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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics 1

September 12, 2022  |  1,571 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part One


First Things has always been a classy journal featuring quality contributions from orthodox scholars and academics.  Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), the founding editor and famous Lutheran convert to Catholicism, was a prose stylist par excellence.  Anything he chose to write about in his monthly dairy entries was a pleasure to read.


But I stopped checking him out once I realized the magazine was another assembly of devout intellectuals who can’t seem to connect the dots between what they think of as our amoral culture, and what I consider to be our ethically-challenged economic way of life.  Another battalion of thoughtful writers who believe there is essentially nothing wrong with the economic status quo. 


At dinner recently a friend described a faithful Catholic of his acquaintance who attends Mass and goes to Confession weekly, yet is of the opinion, “economics has nothing to do with morals.”


Sadly, every conservative Catholic I know holds this view.  They have bought the libertarian line that self-interest is the best way for a free society to operate.  They have come to believe this harsh philosophy honors foundational Catholic concepts such as human dignity and free will.  They reach this conclusion by focusing their attention on the American version of individual liberty, which just happens to be at odds with the all-important Catholic formulation that we are all relational creatures by nature.


High-brow media outlets like First Things contribute mightily to what I would describe as a misdirection, since its influence far exceeds its limited subscription base.   Its editorial slant on economics represents accepted wisdom among all conservative Catholic commentators.  The faulty messaging is constantly being repeated on a variety of popular media platforms, and becomes the only one an orthodox believer takes seriously.


Father Neuhaus thought capitalism could be a reliable embodiment of Christianity.  With the operative word in that sentence being “could.”  Unfortunately, like all conservative intellectuals with a notable public profile, he was unable to grasp just how far capitalism has strayed from anything even remotely associated with the Christian ethos.



Many respectable, law-abiding citizens assume we have arrived at our contentious cultural crossroads through a misreading of the moral law as it pertains to human sexuality.  But there is another important piece to this puzzle that has escaped their notice.  It’s the misreading on the part of conservative/libertarian Catholics (and other conservative/libertarians of goodwill) as to what the proper rules of economic engagement should be.  In fact, I would contend our free-wheeling economic system is far more responsible for where we find ourselves today culturally than any perceived deviation in sexual mores.


Like their secular counterparts, many practicing Catholics now believe the individual should be allowed to pursue his or her economic advancement without outside interference, and completely unencumbered by what the Founders describe as “outside affiliations.”  James Madison refers to this ideal condition as “an absence of obstacles” in one of the Federalist Papers.


But being left alone to do your own thing, which is a fundamental tenet of Americanism, is not exactly compatible with being your brother’s keeper, a fundamental tenet of Christianity.  Conservatives who are quick to revere our Founders as Christian stalwarts, and attribute today’s problems to the gradual abandonment of our Christian roots, are nostalgic for a thing that never was.  Since America was founded on the Enlightenment, and only ever possessed residual traces of Christianity.  


This is the misunderstanding that leads conservatives to mistakenly lay blame for what they don’t like in contemporary society at the feet of secularists, or secular humanists, in the form of liberal policy makers, big government, a radical judiciary that has legislated a new morality from the bench, etc., etc.  They absolve present-day Republicans of any complicity in the matter.  In fact, they see Republicans as their one, true ally in a noble crusade to “restore the culture.”


I agree the state has worked to undermine/redefine cultural norms.  But now, after reading Patrick Deneen’s snappy little masterpiece, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), I also see the state’s actions over the entire course of our nation’s history as having been executed in the name of Enlightenment principles such as expanding individual freedom and economic opportunity.  Both of which just happen to be cornerstones of the American Experiment, and central elements of the Republican Party’s (and before that, the Whig Party’s) “conservative” agenda.  


In a paradox few conservative and libertarians appreciate, the cultural trends today’s various traditional/orthodox populations bemoan ad nauseum have actually drawn their inspiration from and been driven by long-held Republican/Whig principles.


