Don’t Tread On Who?

Critics of libertarianism often charge that it is a “selfish ideology,” or that any explanation of self-interest is just a warmed-over excuse for selfish behavior. While it is indeed possible that the libertarian impulse attracts the selfish, careless, wanna-be hermit, the worldview of most libertarians should not be reduced to “leave us alone.”

donttreadThe Gadsden flag proudly displays the message “Don’t tread on me.” At first glance, this is understandably interpreted as selfish. Deeper reflection, however, conveys a more important meaning: “Don’t tread on others.” Deeper yet, the mantra applies equally to everyone. Properly understood, the image announces to everyone, “Don’t tread on anyone.”

While libertarians are far from advocating a “do anything you want” way of life, Christian critics claim that this mentality contradicts both the demands Jesus makes of his followers and the expectations God has for societies. To be sure, the Bible presents serious consequences for those who do not care for others in need (see Matthew 25). In the Old Testament, God displays much dismay, even anger, when the poor are being mistreated or ignored. And Jesus announced liberation to those oppressed by evil regimes, enslaved by social norms, and dehumanized by others. It isn’t that libertarians can’t still agree with and pursue these elements. It’s just that we believe that whatever form “treading” takes, it must be abolished (hence the anarchist impulse to denounce the State).

In order to be clear about what being a libertarian is, we must be clear what it is not. It is not absolution of responsibility to those in need. It is not license to excuse inaction. It is, essentially, declaring a plethora of “thou shalt nots.” How one chooses to live purposefully is another matter.

“Don’t Tread On Anyone” is an important message, but it is simply the starting point, a reminder to society that Bastiat’s “everybody plunders everybody” isn’t a viable option for a just society. While we should be clear that liberty isn’t just about what we can’t do, we must also be clear that ending oppression in all forms is a worthy start.