The Christian Libertarian FAQ
Welcome to the LibertarianChristians.com Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) Page. Here you will find lots of reader questions that Dr. Norman Horn and others have answered regarding libertarianism in theory and practice, Austrian economics, and Christianity as it relates to political theory. This is a constantly evolving page that we hope you will refer to frequently, and that you will help us refine with your feedback.
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The Christian Libertarian FAQ
Often Christian scholars are less visible than their secular counterparts because they do not hold high positions in government or at large public universities but rather are church leaders, missionaries, or professors at Christian colleges. Their views as Christians may overshadow their libertarianism since politics is only one part of a Christian worldview.
Many Christians hold to some variety of limited government and could be considered libertarians in that sense. However, as Christians are less commonly supportive of abortion, for example, their libertarianism is at variance with that of, say, Murray Rothbard.
Some of the more prominent 20th Century Christians who hold to political beliefs which could be described as libertarian include:
- Edmund Opitz – Congregationalist Minister, Senior Staff Member at FEE
- Hans Sennholz – Economist in the Austrian School, Professor at Grove City College
- Gordon H. Clark – Christian Philosopher, Professor
- J. Gresham Machen – Theologian, Professor, Orthodox Presbyterian Church
- Ron Paul – Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Presidential Candidate
- John Howard Yoder – Mennonite Theologian, Christian Pacifist
Others deserving a mention include John W. Robbins and Rousas John Rushdoony, although Rushdoony was a proponent of theonomic reconstructionism rather than libertarianism per se.
Furthermore, there are a number of Christians associated with think tanks such as the Mises Institute, Cato Institute, and Independent Institute, including Jeffrey Tucker, Tom Woods, Robert P. Murphy, Lew Rockwell, Gary North, William Grigg, Ryan McMaken, David Theroux, and Doug Bandow. Others that should be mentioned include Chuck Baldwin, Steven Yates, Laurence Vance, and our own Norman Horn.
Libertarians in general should not think marriage “licensing” by the government is any better than occupation licenses by the government, and are not within the purview of governmental power. If government has any purpose at all in this arena of life, it is to be a storehouse for consensually agreed upon contracts, of which Christian marriage or other arrangements such as those between homosexuals could be included. However, it is not up to the state to decide how to regulate such contracts.
Christian marriage is an institution of the church, not that of the government. Therefore, the government should have no power to tell churches what they can and cannot do regarding Christian marriage.
Similarly, it is not the right of Christians, regardless of their view of homosexuality, to tell others how they are to arrange their own consensual contracts. Therefore, if a homosexual couple wishes to file a contract and they want to call it a “marriage contract,” then that is their prerogative and I have no right to forbid them from doing so. If they want to call it a “civil union” instead, that’s fine as well. With regards to any tax benefits, of course I support any and all measures to reduce the sum total that the government steals from people, provided that spending is also reduced in corresponding measure rather than the shortfall being printed out of thin air. Taxation and government spending are always bad.
However, not forbidding certain behavior should not be conflated with not approving of certain behavior. Being permissive of lifestyle choices does not entail me agreeing that the lifestyle choice is morally right before God. Such non-agreement is my religious perspective, and thus cannot be used as a rationale to coerce others. To me, this is the essence of being socially tolerant: though I disagree with a behavior I shall not raise an aggressive hand against it. I would use a similar argument to defend any non-aggressive behavior even if I believed it to be wrong.
Most importantly, and I think this is the key point, all of this is only an issue not because of our lack of “separation of church and state” (though I certainly want the government out of the church, it’s far too corrupt) but because we have a state in the first place that constantly infringes upon our civil liberties. Power to regulate personal relationships in any way, including marriage, should never be given to the state. The beauty of the free society is that we can still live at peace with each other even if we do not agree with certain lifestyle choices that others make. What I am proposing in the above paragraphs is simply that restoring civil liberties involves getting the government out entirely.
