Libertarianism is seductive. It promises much while, empirically, delivering little.
That is not a defect, ideologically speaking. For so long as libertarianism lacks a functioning, real-world ordo that can be rigorously evaluated, it can never be falsified. And so, for the time being, it exists as a dream, an unfulfilled promise of a better world predicated on free markets (whatever that means), a minimal—if not nonexistent—state apparatus, and laws limited to the enforcement of contracts and the prevention of physical, but probably not moral, harms.
Numerous Catholic thinkers have taken up the libertarian cause in recent years, though a number appear uncomfortable identifying themselves as expressly libertarian—perhaps due to the movement’s perceived permissiveness when it comes to matters such as abortion, pornography, prostitution, and narcotics. Some call themselves “Tea Party Catholics”; others, such as the Catholic-controlled but officially non-confessional Acton Institute, eschew labels altogether while standing for “[i]ntegrating Judeo-Christian truths [sic] with free market principles.” A few brave Catholics, including regular Crisis contributor Joe Hargrave, have no problem flying the libertarian banner in the face of their coreligionist critics.
Hargrave is a Janissary for Catholic libertarianism. Through a series of articles dating back to 2010, Hargrave has, inter alia, called for Catholics to align themselves with the Tea Party movement; claimed to have found affinities between the liberal philosophy of John Locke and the social thought of Pope Leo XIII; and, most recently, gutted Mark Shea’s impetuous claim that libertarianism is a “heresy.” (Not everything wrongheaded and incongruent with the Church’s social magisterium is necessarily heretical, Mr. Shea.)
Hargrave, unlike some of his intellectual opponents, is a serious thinker; as such, he deserves to be given a serious response, particularly when he is seriously mistaken. With respect to his takedown of Shea’s heresy hunting, Hargrave redeploys his oft-repeated claim that Leo XIII’s great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, is predicated largely on Lockean principles and thus, perhaps unbeknownst to Leo himself, ratifies the libertarian position. Although Hargrave’s conceptual genealogy of Rerum Novarum is not entirely off-target, he errs in reading the encyclical selectively, even desperately, in an attempt to square it with doctrinaire libertarianism.
For instance, Hargrave narrows in on Rerum Novarum’s defense of private property while also claiming, strangely, that the encyclical supports the view that legally mandated charitable aid to the poor is limited to cases of “extreme need.” That assertion, which rests on paragraph 22 of the encyclical, also includes this passage that Hargrave chooses to bypass: “But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving.” In other words, Leo XIII set a base floor, not an iron ceiling, for when the state, by right, should engage in charitable redistribution of wealth.
Hargrave’s libertarian reading of Rerum Novarum is further confounded by paragraph 36: “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it.” Again, Leo XIII, with wisdom and prudence, did not erect hard limits on when the state can redistribute wealth; he instead left the door wide open for case-by-case analysis, contemplating all along the possibility, perhaps truer in our time than in Leo’s, that private efforts may be inadequate to ameliorate material suffering.
Hargrave’s problematic harmonization of Rerum Novarum and libertarianism continues with respect to wage contracts. Here, Hargrave attempts to get around Leo XIII’s call that such contracts “ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner” by positing that this principle—a “dictate of natural justice” according to the Pope—does not necessarily support “a mandatory minimum wage set by the federal government.” But what does that matter? A one-size-fits-all minimum wage will, more likely than not, always be insufficient to meet the “dictate of natural justice” given the disparity in living costs across states and regions. Stronger medicine is required. Further, the actual federal minimum wage—$7.25/hour—falls short of enabling a “frugal and well-behaved wage earner” to “comfortably [...] support himself, his wife, and his children”—another standard set forth in Rerum Novarum that Hargrave conveniently ignores. Guilds, labor unions, and regulations controlling wage ratios may, to the chagrin of libertarians everywhere, be required to uphold Leo XIII’s instructions.
What about Hargrave’s reading of the Church’s social magisterium beyond Rerum Novarum? There is very little to be said about it because Hargrave has almost nothing to say about it. It’s not difficult to see why. For while Hargrave can, through some interpretive acrobatics, tease out an argument for a “natural, individual and inviolable right to private property” in the text of Rerum Novarum, this narrow reading finds no comfort in Pope Pius XI’s equally magisterial Quadragesimo Anno, paragraph 49:
Wherefore the wise Pontiff [Leo XIII] declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. “For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal.” Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a libertarian Catholic like Hargrave taking comfort in these words, which is no doubt why he writes—pardon the term—“magisterially” on the confluence of libertarianism and Catholic social teaching in splendid isolation from every post-Leonine development and explication of that teaching. It would be quite a feat if Hargrave were able to uncover the libertarian teachings of Pope St. Pius X’s Notre Charge Apostolique, Pius XI’s Quas Primas, or Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. My strong suspicion is that he cannot, which is why he does not.
Catholic libertarianism is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. While not all of its proponents' thinking is wrongheaded, much of it is. Hargrave, like many of his confrères, believes that libertarianism can find support in the Church’s social magisterium, but such claims are only plausible if one accepts Hargrave’s hermeneutic of selectivity: Embrace and absolutize everything that appears superficially congruent with libertarianism and steadfastly ignore everything else.