The problem of Catholic libertarianism is not an easy one to address. Terminologically speaking, it is often not clear what is meant by “Catholic libertarians.” Are they simply Catholics who happen to subscribe to the tenets of libertarianism or is their brand of libertarianism in some sense uniquely Catholic, i.e., informed and shaped by Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and other relevant doctrines of the Faith? Before addressing that question in greater detail, it is important to be clear that libertarianism itself is not monolithic. On what one might call the “libertarian spectrum” there exists on one end those typically referred to as “classical liberals” who, inter alia, support free (unregulated and untaxed/limitedly taxed) markets, robust social liberties, and government power limited to addressing a limited number of collective action problems such as national security while supplying a discrete number of public goods such as roads. On the other end of the spectrum are so-called anarcho-capitalists who believe, perhaps more on faith than reason, that a completely unfettered market can keep society going without any recourse to government (public) intervention into the lives and free choices of the population.
Most Catholics with libertarian commitments reject anarcho-capitalism out of hand, though not all of them do. Those who embrace this or other high-octane forms of libertarianism are probably best described as libertarians who happen to be Catholic. When a conflict between the two arises, they will hold fast to their libertarianism and either ignore or reinterpret Catholicism, particularly CST. As vexing as these libertarians can be for faithful Catholics who hold fast to the Church’s social magisterium, they can be identified, critiqued, and overcome with relative ease.
The far hairier problem comes from those Catholics who lean closer to the classical liberal position (or, at least, a non-anarchist position) and claim that they are not out-of-step with CST. In fact, a good number of these Catholic libertarians will argue that their positions are supported by CST, though such claims are highly contestable. Perhaps in order not to be lumped in with a more generalized dismissal of libertarianism, a large portion of these Catholics refuse to march under the libertarian banner. For a certain segment of this population, the moniker “Tea Party Catholic”—a politically useful designation coined by the Acton Institute’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg—is now used despite the fact the “Tea Party” is well-recognized branch of, rather than alternative to, libertarianism. Gregg’s base of operations, the Acton Institute, does not call itself libertarian at all despite endorsing a menu of policy positions that are not distinct from those adopted by unabashed libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Independent Institute. If one turns to Acton’s 2014 week-long “university,” however, one finds that it includes not one, but two, courses on the socio-economic ideology of the libertarian “Austrian School” along with another entitled, “Freedom without God?” Here is the course description:
This course considers and contrasts the compatibility of theism and atheism with core “libertarian” principles—limited government, individual rights, reason, and economic freedom. The core “libertarian” principles of individual rights, freedom and responsibility, reason, moral truth, and limited government contradict an atheistic and materialistic view of reality; but make far more sense in a theistic context.
The use of square quotes around the term “libertarian” offers some indication of how far Acton wishes to distance itself from the baggage that follows the label while retaining libertarianism’s core commitments. Acton apologists have argued that the convergence between Acton’s commitments and libertarian commitments is coincidental. Acton, they claim, begins in the soil of Christianity—specifically Catholic Christianity—and therefore is exempt from any Catholic critiques of libertarianism writ large. That’s a strange argument made stranger by the fact that it is far from clear that Acton’s commitments are actually rooted originally in Christianity and/or CST at all. A more plausible read of the matter is that Acton begins in libertarianism—arguably the classical liberal form—and, through countless man hours invested in conferences, books, and other publications, reverse engineers a Catholic apologetics for that libertarianism. Were Acton’s commitments forcefully and unambiguously upheld in the social encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, it would seem that there would be little-to-no need to expend so much energy in legitimizing Acton’s preferred ideology. The principles of “Actonism” would simply be common knowledge.
This is not to say that Acton’s brand of libertarianism (or whatever they want to call it) is identical with the other brands out there, nor is it to hold that everything Acton preaches is heterodox in the light of CST. Take, for instance, the principle of subsidiarity—arguably one of the lynchpin principles of the Catholic social tradition. According to this principle, matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority with political decisions being taken at the most local level possible. Subsidiarity maps well onto the general libertarian commitment to small (some might argue nonexistent) government and decentralization with a premium placed on classic federalism, that is, the right of individual states to determine their political course with only minimal federal oversight and control. However, it is important to keep in mind that subsidiarity contemplates situations where local or decentralized authorities either cannot or, for a variety of reasons, will not adequately address certain matters. At that point the next highest authority up the political food chain ought to step in to resolve the problem; if they cannot, then the matter moves further up, and so forth.
In other areas, such as wage contracts, Acton, and other Catholic libertarians, seem to be on very shaky ground insofar as they support the market mechanism, protected by the legal doctrine of freedom of contract, being the sole determiner of wages. That commitment clearly conflicts with paragraphs 45 and 46 of Rerum Novarum which hold that it is a “dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner,” i.e., “sufficient [enough] to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income.” No matter the premium Acton or other Catholic libertarians may place on the utility of the market mechanism for setting a worker’s wage, that mechanism always remains subordinate to natural justice.
Clearly there is much more to say about CST and libertarianism than a single blog post can handle, but hopefully it ignites some reflection on whether or not Catholic libertarianism is even possible. In other words, we should ask, “Can a man be a true Catholic and a true libertarian?” This post is only a modest step in the direction of answering that question. But as a preliminary matter it seems that we can say that Catholic libertarianism is a real phenomenon and that its commitments, though generally aligned with libertarianism writ large, are going to be framed in terms Catholics—and other Christians—can more easily digest than the overt liberal rhetoric of libertarians who are unconcerned with squaring their ideology with any set of religious principles. Some, naturally, will continue to insist that enterprises such as Acton are not libertarian and that movements such as “Tea Party Catholicism” live beyond libertarianism’s borders. Those contentions, too, are worthy of more consideration. All things in due course.