David R. Henderson  

Pope Francis's Distorted Vision

How can there be a shortage of... Generals fighting the last war...
"I cannot fail to speak of the grave risks associated with the invasion of the positions of libertarian individualism at high strata of culture and in school and university education," the Pope said in an message sent to members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences meeting in the Vatican and subsequently shared with Breitbart News.
This is from Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D., "Pope Francis Warns Against 'Invasion' of Libertarianism," Brietbart, April 28, 2017.

I'm assuming throughout that Williams is quoting the Pope correctly because I can't find the original source. If not, then much of what I say may not follow.

Which universities is he referring to? Yale? Berkeley? Middlebury? I think the Pope and I are perceiving the world very differently. I don't mean our values are different, although that's probably true too. I mean that what we think is factually true is different. He perceives a university system in which libertarians are becoming important. I perceive one in which the left, with whom he seems often to agree, is dominant. At least one of us is wrong.

Francis said that libertarianism, "which is so fashionable today," is a more radical form of the individualism that asserts that "only the individual gives value to things and to interpersonal relations and therefore only the individual decides what is good and what is evil."

He kind of gets the first part right. We do believe (or, at least, I do) that "only the individual gives value to things and to interpersonal relations." It seems to me that the only alternative is for God to give value to things. That's probably his view. But his "therefore" is a non sequitur. Yes, it's true that each of us needs to decide what is good and what is evil, and maybe some of us will decide by consulting the Bible or the Pope. But I think he's implicitly saying something more. I think he's saying that once we decide good or evil, that's it, and we can do what we want with impunity. That doesn't follow. If I decide that it's right to murder, it doesn't follow that it is right to murder or that I shouldn't be punished for murdering. I think the Pope is coming dangerously close to equating individualism and solipsism.
According to this mentality, all relationships that create ties must be eliminated, the Pope suggested, "since they would limit freedom." In this way, only by living independently of others, of the common good, and even God himself, can a person be free, he said.

I confess, pun intended, that I don't know any libertarian whom this describes.

Here's what I wonder: does the Pope actually know any libertarians at all?

Update: As Luca Mille points out below, Russ Roberts did an EconTalk with economist Robert Whaples on an earlier set of pronouncements from the Pope.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Radford Neal writes:

From the final paragraph you quote from the Pope above, he seems to be confusing libertarianism with Buddhism.

One of my theorems is:

If one learns what "libertarian" means then that one becomes libertarian.
And if we assume that people do not unlearn then a corollary follows:
There are no ex-libertarians.
These statements stand for me in a way that should satisfy Karl Popper: I have never met a person who contradicts either of these statements. I have never met a non-libertarian critic of libertarianism, or an "ex-libertarian", who sounded to me like he or she grasped the essence of libertarianism.

I remember conversations over a span of years with one self-described "ex-libertarian". He had started naturally enough by learning the libertarian stance on a few issues. Since he felt agreement on those few issues he identified as libertarian — a little too quickly. Later, when he discovered that he disagreed with the libertarian stance on minimum wage, he said, "These libertarians are getting off the track." One more disagreement was the last straw for him. "I used to be a libertarian," he said, "but not any more." He had never learned the core values of libertarianism and had never been libertarian, although he talked as if he knew what it was about.

Rich Berger writes:

As a Catholic, I am dismayed by many of Francis' statements. According to Catholic teaching, the Pope's statements are only binding on believers when he speaks "ex cathedra". The kinds of statements that David cites have no more force than if Nancy Pelosi issued them.

BTW, I am a recent ex-libertarian and I am very well acquainted with libertarian thought, being first exposed to it almost 50 years ago. I remain convinced of the benefits of individual liberty and limited government. I do not believe more than a small minority will ever consider themselves libertarians and that persuasion will occur only on a case-by-case basis. I also have come to believe that improvements in current political arrangements can be made that are non-libertarian. For example, I would consider it an improvement if the current welfare state would be more efficient with the money spent and would discard programs if they were shown not to work. I think libertarians shut themselves off from debates by the purity of their beliefs.

