Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Unchristianness of Libertarianism

The United States of America is, and always has been, a land of contradictions with regards to the marketplace of ideas. The US public is very fond at holding contradictory views of one sort or the other. One good example is the number of Christians, both liberal and conservative, that hold to Libertarianism as a political philosophy without recognition that the core principles of Libertarianism run contrary to the core principles of Christianity. While it may be true that ethical praxis that some Libertarians attach to their philosophy does not directly contradict the ethical praxis of Christianity as epitomized in the Golden Rule, the fact is that Christianity is far more than adherence to the Golden Rule and at a fundamental level, the tenets of Christianity are contradicted by the tenets of Libertarianism. Be this as it may, Christianity certainly has a different role for freedom. Rather than material freedom being an inviolable human right as in Libertarianism, moral freedom alone is a necessary but mitigated good subservient to other goods in Christian anthropology. Further, Libertarianism holds that any state which violates inviolable human rights such as political liberty is inherently unjust. But this tenet of Libertarianism contradicts not only the anthropology of Christianity but also what little political philosophy is explicitly stated in the New Testament.

Libertarianism tends to mean slightly different things to different people. Within the confines of this essay, I will follow Robert Nozick in defining Libertarianism as adherence to four principles but I will also add a fifth. The four principles Nozick applies to Libertarianism are:(1) every human person has an inviolable right to life; (2) Every human person has an inviolable right to freedom; (3) Every human person has an inviolable right to property; (4) Any government that infringes on any of these rights is inherently unjust. The principle I would add is: (5) a state that minimizes infringement on these inviolable human rights is both possible and a goal worth pursuing as it's attainment would be an improvement over any state that regularly violates any of these human rights.

Christianity also means different things to different people. And, in fact, the what it means to be Christian is a far more controversial topic than what it means to be Libertarian. Those who self identify as Christians span a large spectrum of beliefs ranging from the very liberal to the very conservative with regards to deciding the role of Holy Writ in the Christian Experience, exactly which works of the New Testament qualify as Scripture, and what (if anything) outside of the Bible can be considered a valid part of Christianity. For the purposes of this essay, I will only consider forms of Christianity that can trace themselves through history to the apostolic age with an unbroken succession. I will defer the above questions to the traditional answers of those forms of Christianity.

Some who would claim that Libertarianism and Christianity are compatible do so with the claim that there is nothing that is in Libertarianism that contradicts the either the three key commandments of the Gospels (The Golden Rule, The New Commandment to love each other as Christ has He loved his followers, and the exhortation to love God above all else) or the Decalogue. Let's assume that this is the case even though it is arguable that both the Golden Rule and the New Commandment is not compatible with the principles of Libertarianism. But the question remains of whether or not these three key commandments and the Decalogue are the only principles of Christianity. I would argue that Christianity is larger than it's praxis, the exercise of its moral teachings. After all, few would argue that Buddhism and Islam are compatible with Christianity on the basis that the five-fold path and the Five Pillars respectively are compatible with the Golden Rule and the Decalogue. Christianity also includes a distinct anthropology which implies a distinct political philosophy which includes the inherent justice of regimes which violate the human rights accorded by the Libertarian as inviolable.

Freedom, after all, is not the summum bonum of Christianity. Christianity does not even accord freedom as an inviolable right. Rather some freedoms (not all freedoms) are presented as a necessary efficient cause to finding the full and abundant life which Jesus of Nazareth claimed to bring to his followers. A writing attributed by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, probably mistakenly, to Saint Anthony the Great puts the matter succinctly, ``Regard as free not those whose status makes them outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct.'' [Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Phillip and Ware, Kallistos (tr.), The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by Saint Nikodimis of the Holy Mountan and Saint Makarios of Corinth Volume I. Faber and Faber, London. 1979. p. 332.] The point is that Christianity does not view physical and political freedom as necessary conditions for the human person to attain the fullness of humanity. Rather these sorts of freedoms are akin to physical exercise, of some limited value (I Corinthians 7:21, I Timothy 4:8), but certainly not ends unto themselves and certainly not inviolable rights.

But could not one argue that if Christianity sees some value in freedom that the Libertarian view of maximal human freedom does not contradict this? One could, but then one would be wrong. There are many things compatible with Christianity in limited degree that are contrary to Christianity when sought for their own ends: the sex act, consumption of alcohol, physical exercise. All of these things are good insofar as they serve as means to a virtuous end and not as ends into themselves. For example, the sex act is only good when it serves to unite husband and wife into a unity. To say that the sex act is an inviolable human right and its maximization leads to a human being made more human is to distort its value as part of what it means to be human. The consumption of alcohol is good when used medicinally or to celebrate special events such as the wedding at Cana. But the consumption of alcohol is neither an inviolable right nor something that the Christian should seek to maximize. So too, freedom.

