Home / Reviews / Books / The Church and the Libertarian: A Review

 

“[W]hat was the matter with the doctrine of laissez-faire was not that it believed that liberty could preserve equality, where there was none to preserve. It was that it preached liberty, or rather license, to increase an inequality that was already hopelessly unequal.”

–G.K. Chesterton, Some Distinctions and a Distributist

G.K. Chesterton and the early Distributist League opposed Fabian Socialism, but they also challenged Manchester Liberalism, the laissez-faire economic principles advocated by the Manchester School of economics. Chesterton dismissed the policies of unbridled capitalism as the lunatic’s attempt to bring about order through chaos, usurping the State’s valid authority, and solidifying the strength of the plutocracy over the masses.

The Austrian school of economics (the libertarian “chirping sectaries” as Russell Kirk called them) is at the forefront of laissez-faire these days, gaining the support of conservative and progressive Christians who are disenchanted with the economy and the growth of government. But what exactly is Austro-Libertarianism and is it compatible with the Christian faith?

For Austrians, the economy of any nation is built upon the “natural” self-interest of man and propelled by “market forces,” a “free” market left to its own devices for the determining of society’s provisions, and governed by its own “objective laws” without any interference by any intellect. In other words, any government intervention in the market is viewed as a wrench in the machine; an unwelcome ingredient that could have incalculable consequences on the “spontaneously organizing” market and the economic well-being of the nation.

Just as Austrian economics has slowly begun to get a foothold amongst Christians in this country, along comes a new book to set things straight: Christopher Ferrara’s The Church and the Libertarian. Ferrara’s vast critique of Austro-Libertarianism includes a fresh review of the moral and economic errors found in this particular school of thought. He successfully argues that libertarianism, whether Left or Right, is incompatible with the Gospels and Catholic Social Doctrine, the founding principles and documents that inspired Distributism.

Not only are they in opposition, both social and fiscal libertarianism are dependent on the divorce of economics from the ends of man in order to categorize it as a value-free and empirical science. Yet a “free market” that eliminates the intellect and the principles of Christianity isn’t free at all, any more than “free love” may be properly understood outside of an orthodox theological context. Instead, the “free” market produces the servility libertarianism decries, destroying morality while strengthening the relationship between corporations and government. It makes greed and lust good. Indeed, isolate the economy from the political will and, as admitted by prominent Austrian scholar Murray Rothbard, the market inevitably leads to the commoditization of everything, including children, just as it has for abortion. And the legalization of abortion is an obvious outcome for any nation that would adopt the core Austrian teaching of limiting government’s purpose to the protection of rights, theft, and fraud. If man is “free” to bear out his own interests with disregard for his eternal purpose, and the state exists solely for the benefit of defending his freedom to carry out those interests, then it follows that abortion, drugs, consensual sex of any kind, slave labor or even child labor will never be prohibitive. And, while many Christian libertarians distance themselves from the implications of Austro-Libertarian economics, they cannot deny them without being disingenuous.

No attempt is made to reconcile the so-called “objective laws” of economics with Catholic Social Teaching because libertarians cannot. For Austrians like Friedrich von Hayek economic laws were truths found in nature, and his mentor, Ludwig Von Mises argued that the Church’s opposition to the truths in economic Liberalism (capitalism) should be abandoned, including her teachings regarding the role of the state, usury, voluntary trade associations, living wages,and similar matters. For Mises, socialism was a product of the Catholic Church.

“. . . it is the resistance which the Church has offered to the spread of liberal ideas which has prepared the soil for the destructive resentment of modern socialist thought.”

But if this is not enough, Mises also believed that the Christian resistance to liberalism made them enemies of society: “For the Church, Catholic as well as Protestant, is not the least of the factors responsible for the prevalence of destructive ideals in the world today . . .”

Perhaps one of the most salient facts in the book is that, by their own admission, the libertarian “free” market is illusory and never existed in human history. Even the pro-capitalist Milton Friedman concluded that “the Hayek-Mises explanation of the business cycle is contradicted by the evidence” and the famed Austro-Randian-Libertarian Alan Greenspan, once the Chairman of the Libertarian-opposed Federal Reserve, conceded that, “[t]hose of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

Regarding the Church’s competence in economic matters, Ferrara sharply points out that the Church refrains from entering into any discussion over the mechanics of economics (e.g. supply and demand curves, price theory). However, as economics is not an empirical, but a social or moral science, the pontiffs are indeed competent to speak on such matters with the full weight and authority of their office. This has been reiterated by pope after pope, perhaps most adamantly by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, where he warned that social modernism deserved no less a condemnation than that due theological modernism.

The Church and the Libertarian is an exhaustive and polemical work. Part refutation of the Austro-Libertarian position and defense of the Catholic Church’s social teaching, it also offers solutions to our current crisis including an entire chapter devoted to Distributism as the practical alternative to libertarianism. Mr. Ferrara has written a 383-page instant classic, filled with arguments bound to present libertarians with many challenges, and a capable resource for families for many generations to come.



