Why Libertarianism Needs God


Mustela nivalis

I believe that the reason why libertarianism isn’t getting anywhere is that it has nothing to counter the power of utopia. It quite rightly doesn’t have a utopia of its own, but without anything of at least equal leverage, libertarianism will always fail.

In his great essay “Individualism: True and False”, Friedrich A. von Hayek points out that Adam Smith’s chief concern was “not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm.”

Striving for a “system under which bad men can do least harm” is of course the right and proper thing to do. It’s the libertarian thing to do. It’s a good basic idea, the best possible, actually, about how to run a society. But it is my contention that it is not sufficient if libertarians ever want to have a chance to push back the bad people who, just by being in power, think they are doing good. Or who, because they think they’re good, think they have the absolute right to be in power.

The strategic problem of libertarianism is that it lacks, not a utopia, but something equivalent. Call it a vision. My definition of a vision is something worth striving for despite knowing that it will not be achieved in perfection in the real world. Whereas a utopia is, for its adherents, something perfect worth striving for in the belief that it is actually achievable.

I won’t go into the specifics of the libertarian vision, apart from the premise of ownership and that it will result in a dynamic, “open” society that is growing quantitatively and qualitatively. But a vision as defined above is, on its own, never going to be equal to a utopia, due to its lack of perfection or its admitted elusiveness. It lacks a “finishing line”. A measurable point at which we can all say: We’ve finally made it. It thus won’t have the same psychic power, or, to call a spade a spade, spiritual power.

Now, in previous posts I have tried to show how Christianity – or, more precisely, a specific form of Christianity – is the natural ally of libertarians. Or possibly more than an ally: a part of a symbiotic whole. Western (“true”) individualism grew out of Christianity, and not despite of it. The enemies of true individualism, the adherents of “false individualism”, grew out of opposition to Christianity. Which, by the way, is why they need a utopia: a secularised heaven.

Thankfully it is slowly becoming more accepted that Christianity is the most important factor for the emergence of the idea of individual liberty. It is maybe not fully understood yet. It is however cheap to claim that “one can read anything one wants into the Bible”. Yes, if one is lazy. But the facts speak for Christianity being the most important factor for individual liberty: The recognition of man as purposefully created in the image of God (as something “good”). The belief that God became man. The idea of private property as stewardship delegated by the Original Owner. The idea that property is protected by boundaries, and that these boundaries are no less than God’s commandments. The idea that when boundaries are overstepped, consequences must follow or they are worth nothing. The equality before God as a precondition of equality before the law.

It is in Europe where Christianity and true individualism “grew up”. It is in Europe and in its extension, North America, where the escape from the Malthusian trap succeeded first. Yes, Greek and Germanic beliefs and ideals may also have played a part, in that they seem to have been particularly receptive to Christianity. But they had a cyclical world view, which encourages long term apathy, whereas Christianity crucially provided a linear world view and thus a reason for striving on even when the going got tough. (Which is where the essentially heretical utopians also get their impetus from.)

Back to the libertarian vision. A vision is not as powerful, spiritually, as a utopia. A movement that strives for a vision and not a utopia therefore needs spiritual backing of some other kind in order to be, historically, temporally, at least on par with utopians. Otherwise they will, in the long term, always lose. That is why I have come to the conclusion that libertarianism needs God.

I have come to this conclusion however only after learning about Christian Reconstructionism (CR) via the writings of Gary North, especially after reading parts of his economic exegesis of the Bible. Particularly convincing for me was his doctrine of the three basic religions, one of which every one of us is an adherent of no matter what: power religion, dominion religion and escapist religion.

CR is something rather different from what passes as Christianity nowadays in most churches, certainly in the western world, where submission (and in some cases adherence) to the currently ruling power religion of state and human idolatry (the current form of “false individualism”) is the norm. Crucially, CR insists that not only individuals need to adhere to God’s commandments, but corporate institutions (courts, governments, laws) as well. Also, CR follows the “postmillennial” creed that a prolonged phase of blessing will be the result of individual and corporate adherence to God’s laws, prior to the End of the World, which CR does NOT see coming anytime soon. On the contrary: CR is very optimistic with regard to the future of mankind – in the long term. It explicitly does not exclude the possibility of (massive) setbacks in between.

