God’s justice is better than man’s justice: A response to Tim Keller

Tim Keller recently published an article entitled, “A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory.” His article is a sort of apologia for his conception of “biblical justice” and its relationship to the social justice conversation. While we could likely agree with some of his sentiments, other things he says are just plain wrong. His characterizations of libertarianism as being in conflict with biblical justice warrant a response.

The first error one encounters is Keller’s claim that libertarians say that “persons have the right to not be harmed.” That is untrue. “Harm” is a vague term, and this leads to error in thinking. Burger King may “harm” McDonald’s through competition. Other people are not required by justice to forgo their own business plans in order to accommodate other businesses. Competition may “harm” but it is not unjust. Only a violation of someone’s property rights, including their right to their bodily property, constitutes an injustice under libertarianism. 

TK: “Unlike the Bible, Libertarianism denies or downplays the role of oppressive social forces in what makes people poor”

This isn’t true either. While we recognize the existence of injustice in the world, libertarians include state institutions among the causes that “make people poor.” Poverty is the natural state in this fallen world with scarce resources and the necessity of work. 

The real question we should ask if we wish to aid the poor is this: “what lifts people out of poverty?” Libertarians believe that the free enterprise system is the best way to lift everyone’s standard of living. 

TK: “Libertarianism usually sees freedom in wholly negative terms—it is freedom from. But we were created by God for loving him and our neighbor, not just self-interest, and so the more we do what we were created to do the more free we will be.”

This is a fallacy of equivocation. Libertarianism is a theory of justice. It is not a religious system that tells me how to get right with the divine. It tells us what our rights are in relation to other people. And ultimately libertarianism concludes that compulsion of others is wrong. But libertarianism only examines questions of justice, and the “freedom” we talk about as libertarians simply means the absence of compulsion by other people.

The sort of “freedom” that Keller refers to relates to spiritual freedom. Great! For the libertarian Christian, as with all believers, this is the most important sort of freedom. But merely avoiding injustice against other people does not make for spiritual freedom. As Christian believers, we know that we need Jesus for that.

TK: “We belong to God, not to ourselves, and so does everything we own. Whatever we have is ultimately God’s gift and must be shared.”

Again, this is a fallacy of equivocation. God is the creator and master of all. But God does not “own” anything in a secular, legal sense. God does not buy and sell goods. God has entrusted creation to mankind, and property rights prevent conflict between human beings. God admonishes us to be peacemakers, and carefully defined property rights promote peace. As the aphorism goes, “good fences make for good neighbors.” 

Furthermore, coveting other people’s property and actually stealing it from them are both explicitly identified as sins. “Thou shalt not steal” implies the legitimacy of property rights. “Sharing” by force is not really sharing at all. 

TK: “[Libertarianism] sees the evil capacities of government but not so much of capital markets, though human sin is everywhere and will corrupt everything.”

Libertarians see that private wrongdoing occurs. We think that private institutions are better equipped to handle this private wrongdoing than monopolistic bureaucracies which can’t be fired by their “customers.” The concentration of political power breeds corruption rather than preventing it. The very government institutions created to regulate an industry are usually captured by it. Entrenched players then use their resources to lobby for regulations that hurt competitors and slow innovation. If sin will indeed “corrupt everything,” as Keller states, that is precisely why concentrating power in the hands of a few people is so dangerous!

Tim Keller is right to be concerned about God’s justice rather than following the traditions of men. God’s kingdom is not a secular one, but there is no doubt that we should strive to treat others justly. As Christians, we have a moral duty to relieve the suffering of the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and all of our neighbors in need. This is one way we can reflect God’s love toward others. Christian libertarians simply deny that using the heavy hand of the state is the best way to achieve secular justice or Christian charity.

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