Several years back, I was a contributor to the eponymous website of Lew Rockwell, founder of the libertarian Ludwig Von Mises Institute at Auburn University. In addition to publishing my syndicated column, the site also permitted me access to its blog. One day, in a blog post, I denied a dogma of Austrian economics, that of self-ownership. Because a man owns himself, the late Austrian economist Murray Rothbard said, he may do anything to himself he wishes (thus suicide and abortion are not moral abominations), but he may do no physical violence to, or steal from, another. I explained that self-ownership is a logical impossibility, because ownership requires a superior-subordinate relationship. A man cannot be superior or subordinate to himself.
I was excommunicated. No more posting at LewRockwell.com. Now comes Catholic lawyer and writer Christopher Ferrara with an entire book to educate the Austrians where I could not.
Ferrara likely would not have devoted such time to libertarian Austrian ideology if the Mises Institute and its chief acolytes, Lew Rockwell, Jeffrey Tucker, and best-selling author Tom Woods, did not claim Austrian ideology is compatible with the Catholic Faith—while declaring that Church social teaching on the economy is wrong. Popes, the Misesians argue, know nothing of economics and have no right to discuss anything touching on how an economy should work. Thus Ferrara’s book, The Church and the Libertarian, which grew out of a series of articles he wrote for the Remnant, as well as a long debate a few years back between Woods and the editors of Chronicles at the magazine’s website. The Austrians are, as Chronicles editor Tom Fleming said at the time, “misleading Catholics.”
Woods is Ferrara’s chief target, because he is this creed’s most visible spokesman. Thanks in part to Woods’ epistles, based on the infallible teachings of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard (men Ferrara sarcastically calls popes), this liberal ideology is becoming a faith unto itself. And its tenets are in competition with the long tradition of Catholic social teaching.
Austrian economics is based on what Ferrara calls Rothbard’s Duologue: “Thou shalt respect the ‘self-ownership’ of others” and “Thou shalt respect the property of others.” Rothbard, an agnostic, attempted to ground his two precepts in natural law. But as Ferrara explains, the Duologue
has no divine source; no one is objectively and absolutely obliged to observe it. . . . Where is the binding obligation to respect another’s natural rights if there is no divine Obligor who ultimately judges and punishes the creations He has endowed with these rights?
Thus, Rothbard essentially argued the tautology that “man has natural rights because they are natural to him.”
The Austrian view of the “nature of man” is different from the Catholic view. The Austrians argue that “no man can have the ‘right’ to compel someone to do a positive act.” The Church teaches that, on certain matters, men are duty-bound to each other. Rothbard believed that parents could legally starve their children, that laws against defamation are a violation of the defamer’s right to self-ownership, and that blackmail was a service because the person being blackmailed protected himself by paying the blackmailer.
Austrianism is a self-contradictory ideology. Rothbard believed it “immoral” for governments to control such vices as prostitution, the drug trade, and abortion. The Austrian system purports to be “value free,” or amoral, and deal only with the market and the economic laws that govern it. Then who are they, Ferrara asks, to judge what is right and wrong for a government to do with regard to social issues if it does not interfere in the economy? Claiming that government interference in prostitution is “immoral” is itself a moral judgment. What does a parent starving his child have to do with “value-free economics,” and why should Murray Rothbard offer an opinion on it?
The Austrians rationalize the contradiction. Interfering with these vices is immoral because prostitution, drug-dealing, and abortion are operations of the market in which “free” individuals make “value-free exchanges” under the narrow moral code of the Duologue. Individuals own themselves and their property, and may exchange anything they see fit to exchange and dispose of their property as they wish. Ownership is absolute. Thus, Austrians argue, the “value-free laws” of economics do not concern themselves with man’s higher object—virtue and, in the end, Heaven. The Church says all man’s endeavors must be ordered to that end.
