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Is Catholicism anti-Libertarian?

My good friend Daniel Coleman, who is Catholic and a libertarian, had an interesting email exchange with Dr. Tom Woods about Catholic teaching in tension with libertarian theory. The discussion was shared amongst other friends, and we all agreed that it needed to be posted for all to see.

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Hello Dr. Woods,

You won’t remember me, but I’ve run into you at the last couple of Austrian Scholars Conferences at the Mises Institute. I am also a participant on the Mises Scholars List and the informal libertarian e-mail group that Stephan Kinsella runs. I am a graduate student in philosophy at The Catholic University of America, and have done a little bit of writing for LewRockwell.com and the Mises Institute (for example, here).

I am writing to ask how you handle a tension relating market anarchism to Catholicism, in particular with regard to Church teaching. If you have the time to respond or perhaps point me in the direction of reading material, I would greatly appreciate it.

An acquaintance of mine from my undergraduate days, who is an adult convert to Catholicism (as am I), recently asked me about libertarian economics, distributivism, and RCC teaching. He has discovered distributivism and likes what he sees, thinking it to be a suitable means for attaining social justice. In response, I took the line that you have often argued, and I pointed out that economic science is no matter of preference or even of justice, but rather positive statements about the truths implied by human action. This is a conversation I’ve had before, many times.

Before too long, however, he really pushed me in the direction of morals rather than science. He doubts that one can be an anarchist and a good Catholic in view of authoritative Church teaching. So, regardless of one’s views on economic science, there appear to be many Church endorsements of state-or-otherwise-aggressive actions. The CCC speaks of a proper role for a state in society, for example. Leo XIII wrote several encyclicals wherein he endorses state policies that appear to be aggression. The Fourth Council of the Lateran calls for bailiffs to imprison heretics and seize their property. And so on.

It’s one thing to say that the Pope can err on matters of economic science. (And you appear to have your hands full enough just trying to convince some Catholics of that. While my friend probably wouldn’t concede this first point, he wasn’t able to come up with any argument against my Woodsian stance on it.) However, it’s another thing to say that the Church might err on matters concerning justice and morals as it pertains to the political life.

One might be tempted to take the line that the Church has not, in fact, erred on these matters from an anarchist’s perspective, provided we properly understand what the Church has said (that is, read them with a libertarian lens). But this seems like a difficult stance to defend, with at least some mental gymnastics required to make the picture fit.

My friend is convinced that I am in (potentially grave) sin over the matter, and while I do not respect his opinion enough to be shaken by such claims, it does bother me that I do not have a better answer for him at the moment.

In short: putting aside the issues concerning economic science, how do you deal with historical Catholic anti-libertarianism, especially in cases of authoritative teaching?

Regards,

Daniel Coleman

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And now for Dr. Woods’s response:

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Mr. Coleman:

The way I address it is to avoid the claim that everyone in the history of Catholicism has been wrong about the state. My claim is much more modest: that we can live civilized lives without it. Plenty of people thought it was crazy to say the same for slavery, yet haven’t we done just fine without it?

See this article, by the way: http://insidecatholic.com/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=5378&Itemid=48

How does your friend address the claims there, regarding the Church’s endorsement of slavery? Does that shut down all discussion, as in the Protestant caricature of Catholicism? Or can we not have rigorous discussion in the Scholastic tradition?

I suspect your friend is unfamiliar with how the discussion of usury evolved over the centuries. Robust debate and disagreement like you wouldn’t believe. No one ran around trying to excommunicate everyone for having forbidden thoughts. Real Church history is much more interesting than the Protestant authoritarian caricature.

Let’s suppose a small society manages to prosper with a system in which judges come from the so-called natural elite, and are not mere political appointees. These judges compete, as it were, on the basis of the quality of their judgments. Let’s say this is all done without coercion and with user fees. Is your friend saying that we would be morally obligated to force a monopolistic legal order on this polycentric one? I can’t imagine he could think such a thing.

Remember also St. Thomas’ Treatise on Law, in which he says it can be prudent to allow certain vices to persist rather than criminalizing them. That’s an interesting concession. That concedes that we are at some level dealing with prudence. We may believe thus-and-so is immoral, but that does not mean it is automatically to be criminalized. We can legitimately disagree about this.  Once this is conceded, we see the wide range of opinions to which Catholics are entitled.

I once wrote: “St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that even a sin like prostitution could be tolerated if suppressing it would lead to still greater evils. But if prostitution can be tolerated, then certainly a positive good like private property can, if curtailing the rights to property would likewise lead to greater evils….

“All in all, state power to aggress against property owners inevitably encourages man’s most predatory instincts, giving him an incentive to devote less time to satisfying the needs of his fellow men and more time to using the state’s machinery of coercion to loot them for his own selfish benefit. Since the release of such instincts will seriously undermine the common good, I see no reason that someone could not cite St. Thomas’s principle and thereby be perfectly at liberty to oppose expansions of state power over the economy on these grounds.” I cannot imagine the Church telling me that I am not allowed to be worried about this, that I should simply suppress these concerns and just go ahead and support the expansion of the state.

Finally, there is the principle of subsidiarity. This, too, is a matter for debate: can such-and-such task be handled by a local unit or do we need a more distant one? That can’t possibly be a dogmatic issue. I happen to think all issues can be handled at the local level and that there is no need to push them further. Another Catholic may disagree with that judgment, but that’s why God gave us reason. We just talk it out.

Hope that helps.

Tom

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I’m glad we have people like Tom and Daniel in so many church traditions who are working to push back against the state. Heroic!

Check out Tom Woods’s website at http://www.TomWoods.com. You can also follow him on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ThomasEWoods

LCI posts articles representing a broad range of views from authors who identify as both Christian and libertarian. Of course, not everyone will agree with every article, and not every article represents an official position from LCI. Please direct any inquiries regarding the specifics of the article to the author. 

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