Presented as such, this leads to a rather obvious objection. If material and political freedom are not necessary for an abundant life, does it not follow that Christianity allows use of humans beings as means to some ends (as living tools) rather than treating them as ends unto themselves? To some extent, yes, this conclusion is justified. But let us consider this conclusion in light of the fact that wage labor does the same thing. The capitalist uses workers as means to make a profit. The difference between slavery and wage labor (with respect to using human beings as means to an end rather than treating them as ends unto themselves) is not a difference of kind but a difference in extent. One can argue that the slave has no choice but to work while the wage laborer chooses to work, but this choice is illusory unless the wage laborer either lives in a society where material needs are guaranteed or one views the choice to die of starvation or exposure as a rational choice. It is, in effect, the same choice as the slave has to either work or be beaten or killed.

There is also a fundamental contradiction between the way that Christianity and Libertarianism view the injustice of a state that infringes on life, liberty or property. The Libertarian views such such states as inherently unjust because of this infringement. The classical Christian view does concede that there is a sense in which all governments are unjust but it also goes on to say that government is a just response to a irrational situation. Augustine of Hippo noted that the cosmos consists of a rational order where the higher rules over the lower: rationality rules over irrationality; God rules over man; the intellect rules over the passions. When this natural order is upset, as when man usurps the role of God and rules over other men, it is fair to say that there is a sense in which an injustice occurs. But this injustice is seen as a rational action for an irrational state of being, the fallen nature of mankind. Inasmuch as humanity imperfectly reflects the image and likeness of God, civil government is justified so long as it keeps temporal order. In other words, the Christian could concede that something akin to Libertarianism would be the ideal form of government in an world absent the fall from Paradise but that human nature as it is in the world requires a different sort of government.

While it took until Augustine to fully develop this view, it is also present in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote that civil government exists in order to keep temporal order (Romans 13). Consequently, inasmuch as a government is able to keep civil order, it is justified in the mind of the Christian regardless of whether or not it respects the rights that the Libertarian sees as unjust. What the Libertarian sees as an argument to justify the regime, the Christian can only see as a mistaken argument about what the best regime might consist of. In a way this parallels the difference between classical and modern political philosophy. Most classical philosophy took government as a given and argued about its best form. Most moderns argue that government needs a sound basis in order to be valid. The view presented in the Bible, and held to by most Christians through most of history is the former, that we can argue about the best form of government but that all governments are both inherently unjust in a certain sense but fully justified in another so far as they keep civil order.

This view of course will immediately raise a in the minds of most people. On the one hand, if all governments are inherently unjust in a certain sense, does that mean that we have to hold that Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin had just regimes? As much as it pains me to concede that this question must have an affirmative answer, it does. But is a very qualified affirmative answer. Inasmuch as these regimes did keep civil order, they were just. But it is clear that much of the disorder of the Stalinist and Hitlerian eras was perpetrated by the state. And it must also be said that inasmuch as the state perpetuated civil disorder, they were also unjust. Unlike some qualities, justice is not a binary property. Instead it exists on a spectrum.

The astute reader may also find another objection in the above distinction between arguing for the state's validity and arguing for the best form government given a pre-existent state. We live in a democracy, so is it not possible that a Christian could believe that Libertarianism is the best form of government and pursue democratic channels to make the US a more Libertarian society? This is certainly a possibility and many Christians hold this very belief. But it must be said that, as argued above, the tenets of Libertarianism do contradict key tenets of Christianity. Libertarianism takes a view of liberty that is exaggerated from the point of view of the Christian. Libertarianism also, by not taking into account the fallen nature of humanity, levels the charge of being inherently unjust at regimes that the Christian sees as inherently just. Consequently, the Christian Libertarian is being pulled in two different directions by two different, incompatible systems of belief. As such, the Christian Libertarian exemplifies the American tradition of holding to contradictory beliefs. At least in that sense, Christian Libertarians are true Americans.


marta_bowling said...

Jesus said a tree is judged by its fruit, not by its marketing literature (paraphrased). Lots and lots of nations in the last century attempted communism, and ended with totalitarianism and the literal mass slaughter of millions. The history of "christian" statism in Europe is similarly ghastly in many cases. Freedom does not have a track record like that.

I will admit to whoever reads this webpage that I'm not a christian. I was a christian libertarian for about 20 years, although I didn't always think about politics. Now I'm a libertarian person who is agnostic on most religious questions.

If any christian votes for a politician who believes that the government ownes me and my earnings, and can just take things from me to hand to someone else, I will consider that christian to be in violation of the Golden Rule, and in violation of the ten commandments, which acknowledge private property by condemning both covetousness and stealing.

Lee Malatesta said...


You're committing the fallacy of the excluded middle by suggesting that the only alternatives are totalitarian or freedom. Most governments are somewhere in the middle. Of those governments in the middle, many have a track record of respecting the human person without any slaughters of millions. And, if one takes a historical perspective, those governments that have leaned too far towards freedom have ended in totalitarianism like the weak Weimar republic ending with with the rise of Fascism. If there is a lesson of history it is that mixed governments, ones that have a blend of individual freedoms with some measure of state control, have been the most stable, the most productive and the most conducive to enabling individuals to achieve the fullness of their humanity.

But to be fair, the critique of Libertarianism in practice is a topic that I intentionally left to the future. The scope of this piece was entirely limited to those who think that Christianity and Libertarianism are compatible. I think it's clear that at a fundamental level they are not without some measure of question begging. For example, you assert that any Christian that believes that the government owns you is in violation of the ten commandments and of the Golden Rule. Yet the reason you think that is because of the beliefs that your Libertarianism depends upon. If the question is whether those beliefs are valid or not, you cannot assume them to be the case. If those beliefs are contradict Christianity, then it isn't really fair to say that Christianity violates its own rules because the situation is really that Christianity is not compatible with Libertarianism. Christianity is consistent with its own understanding of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, which was also the understanding of the peoples who penned those two sets of rules, but it isn't compatible with a Libertarian re-interpretation of those rules.

marta_bowling said...

What scares me is the hearts of the people (many of them) who oppose free enterprise and private property.

If I hire a guy to replace my bathroom floor, I'm doing what he wants me to do, and he's doing what I want him to do. Our voluntary exchange benefits both of us and harms no one. It's all-good. However, if one of us (either one) has alot more wealth than the other, then the other might be jealous and resentful and might start making up theories about "labor and capital" that distort the situation, with the ultimate goal of getting the government to take the other persons money from him.

A person working for a company in a free-market environment, with all the modern tools that have been invented under "capitalism", produces alot more stuff everyday than a person doing the same amount of work in a different environment. Corresponding to the fact that he produces alot more, he also enjoys a much higher standard of living.

I don't work any harder than a person in Bangladesh, but I'm paid enough money to enjoy a lifestyle that's orbitally above his. My own simple work isn't making this situation happen. It's the work of the engineers,financiers, and entreprenours (the "evil capitalists") who create the situation where my work is so much more productive. How can anyone be so evil as to think "capitalists" are exploiting them? The Andrew Carnegies, and Henry Fords, and Bill Gates, and all the lesser successful entreprenours in our society are benefactors to the rest of us, to an extreme extent. They are the direct cause of our fantastic levels of wealth, as we live on the same land the native americans lived on, with no more natural resources than they.

Unfortunately the envy, greed, materialism, malice, conceit and ignorant bigotry that people have in their hearts blinds them to this fact. It also causes those same people to be unhappy. What an ironic shame that people who enjoy more comfort than kings & queens did in the pre-capitalist era, would spend their lives sad and angry over how "oppressed" they are.

Lee Malatesta said...


I agree with much of the content of your last post, but a few things seem out of place.

``How can anyone be so evil as to think "capitalists" are exploiting them? ''

I think you're unnecessarily using charged language here. Modern capitalism is designed around exploiting workers. If it weren't, there'd be no `human resources' departments. If the definition of exploitation is to use a person as a means to an end rather than to treat that person as an end, it's clear that hired laborers are being exploited. Personally, I don't think this is a bad thing. As early as Aristotle, it was pointed out that slavery is not the only way of treating people as `living tools' as hired workers and artisans are also used as `living tools.'

Exploitation only becomes a problem if one subscribes to a philosophy where using people as a means to an end is considered to be immoral. Immanual Kant, as one example, thought that his categorical imperative on which all morality is based excluded any treatment of another human person as a means rather than as a end.

``we live on the same land the native americans lived on, with no more natural resources than they''

That is a fallacy. The US has an enormous trade deficit. The indigenous peoples of the US did not have access to the resources that we do today with regards to either imported goods like oil or with labor and capital.

