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New Book Defends Catholic Social Teaching,

Sparks International Debate

An Interview with Christopher Ferrara

Michael J. Matt POSTED: Thursday September 2, 2010
Editor, The Remnant  


(Click Here for Part I)

MJM: You take the Austrians to task in your book for defending the exploitation of child labor, for example.  But isn't it better that children earn at least something from their labor in factories when the alternative is starvation?

CAF:  You have put your finger on the ethical fallacy that is the lynchpin of the entire Austrian defense of unbridled capitalism: consequentialist ethics.  That is, an act is morally defensible if its overall consequences are “proportionally” good.  This is a variant of ends-justifies-means morality. Thus, so the argument goes, the abuse of children in factories is morally defensible because the alternative consequences—starvation and death—are worse.

But, of course, the end does not justify the means.  By that logic, one could justify murder if the overall consequences are arguably better than the consequences of not committing murder. That is the very argument used to justify the Crucifixion of Our Lord: “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” John 11:50.

Or, applied to child labor, it is expedient that children should be worked like dogs in factories owned by capitalists so that they and their pauper families will not starve for lack of the pittance the factory owners give them. After all, a pittance is better than nothing!  So the factory owners must have behaved morally in paying a pittance for the virtual slave labor of children, whose lot they “improved.” Woods seriously advances this argument in The Church and the Market.

By that same consequentialist logic, outright slavery, for no wage at all, is morally defensible if the alternative is that the slave would have no food or shelter and would starve to death. And, as I show in my book, the “Austrian scholar” Walter Block argues precisely that a “voluntary slave contract” can be justified on such consequentialist grounds.  Not all Austrians would agree with this, but that is because they are not as consistent as Block in applying the principles they all accept.

The Church, of course, absolutely condemns consequentialist ethics. Yet Austro-libertarians rely heavily upon it, while professing hypocritically to be “value-neutral” students of “economics.” Amazingly enough, these amateur ethicists declare, with a straight face, that it is traditionalists and distributists who defend the Church’s social teaching that are the kooks!

MJM: Let’s talk a bit about usury.  On the question of usury, the libertarians would argue for the right of the family to finance a house, for example, through a bank, instead of waiting—probably forever—until they can afford the house, and that this is not usury. So who’s more pro-family, you or the libertarians?

CAF: The libertarian appeal to home ownership is demagoguery.  First of all, the Church recognizes a legitimate title to interest in today’s financial markets, where a lender would suffer a loss if he did not recover some return on his loan. As Brian McCall has noted in an important law review article on usury, it is now difficult to tell whether and which home mortgage loans are usurious, although some clearly are in terms of interest that is excessive.  And certainly credit card interest rates are usurious, and that mountain of usurious debt played a major role in the Meltdown of 2007-2009.

Further, that we have no alternative for home ownership but resort to usurious loans does not justify usury where it occurs.  That we have to endure an evil in order to avoid a worse evil—homelessness—does not make the evil good.

Finally, there are alternatives to usurious lending that Catholics could implement if they organized for their own economic freedom. The credit union, for example, could provide non-usurious home financing in a more localized and decentralized economy.  I discuss this in my book.

The Church and the Libertarian

A Defense of Catholic Teaching on Man, Economy and State

A new book by Christopher A. Ferrara


Click HERE to See What the Critics are Saying

MJM: Nevertheless, you’ve been accused of “driving without a license” in that you’re not a trained economist and thus should stick to what you know.  And you say?

CAF: Sheer sophistry. What the Austro-libertarians are preaching is not “economics” but rather moral theology, liberal political philosophy and the errors of economic liberalism condemned by a long line of popes. In fact, following Rothbard, they themselves claim to be advancing the moral theology of certain Jesuit scholastics who wrote on matters of justice in the market in the 16th and 15th centuries.

So it is the Austrians who are driving without a license—a theologian’s license—in pitting Scholastic moral theologians against the moral teachings of popes whose encyclicals they do not like. In the book, by the way, I demolish the Austrians’ abuse and misrepresentation of the teaching of these Scholastics, which is not at all what they claim it is, but on the contrary is completely consistent with papal teaching,

In short, Catholic Austro-libertarians are exactly what Pius XI described in his encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei:

Many believe in or claim that they believe in and hold fast to Catholic doctrine on such questions as social authority, the right of owning private property, on the relations between capital and labor, on the rights of the laboring man, on the relations between Church and State, religion and country... on the social rights of Jesus Christ, Who is the Creator, Redeemer, and Lord not only of individuals but of nations. In spite of these protestations, they speak, write, and, what is more, act as if it were not necessary any longer to follow, or that they did not remain still in full force, the teachings and solemn pronouncements which may be found in so many documents of the Holy See, and particularly in those written by Leo XIII, Pius X, and Benedict XV. There is a species of moral, legal, and social modernism which We condemn, no less decidedly than We condemn theological modernism.

