A subscriber to and a regular reader of Reason and other libertarian publications, a devoted if incompletely schooled follower of the Austrian school of economics, a fan of John Stossel, and a regular visitor to lewrockwell.com, I find much to recommend in libertarianism: the importance of private property rights to individual liberty, the unarguable assertion that the free market provides the greatest good for the greatest number, and the defense of civil liberties.
But like most religious paleoconservatives I strongly object to the atheistic, materialistic orientation of some libertarians, especially fervent Ayn Rand devotees, John Stossel, and Reason writers like Katherine Mangu-Ward, whose materialism in one respect resembles the progressive (and Marxist) view that economic determinism drives human behavior and that man is not a spiritual being at all but an organism the zoological classifiers would label Homo economicus.
Like leaders of the Enlightenment, libertarian materialists believe that man can redeem himself with his own unaided reason. An average observer with a modicum of historical knowledge must wonder why liberals (or progressives) and libertarian materialists, who have declared themselves officially smart, learned nothing from the carnage of the Twentieth Century, where mass murderers like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot led states that had elevated ideological materialism to a religion while outlawing religious observance. Hitler, of course, with his religious national socialism as a guide to the development of the Nietzean (“God is dead”) superman, committed mass genocide to ethnically cleanse Europe of unhealthy influences.
Too many libertarians reject tradition and traditional morality by relying instead on the discipline of the market. And while the discipline of the market is superior to that of government, it is not enough in itself to produce a good society unless one believes that life’s purpose is the acquisition of stuff, that is, an endless search for a bigger house, a flashier car, expensive vacations, a second home, or, if one is desperate for high social status, a collection of objects d’art of poor taste, copies of classics he never reads, or fancy country club memberships.
This is why I strongly object to Ayn Rand’s atheistic, materialistic philosophy, which she called objectivism. While it may often appear otherwise, most people are not motivated primarily by material concerns but are instead spiritual beings. This obvious truth has led liberals such as Thomas Frank, who wrote, What’s Wrong with Kansas, to complain about Middle Americans who concern themselves with social issues like abortion or marriage and do not appreciate all the good things liberals have provided them with their mega welfare state.
A convincing moral argument for Austrian economics and free markets is made by Catholic Thomas Woods, Jr. in The Church and the Market but he remains a traditional, committed Catholic who gives his full assent to the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium, which eschews materialism. As Pope Pius XI said in Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.”
Libertarians argue, and I agree, that the current economic crisis is largely the result of government interference in the economy, especially programs designed to make it possible for people without means to buy homes they could not afford. These programs opened government backed candy stores for sugar starved thieves, beginning with unscrupulous loan officers, continuing with rating agencies that gave high ratings to instruments that deserved no such ratings, and culminating in “tranches,” combinations of bad loans sold as investment entities: Wall Street manipulators bundled packages of nothing and sold them for lots of money. The immorality that permits people to behave that way must be continually pointed out and condemned by decent people. Market activity cut loose from traditional morality cannot in itself discipline the dishonest, nor can government. Only sincerely held, rigorously followed, and spiritually grounded moral precepts can produce a good society. Ayn Rand, read Adam Smith.
While those with the talent to amass wealth usually do society a great service: they create wealth, hire workers, and contribute to charity, they nonetheless must live for a higher purpose than the accumulation of stuff. As Jesus says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” (Luke 12:48) By the way, let me note here for the record that I reject President Obama’s recent use of this text as pretext for raising taxes, his so called “Buffet Rule.” As I wrote recently in answer to a writer who believes that paying taxes is an act of charity, coerced charity is not charity, nor is the Buffet Rule anything more than a rich man’s “affluenzae,” that is, his guilt over having done well.
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Stumptalk is published weekly in the Crossville Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. To contact Stumptalk, email coordinator Phil Billington at firstname.lastname@example.org.