Catholic and Libertarian? Cardinal Says They’re Incompatible. This is Why He’s Wrong.

“This economy kills,”  Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga said in a speech yesterday at a conference held by Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, entitled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” “The libertarianism [sic] deregulation of the market is much to the disadvantage of the poor.”

RNS-CARDINALS-POPEThe cardinal quoted Pope Francis frequently as he berated today’s “free market system”, which he calls a “new idol” in which the poor suffer.

The pope, Maradiaga said, grew up in Argentina and “has a profound knowledge of the life of the poor.” That is why, he said, Francis continues to insist that “the elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed.”

I have no doubt that Maradiaga and Pope Francis are familiar with poverty and desire deeply to help those in need. They are surely men of God who strive to live by the beatitudes. Unfortunately, however, they are not familiar with economics and I only wish they had as deep a desire to understand how best to help those in need. If he did, he would be a libertarian himself.

Maradiaga fails to comprehend two aspects of libertarianism:

1) Libertarianism is rooted in Catholic theology:

While most people think that libertarianism was invented by Adam Smith or American politicians, the ideology is actually rooted in the School of Salamanca, a group of Spanish and Portuguese theologians writing in the 16th century. Thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, and Francisco Suárez originated the modern concepts of libertarianism based on Catholic moral teaching and St. Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law. The school, which  Murray Rothbard called proto-Austrians, answered new challenges to the Catholic concepts of man and God brought by the rise of humanism and the Protestant Reformation with theories on the rights of man, just war, and freedom in economics.

Over time, a simplified version of one aspect of their philosophy has come to what is known as the non-aggression principle:

The initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property is inherently illegitimate.

which, for savvy readers, will invoke Aquinas’s principle,  “one should do harm to no man” (Summa Theologea I-II Q. 95) or the political philosophy Vulnero Nemo, a progression from the Golden Rule, professed in the Bible: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Lk 6:31

The alternative to this principle is the statist doctrine in which a designated class of people (politicians and bureaucrats) have the authority to initiate force through taxation, imprisonment, or war for whatever reasons they deem worthy.

Presented this way, it’s clear that libertarianism is the moral ideology and the blind faith in government action is amoral. How someone who is purporting the moral high ground can condemn libertarianism must not understand its root and is most likely confusing it with  crony capitalism, a dangerous mix of capitalist wealth and government coercion.

2) Libertarianism is the best way to help the poor.

Cardinal Maradiaga suffers from the “Who will build the roads” economic fallacy in which he thinks that since governments provide aid to the poor and redistribute wealth that government is the only entity who can do such things.

First, as a Church official, he should know better that private institutions are much more efficient and effective at helping the poor than government. Charities really help people but government programs tend to perpetuate the problems that are set out to fix. Second, no economic system in the history of the Earth has been better at redistributing wealth from those who have to those in need than the free-market. Billions of people making exponentially more decisions will always be better at allocating wealth than a handful of central planners.

And this shows in real-world experience. The free-market system, based in libertarian principles, has led to the greatest increase of wealth the world has ever seen and the free-market has raised more people out of poverty than any other economic system in the history of mankind.

If Catholics continue to speak about economics, it would behoove them to truly understand libertarian principles and how they benefit the poor. As Jesus said, “I told you to feed the poor, not elect politicians to steal money from others to do it!”

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Tom Woods gives a brilliant talk on this very subject here.