The escape from the Malthusian trap may have been a first tangible result of a prolonged corporate adherence to God’s commandments – not in their totality, but a closer approximation to them than ever before: e.g. obeying and protecting the law “thou shalt not steal” more than ever before, in a more comprehensive way. By implication this means of course that insofar as we are currently corporately breaking away from God’s commandments the Malthusian trapdoor may open again once more.

However, that is a “negative” vision. In order to overcome utopias and utopians we need a positive vision. And it is here where CR, with its postmillennial promise of a prolonged era of blessings as a reward for adhering to God’s commandments offers the crucial tool in what is, at bottom, a spiritual war. And this of course works only with God and the ultimate reward of heaven (not on earth).

I realise of course that for some libertarians the notion of submitting to the (Christian) God (even individually, let alone corporately) is alien or even anathema. After all, it was Paul who had said that we are either slaves to sin or to obedience to God (or “righteousness”), but slaves in any case (Romans 6). And libertarianism is all about liberating oneself from all sorts of slavery, right? I think this interpretation overlooks the fact that at some point we die, certainly our bodies do. So during life we have the choice to either succumb to death totally, or to defy it in some other than bodily way. Both these “slaveries” have a spiritual aspect: Death is the ultimate weapon of power religion – and life, properly understood, righteous life, is the ultimate weapon of dominion religion.

15 comments

  • And this is where I believe Fusionism can come in. True liberty and freedom will come from a sense of meaning and purpose and I believe that it comes from God through his holy word which comes in the Bible.

    It’s true that not all libertarians are Christians but as I believe libertarianism comes from old conservatism, libertarians tend to forget that the term can mean absolutely anything unless you link libertarianism with something else. For example, Fusionism is libertarianism mixed with social conservatism and hints of traditionalism. We are know that social conservatism and traditionalism have strong links with the Bible. Paleolibertarianism is cultural conservatism mixed with classical liberalism. Cultural conservatism has crossovers with social conservatism.

    What I am trying to point out is that Libertarianism can very much derive from the Bible in terms of freedom and liberty but this can only be applied if you link either wholly Christian or strong conservative policies to it.

  • Mustela, that’s brilliant. You might even have now inspired me to try to write the LA’s Christmas and Easter messages again, like we did a few years ago, and like I thought we ought to. I sort of gave up out of depression and exhaustion and failing morale. I had a draft Christmas message last December, sort of unfinished, and it slowly disappeared into the cybermud to which I later felt it belonged sadly.

  • Some interpretations of Christianity are indeed favourable to freedom – both philosophical, human agency (real choice – which, by the way, Hayek denied) and political.

    However, some interpretations of Christianity are deeply hostile to both. For example Martin Luther did not care that German peasants were being turned into serfs, he did not even seem to care much about the prospect of Islamic conquest of Europe. The tyranny of the Sultan – yawn seemed to be the response of Luther (no banging of the drum for Christians soldiers from Luther – there is the mighty ruler and there are the worms at his feet, that is Luther’s vision).

    And philosophical freedom? Martin Luther denied it utterly – all things (everything) is predetermined from God. The only “freedom” is the freedom from shame and guilt – after all if everything is predetermined there is nothing to feel guilty about (no real choice was made).

    That this theological view makes God the author of rape and murder does not seem to have bothered Marty.

    As for human agency depending on the immortality of the soul and so on – well the “Commentator” on Aristotle (Alexander of Aphrodisias) did not believe so.

    Is human agency (our capacity for choice – the “I”) incompatible with materialism?

    Determinists think that this, if true, refutes agency – actually if agency (the capacity for real choice) is not compatible with materialism, this refutes materialism. The “I” exists.

