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Dr. Feser on Woods-Ferrara Debate: "They were largely talking past each other & failing to make careful distinctions...what practical policies a Catholic should favor is simply not as obvious or clear-cut... There is much room for reasonable disagreement"

"The Church and the Libertarian": A Review

Haven't read Chris's book yet, but a few points I'd like to emphasize:

1. Libertarian rights theories in general, and Rothbardian rights theory in particular, cannot possibly be reconciled either with Catholic moral teaching or classical natural law theory. (I've argued for this in many places, but perhaps my Social Philosophy ahnd Policy article "Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation" is most relevant.)

2. It doesn't follow that this or that economics-based argument used by libertarians is incompatible with Catholicism or natural law theory. That is not to say that I endorse all such arguments -- far from it. But libertarian arguments often have two strands, a moral-theoretic strand and an economic-theoretic strand, that are not always carefully distinguished either by their defenders or by their critics. Nor, by the way, is this to endorse the idea of a "value-free" science of economics, which I also reject. The point is just that even when certain libertarians falsely claim to be giving "value-free" arguments, it still doesn't follow that the moral assumptions they are implicitly making are always bad (e.g. Rothbardian) moral assumptions. It depends.

For example, years ago Tom Woods on the one hand and certain Catholic traditionalists on the other had a very heated online exchange over the idea of the just wage. But it seemed to me then, and still does, that they were largely talking past each other and faling to make careful distinctions. In particular, Tom's critics were right to insist that the teaching that the just wage could in principle diverge from the market wage is binding teaching, and also that it is an error to think that economics is a "value free" science. But Tom was right to insist the claims made by anti-capitalists about what this or that wage "should" be are typically arbitrary, emotion-driven, and uninformed either by serious economic analysis or concern for empirical circumstances.

The truth is that applying Catholic teaching and natural law theory in these matters is a complex prudential affair. Hence, while it is important to condemn, in no uncertain terms, certain extreme claims made by Rothbardians and other libertarians on the basis of their false and dangerous theory of rights, once that is done I think it is better to put the "more Catholic than thou" rhetoric aside.

3. There is nothing in Catholic teaching that requires embracing distributism -- or, since that term is so vague, that requires going along with this or that opinion of this or that distributist writer. Indeed, like Jeff and Lydia I am not terribly impressed by distributist ideas, and I rather wish that paleo-conservative Catholics would get over the distributism fetish so many of them seem to have. (If you're going to find any point of view favored by the popes traditionalists tend to admire, it's not distributism but corporatism, which is not quite the romantic disributist "small is beautiful" view -- it holds that the small and the large both have their place -- and which in practice has, needless to say, problems of its own.)

In short, this whole area is a complete mess, and while there are definitely certain extreme views that need to be rejected as incompatible with Catholic doctrine and natural law theory, what practical policies a Catholic should favor is simply not as obvious or clear-cut as some people seem to think. There is much room for reasonable disagreement.


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