At the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies conference on libertarianism earlier this month, IPR Director Steve Schneck addressed the topic of libertarianism and politics, moving beyond the more narrow focus on economics and economic justice that was the focus of Cardinal Rodriguez’s keynote (watch here) and the first panel, which included Millennial’s Meghan Clark (watch here). Mark Shields then followed with a response to Schneck’s speech.
Schneck provided some historical context to the case against libertarianism, highlighting libertarianism’s roots, including its connection to the Enlightenment:
Libertarianism is best understood as epitomizing the Enlightenment. It shares in the Enlightenment’s anti-clericalism, suspicion of tradition and custom, and humanistic values. Most importantly it shares in the Enlightenment’s confidence that there is a kind of automatic Reason that can be relied upon for order in human life.
He argued that the central features of libertarianism have not changed significantly since their formation. He identified these features—which are each “at odds with traditional Catholic moral and social doctrine to varying degree”—as:
A negative conception of liberty and rights, egoism (often verging on solipsism), association of authority with regression and repression, antinomianism, suspicion of community and common good, absolute conception of private property, valorization of competition, suspicion of custom and tradition, automatic order or “invisible hands,” anti-institutionalism, suspicion of hierarchical morality, and obviously a negative conception of government and distrust of governmental action.
Schneck noted that these ideas and values directly conflict with recent papal encyclicals and Thomistic theology and philosophy. He described just how problematic they are, saying, “They are impossible to fully reconcile with the Catholic understanding of the person, with the Catholic understanding of natural law, with the Catholic conception of overcoming the self, with the idea of the Mystical Body of Christ, the communion of saints, and so much more.”
Schneck highlighted various criticisms of libertarianism from both the Left and the Right. With many critics of the Right, the Church asks, “Is the value of human life for the elderly or the unborn something for market forces to decide?” At the same time, “Catholics share with the Left a concern that this aspect of markets disenfranchises those in society who are marginal or who otherwise are unable to effectively compete.”
Schneck most powerfully highlighted the difference between Catholic and libertarian thinking in his clear description of the Catholic understanding of property, which is so radically divergent from libertarian thought. He explained:
For Catholic teachings, the starting point for understanding property is to realize that all legitimate property is ultimately something that we have been entrusted to hold for God. We can never really earn it; it has been given to us. Our labor, skill, talents, and social situations may have been part of the legitimate process by which we came to have property, but of course all those things are themselves gifts from God. Hence, property is something we hold in stewardship. We hold it for God’s plan, for the common good, and for the needs of others and for our own needs as part of our relationship with others. Its universal destination is to return to God and to the community of saints with the Second Coming.
Mark Shields followed Schneck by first noting that “there is a real libertarian political movement in this country.” This contrasts with some who have downplayed the real and detrimental impact of libertarianism on the common good. Shields argued that a libertarian compromise or “implicit libertarian bargain” seems to have emerged over the past generation. Liberals have deregulated and privatized American culture, while conservatives have done the same to the American economy.
He contrasted this with America’s past, citing Lincoln’s words: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” And he quoted a Democrat, FDR, to make the same point: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Shields argued that nonjudgmental tolerance has become the highest virtue in a society where individual economic acquisitiveness and self-expression are so honored. He contrasted this “me culture” with Catholic teaching’s “we culture.” And he argued that the strength of a nation is based on the willingness of the people to make sacrifices for the common good. Shields spent a great deal of time talking about the importance of national service, seeing it as vital in fostering this type of shared sacrifice by getting Americans to look beyond themselves and their own interests. Ultimately, he argued, “We need the politics of the common good again.”