Theonomy, strictly defined, is the notion that God is the sole source of human ethics. There is an element of truth to this: ethics do find their root in the character of God. However, many theonomists add that ethics are rooted only in the witness of Scripture, and hence declare that natural law is false. Some take it even further and say that human government exists to enforce biblical law. These elements of theonomy I reject. First, I take a concordance view of ethics, that natural law and Scripture coincide and support one another rather than oppose. I would point Scripturally-inclined readers to Romans 1-3 as some of the prime evidence for this. I also believe very strongly that the State is the enemy of God, existing as a result of man’s sin rather than as part of the original created order and the destiny of man on earth. God is the true King of the Universe, and all power and glory belong to him, never the State.
This is a terribly difficult question to answer. In sum, I do not believe that being a pacifist is a requirement for a Christian libertarian, but being anti-war is mandatory.
Proper wars – military conflicts – are almost always begun by states, between states. Other instances of wars, such as the Revolutionary War, are few in history. Since the Christian libertarian’s understanding of the state is that it is founded in rebellion against God and is evil in nature, we also understand that its reasons for executing violence against others must also be impure, vile, and evil. We must assume until proven otherwise that any war is unjust. (Even the Revolutionary War’s necessity is debatable, honestly.)
Just war theory, as proposed by Augustine first and many others following him, seeks to limit the state’s justifications for going to war, but there is a downside with the theory as well. Robert Brimlow has addressed this in his book What About Hitler?, and Laurence Vance had this to say in his review of Brimlow’s work: “Brimlow then demolishes the finer points of just war theory itself, even taking on the theologian Thomas Aquinas. The author considers just war theory, ‘as developed and defended both by church theologians and secular philosophers,’ untenable, and for three reasons: (1) Just war theory is untenable because it is difficult to know with sufficient confidence whether all of its conditions have been met. (2) Just war theory is untenable because some of its tenets are impossible to realize. (3) Just war theory is untenable because it used to justify rather than to prevent war.
Go to Laurence’s full article for even more elaboration. I find it compelling. Just war theory has been used to justify terrible wars, including every American intervention/war of the 20th and 21st century. Why, then, would I want to adopt it?
Again, I do not think pacifism is the ultimate answer, but I think Leo Tolstoy, Stanley Hauerwas, John Yoder, and Dietrich Bonheoffer make strong cases for it. Here at LCC, Doug Douma has made persuasive arguments as well. On the other side, I don’t think we can claim that Jesus saying “turn the other cheek” completely excludes all forms of self-defense (see my exegesis of Matthew 5). Who knows, perhaps I will be convinced of pacifism someday, I don’t claim to have this nailed down yet. Currently, I think understanding the use of force through a careful viewing of natural law and ethics reveals the appropriateness of basic self-defense to protect one’s life, family, and property. But, you had darned well better be sure if you ever, ever raise your hand against another person.
Paul says elsewhere that it is good if you can obtain your freedom. See 1 Corinthians 7:21-23; “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.” In one epistle, Paul even gently rebukes a slave owner – Philemon – admonishing him to free the slave Onesiumus.
The reason Paul wrote to the Colossians in this way was to advise prudence. With the newfound freedom a Christian in bondage has found, he might make a rash decision to buck his presumptive “owner” and put himself in a terrible position for his health and witness.
Also, this is actually an encouraging message to someone in slavery. Perhaps after hearing the gospel of Christ and the freedom it brings, the slave may think that there is no way he could possibly be included in this salvation – for he is in physical bondage. Paul’s meta-message is that all are included in the gospel.
Remember what Paul says in Galatians 3 to all Christians everywhere: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
No matter where we are, whether in physical bondage of slavery or oppressed in a dictatorship, the body of Christ – the Church universal – prevails forever.
(Additionally, you might be interested in the LCC blog post on Slavery in the Old Testament.)
The Wikipedia entry you mention suggests that “libertarian Christianity” comes from a specific blend of systematic and biblical theology. They suppose they are distinct from “Christian libertarians” because of their “Bible-based legal philosophy using biblical hermeneutics that are different from those used by Christian libertarians.” (That’s a Wikipedia quote.) To me, this sounds more or less like theonomic reconstructionism, a view I respect but with which I very much disagree for a variety of reasons.
