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 moral imperative, irrespective of the outcomes it produces. In contrast, for libertarians whose outlook is based in economics (think Milton Friedman), the commitment to state noninterference in private-property rights rests on empirical—and, at least in theory, testable—claims about how the world works. Maintaining robust private property rights is good, the argument goes, because it leads to the more efficient operation of the economy, which in turn generates greater overall social wealth from which everyone benefits.

In my view, the Ayn Rand, natural-rights libertarianism that Paul Ryan has flirted with is fundamentally incompatible with Catholic teachings on the nature and limits of private ownership. First of all, biblical texts offer no support for a natural-rights view of property. Yes, the Ten Commandments prohibit theft; but opposition to theft can be rooted in widely varying accounts of the nature of property. And in fact, the early church fathers had deeply ambivalent views about private ownership. They understood the original and perfect condition of human beings to involve common ownership and equal sharing of God’s creation. Clement of Alexandria typifies the patristic view when he asserts that “it is God himself who has brought our race to making all things for all. Therefore, everything is common and the rich should not grasp a greater share.” The early church fathers conceded that human beings’ fallen nature made private property an inevitable departure from God’s plan. But, while they grudgingly conceded the permissibility of private ownership, the church fathers consistently denounced great inequality in its distribution, calling excessive wealth a form of theft. “He who spends too much,” wrote Ambrose bluntly, “is a robber.”

Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of property in the Summa builds on these foundations. Suspicious of property, he never treats it as a natural right, but instead remains largely within the patristic tradition that treats private ownership as, at most, permissible for prudential reasons. In addition to this skeptical account, however, Aquinas offers a more affirmative account of the institution. Drawing on Aristotle’s positive treatment of private property, he argues that property is practically necessary because “human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself....” This more affirming account of property constitutes a subtle shift in Catholic thinking.

A much bigger shift was signaled by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Though best known for its affirmation of workers’ rights and its critical analysis of industrial capitalism, the encyclical also offered a scathing condemnation of socialism. As part of that condemnation, it affirmed that private ownership is a natural right, not merely a pragmatic concession to human sinfulness. Breaking with prior Christian discussions, Leo XIII declared that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.” Thus Leo XIII makes access to the experience of private ownership a vital aspect of human well-being. Far from being a mere concession to human sinfulness, property is a means by which we become fully human; “it must be within man’s right,” the encyclical asserts, “to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession.”

Yet justifying property rights in this way does not lead to the kind of absolute property rights central to the Ayn Rand libertarian vision. On Leo’s account, access to ownership is a kind of necessity, almost on par with access to the resources necessary for physical survival. This means that a state wrongs its citizens not only when it prohibits private ownership, as Leo (wrongly) understood socialists to be proposing, but also when it fails to provide citizens with sufficient chances at ownership. “The law,” Rerum Novarum tells us, “should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become owners.” And in evaluating the justice of an economic system, the encyclical instructs us to look in the first instance to the condition of the poor, “who have a claim to special consideration.”

The Second Vatican Council reiterated and crystallized Rerum Novarum’s account of property rights. Property rights are natural rights, the council stated, because they “assure a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of personal and familial autonomy and ought to be considered an extension of human freedom.” Furthermore, protecting existing property entitlements cannot be justified “unless, at the same time, a continuing effort is made to spread the use of this right through all ranks of the citizenry.” This distributive concern empowers and indeed obligates the state to intervene in the market. “By the prudent use of various devices already proven effective,” the council stated, “it will not be difficult for the body politic to modify economic and social life so that the way is made easier for widespread private possession of such things as durable goods, homes, gardens, tools requisite for artisan enterprises, and family-type farms, investments in enterprises of medium or large size.”

And so the account of property rights that emerges from modern Catholic social teaching is more favorable to the institution of private ownership than the view that prevailed in the early Christian and medieval church. Yet, while recognizing property rights as natural rights, it heavily qualifies those rights by insisting that rights “of” property include rights “to” property. And this in turn means that property rights are subject to state restriction and redistribution. John Paul II understood property as existing under a kind of “social mortgage,” rooted in the inherently collaborative nature of production and in the obligation to use private property to supply the needs of others. This is a view of private property that, in its most basic concepts, cannot be squared with the precepts of moral libertarianism.

But the same cannot be said about the second, more utilitarian version of libertarianism I discussed at the outset. If one’s purpose in designing a system of property is to ensure as widespread a dispersion of ownership as possible, then the question of how much government intervention will be optimal for accomplishing that goal is a practical one. Answers to this question cover a broad spectrum. In his book Defending the Free Market, Fr. Robert Sirico makes the sweeping claim that “every scheme of redistribution that has defied the right to private property has created more poverty.” This sort of “futility” argument against helping the poor is ubiquitous among American conservatives—the ongoing debate over increasing the minimum wage is a case in point. Many critics of policies to help the poor claim to share the goals and principles of Catholic teaching about property; their objections to such policies, they say, do not address principles, but effectiveness. These critics typically argue that well-intentioned policies actually worsen the plight of the poor, by stifling innovation and inhibiting economic growth in the system overall, or by breeding dependence among the poor themselves. Economic well-being trickles down; a rising tide lifts all boats: these conservative maxims are claims about how the world works, not about how morality should guide us.

But the ostensibly empirical nature of these claims does not mean that the libertarian worldview behind them is consistent with the church’s teachings. As a matter of principle, the church’s views on property and justice mandate expanding the domain of ownership to the least well off. People who are genuinely interested in achieving that goal may disagree about how to accomplish it. As long as their disagreement is rooted in differing good-faith assessments of that empirical question, they can lay claim to the mantle of the Catholic property tradition. What the Catholic view rules out, however, is what John Paul II called the “idolatry” of the market—a blind faith in free-market solutions to social problems. This is precisely what Pope Francis famously condemned in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:

[S]ome people continue to defend 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. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

What Francis has in mind is precisely the sort of argument that Sirico makes repeatedly in Defending the Free Market. The book is animated by a generalized and fact-free belief in the superiority of the market—just the kind of blind faith that Francis and John Paul II dismiss. In chapter after chapter, Sirico rejects nonmarket solutions to social problems, not via a thoughtful and open-minded evaluation, but simply by following his a priori commitment to the market. “When people begin to sacrifice the rights of property and exchange—their economic freedom—for some other perceived good such as security or equality,” he warns, “they take a step down [Friedrich] Hayek’s road to serfdom.” Castigating just this kind of sweeping rejection of market regulation, Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium admonishes those who “defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation...[and] reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

Sirico’s supposedly empirical and utilitarian arguments against government redistribution or intervention in labor markets are little more than ideological assertion masquerading as empiricism. They exemplify exactly the kind of “crude and naïve trust” in free markets that the church has long rejected—or, in Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s words in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the error of “subscribing uncritically to the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.” Such a sweeping libertarianism, rooted in untested beliefs about the consequences of government intervention in the free market, is as inconsistent with Catholic views on property as the Ayn Rand brand of moral libertarianism that condones abortion on demand and suicide. The Catholic tradition demands that Catholics approach questions of economic policy with an open mind and a critical eye. It demands that our positions about the propriety of government intervention in particular contexts be open to falsification on the basis of careful evidence. It requires that our views, whatever they are, be “confirmed by the facts,” in Pope Francis’s words. It allows a broad range of economic policies, but it rules out basing our positions on an idolatry of the market.

Published in the July 11, 2014 issue: 

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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