Sunday, 21 February 2010

Christian libertarianism

I read with interest Young Mr Brown's post Is libertarianism compatible with Christianity? and Mike T's posts on Problems facing a "Christian Libertarianism" part 1 and part 2.

I have increasingly developing libertarian tendencies, perhaps in part because of the increasing role the state in the West wishes to assume, though I am possibly better described as a minarchist.

The opposition of Christians to libertarianism may be due to several things, including the idea that governments should be socialist, or at least promote social justice (whatever that is). Young Mr Brown highlights another reason that is worth exploring. Firstly his definition of libertarianism
The philosophy that holds that the ultimate political value is the freedom of the individual, and that the most effective way to uphold that freedom is to limit the scope of the state to those activities which directly defend that freedom.
And the complaint
A lot of libertarians speak about "self-ownership" being the basic principle of libertarianism, though I find that philosophically problematic, and don't accept it.
To which I concur. Mike T identifies the same issue
For libertarianism, the highest good is liberty and human autonomy. For Christianity, the highest good is summarized in the first commandment which is to love Lord with all of one's strength, above all things, and render obedience to the same.
And goes on in his 2 posts to discuss the problems this raises.

While I think that libertarianism is compatible with Christianity, the reason Christians hold to it differs quite fundamentally from many who hold to freedom and autonomy.

Firstly, I think Christianity does value liberty, at least in thought, but also in action. Freedom to think and hence act in ways that God approves is foundational. To force a man to act against his conscience is damnable. God calls us to obey him buts gives us the freedom to do this. So our freedom is not the freedom of a libertine, but that of a bondservant; one who enters into a relationship freely, but is constrained within such relationship.

Secondly, the Christian recognises that man is fallen. We are broken and we rebel against the good. Without God we choose our own way. But even belonging to God we battle the sinful desires of the flesh. So a free person will not naturally choose good paths. Fathers, community elders, and national governors are required to punish errant people, especially when they infringe on their fellow man—the libertarian position.

So the Christian values liberty in order that man can serve God, and the Christian knows that men will choose evil, at least in this current age. Neither of these positions may necessarily be held by an unbeliever.

Returning to autonomy and self-ownership we note that the Christian denies self-ownership. We do not own ourselves. God is our creator and he has claim on us
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours;/
the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. (Psalm 89)
This claim means that we are answerable to God for our behaviour. Despite denying self-ownership, the Christian does hold to autonomy, or at least a variant of such. Autonomy  is defined as the right to self-government whereas the Christian subscribes to the responsibility of self-government. It is not defending the right of men to do what they want, but the realisation that we are answerable to God for the responsibilities we are given, one of which is the governance we choose to have over our minds and bodies. This is not to say that we bear 100% of the blame for all our choices, but ultimately each man is answerable to God for how he acts. Nor does it mean that we are only responsible for ourselves, we bear some blame if we encourage others in rebellion against God; and we may have added responsibilities as a father, an employer, or as a politician.

If the greatest commandments are loving God, then loving man, then freedom to do so is important. And these acts are voluntary, they mean nothing if done under compulsion. Thus liberty to do so seems consistent with Christianity.

But just as the responsibility of self-government points toward liberty, the fallen nature of man points away from excessive state control.

There can be little doubt that while good leaders have done good for their people, evil leaders have done much damage. Open wickedness may be obviously wrong, but excessive control is frequently harmful. Further, if we allow for a large state when we approve of our leaders, the same state can do proportionally more damage when bad men come into power.

Further, even if leaders don't seem overtly evil, our fallen nature affects our reason. So  government that seeks to interfere in the lives of men will frequently do so in the wrong way. Policy that seems kind may lack justice. Provisions that alleviate suffering short term may exacerbate it long term. Laws that give men positive "rights" may severely restrict others' negative rights. Basically the detrimental effect of the fall on the ability to reason means that men can and do reason wrongly. And even if they reason rightly they may lack the will to do right. By restricting the role of the government to that of justice, and in that to punish wrong rather than to create good, the fallen man is limited in his ability to do evil. Given that probably far more people have died at the hands of government than have died at the hand of bandits throughout history, restricting leaders seems more essential than restricting citizens.


  1. Your definition of Autonomy is limited in a way that most libertarians would not limit it. For most of them, a liberal cultural is as important as liberal laws which grant a framework of self-government. Therefore, they will seek to make the culture match their view of how the law should be in this regard. Thus, they often become the enemies of tradition and higher goods because these things undermine our relational autonomy.

    Objectivists may claim that they are not libertarians, but they are the Bolsheviks to the LP's Meshavik party. Same cause, different level of radicalism. The principled vanguard often goes so far as to deny that parents have an innate duty to their children which limits their autonomy relative to them. They also find it "immoral" to suggest that if you own a boat, and a man is floundering in the water, that you have a duty to him to let him get on your boat if you can safely do so.

    Libertarians generally believe that we should all be islands; objectivists believe we should be islands that resemble the beaches at Normandy whenever someone may encroach upon us.

  2. Quite possibly Mike. It may be that the idea of limited government is a similar result of 2 fundamentally different philosophies. This may be reasonable to point out, but when people claim that Christianity is incompatible with libertarianism because of problems with some ideals that are contrary to Christianity, it doesn't follow that the shared desire of limited government cannot exist.

    Further, it may be that the moderns are parasitic on Christian thought. The see the benefit of limited government from Christian philosophy, then argue for different reasons because of their dislike of the demands of Christianity. Somewhat analogous to atheist morality.

  3. For myself, Christian libertarianism is a more orderly variant of Christian anarchism. That is to say, that the Christian is in the world and thus subject to earthly rulers, while owing them no fealty, for his citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus Christ is his only true lord. The Christian is an alien in this world, an ambassador from the Kingdom of God; he is not a subject of the principalities of this dark world who may someday emigrate to heaven, as many conservatives would have it.

    The reason so many Christians today despise libertarianism is because of their misreading of the Old Testament. They think that the pattern for government is set out by the Torah, and so they want to replicate the Israelite monarchy in all its legalism and ritualistic glory.

    They have missed all the other books of the OT that show what a massive failure the Israelite monarchy was. The Israelite monarchy was born out of the people's wickedness and rejection of God (1 Samuel 8 and 12) and it ended up in sinfulness, murder, injustice, and exile. (Here I refer to "injustice" according to God's meaning in the OT, rather than the humanistic contemporary sense.)



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