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.”
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’S THREE OBJECTIONS
LIBERTARIANS AND CHARITY
(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.”
PROPERTY AND THE BIBLE
2.) Not only does the Bible indicate that God values private property, in it we see God’s desire to see property stewarded for its value to humanity.
John Locke began his Second Treatise on Government with a comment on property:
“…we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit…”
The idea of private property is fundamental to libertarian philosophy and is clearly supported in the Bible. We find in the book of Exodus the laws God gave the people of Israel as they emerged from Egypt. This covenant between God and the Israelites ordered justice in their community. Part of that covenant and establishment of justice included property rights. Exodus 22 deals solely with laws regarding property—both livestock and land—and also lists the restitution that is required if these laws are violated. While this may be an oversimplification, the concept of property rights was a part of God’s arrangement with Israel in ordering a just society. God expected them to share, yes, but how can one share what is not one’s own? Perhaps the phrase “stewardship rights” is more accurate a description than “property rights.” We each “own” something, which is to say, we are stewards of real property, and God has certain expectations of us.
What a man works for, earns, or creates is his, and to deny him the rights to the fruit of his labor is to, in effect, deny him a part of himself. Yes, as Christians, we consider all that is “our own” as rightfully belonging to God, and all that we are blessed with is to be shared. But the question isn’t “Who owns what?” The critical question is “How do we approach others who don’t view property as ours to steward well for God’s Kingdom?” Do we take it by force and give it to “good causes” (that we get to define)? Do we take some of it by force (taxes) and use it for social justice? Or, should we seek means to persuade others to give voluntarily?
Stoker claims that in a strict understanding of Christian ethics that “you’re not… entitled to more than what sustains you in terms of property,” and that “the claim of ownership has a very limited moral value.” Aligning with John the Baptizer, if we have two shirts, we should share with the one who has none (Luke 3). Apparently, Stoker believes an entire Christian ethic of property can be extrapolated from this. Sure, one could say that Jesus tells us that God will take care of us the way God takes care of the flowers and sparrows (see Sermon on the Mount), so saving up more than we “need” (instead of giving it away) is superfluous. But when we must ask, Is Luke really trying to communicate a new ethic of property? Doubtful. John has just announced the imminence of the Kingdom of God. He is not declaring a new property rights ethic, he is explaining why Israel’s expectations for the arrival of the Kingdom is the opposite of what they expected.
Stoker apparently believes that this passage (and probably additional supporting passages in mind) rips apart the principles of private property that so many libertarians promote. Actually, the passage does not refute private property, but not merely because we interpret the passage differently. One can attempt to cherry-pick Gospel selections to discover Jesus’ ethic of property, but such a selective reading will lack nuance. Indeed, it makes not a shred of difference to Stoker’s argument about property rights if John, Jesus, Luke, or anybody else in the New Testament tells us that we “should give our ‘extra’ to others in need.” When Jesus announced the coming of the Kingdom, he also was extending an invitation to believe, belong, and behave according to the ethic of that Kingdom. In other words, followers of Jesus should believe that this Kingdom ethic is free to be rejected.
Therein lies the rub for Stoker: she simply cannot conceive of a world where those who wish to do “wrong” – in her particular case, to not act charitably toward others – be allowed to persist in so doing. Yet if freedom of property has “limited moral value”, as Stoker claims, then so does freedom of choice. Holding to a very strict valuation of property is, in part, to say, “Human beings are free to make moral choices with the resources at their disposal.” As Christians, we must look to Christ as our standard (something we think she would agree with, as she is addressing Christian libertarians). How Jesus treats property is illustrated quite well in the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22 (ESV):
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
First, Jesus instructs the young man to “sell what you possess.” He doesn’t contest the man’s claim to his possessions, his private property. Rather, he issues a simple challenge: if you would be perfect, sell what you have and give to the poor. This is an invitation to act in a particular manner: charity, helping those less fortunate.
Second, the final commentary found at the end of the passage provides additional insight: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” According to Stoker’s reasoning, the passage should read slightly different: “Jesus, seeing the man did not desire to sell his possessions, instructed his disciples to take half of what the man owned, sell the goods at the nearest market, and distribute the profit among the poor.”
Instead, we watch as the man leaves sorrowful. We can imagine Jesus standing in the road, shaking his head sadly after the disappearing figure but raising no hand against him. The man had freely made up his mind, and then he had to live with the consequences. Even if we interpret this passage as Jesus challenging the man to view “his possessions” as not really his but God’s (saying, in effect, “you don’t really ‘own’ anything”), one cannot ignore that the rich young ruler was given the freedom to reject Jesus’ offer.
