Thursday, June 5, 2014

Pope Francis and the libertarians

Cdl. Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga.
So far up to this point, I’ve been deafened by the lack of libertarian reaction to Cdl. Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga’s keynote speech at Catholic University of America’s conference on Catholicism and libertarianism. After all, it’s been more than forty-eight hours since Religion News Service’s David Gibson and Church whisperer Rocco Palmo broke the story.

Perhaps there’s some confusion among the ranks; as Kevin and Teresa Rice explain in Catholibertarian, “As it is uncommon to find two Libertarians who agree on very much, there is a wide room for difference of opinion and degree of commitment to at least the latter part of this composite.” Is what Cdl. Rodríguez condemned something that at least three out of four self-described libertarians assert?

Or perhaps libertarians and other conservatives have just stopped listening to the Church on economic matters. Cdl. Rodríguez cited an article in the National Catholic Fishwrap by Michael Sean Winters, who further references the ineffable Fr. John Zuhlsdorf: “I wonder how many people are still listening to [Pope Francis] seriously on this issue …. It comes across as naive, out of step with history.” This extract, partial and out-of-context as it is, is gentler than the nutty thrown by John Moody of FOX News:

By appearing to sanction what amounts to forced redistribution, Francis grievously exceeded his authority and became what amounts to a robe-wearing politician. He also exposed his Church, one of the wealthiest institutions in the world [one of the most pernicious myths in Western history], to inevitable charges of hypocrisy. And he put himself in a position of having to back up his frothy talk with ruinous action.
As I’ve noted in The Impractical Catholic, political progressives aren’t the only Americans who practice “cafeteria Catholicism”; not all conservatives and libertarians are above doctrinal cherry-picking.

Bp. Blase Cupich of Spokane.
The most common criticism of Pope Francis is that he “doesn’t understand economics”, that his experience is derived from the economic “special case” of Argentina and therefore finds no purchase in the robust, healthy Third World. Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, who delivered the conference’s response to Cdl. Rodríguez, rebutted, “I think those who easily dismiss what the Pope is saying because of his turn to real life experience fail to appreciate that he is calling people to a more authentic way of knowing and learning.”


Indeed. “For economists, the real world is often a special case,” said economist Edgar R. Fiedler forty years ago; of all the social scientists, economists seem most resistant to abandoning theories not justified by real-world data. Commenting on a rather controversial New York Times editorial by economist/blogger Tyler Cowen, “The Egalitarian Tradition of Economics”, French economist/entrepreneur Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote in Forbes:

In my view, the fact that so many economists praise Cowen’s finding which undermines economics’ claim to scientific knowledge highlights that many of these economists think their value system is, well, right. Their cri de coeur endorses a view of economics-as-it-is-practiced as not just a science but also a political ideology. “We are good”, economists hear this op-ed as telling them, not “We are biased.” [Bold font mine.—ASL]

Gobry is even more damning in his post on First Things, “Let’s Listen to Pope Francis On Economics”:

For me, the financial crisis was an eye-opening moment. I’ve long believed in free market economics and believed that the Church would do a lot of good in the world if it embraced it. And I still believe those things. But what the financial crisis has laid bare is that the most conventional version of free market economics was actually dead wrong.What it turns out is that economists actually know very, very little, and that a lot of what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong. Given this hard-to-swallow fact, the prophetic voice of the Church that reminds us of what must be the ends of economic activity is very salutary. [Bold font mine.—ASL]

Gobry’s censure properly belongs to what he calls the “Washington consensus”, which is very close to the version championed by many libertarians (Gobry styles himself a “conservatarian”): maximal deregulation of business, minimal government intervention in poverty. Market forces will take care of poverty, they say, because “a rising tide raises all the boats”.

Except that it doesn’t; at least, not equally. From 1984 to 1999, the consumer price index increased faster than real wages; after 1999, the real median household income began declining. The same period saw a rapid increase in consumer debt and a concurrent diminishment of personal savings, while healthcare and post-secondary education costs began to spiral. The problem was exacerbated as companies started shipping labor dollars offshore, replacing the outsourced jobs with lower-paying positions. By 2012, the bottom 40% was barely making more in real wages than they were in 1980, while prices had more than doubled; the bottom 80% had all lost shares of aggregate income to the top 20%, none more so than the lower middle class.

“But this was due to crony capitalism, not free markets,” one might protest. And there is the indictment of de-regulation: free markets by their nature can’t protect against crony capitalism; they can only crash when the robbery goes on too long. Without regulation, there’s no need for regulatory capture: there’s no watchman to be watched.


The “rising tide” argument makes the Hegelian mistake of supposing that markets have an ontological independence from the human behavior they attempt to describe. Markets are not blind “forces” which impose their dictates on human behavior: people retain their free will even when they unconsciously submit to influences outside themselves. If people don’t work to help the poor, neither will the markets.




The central difficulty with libertarianism is that, since it places such an extreme value on individual autonomy, it only gives grudging concessions at best to the common good. Judge Andrew Napolitano proposes that Jesus placed the individual over the State. But even if we concede this proposition, it still doesn’t follow that the individual is superior to the community … which is a different matter altogether. The State, so far as it acts as a servant of the community for the common good, is not a positive evil. As St. Paul told the Romans, a good ruler is God’s servant for our good, and only a terror to those who are evil (Romans 13:1-7).

Since communities are, at minimum, collections of individuals, if we grant equal dignity to each person as our common human inheritance from God, then the individual has no right to harm others in the pursuit of his self-interest; from the community he derives not only privileges but also obligations. Saint John Paul said, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought” (Homily, Eucharistic Celebration at Oriole Park, Camden Yards, Baltimore, 10/8/1995, § 7). So far as the law permits us to do good and right, then, our freedom is maximized; license to do evil, on the other hand, should not be confused with liberty.

At risk of making a long post longer:

It should be obvious to anyone who has done his/her Catholic social theory homework that Francis isn’t speaking solely from his Argentinean background. Benedict XVI, who grew up in post-war Germany, spoke of the same principles in Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate. Saint John Paul, who came to manhood in Communist Poland, reinforced and built on the groundwork laid before him by Paul VI, Pius XII, Pius XI and Leo XIII. And all these popes built on a rich tradition which for centuries taught that care for the poor was not an option but a social duty:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14-17).

Finally, as Bp. Cupich reminds us, libertarians “rightly argue that [human] dignity is not given by society but by the Creator and therefore freedom, self-determination and all other human rights are inalienable, echoing the principals [sic] in the documents of democracy. However, they … fail to uphold … that since this dignity belongs to all human beings in common, it implies the solidarity of all peoples.  By uncoupling  human dignity from the solidarity it implies,  libertarians move in a direction, that not only has enormous consequences for the meaning of economic life, and the goal of politics in a world of globalization, but in a direction which is inconsistent with Catholic Social Teaching ….” Just as there’s no “I” in team, there’s no “me” in community.

In sum, so far as economics can be called a “science” in truth, the best it could claim is that it describes how people do behave; it can make no claim that it’s the way people ought to behave, or that they can’t learn to behave otherwise (save so far as the discipline is poisoned by a strict determinism, a common failing in the social sciences). But even its primary claim — that it describes the truth about human economic behavior — is very much in question since the recession.

I submit that Pope Francis, like his predecessors over the last 134 years, knows as much about economics as he needs to. It remains for us to listen and learn.