Libertarianism and Religion: 8 Questions for ‘Reason’ Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward

Katherine Mangu-Ward (Reason magazine)

Katherine Mangu-Ward is editor-in-chief of Reason, a libertarian political magazine of "free minds and free markets." An atheist, she earned a B.A. in philosophy and political science from Yale University and started at Reason as an intern in 2000 before serving as managing editor and becoming editor-in-chief earlier this summer. Her cover stories for the print magazine have included a defense of plastic bags, an argument against voting and a “welcome to our new robot overlords.”

Ms. Mangu-Ward has also worked at The Weekly Standard and The New York Times. She is a Future Tense Fellow at New America, a Washington think tank that emphasizes issues of the digital age. On July 5, I interviewed Ms. Mangu-Ward by email about libertarianism and religion.  


You are the new editor of Reason, a monthly print magazine for political libertarians. What does libertarianism mean to you and why should ordinary Americans care about it?

I’d like to think Reason is a magazine for everyone—not just people who identify as libertarians! We’re staring down the barrel of an election season where both major party candidates are wildly unpopular and rather authoritarian, so libertarianism has become an even more relevant and appealing alternative than usual. The idea that we should let people make their own choices wherever possible—rather than letting the government make those choices for them—appeals to people across the spectrum. In general, people who are afraid “their team” is going to spend the next four or eight years out of power tend to be the most receptive to the idea of limited government.

What would you say to critics who dismiss libertarianism as a fringe ideology that does not represent most Americans?

Libertarian principles are built into the American experiment. Ideas of self-determination, religious toleration, skepticism about overweening government and economic freedom are very libertarian, and also very American. And with Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson—an experienced governor from a purple state—pulling 8 percent to 10 percent in several national polls recently, I’d say more Americans than ever are willing to flirt with the label, too.

Because libertarians generally oppose laws regulating moral behavior on a variety of issues, ranging from drugs to the contraception mandate of Obamacare, religious critics sometimes accuse them of being amoral in their outlook on life. In what sense is this reputation deserved or undeserved?

There is certainly a variant of libertarianism that is genuinely amoral or at least relativistic. But most libertarians would draw a distinction between behaviors that are immoral and those that should be illegal, something liberals and conservatives consistently fail to do when it comes to their pet issues. (Liberals are happy for you to have sex with whomever you want, but God forbid you buy a Big Gulp or a gun. Flip that and you’ve got the conservative version.) Libertarians are looking for ways to clear space for people to behave in the ways that they deem moral by their own lights. We also want to make it safe for people to try to persuade each other that their vision of morality is the correct one. Prohibition of vice tends to generate more vice, rather than eradicate it. And virtue not freely chosen is (arguably) no virtue at all.

We are approaching an unusually divisive general election in November. How close are the Democratic and Republican parties to libertarian values at this moment in time?

Nowhere close. Democrat and Republican candidates rarely approach anything that resembles libertarianism, even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

Although some religious believers identify as libertarians, your magazine seems to attract a number of atheists and agnostics. How would you describe your own religious beliefs and what is your attitude toward organized religion?

My Reason deputy/right-hand man, Stephanie Slade, is an observant Catholic and has written eloquently about how her faith intersects with her politics. I strongly recommend her piece on being a pro-life libertarian, for instance, to your readers.

I’m an atheist, and on my father’s side I come from several generations of thoroughgoing skeptics about organized religion. It’s easy to be an atheist now, but it wasn’t always. And that’s precisely the reason libertarians can and should make common cause with religious folk: I want Catholics to be free to do their thing so that I can be free to do mine. Toleration is a two-way street, something that much of mainstream American politics fails to acknowledge.

From your perspective, how can Catholics and libertarians work together to make the world a better place?

By advocating for true toleration, libertarians and Catholics can both get what they want, freedom to live as they see fit. I would make a request to those advocating for conscience rights to think about the term in its broadest possible sense. Rather than engaging in special pleading for people of faith—as in the case of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and other similar efforts—why not look to extend protections for free speech and free association to all people, regardless of their motivations for wanting such things? There are many valid reasons to want to avoid economic coercion by the state, and not all of them are religious ones.

Many Catholics favor government limitations on human selfishness for a range of issues from abortion to ecology, with Pope Francis particularly forceful in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” on the economic exploitation by wealthy nations of natural resources in the developing world. To many Catholics who have worked or lived in Latin America, for example, it often seems like the United States enjoys a higher standard of living by virtue of the poverty and violence our policies create in other parts of the world. As a libertarian, how do you feel about this situation and what is your solution for it?

The greatest engines the world has ever known for lifting people out of poverty are open markets and free trade. That fact is something that Pope Francis, in particular, seems to undervalue as he lectures about the "culture of exclusion." I’ll direct your readers again to the work of my colleague, Stephanie Slade, who has written at length about “Laudato Si’” from a libertarian perspective.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about libertarianism, what would it be?

