Don't Call Us Libertarians!

"A Trap Set for Conservative Catholics" is the ominous title of a piece by Austin Ruse at Crisis Magazine. The gravamen of Ruse's complaint is that people like me and Commonweal contributor David Gibson are defaming conservative Catholics by conflating their support for a "robust market economy" with libertarianism. As evidence for this claim, Ruse cites some of the presentations at a conference titled "The Catholic Case Against Libertarians," which took place last June in Washington, D.C.

Ruse suggests that participants in the conference mostly avoided naming names because they knew that the real objects of their ideological scorn are not actually libertarians. On that particular count, Ruse at least credits me for candor:

I do not want to suggest that any of the speakers were cagey but as I recall only one of them even mentioned the name of a group that is suspect. Matthew Boudway of Commonweal drew a bright line right at the real target if the conference. The line began with libertarianism and went straight to political conservatives and to free marketeers. “Most Catholic defenders of laissez-fair ideology describe themselves as conservative.” But even they know such an ideology is really the "great disrupter, its gales of creative destruction sweeping away traditions, institutions, and communities that stand in its way.” Where no others did, Boudway had the courage to name names. He named the Acton Institute[....]

Boudway also said, “Show me a country that has surrendered its politics to the dictates of the market, and I will show you a culture where personal attachments of every kind are less secure than they once were and where the poor and every other vulnerable population are at most an afterthought.” To that I would say, yes please, show me that country.

I'll show him two: Thatcher's Great Britain and Pinochet's Chile. In both countries poverty and unemployment shot up as public spending was slashed, public assets were privatized, and markets were deregulated. According to the Guardian: "In 1979, 13.4% of the [British] population lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs. By 1990, it had gone up to 22.2%, or 12.2m people, with huge rises in the mid-1980s." The numbers were far worse in Pinochet's Chile, where Milton Friedman's "Chicago Boys" were given complete control of economic policy. If Ruse wants more examples, I'd be happy to provide them.

Ruse doesn't quote much from the other conference presentations he refers to. Nor does he link to them, though they're available online. Maybe he and the editors of Crisis couldn't be bothered. Maybe they have a policy against sending web traffic to people they regard as heretics. Or maybe Ruse was afraid his readers might notice that his highly rhetorical descriptions of the conference presentations bear only a faint resemblance to the presentations themselves. For example, a link to the video would have made it a little easier for the fair-minded viewer to discover that Ruse's description of John DiIulio's talk—"it could have been an Obama campaign commercial"—is a brazen mischaracterization. Unless, that is, one regards any criticism of Republican economic policy by someone who once worked in the George W. Bush administration as a tacit endorsement of all things Obama.

Although Ruse thinks the conference's speakers were mainly inveighing against straw men, he does not deny that there are Catholics who are comfortable calling themselves libertarians. He is willing to excuse them because of their ignorance:

Now, many people these days do call themselves libertarian. But libertarianism is a bit like socialism in that many people who claim it probably don’t know what it means. Many are merely small government conservatives who may believe they are libertarians without understanding all that it means.

Does the Acton Institute, which Ruse defends, not know what libertarianism means? Acton has published the work of Tom Woods, contributor to the Journal of Libertarian Studies and author of such books as Real Dissent: A Libertarian Sets Fire to the Index Card of Allowable Opinion. Crisis itself has published several articles by Woods over the years. Does Ruse think that Woods doesn't understand what libertarianism means? I note that the former editor of Crisis, Brian Saint-Paul (an old friend of mine and a former colleague) now identifies himself on his Twitter account as  "a libertarian writer/editor." Does Ruse imagine that Saint-Paul became sympathetic to libertarianism only after he left Crisis, or that he, too, doesn't really know what libertarianism is? If so, Ruse is mistaken.

But it really isn't worth running up a tally of all the influential Catholic scholars, journalists, and think-tankers who are willing to call themselves libertarians. They're out there in broad daylight for anyone who cares to look for them. Catholic libertarianism may or may not be a heresy, but it's certainly not a conspiracy.

All this may strike some as little more than a question of semantics—perhaps Ruse just has a peculiarly narrow definition of "libertarian." The truth is, the conference in D.C. could just as well have been titled "The Catholic Case Against Laissez-Faire Capitalism" or even "The Catholic Case Against Neoliberalism." There are those who believe that markets are essentially self-correcting, that the state should not concern itself with distributive justice, and that worries about inequality are reducible to envy. But Pope Francis isn't among them, and neither were his predecessors.

Having dispatched all the trap-setters at the conference, Ruse moves on to the controvery over Charles Koch's $500,000 donation to the business school of Catholic University of America. He complains that Gibson's article about this controversy originally identified Andrew Abela, the founding dean of the business school, as a libertarian. Abela doesn't accept that designation and so Gibson and his editors at Religion News Service removed it. Fair enough. But how much, I wonder, does Abela's understanding of the proper relationship between the state and the economy differ from Tom Woods's understanding? Both have been given the Acton Institute's stamp of approval. I could be wrong, but from where I stand, they look like fellow travelers. I say libertarian, you say proponent of a robust free market. Let's cash that Koch check before people start asking too many questions.

Toward the end of his piece, Ruse claims that real libertarians are wrong because of their positions on such things as abortion, same-sex marriage, and pornography. He wishes that Catholic Democrats would cooperate with conservative Catholics in their common struggle against these things instead of accusing conservatives of being libertarians: "There is, in fact, great common cause that could be made by Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans including on the question of libertarianism," he writes. This would seem to be a gracious invitation, except that Ruse has so often written as if Catholics who vote Democratic must be soft on things like abortion and pornography—the same (and only?) issues he thinks libertarians get wrong. But maybe he's changed his mind about Catholic Democrats. I hope so, just as I hope that one day he will figure out that free-market dogma is at odds with some of the causes closest to his heart.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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