Murray Rothbard & Catholic Political Thought

Tuesday, September 18, AD 2012

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.

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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.

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  • 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.