Dear Crisis Magazine….

You recently published Joe Hargrave’s defense of the proposition that Libertarianism is not heretical:

Here’s some Libertarian thought from Libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard (the guy Libertarians routinely refer us to as the “sane” alternative to Enemy of God Ayn Rand):

The Catholic anti-abortionist, for example, declares that all he wants for the fetus is the rights of any human being, i.e., the right not to be murdered. But there is more involved here, and this is the crucial consideration. If we are to treat the fetus as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: what human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being’s body? This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. What the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden as a parasite within or upon some person’s body.

Rothbard on parents and their (born) children: “Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.”

Also there’s this gem from Rothbard: “Now the man who seizes another’s property is living in basic contradiction to his own nature as a man. For we have seen that man can only live and prosper by his own production and exchange of products. The aggressor, on the other hand, is not a producer at all but a predator; he lives parasitically off the labor and product of others. Hence, instead of living in accordance with the nature of man, the aggressor is a parasite who feeds unilaterally by exploiting the labor and energy of other men. Here is clearly a complete violation of any kind of universal ethic, for man clearly cannot live as a parasite; parasites must have non-parasites, producers, to feed upon. The parasite not only fails to add to the social total of goods and services, he depends completely on the production of the host body. And yet, any increase in coercive parasitism decreases ipso facto the quantity and the output of the producers, until finally, if the producers die out, the parasites will quickly follow suit.”

Of course, by “coercive parasitism” Rothbard means any form of social assistance to “parasites” like the truly indigent, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, orphans, and so on. So, a question: If your mother or grandmother is on Social Security or Medicare, is she a parasite?

HT: Reader Mark Gordon

Good luck reconciling this insanity with the teaching of the Church, Crisis.

What *happened* to you guys anyway?

Some will wonder if I sweep all Libertarians into Rothbard’s camp. Of course not. Libertarianism, like Gnosticism, is not a monolith. And just to be clear: in calling libertarianism (and all ideology, by the way) “heresy” I was using “heresy” in a much looser sense than “formal heresy”.

Arguing that babies are parasites who we can kill at will and parents owe their children nothing = formal heresy. And that’s Libertarianism distilled to chemical purity by Rothbard. But most Catholics, including Joe Hargrave, take the poison in much more diluted form and it gives them an Individualism High without completely deadening their humanity and sanity as it does with Rothbard. Problem is, it also impairs their ability to listen to the parts of Catholic teaching libertarianism dislikes.

So I don’t sweep all libertarians into Rothbard’s camp. I recognize that there is no libertarian magisterium and that people pick and choose bits that they like–and that lots of people influenced by libertarianism are very nice people and very good Catholics.

But I also recognize that all they are doing is selecting bits and pieces from Catholic Magisterial teaching and that the more Catholic you become the less Libertarian you are, while the more Libertarian you become, the more like Murray Rothbard you become.

My solution: ditch Libertarian picking and choosing and just stick with the fullness of Catholic teaching.  All the good stuff, none of the evil, stupid, and crazy.

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  • virago

    Don’t most Catholics everywhere pick and choose? And sometimes the choices seemed determined by the region. In another part of the country where I lived, people were ardently pro-life,which meant they hated abortion but generally supported capital punishment. They also avoided any discussion about waterboarding as torture. In that state Catholic Social teaching was seen not only as a communal endeavor but also a personal struggle via the acts of mercy.

    Here, in Seattle abortion is rarely discussed in my parishioners but a lot of discussion is centered on capital punishment, immigration and poverty outreach.

    Everybody picks and chooses and it seems that slot folks in this area of the nation feel that the democrats better embody Catholic Social Teaching ideals than the republicans when in fact neither do. Truly.

    Most Catholics don’t experience the fullness of Catholic teaching. I’m a cradle Catholic but I also identify as a libertarian. Not the Rothbard kind, I’ve read him, he is a loon. The liberal and conservative ideologies has their loons as well.

    I am more than just my social/cultural/ethnic/political descriptors. I hope.

    • HornOrSilk

      You are equivocating issues. Whether or not a certain part of Catholic teaching gets more discussion is not the same thing as picking and choosing, because the second isn’t about a lack of discussion but outright rejection of some element of Catholic thought.

      So, what are you picking and choosing to be a libertarian?

      • kirthigdon

        I don’t reject any element of Catholic thought, but I still appreciate many valuable insights of libertarian thought. In some areas of Catholic thought, for example rejection of torture and aggressive war, I’d say most libertarians have caught on better than most Catholics. Mark makes the reverse argument – that you are a better Catholic to the extent that you reject libertarian thought across the board. That would deprive the Catholic Church of any insights of libertarian thought and if applied to all non-Catholic thought, would make Catholic thought a very restricted world indeed. Thank God the Catholic Church does not work like that.
        Kirt Higdon

        • You don’t have to reject “libertarian thought across the board.” Just keep the Catholic faith as the standard that you judge libertarianism by, rather than the other way around.