Freedom, of course, is a primary concern of libertarians. The man could walk away, and more poor people were left uncared for. Jesus knew he was risking the man rejecting his offer. However, Jesus didn’t come to force the Kingdom on us, and thus he left the option open. Additional interpretation of Jesus’ actions as requiring us to appropriate the wealth of others by force seems unnecessary and counter to the general thrust of the Scripture.
CHRISTIANS AND FREEDOM
The first biblical story about humans is about human action and consequences. Whether one takes the story of Adam and Eve as historical-factual or non-literal, the narrative in Scripture functions as more than a mere explanation of why sin exists or where humans come from. This origin story frames the questions about divine-human relationship: “How shall we relate to God?” and “What are God’s expectations?” (among others). Far from playing the part of Divine Puppeteer, God bestowed Adam and Eve with the dignity of choice. God had spent six days creating the good world in which God placed God’s crowning creation—mankind—and from our perspective God would have been justified in thwarting any attempt to mar that world. If God was willing to give them such a level of freedom that could—and ultimately did—result in cursing a perfect world, how much more freedom are we then given in the small things? We may even wonder why God placed a tree in the garden whose fruit could bring such sadness and destruction into the world.
3) Libertarians value freedom so heavily because we believe in non-aggression; that is, that peaceful action is the only permissible way to treat others. The common good can never be reached through violence or coercion.
In the freedom to choose right or wrong, good or evil, humanity has a considerable amount of freedom in both big and small. Stoker is right in that the explicit freedom spoken of in Scripture is about freedom from sin and freedom to righteousness. But this far from negates libertarian free will! Throughout the Scriptures we see God imploring humanity to choose the way of life. Israel was beckoned at the beginning of Joshua, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” They were free to reject God’s covenant, free to reject God’s justice, and free to reject God’s blessings for doing it “God’s way.” It is here that we find an inherent integration of our Christianity and our libertarianism. God did not create us puppets on a string, controlling our every move, making us do right. Nor did Jesus implore us to preach the gospel, and—if people reject it—declare ourselves, by proxy through the state, masters of their morality. We are never called to make Jesus Lord of other people’s lives. One of the aspects of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is that absent the story is the forceful “plowing under” of the seeds, a common and expected practice in his culture. Jesus was saying (in part) God’s Kingdom comes peacefully, not forcefully. We can not force it to happen!
This is where we believe Stoker ultimately misses the mark. Throughout her series on Christianity and libertarianism, her arguments have hinged upon using force to coerce people to behave a certain way—her way. She has stated that “Justice in the world actually occurs when people engage with others in a just way,” yet has failed to illustrate how it is just to forcibily take from those who have to give to those who have not. Coerced charity is not charity at all. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is no better than doing the wrong thing for the right reason—it’s just the words that are reversed.
The prophet Micah tells the people of Israel, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV). Challenging words, indeed. But here again we see the same thread we’ve been following: the freedom to fail, to mess up, to choose wrongly or irresponsibly.
It is nearly impossible to read the narrative of the New Testament without considering the backdrop of the Exodus narrative in the Old Testament. Being released from bondage in Egypt was more than just slavery per se, it was—and still is—imagery that characterized the whole of human existence: bondage to powers that enslave us. Most Christians consider sin that which enslaves all of us. In this sense, the meaning of the Exodus narrative is fully captured in the climactic event of the entire Christian story: resurrection of Jesus. God has freed humanity from the bondage of sin through a new exodus, a new creation. We are thus freed from sin and the effects of sin. The Truth—Jesus—will set us free. We are set free for freedom. Stoker would rightly point out that the biblical writers were probably not thinking of what we call “Enlightenment freedom,” but there is no escaping that the gospel according to Jesus is freedom from all that enslaves, not simply our sinful nature or eternal destination. While this connect far from “proves” libertarianism, it certainly demonstrates compatibility with it.
Stoker concluded her first post with explaining why the state is the best means by which our collectively pooled resources are able to render help to those in need. It’s truly ironic, because where the Bible describes those who need rescue from oppression and slavery, it is from oppressive empires, which is exactly the type of institution which enslaves those whom God cares most about! God heard the cries of God’s people in Egypt, and responded by mocking, shaming, and ultimately demolishing the Egyptian gods as they knew it. Stoker herself even recognizes the inherent power-over nature of the State, giving further credence to the libertarian claim that power easily corrupts! She cannot have both the State monopolizing the distribution of resources while at the same time chastising the institution of private property as “participation in state power.”