In contrast, “Christian libertarianism describes the synthesis of Christian beliefs concerning human nature and dignity with libertarian political philosophy.” (Also a Wikipedia quote.) Christian libertarianism looks for the congruence of libertarian political thought and Christian theology because of a firm belief in the harmony of natural law with sound theological principles. I have written a few essays that take this approach, including an article for the Washington Post.
This is fundamentally why you will never hear me describe what I believe as “libertarian Christianity.” As it is, the terms comes a bit too front-loaded for me. However, I have no problem calling myself a libertarian Christian OR Christian libertarian. In fact, I’ve written a bit more on that topic in this blog post.
As far as I know, there is no particular denomination that has Christian libertarian positions explicit in their doctrinal statement. However, the common thread of non-violence and anti-statism has been discussed in numerous theological traditions, from Baptists, to Lutherans, all the way to Churches of Christ (the tradition I grew up in). I would actually say that arguably the Churches of Christ and Anabaptist denominations have some of the strongest histories of libertarian leanings. For example, historically the Churches of Christ have held remarkably excellent anti-war positions, especially around the Civil War. Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb, and Alexander Campbell were major leaders in the Stone-Campbell Restorationist movements during that time and made great contributions to the anti-war movement. You can even see some of their writings in Tom Wood’s book, We Who Dared to Say No to War.
This question has multiple levels, and thus I want to wade carefully through the various issues wrapped in it. First off, just because there are plenty of atheist libertarians does not mean that it is a political philosophy only for atheists. On the contrary, I would argue that Christianity has lots in common with libertarianism and very little in common with statism. A philosophy that is essentially founded upon “treat others the way you want to be treated” would naturally see Christianity as favorable. See my Lessons in Liberty article for more.
As for religious expression by governments, Christian libertarians do not want to see government taking on vestments of Christianity whatsoever for two reasons: (1) the State is founded in rebellion to God and it should not be covered in Christian garb to look better than it is. We should always look to expose the State’s evils rather than “baptize” it to gain benefits; and (2) the Church universal needs to be internally protected from the trappings of the State in order to stay pure. The more governments get wrapped up in Christianity, the worse it will be for the Church.
I wouldn’t say that libertarians “hate” Huckabee because they fear theocracy (hate is a strong word anyway). Still, there is much to despise in his politics. Huckabee is a warmonger, pro-big government, pro-drug war, economically illiterate, anti-free market, anti-immigrant, and a supporter of the police state. If he supports these things because he thinks that’s what God wants, then he’s completely off his rocker and that’s worth criticizing in its own right.
I have many non-Christian, libertarian friends. Some of them love Ayn Rand, some don’t. But I have rarely had any issue in sharing my faith or dealing with sensitive topics because we have a common desire to treat others with respect. Here’s the bottom line: liberty brings people together. Libertarians come from all over the belief spectrum, but the commonality of seeking liberty transcends boundaries. As a result, you have many opportunities to live out the gospel to those around you.
I find it extremely difficult to take pro-life conservatives seriously, if they are at the same time condoning, and usually even promoting, the wholesale slaughter of innocents just because they happen to be halfway across the world and Arab. Perhaps it is not so much a contradiction as much as it is a blatant inconsistency.
Voting is not rooted in property rights at all, in fact, it is merely an entitlement. As such, voting is not an act of aggression. However, we should not think of voting too highly. It certainly does not deserve the sacrosanct status that it has in America today. We cannot expect that via mere vote totals that we will change the world in the direction of more liberty. Moreover, it certainly puts one in an awkward moral position to be voting for people who have directly stated that they will be acting in aggression over others, such as promotion of never-ending war and spending, so even though voting is not violent one must recognize the tertiary effects thereof.
Candidly, if I knew how a market in X works in practice, an accurate and comprehensive answer would be the most valuable proof that statism would work. Knowing how things work in practice ahead of time is impossible. We can guess and offer possibilities, but if education were privatized, it would probably look very different from what we now expect. At the same time, we don’t have just theories or principles of economics to look to for answers on how education could work without the state. We have a history of markets with millions of examples of how goods and services “work in practice.” We also have a history of markets that show us how the poor are provided goods and services that in prior decades on the wealthy could afford or have access to. While it will always be true that the wealthy will have access to the best, since the advent of freed markets the poorest have had access to reliable and quality substitutes for those products or services. In the early 1990s, “car phones” seemed to be the envy of the wealthy, completely out of reach to the poorest. Cellular phones are now ubiquitous and nearly universally affordable. A computer used to cost thousands of dollars in 1980s money, but now are merely a few hundred dollars in today’s money. These are but a few examples.
