A response to the critique of libertarianism by Pope Francis and Cardinal Maradiaga


It is very disappointing when an organization whom you believe should be on your side sends harsh criticism your way instead. I have mentioned here before that I am a practicing Catholic and I believe that the teachings of the Catholic Church are perfectly compatible with my views as a voluntarist. According to David Gibson of religionnews.com however, Pope Francis and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga disagree. Fortunately, I can still remain comfortable in my own views because the basis for their arguments is completely incorrect.

This isn’t the first time that Pope Francis has made news with regard to free markets and capitalism. Yes, as a Catholic I do believe that I have the moral duty (but not ethical) to help the poor and those less fortunate than I. But I’m not sure how my own duty to help the poor brings one to the conclusion that the state is justified and preferable. Remember, in order for the state to give money and other resources to the poor, it first has to be collected. This occurs through taxation, which is taking money from people without their uncoerced consent. Where in Catholic teaching does it say to do that? Or am I to believe the inference of Cardinal Maradiaga that the teachings of the Church do not apply to the state?

The arguments by Maradiaga are based on an infantile understanding of economics.

The pope, Maradiaga said, grew up in Argentina and “has a profound knowledge of the life of the poor.” That is why, he said, Francis continues to insist that “the elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed.”

Sure, there are structural causes for poverty in the world. Might it have something to do with the government incentivizing malinvestment, licensing laws that keep entrepreneurs with little startup funds from entering into the market, oppressive tax structures, imprisoning individuals for smoking a plant, encouraging the use of food for fuel and thus raising the price of both through punitive taxes, or inflating the supply of fiat currency and deflating the value of people’s money? Why should libertarianism and capitalism be attacked when the state is responsible for so much economic turmoil, which usually hits the poor the hardest?

Maradiaga was animated in his criticism of the effects of today’s free market capitalism and he peppered his remarks with digs at economic conservatives.

Now I do not have a direct quote from the Cardinal, so I will have to take David Gibson’s word for it that Maradiaga actually did criticize free market capitalism. But what the United States (and much of the Western world that exhibits some elements of capitalism) has is crony capitalism. The powerful businesses already in control of the markets are kept there by the hand of the government and not by the voluntary interactions linking supply and demand. To claim that a system of free market capitalism exists anywhere in the world is insanity. Free markets mean that there is no institutionalized coercion in the marketplace, which would mean that the state could have no involvement.

Later in the piece, Maradiaga takes aim at trickle-down theory:

Trickle-down economics, he said, is “a deception,” and he declared that the “invisible hand” of the free market — the famous theory advanced by the 18th-century philosopher Adam Smith — was instead being used as a cruel trick to exploit the poor.

With all due respect to Cardinal Maradiaga, anyone who claims that trickle-down theory is an aspect of free market economic theory is a fool. As Thomas Sowell said in “Trickle Down” Theory and “Tax Cuts for the Rich”, trickle-down theory is a strawman created by the left to attack free market economic principles. No economist actually advocates for it—it’s made up. Sowell writes (p. 12):

Implicit in the approach of both academic and media critics of what they call “tax cuts for the rich” and a “trickle-down theory” is a zero-sum conception of the economy, where the benefits of some come at the expense of others. That those with such a zero-sum conception of the economy often show little or no interest in the factors affecting the creation of wealth—as distinguished from their preoccupation with its distribution—is consistent with their vision, however inconsistent it is with the views of others who are focused on the growth of the economy, as emphasized by both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, for example.

Furthermore, how the poor would be exploited in a free market economy is not known to me. If by exploiting, Maradiaga means lying, cheating, and stealing to earn a profit, those actions would be considered theft in a free market and therefore not permissible. If he means that wage laws should be enacted to force employers to pay their employees a certain wage, how does he answer to the well-documented fact that ceteris paribus such laws lead to higher unemployment (as well as the ethical problems of forcing someone to enter into an agreement)?

In an ironic statement, Cardinal Maradiaga says that many libertarians who have criticized Pope Francis for his economic comments “do not read the social doctrine of the church.” I wonder if he’s ever read an economics book. I wonder if he read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which he claims libertarians are “trembling before.” Maradiaga continues to lose credibility with statements such as this because errors in the data Piketty used were found and there have been plenty of other critiques of the book. Robert P. Murphy has written a review of the book in the Lara-Murphy Report that debunks Piketty’s claims. Using Piketty to scoff at libertarians is like laughing at people while saying, “Oh, don’t you know that the world is flat?”

Turning my focus away from Cardinal Maradiaga, I question the economic competence of author David Gibson as well. He offers no real counterpoints to any of the ideas put forth by Maradiaga even though they can very easily be discredited with even a cursory understanding of economics and free markets. Gibson also makes no mention by name of any Catholic libertarians whose views contrast those of Maradiaga, but he does at least link to a previous article written by him where he mentions that “several prominent Catholics” are members of the Mises Institute.

He quotes Walter Block in the article, but he refers to him as Jewish. Walter Block is an atheist. It is concerning that Gibson would get this fact incorrect—either he was lazy in his research, which is concerning in and of itself, or he is intentionally misleading his readers, which would lead me to question his integrity. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was due to laziness. He can correct me if I am wrong.

There are plenty of significant contributors to the libertarian movement who are Catholic, including Andrew Napolitano, Jeffrey Tucker, Lew Rockwell, and Thomas E. Woods. I challenge Gibson to seek out information from any of these individuals on the topic of how libertarianism and Catholicism can happily exist together.

Libertarianism, simply put, is the idea that people should live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Is there anything un-Christian about that? Voluntary transactions and freedom of association are the two main ideas of libertarianism and I challenge anyone to demonstrate how those principles run counter to any Church teachings. Are there any spots in the Gospels where Jesus advocates violating either of them? Clearly no, but Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Maradiaga’s support of state action and misunderstanding of libertarianism is a sad display of just how deep the disease of statism runs.

They do not even realize the idolatry they practice. Free will is a gift from God, but if the state has the supposed authority to take some of that free will away, then it means that the state is God. As a Catholic, I reject the notion that the state is God and I wish the leadership in the Church would do the same.

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Yes, a great article. Someone needed to stand up to this a long time ago.

Sven Lobo
Nice article, thank you or that. It was disappointing to have learned, when I saw that Cardinal speaking, that the new Pope is just exactly like the average south-american ignorant and illiterate communist, which suffered a brainwash and has a head full of complete lies… Because that is really, really what it seems now – even more with the comments about that stupid book from Piketty. I have read that two days ago and can say no one in his right mind would find such stupidity even entertaining… I can say that about people here at South America because I’m… Read more »
Chris Ryland, Jr.

Hey man, keep writing! Glad to see another catholic that gets the golden rule…