The line between Libertarianism and non-Libertarian Conservatism has grown indefinite during my lifetime. What was originally a watchword of the Democrat Party—the slogan of John L. O'Sullivan's The United States Magazine and Democratic Review magazine, "The best government is that which governs least"—has now become the prevailing slogan of the Republican Party. This slogan can be found as the battle cry of limited-government Conservatives or Libertarians, but taken at face value it is necessarily an Anarchist sentiment. If the least government is the best, then it logically follows that no government AT all is the best government OF all.
Of course, most of the people who wield this slogan don't really mean it—they stop somewhere far short of anarchy. They mean to say that government would govern better if there were less of it than there is now. The major problem is that, while they don't really mean that government governs best when it governs least, too many of these people THINK that they really do mean that. A desperate need exists within the general landscape of political conservatism for all of us to think carefully toward the development of a consistent and comprehensive philosophy of government. For those of us who are Christians, our careful thought must also be prayerful thought, and the philosophy of government that we adopt needs to arise out of statements that the Bible has made about government.
I'm thinking that I might devote some time and some space on this blog to this topic. I will examine what the Bible says about government and interact with the major political systems of our day, hoping that we can all arrive at a better-informed and more carefully-developed concept of Christian citizenship than we might have at present.
Today, I would like to consider Libertarianism
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy accurately defines Libertarianism as "the moral view that [people] initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things." The only justification for denying full liberty to any individual person, according to Libertarianism, is in order to protect the liberty of other people. This concept of self-ownership is the foundational concept of Libertarianism without which other Libertarian political convictions are incoherent. I would encourage you to read the entire Stanford article. It is excellent and well-sourced.
I disagree with Libertarianism. I offer the following as my primary objections against this political theory:
As a Christian, I consider the foundational premise of Libertarianism to be a form of sinful rebellion against God. To state that individuals initially and fully own themselves is to fail to acknowledge that we exist as creations of a Creator. God is our Owner. He has authority over us. This truth is really the starting point of the gospel—if God is not my Owner, and if He does not have authority over me, then I have very little need for the gospel and very little reason to hear it.
As a Christian, I believe that the best government is that which governs according to the scope of authority and the purposes that have been given to human government by God. The Bible is quite explicit on this point:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due to them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-7, NASB)
This can hardly be construed as a Libertarian manifesto. It is a statement of support for the Roman Empire! It speaks of "subjection" as something that is "necessary" from God's perspective. Individual liberty appears in this treatise absolutely nowhere. The purpose of government, according to the New Testament, is not for the protection of individual liberty. Rather, God has authorized secular governments for the purpose that those who "do what is good" might "have praise from" their government, but that those who "do what is evil" will have cause to "be afraid" of the "sword" borne by the state who, on God's behalf, is "an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil."
Biblically, it is the purpose of government to encourage good behavior and to punish bad behavior. This purpose is derived from the One who has delegated authority to human government, from God.
If this is the purpose of government, does that purpose exist across the entire scope of human life, or are there things that are beyond the purview of governmental authority as invested in government by God? I believe that there are limitations to the scope of governmental authority. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Jesus specifically commanded His servants not to attempt to uproot the tares from the wheat field. The field, Jesus said, represents the world. The wheat are the Christians and the tares are those who are not. Jesus explicitly commands that judgment upon people for rejecting Christ not take place until the Final Judgment.
This, the most important execution of justice, is not something that God is willing to delegate to anyone else. I'm sure that God has many reasons for insisting upon performing this kind of judgment Himself, but the concern listed in the parable is that "while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them."
It is this parable and other passages like it that make me an adherent to Roger Williams's theory of "The Two Tables of the Law." God has not authorized government to execute justice in matters of human beings' relationship with God. God will tend to that Himself. Rather, God has authorized human governments to execute justice in matters of human beings' relationships with one another. For this reason, I support unbridled religious liberty. The concern given in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares has proven in history to be well-taken: Governments that enforce religious conformity have, without fail, been governments that have persecuted Christians who share my theological convictions. No government should ever try to enforce a good relationship with God.