Education is one of the most complex social phenomena throughout history because of its rather fundamental nature of life. The bare minimum of learning is for mere survival, and so broadly speaking, education has always existed where survival was necessary! Just as there have always been many ways to learn, there are many ways to acquire education—apprenticeships, schools, labor market, reading, to name just a few. The first thing to keep in mind with education is that what we usually think of as “education” today is relatively new. Schools as we think of them are a recent historical practice.
The most difficult endeavor in proposing a society that operates completely on the foundations of peaceful interactions is to imagine a world nearly upside down from today’s experience. Examples throughout history are full of those who objected to social change. Certain industries may thrive in new conditions and leave old industries obsolete, yet life continued and humanity adjusted. It moves on. And most of us are the better for it. But social change is not without its hurdles. The biggest one is opening the imagination of others who cannot see what ought to be done. This takes courage and perseverance. It doesn’t happen overnight.
For most who question the privatization model of education, the children who will presumably be “left behind” (i.e. they fail to get adequate education) are the focus of concern. Add to this the Christian responsibility to concern themselves with the wellbeing of what Jesus calls “the least of these,” and the question becomes a bit more important. If Christians advocate something that leaves the poor behind, it might need to be reconsidered.
A Honda Civic will get me to work just as well as an Aston Martin. An iPad will send emails, but so will the cheapest tablet on the market that costs a fraction of the price. You can buy expensive cabinets made of exquisite wood shipped from exotic locations around the world, or you can shop at IKEA. Both add functionality to your kitchen. Markets have a proven track record of providing reliable and socially acceptable goods and services for those who have very little. In many areas, even those who were very wealthy could not afford such things a decade prior.
Once we keep in mind that education is not just “schooling,” we can begin to imagine ways that educating the poorest in a free society is not just a prediction but is feasible.
The question isn’t really about who owns and operates the school system. The question is, “What kind of ‘system’ do we need in order to see access to education to as many people as possible?” Do we even need a formal system, or does an emergent order of educational providers make more sense (the Hayekians among us would have plenty to say here!)?
It is often stated that it is the job of “the church” to assist the poor and not the job of anyone else. But for the same reason I reject the idea that “schooling” equals “education,” I would also reject the idea that “Church” equals “institutionalized Christianity.” Those who follow Jesus should be pushing the way forward that helps those in need, by whatever peaceful means necessary. That could mean starting a school funded by donations from those who have extra to give. That could mean starting a business that provides apprenticeships to the poor in exchange for inexpensive labor. That could mean working in the political system to privatize schools as we now know it. It could also mean working toward dismantling the current system so that it reflects a less institutionalized approach to educating.
A remaining concern to address is the neglectful parenting that can happen, leaving children “behind” the rest of society. What I would caution against is considering “society” as an entity with a purpose as if it were an individual. If by society you mean “the people living in society,” consider this: when a society is ready and willing to “go private” with education (face it, that’s a long way off!), that society will be ready to take care of those who are being neglected without a need for a federal or state institution to do so.
This issue has been addressed on LCC in a few places, including the FAQ – make sure to check those out. However, let’s take this opportunity to make an important point about morality and the use of force.
Everything a libertarian thinks a government should do (or not do) flows out of our understanding of property rights. First, you own yourself, insofar as other human beings do not have better claim to it (God obviously becomes the final arbiter in this regression, but this is beside the point for now). As such, you have the right to use your body however you choose, so long as you do not initiate force against others either physically or through fraud.
It generally is reasonable to most people that if someone else is doing something of which you disapprove but is not aggressive in nature, then you do not have the right to initiate force to stop him. This clearly follows from the non-aggression principle stated above. However, many of these same people think that it’s alright to use the government to stop activity of which they disapprove. All it takes is a new law.
