Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Laissez-Faire libertarism" as a straw man

The other day, this Twitter novice took to the Twitterverse and "tweeted" the suggestion that Michael Sean Winters's post, "The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism," occasionally indulged in some straw-mannery in invoking the threatening prospect of "laissez-faire" "libertarianism":  “’Laissez-faire’ is a straw man, I think. Doesn’t exist.”

Today, in this post, Michael Sean took issue with my "pithy, but woefully inadequate, comment."  Fair enough.  The tweet was, certainly, inadequate as a response to all the things that Michael Sean said in his post (much of which I agree with) about "libertarianism" as a philosophy or ideology.  And yet, although inadequate, the comment was right, I think.  Again, I agree with much of what Michael Sean says about moral anthropology and the centrality of the person.  He says, "To be clear, for a Catholic, the criterion for evaluating a solution to any human conundrum is not to ascertain if that solution is a government solution, and to support it because it is a government solution, nor is it to defend a free market solution because it is a free market solution. Our criterion, as Catholics, is the human person, not an abstract commitment to the state or the market."  I agree.

And yet -- no one really thinks that "the market" should be entirely unregulated.  And, in fact, it is pervasively, thoroughly, comprehensively (and sometimes stupidly) regulated.  Everyone agrees – that is, everyone who is in the conversation agrees – that “the market” is not and should not be entirely “free.”  Or, put differently, a “free market” – in order to be meaningfully free – is a (reasonably and intelligently) regulated one.  We enforce contracts.  We impose liability for harms caused.  We regulate all the time and everywhere.  The real debate (among people who concede the basic point, which Catholic teaching firmly and unambiguously affirms, that ordered-freedom, not statist command-and-control, should characterize “the economy”) is about how to locate the point at which regulations begin to stifle, rather than to promote, human flourishing and the common good, properly understood.

It is not, in my view, helpful to label as “idolatry” the unremarkable view that we can and should evaluate policies with respect to their effectiveness and that the effectiveness of policies is related to, and perhaps depends on, a number of things that the economists like to remind us about.  No one thinks that government should do nothing.  But, some of us think – and there is absolutely nothing not-Catholic about thinking – that there are limits to (a) what governments are morally authorized to do and (b) what governments, practically speaking, do well.  To say this is not to make an “idol” of the market (though it is to avoid the error of making an “idol” of populism or statism)

Like Michael Sean, I have no interest in (my understanding of) the "objectivism" of Ayn Rand.  It seems to me that the best and most morally attractive legal-and-economic regimes will be democratic-capitalist and constitutionalist with appropriate and effective social-welfare-protecting programs and constraints.  But, it is not “Randian” to think that the basic “liberal” ("libertarian"?) insight -- i.e., governments should be limited by law and non-state ordering and associations should be protected and respected by law remains, well, insightful.

I agree with Michael Sean that conversations about public policy should be couched in terms that treat ideas like "competition" and "consumer choice" as means and mechanisms.  But, it's worth remembering that they are, often, very effective means and mechanisms.  To the extent they are, let’s use them!  Sometimes, “libertarian” (or "free market" or "non-state" or "private ordering") policies are the better ones, not so much because of imperatives connected with deep anthropological premises or because of an idolatrous attachment to autonomy, but because . . . they work better (at bringing about human flourishing and common good, properly understood).


Garnett, Rick | Permalink