Actually, these Austro-libertarians are even worse than the liberal Catholics Pius XI had in view, because they do not even claim to believe in the doctrines Pius enumerated, but rather openly oppose them, and often with arguments so monstrous Pius could probably never have imagined that the day would come when Catholics would be uttering them.

For example, there is Jeffrey Tucker’s defense of the right of women to sell their own children to homosexual couples, which I document in the book. And this from a Catholic who professes devotion to the Latin liturgy and sacred music! Further, Woods, a proponent of the Latin Mass, has systematically opposed the very teaching of Leo XIII referenced by Pius XI and enjoined upon Catholics as binding in conscience by Pius X in Singulari quadem, which Woods ignores and defies. He even has the audacity to declare that the popes’ “attempt to elevate such principles as the ‘just wage XE "just wage" ’ to the level of binding doctrine is something altogether different, and indeed is fraught with error.”  And I have already mentioned how Woods (as the book documents) promotes Rothbard’s “anarcho-capitalism” and the limitation of law to mere prevention of physical invasion of another’s person or property.

You see here the liberal schizophrenia in which these Catholic Rothbardites are involved, and to which they are inducing other Catholics to succumb.

MJM: Is your book about economics then, or morality?

CAF: Contrary to what Austro-libertarian sophists have tried to argue, this controversy is all about morality, not “economics” in the technical sense in which they equivocally and deceptively use the word to obscure the real issue: their “moral, legal, and social modernism” in opposition to the popes.

This controversy is about economics only in the Catholic sense of an ethical science, revolving around the family, that governs just dealings between men regarding the bounty of the earth necessary for the management of households and the support of families.  It is about the immorality of usury, overreaching in business, the unlimited pursuit of gain, the exploitation of human beings as mere commodities, the bogus “absolute” right to private property, and the myth that the “free” market is morally self-regulating, which is the foundation of the Austrian “economic” view, but which Pius XI condemned as the very fount of all the errors of economic liberalism.

In his book attacking the Social Teaching, Woods notes that Pius XI condemned the fiction of the “self-regulating” market that the Austrians defend, and Woods complains that Pius—that is, the Magisterium—“rejects out of hand the fundamental posture of liberal economics according to which the market left to itself ‘would have a principle of self direction which governs it more perfectly than any created intellect.’”

Exactly right! The “fundamental posture” of liberal economics is indeed totally rejected by the Magisterium. The market is not morally self-directing, but rather, like every field of human action, its abuses are subject to the Church’s moral scrutiny and her moral correction. “Catholic Austrians” need to accept this, and submit themselves to the teaching of their Church instead of militating against it all over the world.

Beyond economic morality, this controversy is about morality generally when it comes to the libertarian errors this movement promotes in areas in which it has no special claim to competence whatever: human nature, human action, human ends, politics, liberty, justice and social ethics.  All of these errors are laid out and refuted in the book.  And all of them stand condemned by the Magisterium.  We are dealing with a Trojan Horse that is positively filled with errors.

MJM: Your book makes the surprising claim that the libertarians in this movement are actually against liberty!  Can you explain?

CAF: The errors of liberalism the Austro-libertarian movement is promoting among Catholics are the very errors that have produced the society we have today: steeped in greed, moral filth, and cultural debasement, and a culture of death created by “free” market providers of contraception and abortion.  The State separated from the Church.  “Public” morality separated from “private” morality.   A government that is unstoppable because, under liberal principles, there is no Church or higher moral law that can check its power.

Now, the Austro-libertarians see where their errors have led: to an absolute State unrestrained by the Church. So now they propose to abolish the State while retaining the errors on which it is based! They think they can save the rotting corpse of Lady Liberty by amputating her limbs of government, which she has never been without.

The “stateless society” is just another desperate liberal cure for the very disease liberalism has caused in the first place. One of the key themes of the book is its demonstration that Austro-libertarians complain about the very modern state their own liberal principles have created.  Yet their answer to the modern state is a stricter application of the same principles — More Better Liberalism. The Enlightenment, one more time!

