In glancing back over yesterday’s post, “Neoconservatism and Conceptual Clarity Redux,” along with some unconnected conversations on social media, it occurred to me how little so many “critics of libertarianism” seem to understand about the object of their ire. In the space of approximately five minutes, I saw Libertarian National Committee vice chair Arvin Vohra, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and Presidential hopeful Rand Paul referred to as “libertarians.” I suppose that makes John McCain and Mitt Romney libertarians, too. Heck, why not just go the whole nine yards and say that every politician, thinker, or individual who does not support big centralized government, an unwieldy administrative state, and poorly designed social-welfare programs libertarians as well. That way yours truly can finally be back in the libertarian fold after so many cold and lonely years away.
Or let’s not. Without delving too far into the complex problem of what, in fact, libertarianism is, let’s be clear that people who support foreign interventionism, specialized tax and regulatory breaks for particular firms and industries, various forms of trade protectionism, and heavy penalties for drug and small-property offenses are not libertarians, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. Sure, most Republicans are favorable toward an economic environment with limited regulation and low taxes, but those policy positions are not necessarily libertarian, though they are certainly liberal (or, as some prefer, neoliberal).
Within libertarianism itself are a host of competing factions and sub-ideologies, some far more radical than others. The anarcho-capitalism espoused by the likes of “Austrian Economist” Walter Blok doesn’t mesh well with the classical liberalism of legal scholar Richard Epstein. If you don’t believe me, spend some time with their debate on the doctrine of eminent domain which was published in the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty. There are certainly shared assumptions and similar orientations present in the discussion, but the differences show why, for instance, a critique of Block’s—pardon the expression—barking mad ideology can likely be parried with ease by Epstein. Not all libertarians are created equal, which is to say some are much happier being tethered to reality and commonsense than others.
I say this not to denigrate the whole of libertarianism with one sweeping magisterial pronouncement. Many libertarians, including Catholic libertarians, hold to positions which have to be taken seriously, even if they are, in the final analysis, wrong. As I have stated repeatedly on this web-log and in other forums, Catholic libertarians have their instincts in the right place with respect to subsidiarity; they just fail in recognizing other key principles of the Catholic Church’s social magisterium. Moreover, the use of economic arguments rooted in carefully stated, and falsifiable, theories are not pernicious per se. Basic tenets of economics, such as the law of supply and demand, should be uncontroversial by now. Problems begin arise, however, when empirically dodgy theories are touted as iron laws and the “positive science” of economics is, through an act of sorcery, transformed into a series of normative prescriptions.
Whether on here or elsewhere, I do plan to spend more time on the libertarian issue in the coming weeks. Although I do not see libertarianism itself as the biggest threat to Catholicism today, I do believe it has become a source of political temptation for well-intended Catholics who are understandably disillusioned with the Democratic Party and the various forms of mainline conservatism found within Republican ranks. It’s a problem I began to address last year with my article, “Illiberal Catholicism and Social Order,” for The Angelus magazine and one that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.