Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

We have the Electoral College.  The Catholic’s have a papal conclave of the College of Cardinals.  While there is plenty of smoke blown here in U.S. elections, the Vatican literally uses smoke to indicate when the new pope has been selected.  This smoke has little to do directly with the title of this article, but the pope has been in the news in libertarian circles, and the old adage that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is an important lesson for libertarians right now.

But, before we dive right into discussing the two things we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company, I want to give you a little background about myself to give you a better sense of where I’m coming from on this particular subject.

A little about me…

I was born and raised a Lutheran.  My dad was the principal at our Lutheran grade school (first in Illinois, then here in Indiana).  We were members of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod; if you are a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 like me, you might remember an episode where the LCMS was referred to as the “hardcore Lutherans.”  I went to my dad’s Lutheran grade school, then to Lutheran High School of Indianapolis, and then to Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois, where I initially set out to study to be a Lutheran school teacher myself.  (Concordia is, believe it or not, also a Lutheran university… Missouri Synod!)  I studied a lot of religion; a lot of Lutheran doctrines to be sure, but also general Christian church history and other world religions.  I was decidedly a papal-skeptic, wary of Catholicism.  While we didn’t discuss it in any class that I remember, I came to later learn that official LCMS doctrine suggests that the office of the papacy itself is indeed the Antichrist.

After being away from home, I grew wearier of the benefits of the church itself.  I never really lost my faith, but I certainly eyed organized religion as something more man-made and subject to the pitfalls of humanity.  I’ve come a bit full circle now.  I’m now Catholic.  But, the point of this essay is not to discuss faith, religion, doctrine, or anything of the sort.  It’s to talk about the comments that Pope Francis recently made warning against libertarianism.  I think the personal background is important; I’m not a “cradle-Catholic” and come from a long history of papal skepticism.

The smoke

The news of Pope Francis’s words of warning against, in particular, radicalized individualism in the form of libertarianism arrived via Breitbart a few days ago.  I’ve seen many libertarians denounce the pope’s words.  These denunciations have taken the form of  “the pope doesn’t understand economics”, “maybe the pope should sell off the riches of the Catholic church if he wants to help the poor”, “the church has no credibility after covering-up priests molesting children”, and more.

It might be fair that the descriptions of libertarianism in the pope’s words are not wholly an accurate view of the way most of us think of libertarianism.  As I read the Bretibart article and, subsequently, the full text of his comments, the words of warning seemed to ring against ardent Randian Objectivism more than my particular flavor of politics and philosophy.  And, truthfully, much of what he had to say was in the context of a mentality of action as opposed to a view of politics.  Though, to a large degree, therein lies the rub.  In today’s world, where so much of morality and individual action is linked both explicitly and implicitly to the state, it becomes more difficult to tease out the difference between self and state–or, more precisely, the blurred lines of public and private enterprise.

The fire

I want libertarianism to be accepted, to be mainstream, to be the foundation of our modern political economy.  The arguments, admonishments, and exhortations against the pope do not matter.  The fact that the pope who is, whether you like it or not, a world leader respected by scores of millions if not billions of people worldwide has called us out.  This is a branding issue.  It is one of many failures of libertarian marketing on the big stage of the people’s forum.  The pope’s words are just one flash of smoke, and there is a fire out there that is against us.

There are many reasons why people may be against libertarianism.  Like many other libertarians, I blissfully wish that much of our opposition just doesn’t get it.  We often say things like, “she’s a libertarian, she just doesn’t realize it yet.”  But, we are losing the war.  Winning hearts and minds is tough work, and we have allowed the enemy to define us.  Blame can be cast wide:  we have let some voices inside our movement ring louder than others; we have failed at marketing our views; defenders of the authoritarian status quo of taken notice and fought back; etc.

It honestly doesn’t matter whether the pope is truly anti-libertarian or if he’s anti-something-that-isn’t-libertarian-but-he’s-calling-it-libertarianism.  He speaks.  People listen.  And, the anti-libertarian smoke signal from the pope is merely a symptom of the fire which is consuming the word “libertarian.”

What should we do?

I am not going to suggest that I have all the answers.  Many readers will dispute my approach for a variety of reasons including a basic disagreement on the nature of libertarianism itself.  But, I do not think we do ourselves any good at all by mocking the pope or suggesting he is ignorant on economics or politics.  Atheists, Christians, and others should realize the undisputed fact that the voice of some carries more than the voice of others.  The pope is in the former camp.  Unfortunately, so are the “mainstream media”, elected officials, business leaders, and other community leaders.  Speaking truth to power is important.  Being skeptical of authority is central to most libertarian thinking.  However, short of bloody revolution, we are going to have to meet people where they are.

Jeffrey Tucker has done a great job of sending a positive message on the subject.  His leadership in painting a picture of a better life as a result of liberty is an incredible asset to our movement.  We need more positivity and less negativity, more listening and less lecturing, and more pragmatism in our approach to winning the marketing battle.

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Matt Wittlief is a libertarian working as a consultant and leader inside an analytics technology start-up based in the Bay Area. Matt has been active in the Libertarian Party serving in a variety of local, state, and national roles and ran for U.S. House in 2016 on the LP ticket. More of a strategist than traditional activist, Matt likes to study history, economics, and political science and bring his ideas and insights to others as an author. He resides in Indiana with his wife and three kids.

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