Spend any time at a gathering of conservative thinkers, and soon enough, the conversation will turn, like clockwork, to the idea that conservatism needs to remain a “three legged stool” if it is to stand. Those three “legs” are usually conceived as a strong national defense, a rear-guard action against social permissiveness and a preference for free-market economics. Believers in this system tell their listeners – frantically – that an attack on any of these three legs is an attack on the whole, and that therefore even conservatives disposed to agree with only one or two of the “legs” are obliged to hold up the third.

Apparently, Pope Francis hasn’t read the memo for some time. Indeed, the pope himself seems to have made a habit of challenging two of the three legs, or at least is portrayed as having done so by the press. And while neither the pope’s seemingly permissive quotes on abortion and gay marriage, nor his extended and rather tendentious denunciation of capitalism, are at all out of step with previous popes, all the same, these two bits of pontification (no pun intended) seem to have served as a means by which to illuminate all the fault lines within the supposedly inviolate three-legged stool.

After all, one can surely imagine that many libertarians, upon hearing the pope’s comments on abortion and gay marriage, came close to celebrating in the streets. “Finally,” they would say, “the pope has come round to the 21st century where these needlessly retrograde areas of emphasis are concerned.” By contrast, naturally, social conservatives bemoaned the remarks and wondered if the church was dying.

Flash forward to the pope’s comments on the free market, and the roles are completely reversed. Now it is libertarians denouncing the pope as an ideological enemy, and social conservatives remarking mildly on how “we really could learn a lot from this.”

If this sounds like the usual ideological wrangling to you, then you’ve probably missed at least part of conservative history. After all, libertarians and traditionalists have been at each others’ throats since the 1950s and 1960s, but not over the same things. William F. Buckley, for instance, who tried to straddle the line between the two, issued a denunciation of the similarly anti-market church encyclical “Mater et Magistra,” titled “Mater Si, Magistra No.” Buckley later walked back the more strident bits with this eerily prescient phrase:

The editorial in question spoke not one word of criticism of the intrinsic merit of Mater et Magistra. Our disappointment was confined to the matter of emphasis, and timing, and by implication, to the document’s exploitability by the enemies of Christendom, a premonition rapidly confirmed by the Encyclical’s obscene cooption by such declared enemies of the spiritual order as the New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian, which hailed the conversion of the pope to socialism!

However you slice it, this is a long way from the sort of wrangling that Pope Francis’ remarks have provoked.

Now, to be clear, I stand as usual firmly on the libertarian side of this, though I am more alarmed that parts of the conservative press seems to be willing to stand with him than I am at what the pope actually said, which seems to be in keeping with church doctrine going back to…well, “Mater et Magistra.” Moreover, not being Catholic myself, I admit to not understanding what all the fuss is about. Yes, Pope Francis is the head of the Catholic Church, and Catholics are a vibrant group within the United States, albeit one that is experiencing record levels of demographic decline with young people. But surely any church that still includes both Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan is simply too ideologically diverse to have its vote commanded by a single man, no matter how important his title. Are there not bigger things to worry about, like the equally alarming demographic decline that Republicans are facing?

That being said, if the three-legged stool is going to fracture (and it looks more ready to do so at this stage than at any other), and if libertarians do end up supplanting it, then the pope’s encyclical should be considered a warning sign about the degree to which dogmatism can cloud a libertarian message, and the degree to which libertarianism itself could become an electoral liability, if it fails to make a case for capitalism that responds to the lived experience of voters.

A little data is necessary. While I’m fond of pointing at copious polls showing young people moving away from social conservatism, the polls aren’t all good news for libertarians, either. According to a Pew Poll taken in November of last year, among voters aged 18-29, the term “socialism” is viewed positively by 49 percent of them, while only 43 percent react negatively. “Capitalism,” by contrast, is a slight net negative, with only 46 percent of young people viewing it positively and 47 percent viewing it negatively.

Now, for libertarians, there’s an obvious counter to this – one that I actually made myself at TheBlaze – which is that while “capitalism” gets bad grades among young people, the label “libertarian” gets very good grades, with 50 percent of young people approving of it and only 28 percent disapproving.

However, given that libertarianism is so intimately bound up with capitalism as a concept, and given also that the net positive intrinsic in that number exists only because a large percentage of young people apparently have no idea what libertarianism is, it’s not a stretch to think that if “libertarian” becomes a mainstream political label, those numbers will tighten. Moreover, given that “libertarian” tends to be used as a term of contrast with “social conservative,” if social conservatism ceases to be a bogeyman, and the choice comes down to libertarianism vs progressivism (i.e. between responsibility and endless mediocre free stuff), I believe libertarians could have a very rough time of it indeed, if they fail to make the case for capitalism in a way that resonates and wins back the next generation.

So while Pope Francis’ remarks clearly bear no actual relation to political reality within the United States, nor particularly to economic reality more generally, the fact remains that if the pope, one of capitalism’s great beneficiaries, can be turned against the system, it is not a stretch to imagine a generation that has only ever experienced capitalism as the iron hand of student debt, and the terminal stagnation of a hostile workplace, turning against it with equal or even greater force. If libertarians want to keep the pope’s beliefs confined to the pope, this is the challenge they face, three-legged stool or no.

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