The Religious Problem with “The Religious Problem of Libertarianism”

Sometimes I don’t understand why Southern Baptists are so threatened by Christian libertarianism. We just don’t like violence – at all, even if you’re wearing government uniforms. (Is that so bad?) Why, for example, does Albert Mohler (President of SBTS) take time out of his terribly busy schedule to debate LCI founder Norman Horn over the radio – and fly around the country making embarrassing remarks about libertarian authors he’s never read? And why does Bruce Ashford (Provost of SEBTS) recently make it a point to criticize generic libertarians on his blog, calling them (predictably) “idolatrous” and unconcerned with the “common good” – and likewise make embarrassing remarks about libertarian authors he’s never read? I mean, if these loud and popular voices are right, good heavens, who cares about whether your child is gay and stealing donuts from the cops: get them away from these terrible horrible libertarian invaders!

The most obvious reason for this surge of criticism is that the SBC is in a major (and likely permanent) decline, while non-institutional Christian libertarianism is on the rise. The SBC has unfortunately tied itself to the Neo-Conservative marriage between American evangelicalism (of which SBC is perhaps its largest denominational representation) and the Republican Party and…both American evangelicalism and the Republican Party are also falling out of popularity. So when all your teams are losing, you might not be able to stop it, but at least you can try and keep “competitors” from rising any higher.  

What comprises Ashford’s essay, “The (Religious) Problem with Libertarianism” is another circling the SBC-Neocon wagons. The subtext of essays like these is this: when Christians aren’t supporting Trump and aren’t attending certain denominational churches, this is a huge setback for the Christian faith as a whole. We can’t have independent thinkers from outside the mainline categories talking about stuff and leading people astray. So, somebody’s gotta do something – even if it means pumping out more and more blog material that will only accelerate the SBC-neocon, theo-political decline. At least that’s how I see the larger context of these kinds of publications…

Some libertarians (e.g. Robert Nozick) are principled and primarily concerned with inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Other libertarians (e.g. Ludwig von Mises) are utilitarian and primarily concerned with the benefits of the free market. Some libertarians (e.g. Nozick, Ayn Rand) are “minarchists” who argue for a minimal state that involves itself only in police protection, enforcement of contracts, and national defense. Other libertarians (Murray Rothbard) are “anarchists” who wish to view all government as illegitimate and would prefer to outsource police protection to private protection agencies.

I’ve never seen libertarians categorized in quite this way. Von Mises was more of a minarchist than a “utilitarian” in my reading (although this is comparing apples and oranges anyway; minarchism is a political philosophy and utilitarianism an ethical philosophy). And we can safely forgive the “wish to view” comment (as if the alternatives don’t “wish to view” the government’s monopoly on violence as a necessary, competent, and permanent fixture of human society).

Anyway, in educating his (apparently oblivious) audience about what libertarianism is, Dr. Ashford’s main summary comes not from any major voices in libertarianism, or sources like the The Routledge Handbook to Libertarianism, or The Encyclopedia of Libertarianismor The Libertarian Mindor The Libertarian Readeror really any credible sources at all, but from (cue the marching band) . . . The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia. And upon this…trusted authority (ahem), what is the verdict drawn about what libertarians really believe? “This one principle—individual liberty as the supreme political good—is the common factor that unites minarchists and anarchists, principled libertarians and utilitarians, as well as other divided factions within the libertarian community.”

Again, in all my reading and writing on libertarianism, I’ve never heard anyone quite put it like this. Yes individual liberty is emphasized across the board. But what is a “political good”? And where can I find all of these pesky libertarians talking about it? Because in my reading (which is highly limited I realize), I generally don’t see it. Basic social norms as personal liberty and nonviolence may or may not have anything to do with the political apparatus. Social, ethical, and economic goods need not have anything to do with political goods (any more than automotive goods have anything to do with refrigeration goods). In fact, there are plenty of libertarians that argue that a “political good” is essentially an oxymoron like a square circle. I guess this leaves some doubt about the “one principle” and the “common factor that unites” all libertarians.

This dubious line of argumentation continues in the assertions, “as a general rule a libertarian’s clinching argument is to point out that a given policy proposal or law interferes with an individual’s right to choose,” and “This approach wrongly elevates liberty above a higher political good, namely, the common good that comes from human flourishing and virtue.” Aside from these reductionist, stereotypical misrepresentations that keep being resurrected by every other new political commentator on the web, what I am supposed to do with Walter Block who writes that Libertarianism is a political philosophy…concerned solely with the proper use of force”? Or with Mary Ruwart who wrote a whole book on how libertarianism is about compassion and love for neighbor? Or Rose Wilder in The Discovery of Freedom whose thesis is that political “authority” is like a bad religious superstition that keeps people in chains?

To the point: Why is it that almost no effort is given to properly represent the views being criticized, especially when using some harsh terms as “idolatrous”? Is this fair, or is it precisely the type of dismissive attitude that drives people to look for more meaningful and authentic discussion?

Libertarians are people. They don’t exist in zoos. We can have conversations with them. (I’ve done it; nobody got hurt.) We don’t have to imagine or wonder or perform poor google searches to cobble together something for a blog post about what they might believe. Because in this case, it seems readers are expected to just plug their ears to the voices of actual libertarians (especially Christian libertarians) and their work, and instead trust a critic’s poor use of secondary sources (or their regurgitation of nonsense that Mohler has been propagating for the last four years).

Instead of this supposed idolatry of individual liberty, readers are offered the alternative that “Liberty should be anchored in an objective moral order and normed by that order.” To anyone who has actually bothered to read real libertarian literature, this is another baffling comment. Authors like Von Mises and Rothbard and Ayn Rand have pushed the objective orientation of non-aggression and the moral order of personal liberty so hard and so consistently that, well, that’s largely what they were specifically known and criticized for. This type of comment is like saying “Mother Theresa got it wrong. Compassion should be anchored in a concrete love for the poor.” That’s what’s already happening. 

After showcasing one of Rothbard’s arguments regarding parenting (as if even all anarcho-capitalists would agree with him on all issues; they don’t), Rothbard is said to be wrong regarding his claim that “Governments, by definition, initiate coercion and thus are incompatible with libertarianism.” Rothbard (like me and you) is wrong about all kinds of things, of course. He’s a human author. But when it comes to political philosophy and economics, perhaps we can at least try to listen if we are interested in those general areas. In this instance, note first that, again, the libertarian argument isn’t quite represented fairly. Ashford should have said that “governments are incompatible with human flourishing.” That has always been a central point of libertarianism: freedom from violence is not an end in itself; it is a precondition to a fulfilling life.

It’s hard to live a good life if you’re being drone-bombed, regulated to death, or constantly stripped-searched for imaginary plants in your pants. It’s hard to have a fulfilling life when it’s illegal to pray on your own porch. It’s hard to make great works of art and learn how to play the violin when Stalin’s officers are hunting you down just for hiding loaves of bread in the snow. And when a license to initiate force against people or property is granted – especially for achieving a morally high goal, the amount of violence committed is as great as the status of the end being sought after. The last century made this particularly clear.

No cause in history—no religion or imperial ambition or military adventure—has destroyed more lives with more confident enthusiasm than the case of the ‘brotherhood of man,’ the postreligious utopia, or the progress of the race. To fail to acknowledge this would be to mock the memory of all those millions that have perished before the advance of secular reason in its most extreme manifestations. (Hart, Atheist Delusions, 105-106)

And if we think history is of any use to us on this point in general, anarchism of any kind is the least of our worries. As historian Robert Higgs put it:

Defending the continued existence of the state, despite having absolute certainty of a corresponding continuation of its intrinsic engagement in robbery, destruction, murder, and countless other crimes, requires that one imagine nonstate chaos, disorder, and death on a scale that nonstate actors seem incapable of causing. Nor, to my knowledge, does any historical example attest to such large-scale nonstate mayhem.

With regard to large-scale death and destruction, no person, group, or private organization can even begin to compare to the state, which is easily the greatest instrument of destruction known to man. All nonstate threats to life, liberty, and property appear to be relatively petty and therefore can be dealt with. Only states can pose truly massive threats, and the horrors with which they menace mankind come invariably to pass sooner or later. (Higgs, Delusions of Power, 36)

If the concern is human flourishing and the common good, individual liberty is probably the least threatening proposal while the existence and growth of nation-states is probably the greatest threatening proposal. (Only in the neoconservative world of constant warfare can advocates of peace be perceived as agitators of “human flourishing.”) As Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) is said to have remarked, “Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won’t kill, injure, kidnap defraud, or steal from others. Government is a guarantee that some will.” That’s exactly right.

Note second that Dr. Ashford acts as if Rothbard’s definition of government is somehow unique to him or libertarians, or somehow off the mark in either case. It’s not. Even Ashford’s fellow common-good-Baptist-Christian-ethicist-Professor Brent Waters, in his recent book Just Capitalismplainly adopts the normal description of the nation-state/political authority: a territorial monopoly on violence. And note third that this definition is not rejected or offered an alternative – precisely because that’s what governments are. Try as hard as we may, but the proprietary “stuff” that makes up “government” (political authority) is not the goods and services offered (e.g., roads, rights-protection, etc.), but in how those services are offered: by involuntary exchange instead of voluntary exchange.

