The Great Disruptor

Yesterday I participated in a conference titled "Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism." The following is a lightly edited version of my remarks.

As the legal scholar Eduardo Peñalver has pointed out in a forthcoming Commonweal article, there are two kinds of argument for libertarianism. The first kind is mainly economic and utilitarian. It is the argument of those like Friedrich Hayek who believe that free markets produce the best social outcomes. Market signals, undistorted by meddling technocrats, tell the producers of goods and service what people need, or at least what they want. This kind of libertarian believes in the liberty of individuals primarily because he believes in the wisdom of crowds—not crowds of voters choosing representatives to enact laws for a commonwealth, but crowds of consumers accidentally effecting public benefits by pursuing their private interests. This is the kind of argument behind Adam Smith’s famous metaphor of the “invisible hand.” As Peñalver points out, such arguments rest “on empirical claims about how the world works” and so they are testable, at least in theory. But perhaps only in theory—since, while we may be able to measure the success of global capitalism in lifting people out of poverty, we cannot answer the question of which economic system best promotes the common good before we have a definition of the common good. And this the economists cannot give us without the help of political philosophy.

The other kind of libertarian argument is less concerned with outcomes. It is an argument about first principles and natural rights, and it is finally an argument about human nature. According to this kind of argument, what matters most is not the efficiency that free markets foster, but freedom itself. Government efforts to redistribute wealth or regulate economic activity are a violation of this fundamental freedom. They constitute a kind of tyranny—even, or especially, if the tyrant behind them is a majority of one’s fellow citizens. Whereas the first kind of libertarian argument is mainly interested in the wisdom of markets as efficient and self-correcting social mechanisms, the second kind of libertarian argument is mainly interested in individual autonomy for its own sake. It is not an empirical theory that can be verified or falsified by social scientists; it is a political philosophy and usually, though not always, a moral philosophy. This is the kind of libertarianism that we associate with Ayn Rand, but probably its most sophisticated and persuasive expression is to be found in the work of the philosopher Robert Nozick, whose book Anarchy, State, and Utopia has become a touchstone for contemporary libertarian thought.

It is worth noting that Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Robert Nozick would have been among the first to insist on the incompatibility of their ideas with Catholic social teaching. All three were atheists, and all three were as leery of ecclesiastical power as they were of state power. But it is not an accident that sophisticated Catholic champions of free-market ideology tend to rely less on the work of Rand or Nozick than on that of Hayek and the Chicago School economists. For Rand and Nozick make claims that are obviously at odds with the Gospel. This may be truer of Rand’s vulgar Nietzscheanism than it is of Nozick’s analytically fastidious case for self-ownership, but it is generally true of both of them. Both were suspicious of any claim about what an individual owed his or her community. The very idea of the common good, as anything other than the aggregate welfare of individuals, was in their judgment nothing more than a mystification. The idea of solidarity implied collectivism; and collectivism, they thought, always entails coercion. It is clear to most people, including most Catholics and most libertarians, that this way of thinking is not only alien to the Catholic moral tradition but fundamentally antithetical to it. Rand would have considered Paul Ryan’s efforts to split the difference between her and Leo XIII ridiculous, if not intellectually fraudulent, though she may have tolerated it as a shrewd political tactic.

And so the Catholic defender of laissez-fair ideology is left with Panglossian arguments about invisible hands and rising tides lifting all boats. These are typically conjoined, especially by Catholic libertarians, to arguments about how markets depend for their proper functioning on personal virtue. In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, we were told by such people to blame not the financialization of the American economy nor the deregulation that made this possible, but greed—a vice that no regulator could ever hope to stamp out. And that, in a way, was the point: since regulators and lawmakers cannot stamp out the personal vices behind our economic woes, they shouldn’t even try. The problem is cultural or spiritual, not political. And therefore so is the solution. Thus, in the face of staggering wealth and income inequality, which the financial crisis has only exacerbated, we’ve been told to rediscover the value of thrift and industry and, where that fails, to put our faith in the charity of the One Percent. To be fair, the One Percent—and sometimes also the Ten Percent—have also been encouraged to turn their attention away from conspicuous consumption and toward philanthropy. But, as Pope Francis reminded us in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, private acts of personal virtue are not a substitute for distributive justice:

The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few. (188)

