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.

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  1. Sanchez must be an pinhead from academia. Thanks, Mr. McClarey for standing your ground. Your argument seems to be reason and logic based. The pinhead seems to be living on an alternate universe.

  2. Debating or arguing Mark Shea is less productive than soaking one’s head in a can of paint.

  3. I have read both articles and I must say it is one of the most polite exchanges I have read on the topic. After reading the comments between Mr Sanchez and others on the original article I am led to conclude that perhaps you and the original author are closer in agreement on the nature of state involvement then the normal confrontation between libertarians and there opponents in the Catholic world.

    “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.”

    I would be curious as to how you would define a moralist.

  4. “I have read both articles and I must say it is one of the most polite exchanges I have read on the topic.”
    After hundreds of nasty exchanges on this topic, I’m glad I’m evolving a bit. I agree, though, it’s usually brutal.
    As for moralists, I mean people who think that their moral positions override evidence, reason, logic, etc. When someone says “we must do x, regardless of the consequences”, for instance. Consequences matter. I wouldn’t argue that they’re always the most important thing, but even when they aren’t, they can’t be treated as if they don’t exist. A lot of proposals for intervention into the economy begin with a moral idea, and they overlook the hidden costs and consequences. And to me, that itself is a moral failing, it is a reckless disregard for how one’s ideas and actions affect other people.

  5. St. Gregory the Great has a fair amount to say on the topic of those who give alms from what they have seized from others. Check Book 3 of Pastoral Rule, aka in your Old English literature class as the Book of Pastoral Care.

  6. Bonchamps

    I should appreciate your take on Pope Pius XI’s observations in Casti Connubii. Please excuse the rather lengthy citation:
    “120. If, however, for this purpose, private resources do not suffice, it is the duty of the public authority to supply for the insufficient forces of individual effort, particularly in a matter which is of such importance to the common weal, touching as it does the maintenance of the family and married people. If families, particularly those in which there are many children, have not suitable dwellings; if the husband cannot find employment and means of livelihood; if the necessities of life cannot be purchased except at exorbitant prices; if even the mother of the family to the great harm of the home, is compelled to go forth and seek a living by her own labour; if she, too, in the ordinary or even extraordinary labours of childbirth, is deprived of proper food, medicine, and the assistance of a skilled physician, it is patent to all to what an extent married people may lose heart, and how home life and the observance of God’s commands are rendered difficult for them; indeed it is obvious how great a peril can arise to the public security and to the welfare and very life of civil society itself when such men are reduced to that condition of desperation that, having nothing which they fear to lose, they are emboldened to hope for chance advantage from the upheaval of the state and of established order.
    121. Wherefore, those who have the care of the State and of the public good cannot neglect the needs of married people and their families, without bringing great harm upon the State and on the common welfare. Hence, in making the laws and in disposing of public funds they must do their utmost to relieve the needs of the poor, considering such a task as one of the most important of their administrative duties.”
    Surely, “the public security” and the protection of “established order” is one of the primary obligations of the state, on any view of it?

  7. After reading the comments between Mr Sanchez and others on the original article I am led to conclude that perhaps you and the original author are closer in agreement on the nature of state involvement then the normal confrontation between libertarians and there opponents in the Catholic world.

    When you say, “original author” you mean Mark Shea? That’s… interesting since one his new tags for articles is:

    “Libertarianism is a Heresy for People with No Children”

    Given that and some other posts, it doesn’t seem that Shea has an issue with the role of government as a principle, but just that the people he wants are not in charge.

  8. Social Justice is giving to the needy what they need to sustain life, not to fulfill their desires. (the needy ought to desire from another only what he truly needs to sustain life or the description “needy” would be a fraud.).
    The economy must be based on the virtue of charity. (giving a child a pound of candy is NOT charity. I know. I’ve done it. The child survived after a couple of days.) You give me a dress I need, (not want) and I give you the means to replace the dress for another. This is an exercise of the virtue of charity. It is also the exercise of freedom in free will and consent, absolutely necessary to contract.
    For the government to strongarm its citizens to fulfill some form of giving it has devised is tyranny and extortion and plain taking without compensation; unconstitutional, according to the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.
    For the government to despise our freedom and present itself as the “just compensation” called for in the Fifth Amendment is ludicrous if it weren’t so monstrous.

  9. MPS,

    The specific list of problems Pius XI lists can be addressed by free markets. Competition is what lowers the costs of everyday goods and services that people need. Meanwhile rent and price controls have the effect of causing shortages, disincentivizing investments and improvements, and causing unemployment. I would argue that “the poor” as he conceives them and “the poor” as they exist in the America of 2014 are also two very different groups. Poverty is relative, and in America it is temporary. And that’s part of the problem with Papal economics; it assumes that there is a fixed group of people who are in poverty. That might have been true 100 years ago, and it may still be true today in some countries, but it isn’t true in the US or in any other place where the balance between markets and interventionism tilts towards markets. On the other hand massive interventions have the effect of actually creating a permanently poor class of people, the closest to which we have in the US are the urban blacks who have been the recipients of the most “aid.”

  10. Bonchamps

    No doubt, in the long run, free markets do raise living standards. However, a generation after the repeal of the Corn Laws,Disraeli famously twitted the Liberals of the Manchester School with proclaiming peace and plenty amid a starving people and a world in arms.

    In the meantime, Pius XI’s concern about public order can be genuine enough. We have only to recall the June Days of 1848, following the closure of the National Workshops. Then, the Liberals secured a victory over the Radical Republicans, but at the cost of 1,500 dead in the streets of Paris and thousands of summary executions of prisoners. The Assembly, one recalls, welcomed the surrender of the last barricade with cries of “Long Live the Republic!” What they got, inevitably, was Napoleon III.

  11. You left off the coordinating clause Art.

    But then I’ve been known to tipple with the Austrians myself.

  12. Art Deco

    Monetary theory is a closed book to me, but I once encountered it in a practical form.
    I had to draw the indictment of some men who had robbed a branch of the Clydesdale Bank and part of their haul consisted of the bank’s own banknotes. What was the value of those notes?

    On their face, they are a promise by the bank to pay the bearer on demand £x. To any other holder, they are worth £x, but what are those held by the bank worth to the bank? The bank cannot owe money to itself. My researches showed that in their balance sheet “Notes in the Banking dept” appear as a deduction from “Notes in circulation” (a liability) Stocks of unissued notes are shown at cost (the printer’s charges) under “Consumables” (an asset)

    Having asked a number of colleagues, as puzzled as myself, I resorted to “x pieces or thereby of printed paper, bearing to be banknotes of the said bank and having a face value of £y or thereby, the value of the said pieces of paper being otherwise to the prosecutor unknown, the property or in the lawful possession of the said bank.”

    Does anyone have any better idea?

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