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Here & Elsewhere—Libertarian Edition

Libertarians and libertarianism have been receiving a lot of attention lately. In the current issue of Commonweal, Eduardo Peñalver asks whether Catholics can be libertarians. His answer: It depends—not on what kind of Catholic they are but on what kind of 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.

Meanwhile, in a much-discussed essay in the New Republic ("The Truth About Our Libertarian Age"), Mark Lilla argues that, strictly speaking, libertarianism isn't so much an ideology as a dogma:

The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus.

As regular readers of the blog may remember, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies recently held a conference on the "Catholic Case against Libertarianism" in Washington D.C. Videos from the conference are now available here. Among the highlights: IPR director Stephen Schneck on libertarianism and Catholic political theory, Maria Elena Durazo on the church's relationship to the labor movement, and Lew Daly on the practical effects of libertarianism on public policy. (The text of my own remarks is still available here; the video is here.)

If you watch just one of the videos, watch this one:

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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I'd nominate the Maria Elena Durazo talk as not-to-be-missed.


There is a seriously misleading conflation in this essay. Ayn Rand is cited as being a 'type' of libertarian. There follows a serious slam against "libertarianism." No attempt to make a distinction between Rand's thought and those who self-identify as 'libertarian', and I would suggest no shame in omitting one.


Ayn Rand is not libertarian. She is "none of the above" in both the initial characterization, nor in the lower-down denunciation. She wrote extensively against libertarianism.


Objectivism is a philosophy. It is not dogma nor ideology. I suggest you post a retraction, and then if so inclined make whatever attack on Objectivism you desire.


I understand the basic political manifestation would most likely be anarchy. But anarchy is of course in the eye of the beholder. It would be more akin to conglomeration of various social entities forming for particular interests.

Many of the founding fathers of the US had a kind of anarchistic bent in that sense.

I asked this question before and never received a reply. Was the revolutionary war justified from a Catholic point of view. Were the political ideals advanced in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution fully consistent with Catholic political thought.

This is an important question as the US approaches the Fourth of July. Many of the ideas celebrated on that national holiday are libertarian and were never fully vindicated by the Catholic Church until almost 200 years later at the Second Vatican Council.

When I hear catholic American conservatives talking, I hear them appealing to the Constitution or at least their interpretation which seems largely correct. Ron Paul although not Catholic springs to mind. I do not agree with this but they do make a compelling argument which begs the question can the Declaration of Independence and the constitution be considered Catholic documents, imbibed with a Catholic spirit?

Well, no.  Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence were written with the goal of defining or implementing the teachings of Christ.  There was that messy ole separation of Church and State thing.  To suggest it was or was not would be a fine jumping off point for a debate but in order to arrive at an indisputable conclusion would require more fanaticism than reason.

As for Catholic "conservatives" apealing to the Constitution I suggest their appeals, particularly those of the remarkably self-absorbed Rand family, are as self-serving as those of Jefferson in his reading of the Judeo-Christian bible without the truly remarkable brilliance and compassion, of course.  BTW, the Smithsonian recently came out with a reproduction of Jefferson's "bible" for a mere 40 bucks or so.  Not bad. 

@George D (7/3, 12:39 am)  Interesting comment.  Which of the founders of the US had, in your view, "a kind of anarchistic bent"?

Might Be

But they were informed by ideas springing from the Enlightenment. The Catholic Church was not on board with many of the ideas from the enlightenment. The enlightenment also corresponded to the rise of the nation state and the Protestant reformation.

Leo XIII condemned what he called Americanism.

All of this begs the question of what exactly is Catholic social thought? And how does one apply those principles (many of which rooted in natural law theory) to the American social democratic experiment which has been pretty successful by most measures.


if we take as a definition that anarchy would be the position that government is a necessary evil that must be tolerated but circumscribed very strictly within tight parameters to ensure maximum liberty than I would think Madison and Jefferson would be two candidates. I am not an expert on US history by any stretch but my sense is that these row embody the whole maxim that "that government which governs least, governs best" I know that phrase is attributed to Jefferson but he did not use it but my understanding is that it accurately conveys his political philosophy.

That messy old church and state thing is not that messy where the Catholic Church is concerned or even the Anglican one for that matter. The coronation ceremony is presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen is actually, technically head of state and defender of the faith. Queen of Canada too. The American model is very persuasive and popular but is by no means the only configuration of church/state relations. But it is the most unique and fascinating in history. 

Yet somehow the Catholic Church has found a home in all these systems but claims to have teachings universally applicable.

So is there any such thing as a "Catholic" system of governance? 



the Catholic Church holds that government is a natural good and bases this on natural reason. The framers did not see it that way. How do you square that circle as a devout Catholic?

George - the very act of constituting a government would seem to require that government be viewed at least as being necessary, if not positively a good (whether natural or otherwise).  Catholic social teaching and the Founding Fathers seem on occasion to have arrived at points of agreement, even if they were working from different starting assumptions.

