It’s not my business to defend neoliberal/libertarian approaches to law and economics; there are whole institutions dedicated to that enterprise. I believe, however, that it is incumbent upon those who wish to promote Catholic Social Teaching (CST) to properly understand those approaches if they are to be taken seriously. That’s easier said than done.
While conceptual clarity is always a laudable achievement, terminological confusion, to say nothing of basic gaps in learning and research, often stand in the way of people giving a sympathetic hearing to ideas which they ultimately find wrongheaded, if not abhorrent. Within—and to some extent beyond—the realm of CST, this happens all of the time. Catholics who are sympathetic to economic liberalism tend to either misunderstand or lack awareness about the breadth and depth of the social magisterium; they cut it up into manageable bits, but then forget about the pieces they left on the floor. At the other end of the spectrum, proponents of CST fail to grasp what it is their intellectual opponents are actually advocating for. Despite my deep disagreements with those I often call “Catholic libertarians,” many of them have their instincts in the right place even if they are hewn to economic and political theories that are problematic.
For instance, when it comes to the question of just wages (a core principle of CST), Catholic libertarians will argue that while that idea is fine and well in the abstract, the market mechanism remains the best available means of setting wages. It’s important here to stress “best available” because though there are Catholics and non-Catholics who subscribe to a “natural law” view of the market and the highly contestable belief that, absent government interference, wage equilibrium can be reached, most now recognize that this idea is, at best, highly unrealistic, if not utopian. Support for the market mechanism, after all, does not entail a belief that wages will each a point of equilibrium, that is, a point where all persons will be “accurately,” and thus “justly,” compensated for their work with neither shortfalls nor overpayments. Supporting the market mechanism simply entails believing that there is no other alternative available which won’t produce worse social outcomes (however measured). So, in short, a Catholic libertarian can say that the idea of just wage, which runs through the whole of CST, is a “nice idea” and a “laudable end,” but that concrete policies have to deal with concrete economics realities which often entails less-than-ideal outcomes.
The same can be said for property rights. Several months ago The Calvinist International ran a two-part article on the Catholic doctrine of property rights (see here and here). Without disputing any of the claims made in that very enlightening contribution to the clarification of CST, it is at least possible for a Catholic libertarian to respond favorably to the piece’s rejection of subjective-rights theory of property while still advocating for a strong system of property rights which places considerable limits on the state’s right to encroach upon them. Why? Because even without recourse to rights-talk, there is a consequentialist argument available that strong property rights support economic growth and that such growth contributes to overall social welfare. No, growth will not be “felt,” “experienced,” or “captured” by all persons equally, and thus inequality will remain (and even perhaps expand), but that’s less worrisome than economic stagnation or recession. Where property rights are uncertain, or property remains under the constant shadow of partial or total expropriation, the incentive to productively use that property will be diminished. Perhaps a thick conception of property rights isn’t “natural,” but it is “normatively attractive,” or so the argument goes.
Now, there are plenty of good bases upon which to challenge the libertarian approach to both wages and property lightly sketched above. What is distressing is when those good bases are bypassed in favor of caricature, mockery, and righteous indignation. There seems to be a self-satisfied sense among some proponents of CST that libertarianism is synonymous with insanity, and that is simply not true. There are, I believe, serious philosophical and empirical shortcomings to be found within libertarianism, to say nothing of the fact many (though not all) of its tenets clash with the plain dictates of CST. However, this simpleminded view of libertarians-as-madmen or, worse, libertarians-as-demons should give all of us pause, at least to the extent that we still consider ourselves Christian. And at the very least, it’s worth keeping in mind that not all libertarians—even Catholic libertarians—are committed to the same set of policy preferences. If someone cannot tell the difference between the views of Jeffrey Tucker and Tom Woods on the one hand, and Samuel Gregg and Michael Novak on the other, they probably don’t have any business critiquing Catholic libertarianism.
Not that noting this will likely matter. As I have discussed elsewhere on Opus Publicum, there are a number of young (and some old) Catholics concerned with CST who seem to be numb to the reality that CST neither ordains nor makes much room for socialism. Of course, what is recognized as “socialist” often depends on who is doing the looking; Anarcho-Capitalists are far more sensitive to such things than, say, a Distributist. Still, it should be clear to all with eyes to see that CST imagines a state regulatory apparatus of a far more modest size than what we now see in the United States and Europe. And even though CST does not support the absolutization (or even the near-absolutization) of property rights, the Church’s social encyclicals express reservations about overtaxing and overregulating the economy. What some of these pro-CST Catholics don’t seem to realize is that the further they drift toward unabashed socialism, the more easily their positions are susceptible to withering critiques from the libertarian camp.