I never liked the term libertarian either. Too bad liberal was hijacked.

Greg G writes:

I think it is clear that the Pope knows few, if any, libertarians and has a very limited understanding of both libertarian philosophy and modern economic theory.

But the Pope does know a lot about what Jesus taught and he is correct in maintaining that those teachings aren't even a little bit libertarian and aren't really very compatible with modern economics at all.

Luca Mille writes:

Williams is quoting the Pope quite correctly, or at least provides a faithful translation of some parts of the original text in Italian:

Nothing new from him: same general views already expressed before. There was also an EconTalk in March this year on the topic.

Zeke5123 writes:

Greg G.

I'm not sure the teachings of Jesus are at odds with libertarianism qua government structure. After all, the teachings of Jesus apply to the individual. Requiring an individual to take care of the poor eliminates the person's moral decision to care for the poor. Having the freedom to not take care of the poor and choosing to do so seems like actual morality.

Greg G writes:


I really don't see how the existence of a governmental social safety net "eliminates" anyone's moral decision to care for the poor. Christians can, and do, voluntarily contribute their time and money to any number of non-governmental charities that help the poor. Or not.

I think Jesus was pretty clear that he was recommending more, not less, charity for the poor. He didn't argue specifically against libertarianism since it didn't exist at the time.

zeke5123 writes:

Let me put it another way. Coerced actions are amoral. Thus, the idea that government care of the poor represents Christian morality (because it is moral for Christians to help the poor) ignores the coercion part.

Libertarianism as a political system doesn't result in any particular ethics system for individuals within society, besides giving those individuals the freedom to help the less fortunate.

Greg G writes:


We agree that a libertarian ethics does not result in any particular stance for individuals on their personal decisions about charity.

Christianity, on the other hand, is the farthest thing from a libertarian ethics system. What could be more coercive than being threatened with eternal damnation if you don't comply with the wishes of an all seeing God?

Jon Murphy writes:

@Greg G and Zeke:

Christ said nothing on the topic of government or economic systems. He preached for salvation, on entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. To try and pigeonhole Him or His teachings into the political/economic spectrum is to misunderstand the lessons of the Gospel.

Greg G writes:


I agree that Christ did not preach a governmental or economic system.

He did however, preach an ethical system. And it is as coercive an ethical system as can be imagined with eternal damnation as punishment for not complying. Also he was pretty clear that he wanted more, not less, charity towards the poor from his followers.

khodge writes:

It appears that the Pope is using a broader definition of libertarian. It can be argued that the current progressives, esp. you are whatever gendered being you claim to be, could be considered libertarian and would be consistent with the Pope's observation. Of course, "you must accept my fantasy" is not really a legitimate libertarian sentiment.

shecky writes:

...no true libertarian...

Frankly, I personally know NO libertarians, IMO. I know many people who call themselves libertarians. I would describe them to be more like "marijuana libertarians" or "2nd Amendment libertarians" or "anti-taxes libertarians" etc. Frankly, not all that much different then the people I know who claim to hate libertarianism.

Thaomas writes:

From the kinds of arguments that are made, Libertarians are just Liberals that 1) have a very keen appreciation of the efficiency of markets, 2) a very keen appreciation of the inefficiency of collective decisions and 3) a fairly high value for efficiency in making an efficiency-redistribution trade-off when there is a trade-off and 4) the political judgement that the status quo is preferable to measures that would increase efficiency but require more explicit and visible redistribution such as EITC for minimum wages.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

To assume "to read the hearts" (motivations) of particular others would seem to call for some points of references for motivations, rather than simple deprecations of presumed motivations:

Matthew 22:35-40
Mark 12:28-31
Luke 10:25-28
John 13:34

Rob writes:


Your description seems very utilitarian.