I would say the same thing to Pope Francis that I would say to the vast majority of the American left: If we truly want to help the “least of these,” we should buy the stuff they want to sell us, sell them stuff they want to buy and let them come and go across our borders as they please. And we shouldn’t presume to know what’s best for them—we should let people conduct their own economic affairs as they see fit.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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William Rydberg
2 years 7 months ago
Slippery slope here, "good guy" libertarians described here as opposed to "the other guy" libertarians. One wonders when they get together, do they even care. In my opinion, Fr Salai S.J. Could have done a more thorough job should he have consulted with a Group such as Catholic Answers who are well practiced in dealing with the subtleties here. So many G.K. Chesterton quotes come to mind. in Christ,
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years 7 months ago

Thanks for reading. You are certainly entitled to your personal opinions. Let's continue to pray for our nation.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 7 months ago
Ms. Mangu-Ward suggests, “The greatest engines the world has ever known for lifting people out of poverty are open markets and free trade.” Absolutely not. Great countries lift people out of poverty. “Open markets and free trade” unfortunately can also mean the level playing field is getting pulled right out from under the feet of middle class America. For example, stock buybacks at America’s largest company in four previous years totaled $36 billion, the same four years this company’s employees required perhaps $24 billion of taxpayer assistance based on a Forbes’ article. The uneven playing field gets worse. In 2010, an upper middle class family paid 18% federal income tax on $105,000 the same rate as the 400 richest paid on their $¼ billion average income. 80,000 pages of tax code loopholes really did a number on America’s 39% top individual income tax rate, right? No, the 400 richest perhaps paid the top rate on the 8% of their income from salary and wages. Capital gains, taxed at a 15% rate, account for the majority of income for the richest 400. Over the past 20 years, about half of all capital gains have gone to the wealthiest 0.1 percent. The Washington Post has concluded that "capital gains tax rates benefiting the wealthy feed the growing gap between rich and poor." As the Post explained, for the very richest Americans the successive capital gains tax cuts from Presidents Clinton (from 28 to 20 percent) and Bush (from 20 to 15 percent) have been "better than any Christmas gift".
Jett Rucker
2 years 7 months ago
The particulars of your complaints reflect blame cast on government (tax) regulations, a point of view I heartily endorse. If there were less government, lower tax rates, possibly less tax complexity (but it wouldn't matter as much anyway), it looks to me as though this might address most of the problems you cite. Don't confuse free markets with rampant government - they are in fact polar opposites.
John Walton
2 years 7 months ago
Thanks for writing this, Sean. I believe it was only a year ago the Boston College STM had a panel discussion on the moral error of libertarianism, but none of the panelists defined this political philosophy.
Frank Lesko
2 years 7 months ago
Good interview. I am not a big supporter of libertarianism, but they add something to the overall political conversation. I think they are a bit naïve--imagining that human beings are isolated individuals who have few connections or responsibilities to others. I know desire for this is deeply ingrained in the American experience and western neoliberalism, but it's not reality. Cooperation and collaboration is what we need as a species, not "leave me alone and I'll leave you alone." On top of that, anytime I hear a desire for "small government" all I hear is "big corporation." The small government movement is largely a way to hijack the very thing that could check runaway corporate power--government.
Jett Rucker
2 years 7 months ago
Libertarians do not suppose or desire that people should be atomistic - disconnected from each other. Rather, we desire that people's connections/involvements with each other be voluntary - subject to the willingness of both, or all, of the individuals involved. We envision that, in a free/voluntary society, our connections to each other would grow in the absence of the ability the present regime offers to impose force on each other in one way or another. It is, indeed, the ubiquitous presence of governmental force that at present isolates us from each other. Who knows who might snitch to government authorities on us for any confidence, even one never made? Want to know my name? Why?
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 7 months ago
Libertarian merits depend perhaps on a person’s expectations. Big government dominant state demographics can surpass that of small government dominant states. For example, big government dominant states have a 25% lower divorce rate. Nationally, abortion rates have fallen dramatically during big government presidencies (30% for Clinton and Obama) vs. small government presidencies (11% for Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43).
J Cosgrove
2 years 7 months ago
for example, it often seems like the United States enjoys a higher standard of living by virtue of the poverty and violence our policies create in other parts of the world.
This is one of the more absurd statements I have ever heard. I suggest you support this position or retract this as nonsense. I realize you cannot change your question but you can certainly amend the entire question process with such a statement. If anything the success of the United States and other Western countries have been independent of our imposing any essential harm to the rest of the world and has actually lifted the poorer nations out of poverty. Two references everyone should look at are which shows how the world has gotten so much better off in the last 200 years as a result of technology and practices in the Western world being spread to the rest of it. It is where it is resisted that the world has remained poor. and the site recommend by Katherine Mangu-Ward at her magazine by a Catholic libertarian, Stephanie Slade It is a long article but makes the case that there has been a very successful trickle down to the rest of the world as a result of free market capitalism. The only moral way to distribute goods is through free market capitalism. Any other way distorts the market in favor of certain people and invariably it is the poor who are hurt from this.
So if one is interested in helping the poor it is essential that they support free market capitalism
. Maybe Stephanie Slade should be a regular columnist here at America. A very ironic aside. Ms. Katherine Mangu-Ward says
I’m an atheist, and on my father’s side I come from several generations of thoroughgoing skeptics about organized religion. It’s easy to be an atheist now, but it wasn’t always.
She is the editor of Reason Magazine but the only reasonable conclusion one can make after looking at all the scientific evidence is that there must be a creator of the universe and some intelligence that is guiding life in the universe both in its origin and in the major life forms that have appeared over the last 3.6 billion years. Any natural process is unreasonable and thus, defies Reason.Perhaps Ms. Katherine Mangu-Ward should read "It’s Easy to Be an Atheist if You Ignore Science"
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 7 months ago
As noted in the 8/11/2016 post below, middle class taxpayer’s $24 billion allowed America’s largest employer to triple the company’s stock buyback. It appears free market capitalism’s poverty level wages “…distorts the market in favor of certain people and invariably it is the poor who are hurt from this.” If Mr. Rosling’s trickle-down premise were correct, market driven states should lead the US in lifespan. Market driven states in fact lag government dominant state’s lifespan by an average of two years. Some market driven states lag California by five years.


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