Traditionalist Catholics are typically not fans of Murray Rothbard. And yet as I read more of his work, I find more reasons to appreciate Rothbard’s insights into political theory, which I believe were shaped by a deeper appreciation for the Catholic political and philosophical tradition than some are willing to admit. It is easy to see Rothbard as nothing more than a secular Jewish atheist who opposed “the Old Order” and supported unrestricted personal liberty. And yet he spent his final years advocating for Pat Buchanan’s presidential run and his socially conservative platform.
That there is an affinity for Catholicism in Rothbard’s thought is not surprising. He identifies the Catholic countries, above all Austria, as the originators of subjective-utility economics, while Protestant countries such as Britain developed more labor-centric economic theories. The Catholic tradition had identified consumption (in moderation) as a worthwhile activity and goal; the Calvinist tradition emphasized hard labor as the primary good and consumption as a necessary evil at best. He writes:
Conversely, it is no accident that the Austrian School, the major challenge to the Smith-Ricardo vision, arose in a country that was not only solidly Catholic, but whose values and attitudes were still heavily influenced by Aristotelian and Thomist thought. The German precursors of the Austrian School flourished, not in Protestant and anti-Catholic Prussia, but in those German states that were either Catholic or were politically allied to Austria rather than Prussia.
Rothbard did not limit his religious comparisons to economic theory alone. In exploring the history of the United States, he identified two major religious-political tendencies of the 19th century: the evangelical “Yankee” pietism of Protestant New England, and the “liturgism” of Catholic immigrants and some high-church Protestants such as German Lutherans. The Yankee pietists were obsessed with using the power of the state to create God’s kingdom on Earth and aid the individual in his struggle for salvation. The “liturgists”, on the other hand, saw the local parish and the family as primarily responsible for moral life and salvation.
The liturgicals saw the road to salvation in joining the particular church, obeying its rituals, and making use of its sacraments; the individual was not alone with only his emotions and the state to protect him. There was no particular need, then, for the state to take on the functions of the church. Furthermore, the liturgicals had a much more relaxed and rational view of what sin really was; for instance,excessive drinking might be sinful, but liquor per se surely was not.
It seems safe to say that Rothbard, in his efforts to understand the intellectual roots of libertarian thought, found plenty to admire in the Catholic tradition. What emerges from his historical investigations is a truth I have also come to understand: that there is never a choice between a mythic “individualism” and collectivism. Human beings are born into a state of dependency; someone or something is going to have to care not only for their bodies, but for their proper socialization and moral formation. The historical choices are generally the family/parish/community, or the state. Rothbard became increasingly aware of the dangerous insanity of the the latter option. His articles exposing the religious-left as the inheritor of Yankee pietism (and Hillary Clinton as its prophet) demonstrate this well. If Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration was, as Rothbard described it, “a horrifying display of a neopagan, multicultural, New Age religious left at work”, then Obama’s entire campaign, which is steeped in the rhetoric of radical religious leftism, is simply off the charts.
It is not surprising that Rothbard supported Buchanan, then, even if he came to disagree with the latter’s emphasis on economic nationalism (as opposed to free trade). Against the dangerous, delusional presumptions of left-wing social pietism, Buchanan’s crusade for faith and family – perhaps paradoxically to some – stood out as the true rallying point for liberty in the late 20th century. The connection makes even more sense if one also considers the Austrian tradition of elevating “bourgeois” cultural values as basic requisites for a free market economy. There must be a respect for property rights and for individual rights in general; there must be some moderation and some attempt at planning and foresight in economic behavior; there must be a respect for the rule of law, and so on. The social chaos and liberation from the waist downwards promoted by the left-wing media/political establishment creates the perfect pretext for a strong statism, while a society of economically-independent families comprised of people who are generally in control of their passions (usually by way of religious conviction) removes that pretext.
Once one realizes that the choice in the struggle for freedom is really between faith & family on the one hand, and the all-powerful state on the other, one’s understanding of liberty necessarily begins to narrow. Could it be that liberty is not just this arbitrary property of human beings, but rather a gift bestowed upon us by God, intended to be used in specific ways? I can’t say with even the slightest confidence that Rothbard ever considered Catholicism seriously as a religious truth. Given another 20 years, though, I’d like to think he might have come as far as Mortimer Adler did. Speculation aside, Rothbard pioneered a historical and sociological approach to libertarianism that necessarily pulls it away from empty platitudes and idealistic slogans and grounds it more in the solid facts of reality. In the historical and sociological context, liberty from the waist down is not only inadequate, but it contains the seeds of its own demise. A fuller understanding of liberty, one compatible with the other truths of human nature, will necessarily lead one straight to the Catholic Church. Rothbard’s own conception stands somewhere inbetween, as an almost unfinished work.