Roman Catholic leaders from Cardinal Maradiaga to Pope Francis himself have made news this year in their criticisms of supposed free market economies, likening them to a form of idolatry that exploits and denies access to the poor. Because Catholic social teachings emphasize stewardship and aid to the less fortunate, clergymen such as Maradiaga have taken aim at perceived “structural causes for poverty.”
It is in identifying these causes that the Cardinal’s fulminations against free markets become problematic. While he can hardly be blamed for supposing that something in relations between rich and poor is amiss, it is his faith in the positive interventions of the state that is the “deception.” Ironically, the “free market” that Maradiaga so sincerely denounces is itself a product of deep and sustained state coercion on a scale not often recognized for what it is. We must therefore distinguish between two ways of employing the phrase “free market,” lest we fall into the trap that caught Maradiaga – the trap of opposing libertarianism in principle without actually understanding the economic system it prescribes.
Free markets don’t have to mean the particular incarnation of corporate world dominance we see all around us today. For an entire tradition, an individualist anarchism that once blossomed in the United States, free markets meant simply voluntary exchange between sovereign individuals with equal rights and liberties. If consistently adhered to, such a system would, these anarchists argued, distribute wealth and property more evenly and equitably, effectively ending the exploitation of the working poor.
Many of today’s free market libertarians continue in this tradition, arguing that libertarianism shouldn’t be either a defense of corporate capitalism or its euphemistic rhetorical substitute. For us, free markets are a system whereby individuals are left free to do whatever they might within the boundaries set by equal freedom – that is, all individuals stand on equal footing as free agents who might start their own businesses, homestead property or sell their work or wares.
Taken together with an absence of subsidies to big business under such a system, the profuseness of open opportunities for self-reliance and self-employment would mean a striking shift in bargaining power. No longer would corporate powerhouses enjoy the prerogative of offering scanty pay on a “take it or leave it” basis, for free individuals would summarily choose to “leave it.” With government land monopolies disintegrated, with regulatory and licensure barriers abolished, with the free and open issue of alternative currencies, no business entity could grow to any notable size or influence without faithfully serving its patrons.
That’s what a great many libertarians mean when we talk about free markets. We are no more enamored of corporate power and the realities of global capitalism than Cardinal Maradiaga or Americans on the political left – indeed, many of us are far more critical of our existing economic system than anyone on the mainstream, progressive left. If in fact there is a problem with contemporary libertarian narratives, it lies in their departures from free market principles, not in any “hardline” or “cutthroat” devotion to them.
There can be little doubt that Cardinal Maradiaga’s heart is in the right place, that his concerns about wealth inequality and compassion for those in need are genuine. But the libertarian opposition to aggression in all its forms, including ostensibly legitimate state action, is not at all antithetical to those concerns.
Systematic poverty and exploitation in fact depend on aggression. Catholics should be chary of relying on Maradiaga’s characterization of libertarianism as an apologia for greed and widespread economic destitution. If that’s really what it was, most libertarians I know would oppose it too.
Translations for this article: