Catholic & Libertarian?

It Depends

In the 2012 presidential election, for the first time in American history, two Catholic vice presidential candidates squared off to debate. Despite their shared Catholic faith, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan could hardly possess more sharply divergent social and economic views. In the debate, Biden defended the muscular, New Deal version of Catholic economic teaching, which he described simply as “taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” while Ryan touted the job-creating power of lower taxes and less regulation.

Ryan has often expressed his indebtedness to the libertarian thinker Ayn Rand, calling her “the reason I got involved in public service” and praising her for leading “a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Like Biden, Ryan views his Catholic faith as a vital part of his moral and political worldview. But are his political ideas consistent with the Catholic tradition’s approach to private ownership and the state role in the economy? Is it possible to be a Catholic economic libertarian?

Broadly speaking, there are two species of economic libertarian. For Ayn Rand and others in the natural-rights tradition, property rights are conceived as virtually absolute in scope, limited only as necessary for the protection of other property rights. For these libertarians, the protection of property rights—the freedom from interference by government—is a...

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About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.