It doesn't seem to take the deontological libertarian into account at all. Which is the majority of us, as far as I can tell.

Roger Sweeny writes:

I ran across this today, which sounds a lot like the Holy Father:

The country Mr Macron wants is no longer France; it's a space, a wasteland, a trading room where there are only consumers and producers.

It is, of course, from his opponent, the "far right" Marine Le Pen.

Phil writes:

I mean that what we think is factually true is different. He perceives a university system in which libertarians are becoming important. I perceive one in which the left, with whom he seems often to agree, is dominant. At least one of us is wrong.

Not so. Both of those statements can be factually true. Universities can be dominated by the left as libertarians become important.

Glen writes:

I would say that a follower of Jesus should be libertarian and maybe a bit of an anarchist. Remember, an individual decides if he/she should act morally, then that individual's family and friends may away him, then that individual's community via economic or non-coercive pressure and only when there is risk to others should coercion be considered. In any case, Jesus did not concern himself with government other than to remind his followers to keep their eyes on the prize and don't let government be a disabler to achieving the goal. Libertarianism also minimizes the damage if one is wrong compared to almost any other political view I know.

David R. Henderson writes:

Not so. Both of those statements can be factually true. Universities can be dominated by the left as libertarians become important.
Good catch. I meant to say that the left seems to be tightening its hold, not just that it’s dominant. Of course, even then, libertarians could be becoming more important if, say, the conservatives and the middle are the ones declining.

Jesse C writes:

Glen - From my understanding of Christianity, you have it right.

Greg G - Jesus's teachings may be orthogonal to libertarianism, but I don't see them at odds.

Jesus preaches about the individual to the individual, and often this is emphasized so much that we're reminded to not worry if another is behaving morally or otherwise. I am supposed to care for the hungry, etc, but I'm most definitely NOT supposed to worry about whether YOU are doing so. A statement like, "but Greg G isn't paying his fair share" is basically the kind of thing that I'm supposed to avoid.

Libertarianism doesn't say charity is bad, it says it's not something I should require of my neighbor. That jives fine with Christianity.

It could be my knowledge of Christianity is lacking, TBH, but at least this is what I've taken away from it.

Greg G writes:


Fair enough. Some libertarians are charitable to the poor and some aren't. Either one can be consistent with the principles of libertarianism.

But only one of those can also be consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Graciela Eugenia Zadrozny writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment and your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Jesse C writes:

Greg G,

I agree with that, and it's why I used the word, orthogonal.

Roger McKinney writes:

The Pope is usually confused on economic issues. He doesn't understand the differences in types of individualism. Everyone should read Hayek's "Individualism: True and False." The Pope is talking about false individualism, or as Hayek calls it, rationalism.

Also read Larry Siedentop's Inventing the Individual. He shows how Christianity invented the true individualism. The Pope's advisers should know that and it's embarrassing that they don't. But then they're all a bunch of socialists.

Jeremy writes:
I think he's saying that once we decide good or evil, that's it, and we can do what we want with impunity.

This crops up all the time in debates between atheists and religious people. "But without God, what will keep you from murdering people?"

I admit that I personally have not been confronted with this particular argument in years, but it has happened. Penn Jilette talks about it a lot: http://imgur.com/gallery/Nbkvr

T.L. Brink writes:

"the left, with whom he seems often to agree" No, certainly not on abortion and marriage equality.

Rather than nitpick where you might disagree with the pope and draw distinctions between liberal and libertarian, it would be more profitable to identify where you DO agree with the Pope, especially about what the role of universities should be in today's society as transmitters of what is best in Western Culture.

David R. Henderson writes:

@T.L. Brink,
"the left, with whom he seems often to agree" No, certainly not on abortion and marriage equality.
Two examples don’t undercut my use of the word “often.”
Rather than nitpick where you might disagree with the pope
My criticisms are not nitpicks. They’re disagreement about some pretty important points.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top