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:

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

Also by this author
Afflictions of the educated

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads