What Libertarianism Is (and Isn’t)

Recently I was at a gathering of libertarian activists. Most of them were around age 20 and had been involved in the liberty movement for at most a few years. Someone asked me a question along the lines of, “What kind of firearm do you carry?” To which I responded, “I don’t believe in carrying weapons.” The room sort of fell into confusion as those who overheard were clearly taken aback by such a shocking comment amongst libertarian company. It’s almost as if they were thinking, “Didn’t this guy get the memo? Libertarians are all supposed to carry weapons. Someone needs to give him the intro lecture from Libertarianism 101.”

This sort of reaction indicates a rather undeveloped, conformist idea of what constitutes libertarianism. Libertarians believe in the non-aggression principal, which necessarily means that libertarianism is opposed to gun control. Yet as a follower of Jesus, I also believe that Christian ethics requires me to be a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9), love my enemies (Matthew 5:38-47), and be willing to suffer rather than avenge myself (Matthew 5:10-12 ; Romans 12:14-21). That’s why I don’t carry weapons, while at the same time opposing gun control.

(Note: This is not a discussion pertaining to whether Christians should ever use violence in self-defense. While that is an important discussion to have, I’m simply illustrating a point based on how other libertarians reacted to my own conviction on the matter, as if it was somehow anti-libertarian to not carry a weapon.)

Christian libertarians run into this sort of objection a lot as it pertains to how libertarianism relates to their ethics. Many of us have probably been ‘rebuked’ by non-Christian libertarian friends for opposing things like homosexual practices, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, etc. There is clearly a woeful inadequacy in how many people, including far too many libertarians, define libertarianism. Some definitions leave us walking away thinking that libertarianism is ethical libertinism: that you should do pretty much whatever you want, and feel entitled to have no one ever challenge your choices as being wrong. That isn’t libertarianism; it’s just a form of postmodernism and philosophical subjectivity, hinging on ‘what is true for you may not be true for me’ and similar logically-incoherent nonsense. Other definitions, like that implicit in the example at the beginning of this article, repackage libertarian political philosophy around certain expected active behaviors, as if libertarians must carry weapons, or must approve of people using narcotics, or must endorse homosexual behavior.

These definitions of libertarianism are superficial and are really no libertarianism at all; they are instead attempts to equate libertarianism with a favorable ethical pronouncement on certain types of behavior. Yet when considered alongside the baseline of libertarian thought — the Non-Aggression Principle — such definitions fall flat.

The Non-Aggression Principle simply holds that it is unethical to use violence (including political force) to intervene in voluntary behavior; it says nothing about whether that behavior is itself ethical, praiseworthy, or acceptable to God.

Consider the issue of carrying weapons. The Non-Aggression Principle would hold that gun control laws are ethically wrong, i.e., it is unethical to use violence (including political force) to prevent someone from carrying a weapon, so long as they don’t use that weapon to initiate aggression against someone else. However, this doesn’t mean that people necessarily should carry weapons. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it is ethical to carry weapons at all. Libertarianism would simply hold that if you want to carry a weapon for self-defense, no one has the ethical right to stop you so long as you are not committing trespass. Yet, it clearly also means that if you choose not to carry a weapon or use violence to defend yourself, no one has the ethical right to coercively make you.

What about homosexuality? Libertarianism would hold that the state has no ethical right to regulate or license any voluntary interaction between two people, be that a marriage, a relationship, a living arrangement, or whatever else. Thus, the state has no right to prevent homosexuals from engaging in any voluntary activity and labeling it whatever they want. However, this does not mean that homosexual behavior is good, or that anyone else should be expected to grant approval and acceptance to such behavior. In like manner, libertarianism would hold that drug prohibition is unethical; it does not mean that it is good, right, proper, or ethically-acceptable to engage in drug abuse.

Libertarianism is not a comprehensive ethical system. In fact, libertarianism has nothing to say about the ethics of the overwhelming majority of human behavior. Libertarianism simply addresses a very precise subset of what people should most definitely not do: use violence to interfere in voluntary activity.

Libertarianism has nothing to say about whether peoples’ voluntary activity is ethically good. It also in no way implies that anyone has the right to be free from criticism, rebuke, persuasion, or other such challenges to their voluntary behavior.

At the 2016 Christians for Liberty Conference, Robert Murphy gave an excellent talk on the intersection of Christianity and libertarianism. He discussed how even in a strictly-Rothbardian framework, because God is the creator, he is the ultimate and rightful owner of all things (including every human being who ever has existed, does exist, or will exist). Because humans are God’s property, God has the right to set standards and laws which humans are expected to obey. To step outside those bounds is to rebel against one’s rightful owner, and thus incur his due displeasure. Secular libertarians may find this very distasteful, but any such push-back is spiritual/philosophical. People don’t want a deity telling them what to do. They don’t want to think that they are actually God’s property and that he has the right to command them to act a certain way, and to hold them accountable for their rebellion when they don’t.

Yet libertarianism, even in its broadest sense, doesn’t mean that man is unaccountable to an objective standard of good and evil which will ultimately be applied against him by a holy God; it simply means that no mere human has the ethical right to use violence (including political force) to intervene in someone else’s voluntary activity.

For the Christian libertarian, we acknowledge that Jesus (and not the state) is our God, lord, king, sovereign, master, and owner. We proclaim that those who are not Christians are rebelling against the rightful reign of King Jesus. As the Church — the family and people of God — it is part of our job to witness to the outside world and implore them to repent so that they may be saved from the wrath to come.

People will sometimes use their liberty to sin. Liberty is not the problem; humanity’s sin nature is the problem, and all the laws in the world will not solve that. Libertarianism holds that it is not proper to attempt to violently coerce people into our preferred mold of behavior. Christian libertarianism would go farther and say that in addition to being improper (cf. Luke 22:25-26), it is not even possible to violently coerce people into genuinely obeying God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14). Christians who are not libertarians – who think that they can or should use the state to make people adhere to Christian ethics – are running up against the sovereign order and providence of God by attempting to use swords and chariots to do what only the Holy Spirit can: regenerate spiritually-dead sinners by breathing new life into them and giving them the heart to actually want to obey God (cf. Ezekiel 36:26-27 ; John 1:12-13 ; Romans 2:28-29).

All this is to say that people need to be clear on what libertarianism actually is: a political philosophy that eschews the use of aggressive violence (including all political force) against any voluntary activity. It does not mean that the choices people make with their liberty are necessarily ethical, that anyone else should be expected to approve of those choices, or that God doesn’t require a higher standard of behavior.

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