not care, nor does he have to live with the result. He is pleased with his judgment, even if no one else is.

When it comes to the free market, the parties in a transaction, will do their best to reach agreement regarding a fair wage (or price). There is no assurance that their agreement is perfect, but–absent force or fraud–it seems likely that neither they, nor society, will benefit from interference by the government.