I also show that the “free” market the Austrians hail is itself the creation of the same modern State they deplore, that it originated in a massive state-sanctioned theft of Church property and the state-sanctioned exploitation of labor in Protestant England and in colonial America. I show that the “free” market could not exist today without favors and protections granted by the modern State, including, among many other things: (1) the central banks and fractional reserve banking system capitalists themselves created in cahoots with government; (2) the limited liability, publicly held corporation that was purely a government-imposed invention to allow capitalists to act recklessly without consequences; (3) the “right” to peddle pornography, contraception, and all manner of moral and physical corruption; (4) massive transportation systems that you and I pay for while huge corporations pay nothing for their construction or maintenance; and (5) social assistance programs that corporations like Wal-Mart heartily support in order to externalize their costs for labor onto the backs of the American taxpayer.

The book shows how the government-assisted “free” market of multinational corporations is inexorably collectivizing economic life with the help of the governments that favor them—a situation the Austrians defend or criticize, depending on the argument of the moment.  Because, like all sophists, like all liberals, the Austrians are consistently inconsistent.

The left-libertarian Kevin Carson, citing Woods and others, has come up with a brilliant name for this Austrian tap dance: he calls it “vulgar libertarianism,” by which he means the hypocritical defense of the corporate status quo of Wal-Mart and giant companies by the same libertarians who bewail “crony capitalism,” thus speaking out of both sides of their mouths. The exposure of vulgar libertarianism as not only hypocritical but antithetical to the Catholic vision is one of the book’s themes.

MJM: In “An Essay on the Restoration of Property” Hilaire Belloc wrote that “It is obvious that whoever controls the means of production controls the supply of wealth.  If, therefore, the means for the production of that wealth which a family needs are in the control of others than the family, the family will be dependent upon those others; it will not be economically free.”  This could have come straight from the pages of your book. Do you see yourself as continuing the mission of Belloc and Chesterton—history’s most famous defenders of distributism?

CAF: Exactly so!  I am proud to make a small contribution to a movement long ago launched by such Catholic giants as Belloc and Chesterton, and defended today by such formidable Catholics as Joseph Pearce, Dale Ahlquist, and Richard Aleman.  It is long past time for traditionalists to make common cause with distributists for the sake of liberty rightly understood, even if we might not agree with them on certain aspects of the post-conciliar crisis in the Church—although our differences there seem to be reaching the point of the vanishingly small, thanks to Benedict’s pontificate.

MJM: Tom Woods and others have in the past spoken of distributism in a way that would seem to suggest fans of the model would have us all hiding in the woods and milking cows.  Are distributists a bunch of pistol-packing, hoe-toting, overalls-wearing rubes?

CAF: More sophistry. Austrians have never once fairly described distributism as what it really is, and as I show it to be in the book: A decentralized economic life involving the widely distributed ownership of income-producing property so that families can support themselves in community with others.  The Remnant itself is distributism in action! So is a home-based business using computers, not farm implements.

The Austrians never mention that distributism was—and still is in certain places—the way of the world for century after century before the very State the Austrians deplore created and unleashed upon the world massive, multinational, limited liability companies that are annihilating small businesses everywhere—as the Austrians happily observe in their defense of, for example, Wal-Mart’s “unbeatable prices.”  Unbeatable, that is, because Wal-Mart uses outsourced Chinese wage-slaves to destroy its local competition.

In the book I explain how, without a single intervention by Big Government—which only favors Big Business anyway—we Catholics and other people of conviction can take back our economic liberty from the economic hegemon of government-created and government-favored giant corporations by recreating wherever possible the microeconomic life—one man doing business with another in a neighborhood—that is distributism at its essence.  Therein lies our economic liberation from “Made in China” and the return of small business and community life to America.

I also show how Austro-libertarians are really frauds when it comes to true economic liberty, for in defending what Wilhelm Ropke called the corporate “cult of the colossal” they are really defending a kind of privatized socialism. Oh yes, they inconsistently deplore “crony capitalism” when it suits their purposes, but then they turn around in the next moment and defend the immense wealth and power of the same corporations that have benefited from crony capitalism, such as Wal-Mart—the Austro-libertarian poster child—whose vast wealth largely results from cozy deals with the nine communist oligarchs who run China today and provide a vast pool of outsourced wage-slaves who are forbidden to have more than one child.

MJM: And Belloc wouldn’t, I think, recognize the libertarian caricature of distributism either.  “Even were the isolated free family to endure,” he writes in his Essay on Private Property, “it would fall below the requirements of human nature, its isolation stunting and degrading it.  For men cannot fulfill themselves save through a diversity of interests and ideas.  Multiplicity is essential to life, and man to be truly human must be social”.  So if distributism can work in the heart of New York City why do so many of its critics continue with the cow-milking bit?

