Last week Artur Rosman published a very informative interview with Patrick Deneen at Ethika Politika entitled “The Neo-Conservative Imagination.” In it, Deneen discusses, among other things, the disconnect that exists within what he calls “neoconservative Catholics,” specifically their orthodox view on sexuality morality and their heterodox view on Catholic Social Teaching (CST). While I have no disagreement with him that there is a disconnect, I think the interview — and a lot of critical writing on what I will broadly call economic liberalism within Catholicism — could have taken more care to be conceptually clear. Let me see if I can sort it out.
Of all of the troubling policy positions neoconservatives tend to espouse, economic liberalism is fairly low on the totem pole. A brief perusal through the writings of the main neoconservative luminaries, including Irving Kristol, reveals a far more moderate attitude toward the mythical “free market” than what one finds among many classical liberals or libertarians. In fact, libertarian critics emanating from the Mises Institute have routinely attacked neoconservatives for their allegedly “statist” and “crony” economic policies. Certainly the Bush II Administration, which was arguably captured by neoconservative interests almost from the beginning, adopted neither a libertarian-esque nor even a Reagan-esque set of economic policies, which is one reason (among others) that the so-called Tea Party Movement began to look attractive to some mainline conservatives. The old Republican template of low taxes and low regulation was thrown out the window during the reign of neoconservative ideology in the 2000s and now, right or wrong, it appears as if the Tea Party and other libertarian-leaning Republicans are the last great hope for getting back to the “good old days” which are said to have existed in the 1980s.
Now, none of that means that there aren’t Catholics aligned with neoconservativism in areas such as, say, foreign policy or public morality who drift hyper-liberal in the economic realm. However, it’s hard to call them neoconservatives sensu stricto. If one is really aiming to take down the marriage of capitalist ideology and CST, it seems better to just go after economic liberalism in general — a concept broad enough to capture not only neoconservatives, but also all other brands of American-style conservatism and liberalism which places a premium on the “power of the market” to resolve most, if not all, socio-political problems. At this juncture, in the realm of economics at least, the “old guard” neocons like Michael Novak and George Weigel are far less threatening to the integrity of CST than the wave of economic-liberal apologists emanating from the Acton Institute. If the latest issue of First Things is any indication, Samuel Gregg — one of Acton’s leading lights — is poised to be this decade’s great conservative dissenter from Catholic orthodoxy. Tom Woods finally has some real competition.
Some might see quibbling about concepts to be, at best, a minor matter, but there is strategic value in being clear. Too often writers aligned with the Acton Institute attempt to dodge criticism by playing the semantics game. For example, one can pen a 15-paragraph critique of libertarian economic policy in the light of CST, hand it to an Actonite, and then be met instantly with, “Oh, but we’re not libertarians…” Similarly, to zero-in on neoconservatism within Catholicism leaves a giant escape hatch for many Catholic economic liberals to stroll on through under the plausible claim that they themselves are not neocons. (Gregg, for instance, appears to think of himself as a “Tea Party Catholic.”) Moreover, when wading into the messy waters of libertarianism — something which Catholic political writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig does quite often — it’s helpful to be clear about what libertarianism is and isn’t. As dangerously utopian as the libertarian economic imagination is, there are discrete areas where they share affinities with CST, particularly subsidiarity. To attack libertarians for being both laissez-faire madmen and quasi-authoritarians drunk on state power misses the point while giving libertarians a free pass to ignore their critics on the — again plausible — claim that their views are misunderstood and/or misrepresented.