For all their claims to steer clear of morals and theology, Ferrara notes, the Austrians never cease hurling moral and theological thunderbolts. Austrianism’s extremes are found not in economics but in the social teachings of its ministers. Austrian Walter Block, who teaches at a Catholic university, believes a woman has the right to “evict” an unborn child from the womb. The little one is no more than a squatter. Jeff Tucker, a libertarian luminary and Latin Mass Catholic, believes mothers have the right to sell their children to homosexual couples. Lew Rockwell believes Ebenezer Scrooge to have been a model businessman—before his ghostly nightmares. Bob Cratchit freely accepted his wage. He could quit whenever he wanted to.
These are the depths to which Austrianism descends. Any decent person, and any “minimally educated Catholic,” Ferrara observes, must oppose it.
The bulk of the book is Ferrara’s explanation of why the popes aren’t dopes when it comes to economics. His main focus is on Tom Woods, with whom he coauthored a book about the modern Church. Ferrara wrote The Church and the Libertarian to challenge his former colleague’s repeated claim (in numerous articles and in The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy) that a steady succession of popes knew nothing of economics, and therefore Church social teaching “must be systematically reconsidered.”
Ferrara explains in detail why the popes have both a right and a duty to impart social teaching. The perennial teaching of the Faith, going back to St. Thomas Aquinas and, further, to the early Church Fathers and the Bible, is that men have charitable duties to one another regarding wages, taking interest on loans, and other matters the Austrians claim to be “value free.” Indeed, even the ancient Greek philosophers taught such things. Ferrara ably demonstrates that a man’s financial and economic decisions aren’t merely governed by abstruse and immutable economic “laws.” Rather, they are moral decisions with profound moral and spiritual consequences. He demolishes Woods not only by catching him in repeated self-contradictions but by showing the libertarian justification of anything a businessman does to be ludicrous.
Consider Woods’ argument on wages. Wage rates “necessarily reflect fundamental economic realities and are objectively just.” Market wage rates “cannot be held to moral critique by outside observers,” and “accusations of injustice and immorality that have been leveled against certain employers and the economic system as a whole are not justified.” And last, “in no areas is the market arbitrary and unfair, and no human intervention is needed to rectify injustice.” These are arguments that use moral terms, even though Austrians tell us that such terms are verboten in discussing their “science.” Woods and the Austrians make similar arguments about price-gouging (there is no such thing) and usury (what’s that?). The market never errs.
Yet the “free market” Austrians revere doesn’t exist and never has. Reviewing a little history, Ferrara reminds us that government created the means by which capitalism arose during the Industrial Revolution in England. Those means included tossing peasants off their land, herding them into cities with Poor and Settlement Laws, and dissolving monasteries and confiscating other lands from the Catholic Church, creating a vast legion of paupers who ultimately ended up working in factories.
Ferrara explicitly states that Austrians are not wrong to critique and oppose the government Leviathan. But they are wrong to deny religion and morality a role in that critique and in market decisions, and wrong to claim that major corporations are incapable of error because economic “laws” dictate their behavior. Economic laws do not determine all financial decisions. The “market” does not mandate compensation of $300 million per year, a private jet, and three country-club memberships for an executive. The market would not stop an executive from voluntarily taking a $100 million pay cut so his employees could have health insurance.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity implicitly limits the size of government, but the Austrians go much further, advocating an “anarcho-capitalist” utopia in which government is abolished. Being a social animal, man, Ferrara observes (quoting those dopey popes), was meant to live in communities under human authority. Yet Ferrara is more consistent than the Austrians when he argues that if centralized government should be considered evil, so should centralized business. He concludes his book by making the case for distributism, the humane economic order championed by Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.
The Catholics who run the Austrian movement, Ferrara makes crystal clear, take their guidance not from the popes but from two Jewish agnostics. Throughout his works, Mises, who called Christ a “socialist,” is adamantly anti-Christian. As Ferrara once warned Catholics in the subtitle to his first major article about Austrianism, “Don’t Go There.” I wouldn’t go there, and I was cast to the outer darkness to weep and gnash my teeth.
[The Church and the Libertarian: A Defense of the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Man, Economy, and State, by Christopher A. Ferrara (Forest Lake, MN: The Remnant Press) 326 pp, $25.00]