Governments do rightfully exist to regulate human relationships. Business relationships, family relationships, and community relationships require governmental restraint upon the innate wickedness of human beings. The governmental justice that comes into these relationships, being mediated by fallen human beings, is imperfect—sometimes horrendously so. The human author of Romans 13 was all-too-aware of this, having been wrongly imprisoned and brutally punished more times than we dare count. Nevertheless, he knew, as God does, that imperfect human justice, inferior as it is to the ideals of divine perfection, is still far superior to anarchy.
It is within this scope of authority—intercourse among human beings—that government can fulfill its purpose of rewarding the doing of good and punishing the doing of wrong. This biblical philosophy stands in marked contrast against the Libertarian philosophy of protecting individual rights.
As a Christian, I recognize Libertarianism's exaltation of individual liberty as spiritually unsophisticated. According to the Bible, this kind of liberty is actually slavery. Whoever deprives a person of the liberty of being a Crystal Meth addict is PRESERVING that person's individual liberty, not taking it away. Libertarianism, in its most consistent forms, fails to understand this.
The contrast between the biblical concept of liberty and the Libertarian theory is striking. Libertarianism presumes that liberty is the natural state of mankind, and that people only lose their liberty when someone intervenes. Christianity presumes that bondage is the natural state of mankind, and that people only find liberty when someone intervenes.
As a human being, Libertarianism seems to me a hopelessly naïve philosophy of human liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Libertarianism fails to acknowledge that the liberties most precious to most of us are inherently social in nature rather than individualistic. Among all of the other liberties that I desire, I want the liberty to live in a community where my children can walk the streets in safety. I desire the liberty to choose an environment for my family in which we will be exposed to good role models who are trying to be moral people. I desire for my children to be able to choose mates from among a pool of peers who have at least seen something of a functioning home. Libertarianism does not acknowledge these as liberties, because they are not INDIVIDUAL liberties, but are instead liberties tied to the collective state of society.
Consider, for example, divorce. The Libertarian approach to divorce must simply be that people, being full owners of themselves, have the unabrogated right to determine that they no longer wish to be married. The Christian approach to marriage is far different. According to the Bible (1 Corinthians 7:4), in marriage each individual is owned by his or her spouse, and together they are obligated to God who has joined them together (Mark 10:9). Both of these concepts—spousal ownership and divine obligation—directly contradict the fundamental precepts of Libertarianism.
Furthermore, as the divorce rate skyrockets (and a consistent Libertarian can only rejoice that people are exercising their individual liberties), the fabric of society is being affected by these fundamental changes. The community is different when marriage is no longer capable of maintaining order in the families of a community. But I have to live in a community somewhere. I have no choice about that. And if I have no liberty to join with likeminded people to create the sort of community that is most beneficial to us—which unavoidably means curtailing the liberty of other individuals within the community to do things that damage the collective good of our community—then the most valuable and precious elements of my individual liberty have been stolen from me. But Libertarianism expressly asserts that I do not have that liberty—it does not even acknowledge that kind of liberty as important, although obviously it is in real life. This is the point at which Libertarianism is so naïve.
As a moral philosopher, I consider Libertarianism to be a ridiculously reductionistic approach to morality. Libertarianism is not the alternative to the legislation of morality; it is among the most inflexible and Totalitarian moral philosophies in existence. Libertarianism takes a single moral concept—that it is morally good for human beings to be free to make decisions for themselves—and makes it the trump card over all other moral concepts. Liberty is not merely good under Libertarianism; it is the summum bonum, and Libertarianism legislates this moral viewpoint upon everyone. Essentially, all other moral concepts cease to exist in Libertarianism, except as points of internal deliberation for the individual. Libertarianism requires that all of society conform to this ordering of moral principles in practice. Talk about cramming your morality down someone else's throat!
Is morality really this simple? Is it always the most moral thing to maximize individualistic liberty? You need not be a Christian to suspect that something is missing here, but if you are a Christian, you must admit at this point that Libertarian morality is strangely at odds with the central tenets of your faith.
For these reasons I am not a Libertarian. Although I have no idealistic supposition that human government will lead us to utopia or ever be anything other than a stopgap measure imperfectly restraining evil until the day that all will be set right, I do believe that government is, on the whole, an important blessing given to the world by God. I'm all in favor of making it the greatest blessing that it can be. Future posts on that are upcoming, I hope.