I’ve shied away from the label “Libertarian,” preferring “juris naturalist” though in some circles the idea of Natural Law means something that doesn’t work well for me either. However, recently Joe Carter challenged the internet to provide a reconciliation between Libertarianism and Christianity.
I decided, before reading other people’s responses, to provide one of my own:
Am I a Christian Libertarian?
Jesus, God incarnate, demonstrated to us the way to perform justice when He died on the cross. He suffered the punishment another deserved. He also freed from bondage those whom were bound under oppression. Yet, He did not heal all of those whom He met. He only did as He saw His Father in Heaven doing. As believers then, if we imitate Christ, we will adopt a peculiar ethic, and a sacrificial approach to justice.
The classical liberal tradition of thinkers flowing out of the Scottish Enlightenment, through the Austrian economists, and into Virginian Political Economy has demonstrated that the state has a tendency toward tyranny, no matter its form. Various thinkers have assigned different legitimate tasks to the state, depending on their view of human nature, and their perspective on the capacity of constitutions to be initiated justly and then to maintain effective constraints on power. At the extreme end of these thinkers are a group of anarchists, sometimes called anarcho-capitalists, who vary among themselves in their conception of anarchy. That the approach is worthy of consideration, and not deserving of rejection out of hand, should be recognized by the recent work of Ed Stringham and Peter Leeson, among others (and both students of Peter Boettke, a professing Christian).
That Jesus might have been an anarchist as well has been suggested by writers such as Jacques Ellul, and is hinted at by theologians such as John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and his protégés. (Full disclosure: I have sat under the teaching of both Hauerwas and Boettke personally, perhaps the only person who can make that claim!) The most cogent line of thinking among those who read Jesus, and the rest of Scripture for that matter (See Greg Boyd’s work.) has a decidedly Anabaptist flavor.
Having set this framework, let’s see if we can reconcile Christianity and Libertarianism.
The anarchist line of Libertarians recognizes that the state, the monopoly on the use of force, ultimately cannot be constrained. For all of James Buchanan’s spinning, his argument requires a unanimity which is not forthcoming for the establishment of a workable constitution. A constitution, that is, which will effectively and permanently limit the reach of the state. Draw the line where you will, perhaps at Nozick’s night watchman, perhaps at Rawls’ minimax condition, no matter. The state oversteps its bounds, whatever bounds it agrees to, without fail.
The tightest constraint on the state conceivable might include a judicial branch which employs the process of common law and precedent to hear individual cases and make decisions about the allocation of rights. The law would essentially describe negatively the rights each individual could expect to hold protected from others, and would enforce voluntary contracts. Ostracism might be employed as an effective disciplinary measure. I say might because it is nearly impossible to tell what sort of system might emerge spontaneously among individuals with equal allocations of power and protection.
But the simple fact is that in the face of all due process justifications for this approach to constitutionally guarded justice we live in a world where power has been employed historically, and where there is an unequal distribution of power presently. Following purely just processes from here on out does not guarantee to evenly distribute that power over the course of time and to correct historical injustices. Further, in order to correct any of these injustices redistributive action may need to take place. But seldom is it possible to isolate the beneficiaries of injustice and to tax from them what is necessary to make the oppressed whole. We are, on so many margins, within what Gordon Tullock coined a transitional gains trap.
Suppose John Newton sails a boat to Africa and enslaves some people, stows them away to the West Indies, and sells them to one T. Carlyle, a plantation owner. Later William Wilberforce comes along and suggests that the plantation owner ought to free his Equiano. Wilberforce is a Christian, you see, and he understands Equiano to be a man and a brother, a fellow son of Adam and of Noah (not Ham). It is objectively wrong to Wilberforce for Equiano to be deprived of his liberty. But Mr. Carlyle has a legitimate problem. He purchased Equiano at the market rate, which included the net present discounted value of all the labor Equiano was expected to provide for the rest of his life. Indeed, Carlyle only just was able to afford to buy Equiano, and only did so as a risky bit of entrepreneurship on fully legal grounds at the time. For Wilberforce to instantaneously emancipate Equiano would impoverish Carlyle. Meanwhile, Newton would have gotten off amazingly with all the real profits, and would be unharmed by Wilberforce’s emancipating grace, and its costs.
You see, Wilberforce has brought grace to some, and a sword to others, but at no considerable cost to himself! Instead he has employed, as an evangelical, Parliament as a tool for social justice and reform. Even if, to the approbation of the Utilitarians such as John Stewart Mill, Wilberforce should compensate the plantation owner, he would have to do so at the expense of British taxpayers.