In contrast, libertarians say that this is an illegitimate use of force. If I, as an individual, do not have the right to force people to stop action X (because action X is not aggressive in nature), then neither does a group of people, and neither does a government. Governments do not have the right to regulate non-aggressive behavior.
So the first question is, why should the above principles change when it comes to sex? I disapprove of prostitution as much as the next fellow, but at least prostitution is consensual as opposed to a government that sustains itself on institutionalized violence.
Instead of using our time and energy to get the government to prohibit activity like prostitution, or drugs, or pornography, or drinking, or whatever, which invariably leads to black markets and escalation of violence and a police state, why not instead build up the Kingdom of God through the church?
As of 2013, I am a member of the University Avenue Church of Christ in Austin, Texas. The Churches of Christ come from the Stone-Campbell Restorationist tradition of the 19th century. I think it’s safe to say that the Churches of Christ are congregationalist in nature, believing that local churches should be independent and thus there is no hierarchy/synod/etc. that specifies creeds or confessions that identify us. If anything, we believe in the Apostle’s Creed because of its simplicity and essential nature to our shared faith. In the past, the Restorationist tradition has said things such as “No creed but Christ!” in order to make clear that our interest is in the unity of believers, rather than the dispersity of belief sets.
Rapid fire answers: Protestant? Yes. Evangelical? Sort of. Calvinist? No. Baptist? I’m a big fan of baptism. Confession? I like confessing, but not to you.
The way I see it, there are three levels to how Christian libertarians should handle these issues:
- As it pertains to the United States, we should never condone the Federal government handling any kind of marriage issue. Such legislation would not be Constitutional. Instead, we should promote the elevation of individual rights always superseding the government.
- At the state level, Christian libertarians should not support further government intrusion into marriage in general. This is unacceptable power given to the government. For example, I do not think it right for state governments to pass marriage amendments that either legalize or make illegal the practice of “gay marriage.”
- Christian libertarians should, in general, support the recognition of all consensual contracts, including those of the “civil union” type. This is especially reasonable considering that any money the government does not steal is a good thing.
Christian libertarians look at government in the same manner as other libertarians, but also use Scripture, Christian theological reasoning, and the Christian faith tradition to support such views. For most Christian libertarians, our aim is to show how natural rights and libertarian political theory coincide with proper ethics from a Christian perspective. Regarding the duties of national government, they consist of little to almost nothing. If government has any purpose at all, it is to protect the rights and property of individuals, and this only with the explicit consent of the governed. At most, this would include a court of final authority and protection. This would be considered the minarchist perspective, but many would go so far to say that any government that maintains a monopoly of force in law and protection will inevitably choose to abuse its power and become tyrannical. That is, even minarchism is doomed to failure in the long run. Many Christian libertarians believe this is consistent with the witness of Scripture as well, from ancient Egypt, to Babylon, to Rome, even to Israel when they had a king (see 1 Samuel 7).
Besides all the positive reasons that support libertarianism, one of the greatest rejoinders to statism I know of is Matthew 20:25-28, where Jesus says: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant… just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I think it would be incorrect to say outright “God/Jesus is a libertarian,” but what I find very compelling in Scripture is that Christian ethics and libertarian ethics end up being very similar. Other instances: (1) The Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12 is very similar to the non-aggression principle. (2) Scripture is consistently skeptical toward power concentrated into the hands of rulers (cf. 1 Samuel 7). (3) The “Kingdom of God” is never characterized with the aggression of the State. Can you think of any more?
Besides Scripture, libertarianism has more or less emerged from the Western tradition, which is tied very strongly to historical Christianity. Christians were, in fact, the “early adopters” of classical liberalism, which was libertarianism’s ideological predecessor. Thus, we have an interesting historical argument as well supporting libertarianism from a Christian perspective.
