[Note: Because of the emphasis on the upcoming election, I haven’t taken the opportunity to explore a political issue that has always intrigued me — Christian libertarianism. The main complaint I have with most libertarians is that they often work backwards from a grievance to the development of their core beliefs. Christians, on the other hand, must start with Biblical principles and work their way to a coherent political philosophy. A number of my bloggers whose intellect and opinions I respect (particularly John Coleman, Josh Claybourn, and Vox Day) subscribe to some version of Christian libertarianism. In the hopes that they (and others) will join me in exploring the foundational issues in more detail, I’m reposting an article I wrote last December explaining why I do not think libertarianism is tenable. I’m open to changing my opinion, though, so I’m interested in hearing critiques of my position and a defense of why libertarianism is compatible with a Biblical worldview.]
Charles Murray almost had me. When I first read Murray’s “What It Means To Be A Libertarian” nearly ten years ago I was compelled by the thrust of his argument. “Freedom is first of all our birthright,” Murray claimed. “An adult making an honest living and minding his own business deserves to be left alone to live his life. He deserves to be free.”
Libertarianism appeared to be an attractive political philosophy yet something was missing. It reminded me of my high school days when after reading The Fountainhead I wanted to become an Objectivist. Doing so, however, required me to deny a concept that I had known was undeniably true: original sin. And then I realized the problem with libertarianism, like objectivism and liberalism, was that it required accepting a romanticized view of human nature.
Like other “ism’s”, libertarianism is difficult to define. Essentially, libertarians believe that each person “owns” his own life and property, and has the right to make his own decisions about how he shall live, providing he respects the rights of others to do the same. Cato Institute vice-president David Boaz adds that the basic political issue of libertarianism is the relationship of the individual to the state. (Since Boaz is one of the intellectual leaders of this philosophy I will use his “Key Concepts of Libertarianism” throughout this critique.)
The primary flaw in libertarianism is that it is rooted in an ethic of utilitarianism rather than virtue ethics. Without a person developing the corresponding moral character necessary for self-restraint, his liberty is bound to result in the harm of others. In fact, freedom without virtue is corrosive and will destroy everything within its range. The Founding Fathers understood this connection between liberty and a virtuous citizenry when they founded our republic. “‘Tis substantially true,” George Washington wrote in his farewell address, “that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
Libertarians, however, are not hedonists. They do believe that the rule of law is essential to government, though instead of rooting it in natural law theory they rely on “spontaneously developed legal rules.” (I find it rather surprising that a theory that relies on such concepts “natural rights” and “natural harmony” has so little use for “natural law.”) Boaz’s assertion reminds me of the old Calvin and Hobbes game of “Calvinball” where the rules on how to play are made up as you go along.
Boaz also contends that individuals should not be subject to the state’s “arbitrary commands.” (The fact that he doesn’t explain the difference between rules that are spontaneously developed and those that are arbitrary is simply one of numerous problems with his viewpoint.) By placing an overemphasis on individual liberty without an equal accent on individual virtue, the libertarian unwittingly erodes the foundation of order on which his political theory stands.
Order is a necessary precondition of liberty and must be maintained from the lowest level of government (the individual conscience) to the highest (the state). The individual conscience is the most basic level of government and it is regulated by virtues. Liberty, in this view, is not an end unto itself but a means by which eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) can most effectively be pursued. Liberty is a necessary component of virtue ethics, but it cannot be a substitute. Since it is based on the utilitarian principle that puts liberty, rather than eudaimonia as the chief end of man, libertarianism undermines order and becomes a self-defeating philosophy.
Contrary to what libertarians might believe, order does not arise spontaneously. It is either cultivated from within, through self-disciple, or is forced upon an individual from forces outside themselves (i.e., by the laws or mores of the community) if they lack the requisite character. Once established, this order has to be maintained to be effective. In the absence of order there is no peace, no justice, and certainly no “natural harmony.” Therefore before we can address the relationship between ‘the individual and the state’ we must first establish the relationship between individual liberty and order maintenance.