Suppose instead another voice enters the fray, assuming that grace is costly, and that to do justice must needs involve personal sacrifice. Let’s call him Dietrich. Dietrich sees early on the Parliaments are fragile. Perhaps he perceives that a people downtrodden and discouraged will either need to find freedom in confession, or otherwise be lead down a road to serfdom. Dietrich proposes that he buy Equiano from the plantation owner out of his own finds, which he has labored hard for, pursuing his vocation honestly, in expectation of having something to share with one in need. Well, the plantation owner is taken quite aback by this demonstration of sympathy. He is completely unfamiliar with such Moral Sentiments!
Now we might expect one of two reactions on the part of T. Carlyle. First, he might consider good Dietrich a pumpkin-faced fool. The good natured lad had failed to recognize the moral hazard in his action. There are Equianos and John Strongs aplenty to be had from any passing Newtonian vessel. However, there is an outside chance that the sacrificial action might have a transformative effect on the plantation owner. He may come to experience grace freely given. He may come to recognize the imago dei in Olaudah. Carlyle might even come to recognize how dismal his own life has been, and repent of both his oppression and any other evil sciences he had been practicing.
Now, it is quite right to say that Wilberforce was the more practical man in this scenario. He pursued a reasonable strategy, at least according to any Benthamite. He may have been motivated into action by appropriate sympathies, good intentions. And, he got the job done, didn’t he? So what if it took decades, innumerable resources, and new strategies of activism? And nevermind that the coalition which formed in the process became its own special interest group, affording itself privileges and seeking out rents. Forget about the fact that Carlyle might have perceived the imminent emancipation and calculatingly cut cucumber consumption whilst whipping his workers worse. A moral victory would have been won.
But Dietrich certainly took the more difficult approach. He preferred life together in suffering with Equiano to adoption of the oppressors’ methods. Nevermind that not all the slaves were able to be saved, it was just important that an attempt be made for Carlyle’s life as well. After all, God is sovereign over the suffering of His innocents. We are merely responsible to obey Christ when He bids us to take up His cross and follow.
This little vignette, with all of its biographical errors and loose interpretations, perhaps illustrates what it might mean to be a Christian Libertarian. Having a full appreciation for the fallen nature of man, we look for mechanisms which correct or usefully channel that nature. The market emerges in response to this, even in the absence of a state. Indeed, a robust minimal state such as previously described might emerge in response to the presence of a market. If judicial and policing services can be provided on the market, such as David Friedman has suggested, no state at all may be necessary. Indeed, in reading I Samuel we realize that God understood the wicked proclivity of states to aggrandize power unto themselves.
But we live among pagans and idolaters and people who desire a state so that they can manipulate it. We would love to have a messiah come and take over the state, to remove the wicked from power, and to set the world right through the exercise of His divine privilege. We would love to be excused from obeying the rulers currently in place. We might be satisfied by replacing the current leaders with others who have greater integrity. But Jesus demonstrated none of these strategies. He challenged the authority of every power-holder He met with His prophetic words. He demonstrated the utter illegitimacy of all earthly power. He did not deny that all the kingdoms of the earth belonged to Satan when tempted.
Instead Jesus demonstrated a subversive approach of sacrifice. This is what it means to be a libertarian Christian. To put no hope whatsoever in the state, yet not to seek rebellion. To pay one’s taxes, but to not expect them to do any good. To be the good one hopes to see in the world. To care for the poor in spite of state welfare programs. Spite of a kind that prophetically proclaims to the state: your very best and most sincere efforts are filthy rags.
The Christian libertarian says, the best unregenerate people are capable of is mutual satisfaction of wants. In non-Christian marriage we ought to expect a Randian mutual rape. Christian marriage ought to be an example of Christ’s relationship to His church, and as such, set apart as a church enforced covenant. We don’t need marriage contracts with the state, unless as efficient bundles of other contracts to which all people should have access. We don’t expect the civil government to capable of reflecting a positive sort of goodness or justice, but at its best only capable of enforcing negative justice. We don’t seek out protections for ourselves or our families, but instead provide our own lives and homes as refuges for the world.
The usual mistakes made by Christian Libertarians as outlined by Joe Carter are overcome. A consistent philosophy in which Christianity and Libertarianism are fully compatible has been described, though we might disagree on definitions. The two words have not simply been mashed together, but a careful understanding of both traditions has been demonstrated. Libertarian social mores are permitted for unregenerate souls. That is, victimless crimes are not prosecuted, though sacrifices may be made to appeal to the latent imago dei which remains. Therefore the charge of adjectivalization is refuted. The charge of conservatism is denied with Hayekian vigor. The accusation of insanity is dismissed. Finally, I challenge anyone to find something more at the root of Christianity than sacrificial love in imitation of the cross, or anything more libertarian than a minimalist state or anarcho-capitalism. This really is both.
What is difficult however is that most libertarians will find sacrifice foolish, and most Christians will find anarchy dangerous. I think that is precisely where the Christian should find himself.