This is the underlying theme of Mr. Deneen’s (1964 -) book.  The unexpected conclusion is slowly revealed, page-by-page.  A professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, Deneen offers up a broad historical overview.  He takes his time and provides lots of supporting argument in locating the source of our present day cultural/political divisiveness in a place where most readers would least expect to find it.


Mr. Deneen’s greatest gift to our public discourse is to calmly point out how both warring factions in our contentious political divide – liberals and conservatives – are in reality two sides of the same ideological coin.  He introduces the reader to what he describes as two forms of American liberalism.  First there is “classical liberalism,” whose followers are now called “libertarians.”  And then there is “progressive/modern liberalism,” championed by people we simply refer to today as “liberals.”  Both these forms of American liberalism implement the same flawed thought process, though under slightly different guises.  With individual emancipation superseding concern for the common good.  


My introduction to “classical liberalism” and the libertarian push for economic freedom came late in 2013.  It was the boisterous conservative backlash to those eight infamous “economic” paragraphs in Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (November 2013) that got my attention.  The same conservative influencers who had praised Francis to the skies when first elevated/elected to the papacy in March 2013, for his modest ways and man-of-the-people street cred, were now clamoring for his head over the impertinence he displayed by ever-so-briefly questioning the efficacy of unfettered capitalism.  


When Mr. Deneen’s book finally came along in 2018, it proved to be the cultural/economic/political Rosetta Stone I had been waiting for.



The best thing one can say about First Things magazine is its editors and contributors are simply unable to see the big picture on economics.  The worst one can say is First Things is just another respectable tome that keeps conservative-leaning citizens in the dark about the true nature of Catholic social teaching on economics.


For some observers the big question is whether Father Neuhaus was duped, or if he actively participated in the deception.  But that line of inquiry does not particularly interest me.  I do know Neuhaus drew inspiration for his rosy view of the economic status quo from the work of Michael Novak (1933-2017), who first published his seminal book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in 1982.  Novak’s premise, that free enterprise is inherently moral, has been subsequently championed by a new generation of high-profile Catholics who proudly identify as politically conservative.


Among the most prominent of this next generation is Arthur Brooks (1964- ), who recently finished a ten-year stint as president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  Though his tenure at that organization is no longer part of his official bio.  Mr. Brooks was paid one million dollars annually to function as “rainmaker-in-chief” for this privately-funded think tank.  That meant convincing wealthy donors to shift some of their spare cash to AEI’s coffers, to underwrite a variety of worthy causes.  There are literally hundreds of “scholars” operating out of AEI’s gleaming new headquarters building in Washington, D.C., and no doubt some of them are busy doing really good work.  But AEI is also known for giving Republican legislators their talking points on economic issues of the day.  Such as arguing against a raise in the federally-mandated minimum wage.


Over the years Mr. Brooks has made his case in a number of non-fiction books that have been certified as New York Times best-sellers, such as The Conservative Heart (2015).  His final act upon leaving AEI was to produce and star in a documentary film, The Pursuit (2019)In it, Mr. Brooks is seen visiting a variety of exotic locales around the world, while talking his way through many of his favorite themes.  In the end, his economic message boils down to a simplistic, decidedly non-Catholic view that laissez-faire free enterprise is always preferable to government interference in the economy.


And that’s my beef with otherwise likable souls such as Arthur Brooks, Michael Novak, and Richard John Neuhaus.  They ignore all pre-Vatican II (1962-1965) papal teaching on economics, which clearly and forcefully speaks of the occasional need for government intervention to protect the social fabric and honor the common good.  Then they cleverly crib select citations from the two main post-conciliar popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – to bolster their case.  


Pope Francis, in works such as Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and Laudato Si (2015), is either subtly passed over or outright disparaged by this contingent.  I guess that’s because Francis has a tendency to use unambiguous – and sometimes even a bit salty – language in reaffirming long held Church teaching on what ethical economic behavior should look like in a free market environment. Apparently, the libertarian Catholic (Republican) establishment doesn’t like being reminded of these inconvenient economic truths.


Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 12, 2022

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