``Unfortunately the envy, greed, materialism, malice, conceit and ignorant bigotry that people have in their hearts blinds them to this fact''

I presume here you're speaking of people who claim that capitalism is inherently exploitive. If you are, I think it's quite a leap of logic. I'll gladly concede that in many criticisms of capitalism, such personal issues do enter into the fray. But I think to start the discussion with that supposition in mind is to kill it before it starts. It is terribly hard to have a meaningful discussion with anyone who from the outset one when assumes that those who disagree are ignorant, greedy and spiteful.

Lastly, I want to commend you on a very nice apology for free markets and capitalism. But I do want to point out that neither necessarily reduces to Libertarianism. In fact, at some point in the coming months, I'm going to argue that the underlying suppositions of Locke's theory of property rights, which most Libertarians agree with, runs contrary to both free markets and industrial capitalism.

marta_bowling said...

Hi Lee,

1. My sense of the word, "exploitation" is different from yours. I've always taken it as a negative, and I've always disagreed with that negative, in both directions. I don't think my boss is harming me, or his boss is harming him, or I'm harming anyone who I buy something from.

I can't wrap my brain around the phrase, "treating a person as a means to an end, rather than an end". I can't envision what the actual difference would be between a society that does the one, and a society that does the other.

2. Americans enjoyed alot more wealth than Indians prior to the current trade deficit. Even so, the ability to import things from around the world didn't fall on us from heaven. People worked and created it. The Indians lived in communal tribes where everyone knew that whatever wealth they produced would be shared with everyone. People are people: very little was produced. The same was true when white people lived in little communal tribes.

I'm not critisizing humanity when I point this out. It is natural and right of people to want to improve their own lot. When you vacuum your rug, it's because you want a clean rug. It's not because you want to increase how clean the total rugs in society are. Imagine if people who vacuum their rugs were critisized for creating disparities - a maldistribution of the wealth!- because others were left with unvacuumed rugs, and it's just not right to have inequality. If society adopted this view, it would have one result, and that result would not be that everyone's rug would be equally vacuumed. Those who currently vacuum would stop doing it, and everyone's rug would be equally unvacuumed.

I am not judging native americans negatively, in a moral sense. I just think that their belief in equality-of-wealth didn't serve them well.

3. I'm not accusing YOU of being ignorant, greedy, or spiteful. (If any 3rd parties are reading this, I personally know Lee Malatesta, and I don't think he is ignorant or greedy at all). But, I expose myself to alot of lefty-opinion: Sirius Left radio, MSNBC evening programming, Michael Moore movies, memories of high school and college classes etc. Yep. I do believe that a big portion of the Left is driven by innapropriate rage, envy, spite, and ignorance.

4. I'm insufficiently hip to Locke, so I'll look forward to learning about him.

Donna & Matt said...

why write something like this if you aren't going to provide argument? you make statements "they'd be wrong" "it isn't the Christian way", but you don't really say anything. how is it not Christian to be a libertarian? i am a Libertarian, and i am a Christian.
Libertarianism is the theoretical application of our constitution. it is the theory that God gave us as humans. God gave us our life in such a way that we were free to choose and, thus, accept responsibility for our actions. His Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ tell us to not force anything. Responsibility and love.

Lee Malatesta said...

Donna and Matt:

I find it peculiar that you say that I don't present an argument. I presented two arguments. Please allow me to reproduce them in a simplified form.

First argument:

1. Libertarianism claims that maximizing human freedom is good.
2. Christianity contradicts this with the teaching that some freedom is of some value but that too much freedom is a danger. See I Corinthians 7:21, I Timothy 4:8, and the quotation attributed to Saint Anthony the Great.

Second argument:

1. Libertarianism claims that governments that violate any human freedoms are inherently unjust.
2. Christianity teaches that, in a certain sense, all governments are inherently unjust but that because we live in an irrational world, the governments we have are all just in that they are put here by God to keep civil order. See Romans 13.

Further, I'm not certain what you mean by ``Libertarianism is the theoretical application of our constitution.'' Usually application is the opposite of theory. Did you mean to say that the US Constitution is the practical application of Libertarianism? If so, you've got a hard argument to make. The US Constitution, in allowing for such things as military conscription as eminent domain, is anti-Libertarian in more ways than one. The US Constitution was founding on republicanism (note the small R) not on Libertarianism. If you read the Federalist papers, especially those penned by James Madison, you'll start to see how the US Constitution was designed to retard human freedom in some ways as unrestricted human freedom is detrimental to society as a whole.

But this isn't really the place to discuss whether or not Libertarianism is compatible with the thought of the founding fathers of the United States of America. For the time being, I'd like the discussion to stay focused on Libertarianism's non-compatibility with Christianity. A future post will discuss the ways in which early American political philosophy was anti-libertarian.