          • kirthigdon

            You’re right, Roki, and that is in fact what I do. But Mark objects to any picking and choosing of libertarian thought, whether it is compatible with Church teaching or not. Had Saint Thomas Aquinas followed this advice, the Church would have been deprived of the insights of Aristotle and several other philosophers. And note that Aristotle was at best morally indifferent to abortion and worse yet was Ayn Rand’s favorite philosopher; admittedly Saint Thomas could not have seen that one coming. Servant of God Dorothy Day was a self-styled anarchist (the most extreme form of libertarian) but rejected the atheism of anarchists with whom she associated. More picking and choosing, I guess. Or maybe it’s just applying the Pauline principle – test everything, keep what’s good.
            Kirt Higdon

            • chezami

              No. I object to picking and choosing of Church teaching. Libertarianism is nothing but picking and choosing.

      • virago

        I’m choosing a narrow view of government so that my broader approach to life (Catholicism) will grow.

        How would someone who rejects church teaching (like myself on the subject of abortion) come to understand And accept (as I did after returning to the Church) the truth of those teachings unless by discussion and in relationship with others? I did not understand the Church’s pro-life teachings in their fullness until I returned to my Church.

    • In practice, yes, everybody picks and chooses. But that is an effect of sin, and so it is something to struggle against. That is why we have the Magisterium to challenge us to choose Christ even when it is difficult, or when we don’t understand, or when it goes against some political/social/ethnic/cultural predisposition.

      As we grow in virtue (I speak from the example of others, and from small and slow but nonetheless real experience myself) we discover that the one choice to make in every situation is Christ – always Christ. And we discover that he does in fact give us the grace to follow him before the crowds and before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate and even to the cross.

  • HornOrSilk

    I still wonder: has Joe recanted his sede position, or is Crisis taken over by pretend trads who act like Protestants (justifying their rejection of CST)?

  • Mark.

    Even Robert Nisbet, not so far out there as Rothbard, was fond of the argument that one isn’t human until one is accepted into human society by a parent. Tough on kids being aborted but I suppose consistent with Roman Christians saving and adopting infants exposed at birth. (Though apparently some unwanted Roman children were simply killed within minutes of being born, allowing no chance of a Christian accepting them.)

  • ivan_the_mad

    Rothbard’s thought is antithetical both to Christianity and conservatism. I think (and hope) many who think of themselves as libertarians do so without a full understanding of the ideology and its consequences.

    Kirk again: “But surely, surely I must be misrepresenting the breed? Don’t I know self-proclaimed libertarians who are kindly old gentlemen, God-fearing, patriotic, chaste, well endowed with the goods of fortune? Yes, I do know such. They are the people who through misapprehension put up the cash for the fantastics. Such gentlemen call themselves ‘libertarians’ merely because they believe in personal freedom, and do not understand to what extravagance they lend their names by subsidizing doctrinaire ‘libertarian’ causes and publications. If a person describes himself as ‘libertarian’ because he believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, free enterprise, and old American ways of life why, actually he is a conservative with imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics.”

    • Morris

      “Conservatives” anymore are anything but, so the imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics is on the part of those who wish to continue using the term “conservative” as though it meant anything positive. Libertarians resemble the “conservatism” of 50 – 100 years ago, seen in Robert Taft. “Conservatives” today are warmongering empire-loving statists who can’t see enough dead brown people who talk funny and who can’t give enough credit to “our heroes” for “protecting our freedoms” from the Afghani goatherder’s dead children.

      • ivan_the_mad


        • Morris

          Wait, did I miss something? Did Newt Gingrich / Sean Hannity / Rand Paul / Mark Levin / (insert “conservative” here) call for a reduction in the military intelligence complex, or a reduction in belligerent speech regarding Iran / (insert brown people here)


    Oh NOES! You found a quote by a guy who supports an ideology that promotes something that is wrong!? BETTER DISMISS THE WHOLE IDEOLOGY!

  • Morris

    One thing Catholics who denounce libertarians for not being Catholic seem to totally miss is that libertarians are trying to work for a society that lets Catholics freely live AS CATHOLICS, rather unlike the current apparently-much-better system that gives us abortion on demand by George Tiller and ObamaCare “it’s-not-a-mandate-it’s-a-tax” that forces pro-lifers to violate their conscience or shut down their business. A supreme court full of Murray Rothbards would be a wonderful thing because as wrong as they might be about abortion, they would NOT insist that everybody be forced to pay for them.

  • The real heresy is individualism. Somehow, large chunks of Western culture have forgotten that none of us is an atomic individual, none of us is perfectly independent of others, none of us created him- or herself, and none of us has total control over his or her destiny. But individualism is simply, “Eat, and you shall be like gods,” all over again. It is the illusion that we are or can make ourselves divine by our own power.

    Meanwhile, the true God offers communion with himself and sharing in his divine nature. We simply have to receive it as a gift, rather than claim it as something we’ve accomplished by ourselves.

  • Jeffrey S.

    Here is the Bishop of Philadelphia’s editor, writing in 1849, in a book collecting his works:

    “There is no danger, no possibility, on our principles — that Catholic theology should ever be tinctured with the fanaticism of abolition.” (Reynold’s, Bishop John England’s Works)

    Or how these gems from the Syllabus of Errors (which Pope Pius IX lists only to condemn as false):

    * Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.

    * The Church has not the power of using force, nor has she any temporal power, direct or indirect.

    * Besides the power inherent in the episcopate, other temporal power has been attributed to it by the civil authority granted either explicitly or tacitly, which on that account is revocable by the civil authority whenever it thinks fit.

    * The best theory of civil society requires that popular schools open to children of every class of the people, and, generally, all public institutes intended for instruction in letters and philosophical sciences and for carrying on the education of youth, should be freed from all ecclesiastical authority, control and interference, and should be fully subjected to the civil and political power at the pleasure of the rulers, and according to the standard of the prevalent opinions of the age.

    * Kings and princes are not only exempt from the jurisdiction of the Church, but are superior to the Church in deciding questions of jurisdiction.

    * The Church ought to be separated from the .State, and the State from the Church.

    * In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship


    Does Mark Shea accept all of this wisdom from older church authorities? If not, why not? If he can pick and choose why can’t us libertarians pick and choose what is good about libertarian thought?

    • Jordan

      I quickly looked into Bishop John England. He saw slavery as incompatible with the natural law in some respect. Any failures he may have had are not binding on all Catholics, because individuals bishops are not even close to infallible when teaching individually.

      Concerning the Syllabus of Errors, this is much more important for Catholics since it is promulgated by the pope. As I understand it, the Syllabus of Errors is condemning absolutes (For example, Catholics should agree it is not everywhere and always wrong for the Church and state to be joined, or for the Church to have power of coercion. This doesn’t mean America should be officially Catholic today.)


      • Jeffrey S.


        First on Bishop England — then why is Rothbard sent out like some “libertarian bishop” who must by his foolish ideas forever condemn the good in libertarian philosophy? I could also pull some fun quotes from Saint John Chrysostom on the jews — and he is a Saint! But again, that doesn’t mean everything he says is correct or is binding on our morals — likewise libertarian thought is much more than the ideas and writing of Murray Rothbard.
        Second, when it comes to the Syllabus, I agree with you and think a charitable reading can be made of even the most illiberal statements; but it requires some creativity and like libertarian thought and Catholic social thought I would argue that being a modern and being Catholic are not necessarily incompatible. I know and read a lot of reactionaries who disagree with me, but it seems strange that Mark of all people would attack the libertarians for being selective in reading Encyclicals when it seems to me he does the same living in the U.S. today.

        • Jordan

          Yea that makes sense.

  • Marthe Lépine

    I think that there is an old and mostly forgotten encyclical letter by Leo XIII (of Rerum Novarum fame), sent in 1899 to the archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal Gibbons, that needs to be brought back to life (and maybe accompanied by some comments to better apply it to our times), Here are the title and the link (Note that that letter was written later than 1849, e.g. later than Jeffrey`s first quote):
    Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature And Grace, With Regard To Americanism
    Pope Leo XIII

  • Morris

    Here’s some input by a libertarian Catholic on things Catholics say about libertarians.

  • anna lisa

    My libertarian father once sat in at an abortion clinic with about 100 other people, joined hands with them and sang: “We shall overcome…” He was arrested and jailed.
    BTW I forwarded him all of this, and his response was terse: “There’s no libertarian pope.”

    • anna lisa

      He also never batted an eye when I was a sidewalk counselor instructing the girls going in for abortions on how easy it was to get emergency Medi-Cal, which was available to them, no matter what their immigration status.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    So if I steal your boots, the full power of the law should rain down on my head, but if I leave my six month old baby to starve to death, I am only exercising my rights as a free independent citizen not to be imposed upon?
    The consoling thought that, should we see Mr Rothbard lying bleeding at the side of the road after a car accident, then we should pass by and not lift a finger to help him because he is imposing on us and coercing us positively by a demand for aid, and that the only correct thing to do in accordance with “the true nature of man” is to leave him bleed to death, occurs. Not that it is consolation to any but the devils in hell.

    • virago

      What on earth are you saying? The libertarians I have read and spoken with would not endorse that. I don’t think even Rothbard.

      Well, maybe Peter Singer, oh wait!! He’s a liberal not a libertarian. Thanks for the tolerance and the chance to grow and understand.

    • Morris

      You have done an excellent job of illustrating how completely you do not understand libertarianism or Rothbard.