Francis and the Libertarians’ “New Tyranny”

There are good reasons to think libertarianism is surging these days. Edward Snowden was the runner-up for TIME’s Person of the Year, right behind Pope Francis. The anti-security state face of libertarianism, Snowden resonates well with many on the Left. And if the Republican Party stands a chance in 2016, it will need a candidate that energizes its libertarian-leaning Tea Party faction without being beholden to its radicalism or alienating social conservatives. Many saw Rand Paul’s response to the State of the Union address this week as occupying this “middle ground”.

This fight for the Right has become the lens for receiving Pope Francis’s “manifesto”. The pope’s first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, is mostly about the new evangelization, especially to urban areas where the Church has lost credibility. But Francis does not softpedal Catholic social teaching. The best short article on Evangelii Gaudium, by Alejandro Chafuen, describes how the Vatican is not simply naïve about economics. Rather, he describes the influence of economist (and Nobel laureate) Joseph Stiglitz in the highest levels of the Vatican. To condescend to Francis is to condescend to neo-Keynesian economists. Libertarians without Chafuen’s devotion to the Holy Father have shown more condescension and outrage.

For example, this article by Marian Tupy over at The Atlantic seems to think the main thesis of Evangelii Gaudium is that “unbridled capitalism has failed the poor.” In fact, the pope makes an argument about consumerism leaving more affluent societies indifferent towards the plight of the global poor. Francis:

[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

After condescending to the pope’s ability to understand elementary neoliberal economics, Tupy goes on to claim that the inequality gap is narrowing. (This is a claim we saw contradicted recently on Sweep by Thomas Piketty.) Increasing inequality is something of a red herring in the argument, since the pope has a more radical claim. Global capitalism is not simply yielding a sub-optimal GINI coefficient. Instead, writes Pope Francis, “the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Thomas Pogge illustrates why the neoliberal economic order would be unjust even if it were improving the lot of the global poor. For Pogge, the non-fulfillment of Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights is a human rights violation. If citizens of affluent countries are unwilling to militate for a more just global order, according to Pogge, we are complicit with a massive human rights violation. In “Are We Violating the Human Rights of the World’s Poor”, Pogge draws a parallel to abolitionism in the nineteenth century. An argument that the slave system was gradually improving (less human trafficking, more humane conditions, fewer slaves overall, etc.) would find zero traction against someone with the conviction that slavery is a human rights violation. There is an analogous case with global poverty, says Pogge (if we grant his argument for the conditions under which non-fulfillment of human rights become violations of human rights).

An axiom of political philosophy is at the root of Evangelii Gaudium:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

The right of the state to exercise control over markets does not depend on worsening inequalities around the globe. At the bottom of Evangelii Gaudium are not economists’ questions about how to alleviate inequality. Instead, Francis is attacking the libertarian and neoliberal ideologies which undermine states.

Libertarians have a praiseworthy commitment to non-violence. In a sense, they are the heirs of the ancient quip (which we know from Augustine) that kingdoms are but ‘large-scale criminal syndicates’. Only a minimal state, a protective association. can be justified, and the state should not seize property that was acquired without historical injustice (cf. Chapter 7 of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia). Libertarians explicitly reject the right of the state to distributive justice.

Francis believes in “the right of states” to exercise force to uphold social justice. This is his real sticking point with libertarians. Obviously for the Catholic Church there is divine authorization for the state which appears in Romans 13. James Poulous wildly speculates that the pope’s point is unique to Catholic social teaching or a faith-based “regal humanism”. But justice is accessible to natural reason, where it appears as an exigent demand. In fact, modern libertarianism is essentially a response to one such argument. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, proves that our intuitions about justice in America can support an ideal theory that makes distributive justice one of its first principles. 

To start only with the “liberty principle” is to assume that a peaceful order is a plausible starting point for any political community. This is a grave error. I remember the open question about historical injustices for Robert Nozick, whether we should all return our lands to American Indians… Even bracketing history as a litany of spectacular (and often unrecorded) injustices, what appears to be peace is merely effective repression, everyday non-physical violence, Foucault’s microphysics of power, etc. There is no worthy peace without justice.

Libertarians for whom justice is no longer a first principle, from Robert Nozick to Rand Paul to Edward Snowden, are extraordinarily naïve. Theirs is an abstract political ideology born in paradise. We will hear economic hand-waving about how free markets improve the lot of the global poor, but this is like so much flak to defend the vulnerable ideology behind the “new tyranny”.

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One response to “Francis and the Libertarians’ “New Tyranny”

  1. Pingback: Catholics Against Capitalism (Are Not Dumb) | sweep·

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