Francis echoes Pope Benedict’s insistence that the solution to economic injustice necessarily involves the state, even if non-state actors including the Church itself can help to relieve the suffering caused by injustice:

It is the responsibility of the State to safeguard and promote the common good of society. Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building, it plays a fundamental role, one which cannot be delegated, in working for the integral development of all. (240, italics mine)

Libertarians insist that the state cannot promise distributive justice without violating the liberty of the individual citizens whose private property it expropriates. Human beings, they say, will never feel truly free in such a state, even if it succeeds in making them more secure. But if the people of a democratic political community cherish equality as an important social value—though not, of course, the only social value—then policies that produce greater equality will be felt by them not as a burden imposed by an alien power but as an extension of their own freedom. The citizens of such a state would presumably say what Barney Frank famously said: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” These are words that can be endorsed by all small-d democrats—that is, by people who believe in the possibilities of self-government. They can also be endorsed by Catholics, who believe that the things we do together as communities, including politics, can be every bit as important, and just as expressive of moral virtue, as the things each of us does on his or her own.

*  *  *

Most Catholic defenders of laissez-fair ideology describe themselves as conservative. But, left to its own relentless logic, the free market is not a force of conservation; it is, as its less pious and more clear-eyed admirers freely acknowledge, the great disruptor, its gales of creative destruction sweeping away traditions, institutions, and communities that stand in its way. Under capitalism, Marx wrote, “all that is solid melts into air.” He was right about that much at least. G. A. Cohen made this point especially well in his description of the modern Tory Party:

When the rich morphed, fully, into capitalists, the British Conservative Party became the anti-conservative market party. As a matter of history, the bottom line of Conservatism with a capital “C” turned out to be not conservatism with a small “c” but preservation of wealth and inequality. With fierce international competition, conserving old ways is too costly to the maintenance of wealth. And with historical working class gains in place, small-c conservatism becomes a buffer against inequality. For the sake of protecting and extending the powers of wealth, big-C Conservatives regularly sacrifice the small c- conservatism that many of them genuinely cherish. They blather on about warm beer and old maids cycling to church and then they hand Wal-Mart the keys to the kingdom. They are thereby in tune with the propensity of capitalism, which is to maximize a certain kind of value, in sovereign disregard of the value of any things.

By “things” Cohen meant not value in the abstract, but particular bearers of value, whether these are buildings, businesses, or customs. It isn’t just inefficient modes of production that unrestrained market forces threaten, but also ways of life and habits of mind and heart. Some of these habits we consider virtues, including loyalty—or to use a more theological word, fidelity. If conservative Catholic libertarians are interested in fortifying the institution of marriage, they might give some serious thought to how a culture increasingly shaped by commercial imperatives undermines our ability to make and keep solemn vows. Consumerism, a natural by-product of the Sovereign Market, encourages us to think of all our choices as provisional calculations. Gradually, and mostly unconsciously, we learn to regard other people the way a shopper regards merchandise. The Catholic moralist will of course say that a well-formed conscience will resist this temptation, but the moralist can hardly deny that the culture characteristic of late capitalism—a culture libertarians promote, intentionally or unintentionally—makes this temptation harder to resist, and harder even to recognize. It isn’t just that commerce coarsens our manners, which is the old, aristocratic criticism. It’s that the creeping commodification of everything we value leads us to ask, not only about things but finally about people too, “Can I do better? Can I afford better, given what I have to offer.” That is the kind of question that a libertarian society would have us asking and answering about every part of our lives. Catholic libertarians may use the language of natural law, especially as it applies to a narrow range of questions concerning bioethics and sexual morality, but their vision of the good society is functionally utilitarian. A conscience formed by such a society will be inclined to treat personal commitments, and finally human persons themselves, as disposable. This seems to be what Pope Francis had in mind the following passage of Evangelii Gaudium:

The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favors a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds. Pastoral activity needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a communion which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds.

I doubt anyone at, say, the Acton Institute would object to this observation. But the Catholic libertarian would surely want to distinguish between individualism and libertarianism, which is fair enough. They are, at least theoretically, not the same thing. But for us as Catholics and as citizens of a democracy, the important question is not whether they’re the same thing but whether they’re separable from each other in practice. The historical evidence suggests that even if they are separable, they rarely arrive separately. 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.

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.

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