Then comes a predictable defenestration of the Christ event in Gospels by a careless Romans 13 proof-text. Jesus and the reasons why he was crucified by the state on charges of insurrection (and for encouraging others not to pay taxes, Lk 23:2) somehow, in these discussions, always (and conveniently) slips between the cracks and takes a backseat to Protestants’ favorite NT book. Readers are nevertheless told to “thank” the government (…for fining citizens without a dog license and for selling lemonade without a permit?), followed by more proof-texting to suggest that “property rights are not absolute” and, “It seems right that the government should provide other public services for the common good, such as public roads and parks,” and “to break up monopolies or to provide welfare for persons who are needy through no fault of their own), as long as the government views itself as a temporary curator who will step back out as soon as the problem is fixed.” Oddly, an explanation of why Microsoft’s monopoly on software is viewed as so much more threatening to human civilization than a political group’s monopoly on nuclear warheads is absent.

Indeed, the level of utopia in these statements is remarkable. If the voluntarist society of anarcho-capitalism is supposedly an unattainable ideal, what are we to make of a government that “views itself as a temporary curator who will step back out as soon as the problem is fixed”? In what context is this statement supposed to be coherent? We ought to be reminded that income tax is a temporary government program to fund WWI. The “war on poverty” was supposed to have been whipped nearly a half-century ago. There still exist dozens of “temporary” government programs from the 1930s that not only didn’t fix anything, but made things worse – and continue to on this very day.

There is no government in existence — or that has ever existed — that simply fixes problems and “steps back out.” This is an imaginary construct forged in the fires of social gospel rhetoric from the 1920s, given academic credentials through John Rawl’s Theory of Justice in the 1970s, and bathed in the popular social justice Christianese of James Skillen, Ronald Sider, Brent Waters, and other Christian authors that mean well and have good things to say, but habitually ignore or misunderstand the laws of economics. In short, there is simply no substance behind this kind of perspective on the state. (Though it does make great political maneuvering material for a denomination and political party in decline.)

Ashford quotes another anti-libertarian secondary-source to prop up another misleading stereotype about libertarians: namely, the supposed belief that liberty simply trumps all other moral values; “individual liberty should not be set over and against the common good.” Again, this is both untrue and misses the point. It is untrue because many individuals give up all kinds of liberties for other goods and values in their lives every day – both out of choice and out of necessity. It is misleading because there is no “common good” when individual liberty can be systematically violated from the outset. Just because a person preparing for a trip makes extra sure that the engine in her car is working doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care about air conditioning, the comfort of the seats, or the functionality of the electronic window mirrors. But guess what? If the engine is dead, she’s not getting any of those things. There is a priority that would wise to respect (namely, that coercing the fulfillment of natural positive rights [“freedom for”] requires the sacrifice of more essential natural negative rights [“freedom from”]).

Similarly, society is made up of individuals. If you harm individuals, you harm society. If you take away freedom from individuals, you take away freedom from society. There’s no way around this. The same goes for chemistry (if you change the atoms, you change the molecules), ecclesiology (if you change the eyes, feet, and head, you change the body of the church), physiology (if your heart, liver, and kidneys have cancer, we don’t say “you’re healthy”), and virtually every area of life. 

“…libertarianism is regularly stereotyped as promoting “selfishness” and “isolationism.” On the contrary, “individual rights” presupposes personal relationships and social bonds precisely because the boundaries of freedom are contingent on the presence of others…society-wide states of affairs do not trivialize states of affairs on the lower level of the individual. (In this way, the libertarian is “pro-society” but anti-collectivist.) Just as a healthy body requires healthy organs, blood and bones, so does a free society require free individuals.” – Hubner, “Christian Libertarianism” in CLR 1

Ashford’s following observation about “unintended consequences” suffers from the same misunderstanding. Readers are even told that radical libertarianism inadvertently leads to “statism.” The absurdity of these kinds of assertions merit no response.

Then again, neither does the essay as a whole.

Essays like Ashford’s “The (Religious) Problem with Libertarianism” are without a doubt, some of the greatest tools of evangelism for Christian libertarianism and nonviolence. Intelligent readers who have even the most elementary reading behind them on the subject can see right through their ploys and poor argumentation. I greatly wish more of them to be written – with louder and more alarmist rhetoric, and with more and more secondary sources and back-patting by the “in-group,” name-calling, self-affirmation, premature judgments, an overt ignorance of Christian libertarian literature and scholarship, and a lack of interest for any meaningful dialogue with those of another opinion. Because that is how and why people are leaving the theopolitical right in droves and thinking for themselves either as independent thinkers and searchers, as libertarians, or as some other non, post, or apolitical actor.

It’s like what I’ve said about Trump’s election: it’s one of the best things to happen to American religion, because it finally unmasks the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the old moral majority white American evangelicalism, helping to cleanse the political system and the pews to better position all of us for the future. Critiques like those in Ashford’s essay incarnate Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and accelerate the decline of an uncritical, pro-Caesar version of Christianity that should have died a long time ago.