The Limits of Libertarianism

Libertarian Christians tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how to persuade other Christians to become libertarians. We see people in our churches and families overcome by an addiction to politics and a desire to control their neighbors “for their good.” This political moral crusade ends up becoming a replacement for their loyalty to Christ as king. But in libertarianism we find an ethically compatible system of political thought that can clear away some of the cultural-political cobwebs so they can see Jesus better.

But if Christians can benefit from libertarianism, how much more can libertarianism benefit from Christianity?

Libertarians usually contend that libertarianism is a complete political ethic. For most libertarians, the center of this ethic is the non-aggression principle—the principle that it is wrong to initiate force against a person who presents no harm to you. Conservatives and progressives see the need for a “monopoly on violence”—the state’s unique authority to force its will upon innocent people—to ensure that their favored policies can be put into effect. In contrast, libertarians believe that peaceful people can create a just and good world using voluntary means. And indeed, the rise of free market ideas in the western world, along with their frankly miraculous economic and social benefits (see Bailey and Tupy’s Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know and McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality), has demonstrated how a much better world can be created when people are free to pursue their interests and goals.

This ethic, sometimes referred to as the “silver rule,” proclaims that we must not do to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us. It forbids murder, theft, and all initiation of aggression against peaceful people.  But while libertarianism may be a complete political ethic, it is not a complete social ethic. There are limits to libertarianism. That is not to say that there are times when violence against peaceful people is necessary—far from it. The primary limit of libertarianism for creating a good social order is that it only tells us what we must not do—it forbids aggression. This one political rule makes it possible for people to create a voluntary, nonviolent social order of their liking. In short, libertarianism cannot create a culture of love, patience, peace, fidelity, or generosity—it can only give us the freedom to create such a culture ourselves.

This is where Christianity comes in. A culture which is shaped by Christlike values is one in which those who are in need are not turned away by their neighbors. It’s a culture where families, churches, and community groups commit themselves to communal values like mutual aid, personal growth and development, and discipleship—values that libertarianism cannot directly speak to.

Liberty makes it possible to live your life as you choose, free from violence and force to make you conform to society’s arbitrary demands. But Christianity tells you how best to use that freedom to become a fulfilled human being–to find purpose in union with your Creator, to recall that you were made to thrive in loving community, to practice self-discipline, and to know that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Free markets allow us to live without the social obligations that our ancestors needed in order to survive so that we can find quick and easy fulfillment through social media, streaming apps, and food delivery. But Christianity reminds us that convenience is no replacement for ultimate meaning and belonging. Our modern reliance on screens highlights our differences and makes us tribal and suspicious. But the gospel reminds us that where there was once a people divided from itself and from God, there is now one humanity in Christ.

In short, Christianity completes libertarianism to create a healthy, fully formed society. It gives us the blueprint for building a voluntary, just, and peaceful order that speaks more fully to human needs for social belonging and mutuality than libertarianism can and was meant to. This reality is why I’m not a Republican or Democrat Christian–and certainly not a secular libertarian–but a libertarian Christian.

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