What 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.