Touching Up The Ol’ Hermeneutic: A Reply To Gabriel Sanchez
Gabriel Sanchez, a Catholic author I know and respect, has written a critique of my – as he calls it – selective “hermeneutic” of libertarian Catholicism at Ethika Politica. Specifically he is critiquing my critique of Mark Shea’s indictment of libertarianism as heresy at Crisis magazine. It seems he at least agrees with my point that libertarianism is not heresy, but that may be where the agreement ends There are some broad points of his critique I want to address.
First there is Sanchez’s claim that my argument regarding the limits Leo places on the state with respect to taxation and charity is “strange.” The part of paragraph 22 that Sanchez says I “overlook” is irrelevant; in context, it is clear that Leo does not believe that the state has a duty to expropriate and confiscate wealth in the name of charity. I could have quoted more of that paragraph to support my point, such as “[n]o one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”” After this, the part I did quote:
“But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.”(14) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law.”
Maybe we live in two different semantic universes, but in mine, when someone says “no one is commanded”, “not of justice”, “not enforced by human law”, the meaning is clear: the state has no obligation to confiscate the private property of citizens and distribute it to whomever it deems worthy. Whether to give and how much to give is a matter for each individual to decide. I suppose it is arguable that the state could do these things with the consent of the people, but it is not required to do so and the libertarian argument against them would remain quite valid.
Paragraph 36 of RN, which Sanchez also quotes, doesn’t do much for him either. Here Leo states that the public authority may intervene to prevent injury to the interests of a class in society. I might take issue with the assumption that society is necessarily divided into antagonistic classes, but Leo says nothing about confiscatory taxation or wealth redistribution here. In any case, it is clear that in this paragraph, as elsewhere, Leo stresses the limitations of the state and not its inherent goodness:
“The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference – the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.”
This may or may not imply a bit more activity than a libertarian minarchist would like, but it could also amount to far, far less than what the average “progressive” or Distributist would insist upon. There is no mandate here for economic planning, a vast network of regulatory agencies, and wealth confiscation. It is open-ended, and left to us to debate on purely theoretical and/or empirical grounds what will remedy the various evils of which he speaks. If libertarians hold that closed-shop unions, guild monopolies, onerous zoning restrictions, protectionist measures, Luddite/agrarian fantasies, etc. – in short, a regime of special privileges that would benefit narrow layers of society – would actually harm the vast majority of the poor people that the anti-capitalist claim to fight for, we would not be violating Catholic teaching in doing so. Meanwhile “the law’s interference” could well be limited to the protection of legitimate rights, something that many libertarians do hold to be the proper purview of the state – though to be clear, laws can exist without this thing we call “the state” today.
On other popes and other encyclicals: Sanchez accuses me of ignoring them altogether. It is true that I have not addressed them in a published work, but I have never shied away from discussing them when asked. Regular readers of this blog have probably seen my exchanges with a couple of regular commentators about Paul VI’s statements about economic planning and expropriation. I have also critiqued Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. Sanchez quotes it as well, citing paragraph 49. And yet this paragraph does nothing to bolster a case against libertarianism. Pius XI is operating on the basis of definite economic assumptions – the sort of “technical” assumptions that even Francis, facing a firestorm of criticism over his blatant anti-market comments, implied he was not necessarily qualified to make – though I find that this particular paragraph is somewhat vague and open to many interpretations. If I were going to critique Pius XI more formally, and at this point I probably should, I’d focus on paragraph 88 instead, which is a more precise technical claim (and a false one). Sanchez and other Catholic anti-capitalists should decide once and for all if they believe we are, as Catholics, obliged to agree with the sort of “technical” arguments that are made by popes from time to time. To me the answer is obvious: we are not, because these arguments are falsifiable and are indeed sometimes false.
So I neither “absolutize” the statements made by Leo in RN, nor do I “ignore everything else”, as Sanchez claims. Nor do I view libertarianism as a “dream” for the future, as something that has never existed or will exist as Sanchez writes in his opening paragraph. I approach it as a realist. Libertarianism “exists” whenever people conduct their affairs freely without the intervention of busy-bodies, social engineers and moralists who have armed agents at their disposal to impose their will. This, I wager, is happening everywhere and all the time, though not everywhere at the same time. People become libertarians when interaction in this way becomes preferable to violent compulsion; when it becomes clear that free and rational people can indeed organize their affairs and even take care of one another without someone jamming a gun in their faces and barking “pay up or else.” I would say there are indeed deep pockets of libertarianism in the modern global economy, particularly in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore.
But it is true that we in the United States do not have a libertarian “society”, nor have we had one that even comes close in roughly 100 years. There can be no free market as long as the government monopolizes the money supply and the major corporations and banks are intertwined with the regulatory apparatus. No one benefits more from the state-managed economy than those at the top of the economy; no one suffers more than the middle class. And nothing is more absurd than the constant drumbeat of criticism of “the free market” in the context of these massive federal structures that intervene in the economy day in and day out. A free market would have watched Goldman Sachs burn to the ground instead of giving it a multi-billion dollar bailout.