It's worth noting, too, that the basic federal government structure in the US, as enshrined in the Constitution, was arrived at only after an earlier experiment, the Articles of Confederation, came to be viewed as unworkable because it was too weak to be effective.  I don't think it would be correct to think of Madison, Jefferson et al as governmental minimalists. In a sense, they were good subsidiarists.


The Founders certainly had concerns about tyranny--checks and balances on the government.  But they also wanted checks on the populace: no direct election of either the president or senators.  And of course there were severe limits on who could vote since neither slaves nor free women had the franchise.  Perhaps their ideal was closer to a representative government (not a pure democracy) with significant deference to the wealthy, propertied, and educated class (of white men).  Not intending to bash them--within the limits of their time and worldview, it is still a remarkbable document.

A couple of stray thoughts. How interesting would it be to ask whether the Norwegian Constitution or the French Constitution or the German Basic Law is more or less compatible with Catholic Social Thought than is the American Constitution?  (Yes, I have read those constitutions, plus a few others) My answer is that it would not be very illuminating at all, because the discourse level at which Catholic Social Thought is articulated is not the same discourse level as Constitutional documents. It would be like comparing one or more books of the Bible with the record of the acts of political ruling bodies.

A second straythought. Would anyone claim that the Papal States were organized and administered in a way that was "compatible" with Catholic Social Thought? People who called themselves Catholic ruled them, but so what?

Finally, on a differrent note, The July-August 2014 issue of "Foreign Affairs" has an interresting and informative article entitled "The State of the State: The Global Contest for the Future of Government." It is bytwo senior editorrs of "The Economist." What they say is not the last word about anything, but it is a good word about a very important topic, a topic that is of much importance to everyone, Catholic or otherwise.


But the constitution clearly restricts the scope of government explicitly (e.g the state shall make no law....).

And the separation of powers was developed to put a check on the power of each branch. Their experience from Europe was that government simply cannot be trusted. The American transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson were the products of the American political cultures each of these found that instututions, political and religious, corrupted the individual. 

My point is not that they were wrong but that this is anything but a Catholic view of things (arguably).

And that brings me to libertarianism and Catholicism. Ironically, it was the very libertarian nature of American society with regards to health and education that permitted Catholic institutions to grow in the US.

Just saying the libertarians have a point and are appealing to American history. It is not some whacky Ayn Rand philosophy. It predates it by far. 

If you had to pick any country in the world where libertarianism is more of a natural fit to the people's history, I would wager that USA tops the list.

I think the Founding Fathers were more Dieists than religious in the sense the US Bishops and their fortnight of freedom thing keep trying to portray them.  Jefferson created his own version of the bible, deleting all the supernatural stuff  ;)  There was a past Washinton Post article that touched on this ... ...

We learn that Benjamin Franklin, for example, believed primarily in a God of reason but had serious doubts about the divinity of Jesus -- though he strongly subscribed to the moral ideas Jesus preached. Jefferson similarly saw Jesus as a "reformer and moral exemplar" and took a pair of scissors to his Bible to cut away all the parts -- miracles and supernatural interventions -- that offended his intellectual sensibilities. ..... Washington's religious affiliation, on the other hand, is notoriously ambiguous. Raised as an Anglican, Washington attended church, sometimes regularly. He served as churchwarden, observed fast days and vigorously promoted religion among the soldiers of the Continental Army. Yet he was never confirmed, avoided communion and during his lingering death never prayed nor asked for a clergyman. When he spoke or wrote of God, he favored words with decidedly deist and Masonic connotations: "Providence," "the Deity" and "the Grand Architect." Holmes concludes that Washington was a deist primarily concerned with morality and order, one who favored religion because of the useful role it played in society ...

Hi, George, I agree with you re: check and balances.  Kevin Mulcahy's comment is excellent in this regard.  The Founders certainly championed liberty, but I don't know that they would have agreed with libertarianism.  


By the time of the Revolution, the "pilgrims seeking religious freedom in a New Jerusalem" had given way to waves and waves of entrepreneurs of various stripes, and the impetus for the Revolution was largely economic (and libertarian): The Founders were the "haves," and they wanted to keep a bigger percentage of their money and to open direct trade with other nations without having to pay taxes to, buy goods through, or obey trade laws imposed by England. They certainly did not want to establish a state religion that would further siphon funds from their profits. And, as someone above has noted, the Founders rigged the system, if you will, to keep the franchise out of the hands of any number of have-nots, either by direct laws or by poll taxes, voting tests, and the like.

My guess is that the Founders saw churches as benign because they kept people in line and dealt with the poor so the state would have less to do in these areas. 

Christian libertarians often appeal to "strong common American moral values," which I don't think have ever truly existed. The Constitution, laudable as it is, is not a moral code; it merely guarantees certain freedoms--freedoms that are always subject to interpretation and amendment. Sometimes they invent for one or more Founders some undemonstrative but deeply held religious views to square this all up. But I'm hard-pressed to see anything more than Free Masonry at work there.

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