Libertarians unmasked!

Like a bad commercial jingle that has become annoying ear worm, libs such as the catholic writers at the National Schismatic Reporter (aka Fishwrap) accuse anyone who favors expansive, dynamic free markets of being a Randian who hates the poor and – *GASP* – a libertarian.   Being a libertarian is about the worst thing you could ever be!   If you are a libertarian you don’t believe in any rules, you think that is great for the rich to oppress the poor, blah blah blah.  If you are a libertarian you might even not want to vote for Hillary!

Actually, libertarian is a rather stupid label to throw around, but it’s effective amongst liberals.  You see, liberals get the whole oppression thing.  Liberal, after all, comes from the root “free”, as in, “I’m a liberal and you are free to agree with me… or else.”

But I digress.

Over at Public Discourse there is an offering by Sam Gregg of ACTON INSTITUTE about the meaning of “libertarian”.   It isn’t what Fishwrappers claim.

Gregg makes some distinctions. He addresses himself to sources far more serious than the Fishwrap, by the way. In the original, over there at PD, you can follow the tantalizing links.

Markets, Catholicism, and Libertarianism

In a recent American Prospect article, John Gehring maintains that Catholics like myself who regard markets as the most optimal set of economic conditions are effectively promoting libertarian philosophy. Gehring’s concerns about libertarianism and what he calls “free market orthodoxy” have been echoed in other places.

The generic argument seems to be the following. Promoting market approaches to economic life involves buying into libertarian ideology. But libertarianism is at odds with Catholicism in important ways. This is especially apparent, the argument goes, in the age of Pope Francis. This pope has been very critical of free markets. To dispute aspects of Francis’s reflections on economic matters thus involves placing yourself at odds with the Pope in the name of libertarianism, a position that no faithful Catholic should want to be in.

What these critics seem to miss is that a favorable assessment of markets and market economics need not be premised on acceptance of libertarianism in any of its many forms.

Insightful Economics

Libertarianism’s great strength lies in economics. Prominent twentieth-century libertarian economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, made major contributions to the critique of socialist economics. While ridiculed by some at the time, their criticisms turned out to be spot-on.

In Socialism (1922), for example, Mises illustrated that socialist economies can’t replicate the market price system’s ability to signal the supply and demand status for countless goods and services to consumers and producers at any one point in time. However intelligent and statistically equipped the top-down planners might be (whether they take the form of a Communist politburo, a Fascist dictator, or a 1970s British government), they simply cannot know the optimal price for any good or service at any point in time. Any attempt to dictate prices from the top-down will lead, paradoxically, to economic disorder and dysfunction.

Hayek’s contributions to economic thought are legion. They range from his work on business cycles to monetary theory. One of Hayek’s most significant economic insights concerned the unworkability of centrally planned economies. He called this “the knowledge problem.” The dispersed information and data held by millions of individuals and groups in a given economy, Hayek held, can only be fully utilized in a decentralized economic system characterized by competition and pricing: i.e., a market.

Given the twentieth century’s economic history, the validity of such insights by these scholars is difficult to deny. The truth of their economic views, however, isn’t dependent upon accepting libertarianism as a comprehensive philosophical position.

Inadequate Philosophy

Philosophically speaking, Mises associated himself, especially in Human Action (1949), with Epicureanism and utilitarianism. Hayek’s views were more complicated.


Read the rest there.

Further down he gets into Pope Francis and his economic views.  Very interesting.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Adeodataomnia says:

    Dear Father,
    I read Samuel Gregg’s “For God and Profit” at your recommendation and I myself was travelling in Spain this summer. Your praise for him and the Acton Institute is always richly deserved! Thank you for passing on articles like this. Gregg writes with great clarity and I also think a great deal of charity.

  2. KAS says:

    Good article. I agree that it was well worth going there to read.

    I wanted to address this comment. “This leaves important questions unanswered. Toward what are people moving? What are they becoming in the process of doing so? All of this is quite removed from Catholic and natural law conceptions of human flourishing and development.”

    Hayek stuck mostly to economics, which was wise of him as he was not qualified to answer those questions. Those are questions that should always be answered by the individual for him or herself. What answers those questions? Catholicism, so it seems to me that Hayek was quite correct in leaving off trying to answer questions he was not qualified to answer.

    Anyway, I thought that particular criticism of Hayek was unfair. Economists are not theologians or philosophers and a wise one will leave those questions open.

  3. anilwang says:

    Whatever the system, no system can work properly unless the people in that system are moral. Without morality, you end up with a large police and legal force ensuring that order, even order despised by all, is enforced. And with that, you end up with huge resource allocation to support the infrastructure and the corruption that results from the morality deficit. With morality, safety is a low priority and even the most vulnerable are protected.