Take, for example, the “victimless crimes” of prostitution, vagrancy, or public drunkenness. Theoretically, libertarians should support the “decriminalization” of all these acts since they do not necessarily harm other people or their property. But how long could a community last if such liberty is granted free reign? As the reknowed criminologist James Wilson notes:
This wish to “decriminalize” disreputable behavior that “harms no one”- and thus remove the ultimate sanction the police can employ to maintain neighborhood order–is, we think, a mistake. Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community. A particular rule that seems to make sense in the individual case makes no sense when it is made a universal rule and applied to all cases. It makes no sense because it fails to take into account the connection between one broken window left untended and a thousand broken windows.
This is the heart of Wilson’s “Broken Window theory” of crime:
At the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.
In a similar fashion, the breakdown of community standards does not break down all at once. Rather each “broken window” of virtuous behavior (recreational use of drugs, for example) leads to more “window-breaking” until the community lacks the “virtue” necessary to govern itself and requires a higher level (the state) to step in.
Libertarians, of course, are primarily from the middle to upper classes of society. They are not affected by such behavior precisely because the police maintain a level of order and discipline within their communities. If, however, they had to live with such activity on a day-to-day basis, they would likely revise what was considered “arbitrary” and what is considered “spontaneous.”
John Coleman provides a preliminary response by posting an article he wrote for his college newspaper:
On the negative side, Libertarians are crazy. Most became libertarians because they have some social quirk that disallows them from participation in normal society –picture excessive drug use, Dungeons and Dragons play, or fascination with the word “metrosexual” for instance. They are strange. You can’t take them home to your parents, unless, of course, your parents are members of some druid cult. They frighten small children.
Update: John has written a new response: What Libertarianism Means to Me (The Remix)
Josh Claybourn defers to Ben Domenech’s thoughtful analysis on the subject (Ben’s another sharp thinker that I forget to include on the short list of Christian libertarians). Josh adds that unlike some libertarians, he doesn’t believe that all order arises “spontaneously.” He also notes that he is a Christian libertarian precisely because he believes in Natural Law.
Peter Epps provides an astute post that deserves a close reading. He illuminates my confusion over why libertarianism can be found crossing the lines of both sides of the political spectrum:
So the libertarian fails because he fundamentally misunderstands the question. The question is still, “What actions may all claim with justice must be allowed to them?” The answer provided by libertarians does not, even upon a sympathetic reading, answer the question. That’s one reason there are right-libertarian and left-libertarian camps that assert very similar basic principles but arrive at diametrically opposed views on many large-scale political matters.
TZ chimes in with “Will the windows be unbroken, by and by Lord…” (great title, TZ):
What it seems both liberals and conservatives lose is a sense of shame, or more specifically that it could be different than crime. Liberals want to force people to accept shameful things (homogamy), and Conservatives want to criminalize it. “If such liberty is granted free reign”. But it ought not. There ought to be a heavy social cost. But not a criminal one.
Vox isn’t too keen on my argument (though curiously he doesn’t address it from a Christian standpoint):
EO’s argument here is manifestly absurd, as illegal drug usage is arguably as high in the more civilized suburbs as it is in the inner city. The idea that most drug users function quite adequately in society is difficult for some to accept, but it is true nonetheless as a majority of adult Americans have more than a little experience with such illicit activities. Clearly, it is not the law that is maintaining the social order. Such illegal activity may not be virtuous, but it is clearly not socially destructive either; indeed, it is far less socially destructive than the attempts to stamp it out.
By claiming that drug users can “adequately function” Vox is setting the standard rather low. If that is all that libertarianism has to offer it should be no surprise that most people reject it. I also think that he (and many others) are falling for a false dichotomy between libertarianism and statist interventionism. My only contention is that it is precisely because libertarianism doesn’t care if a person is virtuous or not that it is ultimately doomed to fail. According to Christian belief, man is inherently corrupt and will not naturally choose to do good. Society either has to find a way to help develop character (my preference) or it will eventually require a form of government where the state steps in to correct the mess that people make of their lives. Libertarianism prefers not to have either which is why it is untenable. (The comments section on Vox’s post are also worth reading.)
John Quincy Public thinks that we should all be libertarians: “In seems to me that not being Libertarian is a most un-Christian thing indeed.”
BME weighs in with a lengthy fisking:
The cold, hard reality is that the state can only maintain law and order by force with one of two methods. It can either be supported overwhelmingly, by literally almost the entire society, or it can rule by maintaining so much power over society that nothing is beyond its day-to-day ability to control. In any stable country, the former is true, and most unstable countries got that way because the state attempted to control too much of the civilization it ruled over.