Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Epstein, Buffett and the Pope Walk into a Bar....

Libertarian Richard Epstein asks in the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas Journal, How is Warren Buffet Like the Pope? Epstein answers, "they are both dead wrong on economic policy," and spends much of the article criticizing Pope Benedict XVI for his supposed socialist sympathies.

Epstein begins well enough:

A successful and sustainable political order requires stable legal and economic policies that reward innovation, spur growth, and maximize the ability of rich and poor alike to enter into voluntary arrangements. Limited government, low rates of taxation, and strong property rights are the guiding principles.

But Epstein quickly derails, lambasting the Pope for criticizing those who put "profits before people." The Pope's sentiment seems not only reasonable but mundane. Yet Epstein hysterically calls this worldview "a wickedly deformed foundation for social policy." The article continues as a tirade against socialism as Epstein foolishly identifies the Pope's position as hoping for "a world without profits." This straw-man routine wickedly deforms Catholic social teaching.

The offensive language which causes Epstein such palpitations was the Pope's response to a question while en route to Madrid for World Youth Day:

Q: Europe and the Western world are going through a profound economic crisis, which also shows signs of a great social and moral crisis, of great uncertainty for the future, particularly painful for young people. What messages can the Church offer to give hope and encouragement to the young people of the world?

Benedict XVI: [We see] confirmed in the present economic crisis what has already been seen in the great preceding crisis: that an ethical dimension is not something exterior to economic problems, but an interior and fundamental dimension. The economy does not function with mercantile self-regulation alone, but it has need of an ethical reason to function for man. This can be seen in what was already said in John Paul II's first social encyclical: Man must be at the center of the economy and the economy must not be measured according to greatest profit, but according to the good of all.

The full text is worth reading and quickly reveals that only a distorted reading, reducing the Pope's comments to a pre-determined absurdity, can interpret his remarks as proposing that the common good includes neither consideration of individual man nor the practical effects of poverty. Catholic hospitals and missions care for the sick and poor of the world who suffer privation due to poverty - not Epstein's colleagues at NYU Law or the annual libertarian association conference.

While the Church teaches that "blessed are the poor" and elevates many virtues and goals above the perils of wealth, it is most certainly not adverse to profitable national economic systems. In fact, the Church has consistently - since the present Pope was a schoolboy in Germany - condemned exactly the sort of socialist ideology which Epstein falsely claims as its own. These conclusions are obvious from Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and Pope John Paul II's encyclical on the 100 year anniversary of the former letter, Centessimus Annus.

Leftists and libertarians alike have long felt wronged that the Holy See's refuses to adopt their economic dogma, but Church doctrine clearly repudiates economic socialism. Yet it also cautions that free-markets should always serve the common good - a common good well-understood, which Epstein willfully fails to appreciate. 

Epstein's multi-front attack on Buffett and the Pope is simply a desperate plea for libertarianism. Buffett's recent statements on the economy have been heavily criticized by the right over the past few days, and the left never grows weary of slandering the Pope, so Epstein saw an opportunity to employ a tired refrain of libertarian politics: left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican - they're all the same; only libertarians are truly special.

Of course, the inability to recognize differences between these comparables is either the result of woeful ignorance or political extremism. Anarchist - to whom libertarians are often compared - see everyone else as a clone from their perch so far off the accepted political spectrum. So it is with libertarians - they just wear better suits. 

Epstein's amoral and dehumanized libertarianism is the only "wickedly deformed foundation for social policy" revealed in his article. 

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