CAF: Right! It’s all about restoring the community of economic life, not—as Woods absurdly misstates it in his book against the Social Teaching—living “utterly independent of employers or anyone else” with “a standard of living so depressed and intolerable as to throw the rationality of the entire enterprise into question.”  Please!

But, you see, the Austrians need to belittle the Catholic alternative to the vulgar libertarian position as part of their overall attack on the Catholic vision of socioeconomic life.  Let us not forget that their mission is to attack the Social Teaching in the name of Mises and Rothbard while pretending this is all about “economics.”

MJM: At least one ostensibly traditionalist website has accused the distributists of proffering a left wing, pro-socialist ideal that operates under the façade of distributism. What do you say to those who link the distributism you defend in your book with socialism and the Lefties?

CAF: Still more sophistry. It is actually the modern capitalist system and its constant alliance with the State that has led inexorably to “soft socialism” for the masses. Why else do the world’s major capitalists invariably support Keynesian social programs? Bill Gates, George Soros, and the Waltons of Wal-Mart are some examples of plutocrats who free-ride on government services and the backs of taxpayers in a “free” market that, as the book demonstrates, has never really existed and has always been more or less a creature of government privilege because that is the way big capitalists themselves want it.

By the way, my chapter on the Meltdown of 2007-2009 is a detailed examination of the incestuous State-Capitalist alliance that makes a mockery of the term “free market.”  I also demolish the argument that “government” alone caused the Meltdown while the “free” market is blameless.  No, it is the State-Capitalist alliance that caused the collapse, fueled by sheer greed, not just the Fed lowering interest rates (which is like blaming someone’s suicide on the gun, not the man who killed himself).  Big Business and Big Government are inseparable today, and always have been.  We are dealing with a hybrid beast created by the errors of liberalism, not a mythical “free” market standing apart from government.

MJM: Do you reject capitalism, then?

CAF: It depends on what you mean by the term.  And it is not a question of what I reject, but rather what the Church rejects. John Paul II aptly sums up the Church’s view in perfect continuity with all his pre-Vatican II predecessors.  Writing in Centesimus annus, on the centennial of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, he teaches: “if by ‘capitalism XE "capitalism" ’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

But a capitalism “freed” from the Church’s moral oversight—except within the narrow limits the Austrians would allow, which is basically don’t kill or steal—is exactly what Austro-libertarians defend.

As Woods puts it in his book contra the Social Teaching, those meddlesome popes should simply condemn “fraud, dishonesty and theft” in a general way that involves only “simple reflection on the teaching of Christ XE "Christ" , the Fathers and natural law XE "law"  itself.”  Yes, the popes should confine themselves to “simple reflections” and leave “economics” to experts—like Woods and the Austrians!

MJM: In one of the promos for your book we read that it’s a “practical, point-by-point Catholic plan for taking back our lives from the tyrants who have stolen our freedom as sons of God.”  How so?

CAF: Now, I don't want to give away everything.  Let us just say that two chapters are devoted to practical ways—some small, some momentous—in which we all can take back our economic as well as political freedom without firing a shot or becoming radical libertarians.  I show how we can do this simply by applying what the Church teaches to our daily lives according to principles that govern every society, Catholic or not.

By the way, no “Catholic monarchy” is involved, as Woods suggested to the Southern Poverty Law Center during its “investigation” of “radical traditionalists.” (Only a few weeks ago, in an article on his website, Woods defended his remarks to SPLC on the ground that The Remnant would not publish his material any longer. Evidently, he felt entitled to retaliate for that editorial decision.)

And in this part of the book I also explore the limited common ground we do have with libertarians, while rejecting entirely their false principles.  That common ground involves finding ways peacefully to “secede” de facto if not de jure from the hegemon that is tyrannizing us, even if libertarians fail to recognize that the hegemon is a combination of  economic as well as political tyrants, and that the so-called  “free” market is also a threat to true liberty.

MJM: Is this a book for everyone, regardless of the reader’s competency on the question of economics?

CAF: No competence in “economics” in the technical sense is required, for the issues involved are not technical economic issues—despite the best efforts of Austro-libertarian sophists to pretend otherwise.

This book was written for anyone who wants to know the Church’s correct answers—versus the erring answers of Mises, Rothbard and other liberals—to the moral, social, political and economic crisis of our time, and how those answers can be applied to achieve real and dramatic practical results for all of us, Catholic or not.

This book is about real freedom, not the false notion of freedom promoted by the Austro-libertarian movement and liberals in general, in defiance of what the Church teaches about the good for man.

(ORDER Your Copy of The Church and the Libertarian)

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