The Christian libertarian recognizes the fundamental nature of self-ownership, which states simply that with respect to other human beings you own yourself. Thus, it is not right for me (or others) to claim ownership over your body by making laws telling you what you can and cannot do with it. I cannot initiate force against you. I may, Lord willing, use my personal influence to urge you to behave differently, but I shall not lift a hand against you. The argument that these substances are illegal because they can do you personal harm is, quite frankly, completely ludicrous. People consensually agree to do dangerous things with physical substances all the time — such as football, boxing, or riding in cars. The argument that these substances might “influence” you to do harm to others is barely more sane. If you cause harm to someone else “under the influence” then you can be prosecuted as a criminal, but there is no legal principle under the sun that states you can be prosecuted before doing anything wrong. (Remember the “pre-crime” unit of Minority Report?)
One way you can avoid accusations of being a “pot user” is, quite simply, not to use it. Live such an exemplary life that someone could never think to impugn your consistency and honesty. Honestly, I care very little if someone has smoked anything. I see no fundamental difference between cigars, cigarettes, and marijuana, and I condemn no one for any such use. One the government has declared illegal, and the others not. (I am convinced that it has medical uses as well.) Nonetheless, I choose not to participate in such activities in order not to put a stumbling block before any brother or sister. Perhaps this is one of those areas where, at the current time, “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)
The best way to reduce substance abuse is to remember that it is a health issue, not a legal issue. Prohibition leads to increased violence, as is evident from the immoral and foolish alcohol prohibition era and the current War on Drugs. Thus, all true libertarians call for complete legalization, as it is the only ethical position one can take.
Also, check out other posts on LCC about the War on Drugs.
The non-aggression principle is the basic statement of libertarianism in general, that people should be allowed to do whatever they wish so long as it they do not execute aggression upon another person. Aggression is defined as the initiation of force against another person. Self-defense, however, is not aggression because it is a response to prior aggression.
Abortion is a sensitive issue that well-meaning libertarians can disagree upon. However, the reasonable conclusions of most libertarians, including those Christian libertarians, are that (a) the State does a terrible job of protecting life, liberty, and property in general, (b) the United States Federal Government does not have abortion in its purview, and (c) making abortion “illegal” does not really solve the problem. Government solutions will tend to increase government power, and the focus of all libertarians ought to be the reduction of government power. In doing so, we believe that abortions will surely become a thing of the past.
The problem with saying that Romans 13 proves there is “a role for government” is that it is conflating government being within God’s plan with government being sanctioned and declared inherently moral by God. When one considers the numerous negative references to the State in the Bible, such as Matthew 4, 1 Samuel 8, Genesis 11, and the book of Revelation, one cannot but admit that the State is, at core, rooted in rebellion against God. So while it is impossible to speak directly for Paul, it seems to me that the State itself is the problem and not merely the size. In conclusions, a Christian can admit that the State is not outside of God’s plan, and yet still advocate for it’s abolition as the greatest oppressor of the innocent in history.
Homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else. Just as other libertarians have said, your rights do not change based on your sexual preference. Correspondingly, you also do not get special rights because you are homosexual. An individual or government cannot, for instance, force a minister to perform a wedding ceremony against his will. This is simply a re-statement of the non-aggression principle.
Had I the opportunity, yes I would have supported the repeal of sodomy laws before the US Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. Any activity between consenting individuals should not be punitively punished by the state.
The position of LibertarianChristians.com is that Romans 13 is about prudence in action toward governmental intrusion in life. While civil disobedience is not immoral and certainly is great to do in certain cases, one must be very careful in executing such measures. For instance, my first responsibility is the caretaking of my family, and then serving the church. I will not do things that bring unreasonable risk upon them. Frequently enough there are better ways of making a difference. But most of all, LibertarianChristians.com does not and will never advocate violence as the answer to our problems.
Christian libertarians do not believe that you can solve moral problems through legislation. Insofar as law exists, we seek to reduce its grasp on individual action that is not aggressive in nature. Instead, we want to use the power of social change, leveraged through the Church and local communities, to fix such problems.
Libertarians understand that the government cannot do anything right for an economy. Thus, if the government is to exist at all, it should not involve itself in anything other than the protection of basic property rights. (And many libertarians, myself included, think the State cannot even protect rights without becoming corrupt!) Hence, the government should abolish all income and property taxes and not involve itself in trade whatsoever.
Besides that, Jim DeMint is not a great example of someone being “libertarian” on fiscal issues. If you’re going to look anywhere in Congress, look to Ron Paul!