Libertarians and Charity: A Response to Stoker

This article was jointly written by Doug Stuart and Jessica Hooker.

“…libertarianism is a values system of its own, and it’s an alternative, not a complement, to the values system that is Christianity.”
-Elizabeth Stoker

Such is the thesis of Elizabeth Stoker’s ongoing series on Christianity and libertarianism.  She makes a strong case against what she thinks is an incompatibility between libertarian philosophy (as she understands it) and Christianity (as she understands it).

Stoker and these LCC authors share a common lineage.  Like her, we grew up in “right-wing” homes, both distinctively Christian. While many of our beliefs were inherited from our parents, there was not a time when we didn’t believe for ourselves what the Bible said. Likewise, our families’ political ideology (staunch Republican) influenced the way we thought about politics for years. Over time Stoker became a hardcore leftist, while our journeys brought us to respect and embrace libertarianism. In some ways, we share a common dislike for the “right-wing” political ideology.

Stoker stated at the beginning of her first post, “The Curious Case of Christian Libertarians”, that she did not intend to shame or poke fun at anyone.  Neither do we.

She wanted to share why she believes “the central concerns of libertarians are fundamentally different from the central concerns of Christianity.” Good for her.

She has written a succinct explanation of her position.

Now, it’s our turn.

Our goal is not to dismantle every point Stoker has made, but rather to offer a cogent response to her inaccurate assumptions about libertarianism as we see it. We also will discuss her major objections to the libertarian ethic. While it may be obvious to her why the Scriptures she quotes contradict libertarianism, she does not sufficiently connect her ideas together to show how she arrived at her conclusions.  Charitably stated, even if her interpretation of quoted passages were correct,  she still fails to explain how it contradicts libertarian values.

Stoker outlines three main objections to the compatibility of Christianity and libertarianism, with subsequent expansions in later posts. The rest of this article will explore her first point, and subsequent articles will address the other two.

(1) Libertarianism is not the cold-hearted, anti-community, every-man-an-island philosophy that Elizabeth Stoker thinks it is.

While libertarianism can be easily summarized in a single phrase—”do not initiate force or violence against anyone”—and makes no prima facie provision for reaching out to others and taking care of them, it most certainly leaves room for people to do with their money, time, and energy as they see fit…and this includes helping the less fortunate.

But what if the less fortunate are not helped?  For many, this is a common and real fear.  How can it be right and just of us to spend all our money on ourselves, when this might mean neglecting the needs of others?

As Christians, the answer is simple: we are commanded to love others as we love ourselves, to put the interests of others ahead of our own, and to care for the least of these. The libertarian philosophy gives us the freedom to do so: to bless and help others as much as we so choose, unhindered by the burden of paying into a system of coerced charity.

Stoker, we assume, would bristle at such a society. To her, charity is not the issue, but rather justice. As she said in her second post, “I fold the eradication of poverty in with justice–that is, I consider poverty an injustice, and its eradication just…”  She believes God expects societies to take care of those in need, and as Christians we would agree. God gives us not only the freedom to choose what we do with our own resources, but also the responsibility to cooperate with others ethically for the common good. Call us crazy, but that doesn’t seem contradictory to a libertarian framework because the libertarian framework is about what we ought not do, not what we ought to do. At its heart, the free market and libertarianism is about the cooperation of individuals for mutual benefits. Not only does God expect and desire that we take care of the poor, God also desires that we configure ethical means of doing so. What Stoker wants is a monopoly institution with the power to include others against their will organizing the effort. To use unethical means to accomplish charitable goals is fundamentally unjust.

Stoker’s real problem with libertarianism, then, isn’t that libertarians haven’t offered ways to lift up the poor (many have), but that it doesn’t require of others who don’t share our beliefs to go along with our wishes or vision for society. Stoker wants us to go through her two-step process—(1) adjust our attitudes, and (2) pay our taxes—to deal with the fact that welfare isn’t voluntary. So I (Doug) went through her process (it didn’t take long). Guess what? That only deals with me! Thanks to her two-step process, I am now thankful that my taxes go completely to good use. But what about all my friends and neighbors who don’t agree with me? Social justice is a robust concept that demands much more from us than “adjusting our attitudes!”

Further, Stoker herself seems to concede this point in a more recent article:  “What I want to note about each of these verses [Mark 14:7; Deut. 15:11] is where God locates the action: in both verses, we have the establishment of the poor, and then in the following clause, an address of action.  But who does God expect to act in order to redress the wrong of poverty?  You.”

She’s absolutely right.  Not your neighbor.  Or your best friend.  Or your boss.  But you.  And me.  As individuals. And all of us, together. But that doesn’t demand or direct us to the how of doing all of this.

As with all issues of social ordering, it comes back to the question, “How?” The social order can take two forms: voluntary cooperation or forced cooperation. The former is a redundant expression, the latter an oxymoron. The former is the essence of the free market, the latter is the essence of collectivism. If one wants to heal social disorder we suggest that it be done by advocating the former and abandoning the latter (at least over time). Then, not only will we have the results Stoker desires but we will also have the genuine social order that’s meant by “shalom.”

Stay tuned to LibertarianChristians.com for our next response.

LCI posts articles representing a broad range of views from authors who identify as both Christian and libertarian. Of course, not everyone will agree with every article, and not every article represents an official position from LCI. Please direct any inquiries regarding the specifics of the article to the author. 

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