To listen to Jeremiah Bannister’s interview with Christopher Ferrara, click here.

To read Ryan Grant’s interview with Christopher Ferrara, click here.

To purchase the book, go to Remnant newspaper.

 

About the author: Richard Aleman

 

 

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15 Comments

  1. I haven’t actually read the book. But does the writer really assume that “libertarianism” in history is only associated with the misoids-randroids-rothbardian-capitalist-austrian type? Many libertarians are anti-capitalist, reject capitalist property rights (in favor of a union of private property and labor), support workers self-management (cooperatives, unions, credit unions, mutual banking, collectives, etc). I don’t think the history of libertarianism can be reduced to the austro-libertarian types. It’s like summing up Christianity through the theology of fundamentalist-Protestantism.

  2. Dear Ok,

    The book is particularly aimed at Austro-libertarianism.

  3. As a secular distributionist, I’m fascinated at how hard authors crowbar in anti-abortion ideologies into their pieces. I wouldn’t mind if there was a rationale to it, maybe some morality tale, but no; it’s all an effort to get the church’s out dated moral codes stuffed into politics and be damned the increased suffering it causes.

    *face-palm*

  4. Christopher A. Ferrara’s The Church and the Libertarian: A Defense of the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Man, Economy, and State is being reviewed, in detail, at the following address: http://anarcho-catholic.blogspot.com/

    If you want some debate, let’s have at it.

  5. Mr Owens,

    Your are the one attempting to crowbar. Your comment is the only crowbar present.

  6. Martin, Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore, the teachings of his bride: Holy mother church never become outdated. For as G.K. Chesterton put it, “A dead thing moves with the stream. Only a living thing can move against it.”

  7. The duty of the Church is to safeguard the deposit of the faith and to teach and present it in the same way, form, and understanding as has always been the case without diminuition or addition. So, the crowbaring is yet a modern attempt to jettison or abandon the truths of morality in favor of situation ethics. Simply put; rather than understand God and his theology as it is, we attempt to fashion a God and morality as we see fit in accordance with our own desires and rationalities. So, we begin to worship man rather than God?

  8. Secular Distributionists(including Martin Owens) must define what Secular Distributism is. It seems that you are saying you can operate the distributing of wealth by a non-theological hand. This is obviously misguided, because you are claiming that there is no need for a moral system for the promotion of wealth. I would say you are operating under a “anti-religious” theology when you use the word secular, and therefore you are a part of a religion, you just call it “secular.” When you accept abortion in your system, you are also encouraging that “non-theological hand” to decide who deserves wealth because you are judging who is worthy of life. Are you more worthy of life than others? Please reconsider your position.

  9. I agree that given the ideal situation Libertarianism is no answer for a Catholic. But to the extent that it can disassemble an imperial antichristic mammoth neopagan government, it can amount to a returning to beginnings—to begin building again, only on proper principles.

  10. I’m sympathetic to the reviewer’s point of view, so please accept my comments as constructive criticism. I regularly read the most popular “Austrian” website and they do not accept Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan as among their allies; their quotes should not be considered stinging admissions, but rather criticisms from a rival capitalist camp. Greenspan in particular is vilified as a sort of backslider. “Ayn Randians,” or “Randroids” are not always held in high esteem in the “Austrian school”, either. I think it would behoove the critics of Misesism or whatever you want to call it, to have a clearer understanding of its arguments (and vice versa for the Misesists when they deign to take notice of distributist criticism).

    Regarding the abortion argument, I must admit that I couldn’t readily follow the causal link from Austro-libertarianism to infant murder presented in this review. I wouldn’t be surprised if the link is there, but I can understand why someone who calls himself a “secular distributist,” whatever that might mean, would see it as a non sequitur.

  11. Love the articles on this site hate the comments. I would love to here what people think of the articles main focus. Do you agree with the premise, if so are you willing to demand that pro life politicians also agree to the social problems of our economy?

  12. I’m in complete support of Distributism, however, corporations are able to keep prices low by spreading costs around their large base. Small businesses cannot do this, so wouldn’t a small business economy make higher prices? Also, it has been said that small businesses offer lower wages. So how would a Distributism society create higher wages. I’ve been spreading the ideas of Distributism and these are the questions they have raised with me.

  13. Good questions!

  14. ‘Increased suffering’ from being against abortion. Yeah, the loss of money or a career is much more painful than being cut to pieces and tossed into an incinerator. Outdated moral codes my %&$.

  15. Sean, i agree with Dorschner that those are good questions. My answer, and i may be largely alone on this, is that it doesn’t matter whether a company is large or small, as long as it’s worker-owned. So, in my conception, distributist firms could still have the economies of scale that capitalist ones now do. But to be honest, many prices would go up nonetheless, as that’s the inevitable result of paying workers a decent income.

    Viking