Murray Rothbard & Catholic Political Thought

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.

8 Responses to Murray Rothbard & Catholic Political Thought

  • Interesting, Bonchamps. Am curious as to what others will say.

  • The Rothbard essay you link, “The Progressive Era and the Family”, was one of the most viewpoint-affecting essays I’ve read about U.S. Catholic history, and remains so.

    Have any more mainstream historians backed up his interpretation or given it a critical analysis? I’d like to get a second opinion.

  • The “statue in the center of the room” of Austrian School economics, Ludwig von Mises, originated a conceptual study called “praxeology,” or, simply, the study of human action. It is based on the prime supposition that “People Do Things.” The next time some liberal relativist makes that sophomoric challenge, “Name one absolute truth,” throw that one at him. It cannot be denied and once you have the buy-in, the rest is dominoes.

    From that basic truth, all action is informed by the values held by individuals acting in concert or opposition to all other individuals in any given sphere. In this progression, the inevitable outcome is a nation either built freely from the ground up by moral, informed and educated citizens, or imposed via state coercion from the top down on indoctrinated subjects, a la the Peoples’ Democratic Party.

    There can be no State, no society, no community without individual, Created persons. The Liberty given us as a gift from God Almighty is our birthright, second only to the Salvation of Christ. The Church holds the teachings we need to obtain the promises of both to the best of our abilities.

  • Good article, Bonchamps. Rothbard’s affinity for Catholic thought is often evident in his writings. Even when he goes wrong–such as on the issue of abortion–he still respectfully characterizes Catholic opposition to abortion, as he wrote in “For a New Liberty” (1973):

    “For the libertarian, the “Catholic” case against abortion, even if finally rejected as invalid, cannot be dismissed out of hand. For the essence of that case—not really “Catholic” at all in a theological sense—is that abortion destroys a human life and is therefore murder, and hence cannot be condoned. More than that, if abortion is truly murder, then the Catholic—or any other person who shares this view—cannot just shrug his shoulders and say that “Catholic” views should not be imposed upon non-Catholics. Murder is not an expression of religious preference; no sect, in the name of “freedom of religion,” can or should get away with committing murder with the plea that its religion so commands. The vital question then becomes: Should abortion be considered as murder?”

  • A good post — thank you, Bonchamps.

    It seems a book to engage on this topic (one which I would like to see discussed by somebody who is acquainted with Rothbard) is Christopher Ferrara’s The Church and the Libertarian: A Defense of the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Man, Economy, and State — have you read it?

  • Christopher,

    I have read Ferrara’s book. It is an ignorant polemic that does not take the object of its critique seriously. It’s full of strawmen and wildly inaccurate claims. It does make some good points, I’ll grant, but they’re rather obvious points that aren’t going to convince any serious thinker to avoid the Austrian school.

  • W K Aitken

    “People do things” – Indeed.

    This obvious truth can easily by obscured by a sort of sleight of hand, by focusing, not on actions, but on their results. As the great Catholic historian, Lord Acton, explains, “That which is done is become a material external product, altogether independent of the interior determination, or free-will, which motivated or gave the first occasion of its existence. Hence no examination of these facts, apart from the consciousness of the doers of them, can possibly give us the element of freedom; they are mere material external facts, as subject to numeration and measurement as a crop of wheat, or the velocity of a bullet… as soon as we seek simply statistics and averages, we have lost sight of man, and are contemplating only his works, his products.”

    It is easy, therefore, to overlook the fact that statistical laws are inferences, not causes. That is why the method of the economist can never replace that of the historian.

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