    Such a thing can happen in any form of government, even libertarianism (i.e. you spend most of your living wages on “protection money” on private police, since “might makes right”), but it absolutely does happen when governments violate subsidiarity and assume responsibility for everything. Because of this, individuals are responsible for nothing, and thus tempted to immorality unless forced to confirm.

    Personally, I think that the best government is libertarian at the country level and progressively more social as you go down to states/provinces and then city clusters and then cities and then families. It seems to provide the necessary balance of subsidiarity and solidarity. Unfortunately, such an arrangement is unstable since eventually power tends to move up the hierarchy.

  4. DeGaulle says:

    Hayek knew his limits. Father Z, would I be correct in saying that I must obey the Pope in his statements on faith and morals but that his views on matters outside his narrow field of competence command no more authority than any man? In other words, are Pope Francis’ views on climate change and economics binding on my conscience?

    Thomas Sowell is excellent on these matters. He maintains that no individual or committee, no matter how intelligent, can remotely compare with the combined intelligence of millions of mostly committed people that go to form a free market.

    I do believe that markets must be regulated, not to make them less free, but to protect them from those generally powerful players who would seek to manipulate them for their own benefit and reducing freedom in the process.

  5. Thomas S says:

    Father Z, would I be correct in saying that I must obey the Pope in his statements on faith and morals but that his views on matters outside his narrow field of competence command no more authority than any man?

    I’d be cautious here. There is nothing “narrow” about Faith and Morals. Every human choice is a moral choice. The more helpful distinction would be between the Pope’s extraordinary magisterium which is infallible, and his ordinary magisterium which is not. It is entirely within his authority to teach on economic issues, because economic issues ARE moral issues. And it is entirely within his authority to teach on ecological issues, because they ARE moral issues… and for that matter they touch on Creation and thus the Faith. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t need the prudence of consulting experts in these fields… and holding his tongue when scientific hypotheses are still in doubt. Otherwise his non-infallible ordinary magisterium runs the risk of exposing the Church to ridicule.

  6. Agathon says:

    Various Catholic critics seem content to reject an argument, or an entire school of thought, by merely applying the term “libertarian” to it — no additional thought required. This cannot be done in justice when we are searching for the truth.

    I am in awe of the patience of Acton’s scholars, who time and again absorb these criticisms without complaint and calmly respond with a rational, theologically informed argument for liberty, markets, and the common good.

  7. KateD says:

    Regarding the Pope’s views:

    We just watched Cronaca de una Fuga (Chronicle of an Escape). It’s broadly about the Argentine Disaperaceidos and specifically about the true story of abduction, false imprisonment, etc*. of 5 young men. Watching this may help ‘C’atholics understand influences that have shaped the Pope’s perspective of what it means to be ‘right wing’.

    It’s well done and worth watching, but intense, heavy and dark.

    I don’t know how one could come through a period of such disregard for human rights and not be biased. It would totally color one’s perspective.

    *etc is used to avoid spoiling the ending, it’s not meant to trivialize the injustice these young men suffered.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    Read Hayek ages ago….What we need are very intelligent Catholics to enter into the subsidiarity argument, which is ignored by politicians, except for a few. The problem is that too many Catholics do not want to think outside the box of capitalism, being afraid of communism and socialism. Fear chokes creativity….The American federalist system lends itself to subsidiarity and it is a mystery to me why this is not picked up by more Catholic departments of economics….same with distributism…

  9. Absit invidia says:

    All the libertarians I know onky have one issue in common: legalizing marijuana. That seems to be their party platform.

  10. iamlucky13 says:

    I saw Hayek coming up by the second paragraph.

    In “The Road to Serfdom,” Hayek actually objected to the “modern” (1940) definition of the term “liberal” to denote a movement that was based on regulation. Early on in the book, he made clear that he was going to use the term according to its classical definition, and then did so throughout his book in an attempt to reclaim the term.

    Basically, this Nobel prize winner was calling out the liberal movement for dressing itself in Orwellian newspeak.

    Somewhat similarly, if less pointedly, part of what seems to underlie Gregg’s article is a distinction between libertarian ideals, and the Libertarian party.

    I don’t have time at the moment to read the whole thing, but the opening premise Gregg sets out to address could have been dismissed from the start simply due to its generalization from specifics even before you need to call upon Hayek’s expertise. I apologize if Gregg points this out further in, but the argument that because libertarians favor free markets does not make free market principles are exclusively libertarian, and it certainly doesn’t mean that others who favor free markets are de facto Libertarians (capital L) who reject Catholic teachings such as the absolute unacceptability of abortion.

  11. un-ionized says:

    Absit invidia, the ones around here are enamored of abortion and gay marriage as well as drugs of all kinds. A quick look at Reason magazine is instructive.

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