  • I find the ‘vision’ of the christian reconstructionists like Gary North genuinely scary, and the fact that it even gets linked to libertarianism can only set us back, in my opinion. I can’t see anything libertarian about a punitive state theocracy based on a bronze-age book, even if it comes with a completely free market and gold money, as North would like. In a stateless or devolved society, fine. Those who so wish can go and live in a ‘libertarian’ theocratic commune or canton, while I (and all the other people Gary North would have stoned to death) don’t have to bother. I fear that North and his ilk have something more inclusive and unavoidable in mind, however!

    • But isn’t it interesting that the least-bad and the least-unsatisfactory (intellectually-speaking) articulations of individual liberty, both academically and economically, have always and everywhere arisen under nominally what we might define as “modern” Christian polities. Name me a, for example, modern Moslem “polity” – even if that word could be used rightly, for there cannot theoretically be separation between “religious law” and “actual practical law” under Islam – where individual liberty is respected.

      As the joke went a few years ago…..”YOU MUST PLAY WITH THIS EXACT TOY AND NO OTHER TOY WHATEVER, AS STATED IN THE WAY WRITTEN! GOD IS GOOD! LET THE DEFECTIVE-TOY-PLAYERS WHO KNOW NOUGHT BE DAMNED IN THE EYES OF ALLAH!” Sadly I can’t remember the beginning of the joke, but it dealt with generalised toys and how different groups of people’s children played with them….

      • David, it’s definitely interesting, and shouldn’t be discounted. However, it strikes me that it could be a case of the sharp-shooter fallacy, drawing the target after the fact, with Christian values as the bulls-eye. I suspect that in the Venn diagram of circumstances required for a liberal society to occur, a ‘common moral code’ will be one of the required intersecting sets. Perhaps, in our case, it was Christianity. Whether it HAD to be Christianity, or even a religion at all, I doubt.

        I’m an agnostic atheist (I realise a cannot know, I have no reason to believe, and no evidence that belief, or a lack of it, would affect my life a jot!) yet I share major values with you and many others on this blog who profess some level of religiosity. So, if our current shared values do stem from our shared cultural past (including a religious moral code), then they are not dependent upon its current manifestation in the original form.

        I will stand beside anyone holding the torch for true liberal values, no matter their religion or belief. However, I can’t believe – its not part of me. I’d hope that any proper liberal would accept that, as I’d accept them, if we are to stand together. I get the feeling that this isn’t the case for Gary North, or our own Mustela, judging by this and other recent writings.

  • It might be better to say that libertarianism needs a mythology, a less immoral morality, and to treat the family as the central unit of policy, not the individual. The left after is a judaeo-christian heresy sect consisting of neo-liberalism (secular christianity replacing god with state-worship) and jewish secularism (make the world safe for migratory jews).

    Liberty originated in pre-christian history. The value of christianity is the extension of in-family trust (to all peers as “christian love”, the prohibition on inbreeding, and the extension of property rights. However, all three of these initiatives were developed as a means of breaking up and weakening our aristocratic clans.

    We don’t need to invent anything. Western history is there for the taking. We cannot sell self reliance to the proletarians. Nor can we sell restraint to the political and bureaucratic classes who oppress us in the name of the proletarians, but succeed only in enriching themselves. It is irrational to think that we can. It is praxeologically irrational to think that we can. It is not in their interests.

    Speak the truth. Respect property. Construct intertemporal commons. Rebel with violence against those who fail to speak truthfully, involuntarily transfer property, and privatize or prevent the construction of intertemporal commons.

    Our heroes are our only pedagogically truthful gods.

  • I am a born again, bible believing christian and through various means; I have found myself holding to libertarian ideas and I believe the closest a society has come to this view practically: is that where evangelical, protestantism forms the underpinning cultural milieu.
    This doesn’t mean everyone has to be in the same church or faith, just that this ideology forms the social norms of society. A preacher put like: if everyone believed (at least as a practical moral standard) and attempted to obey the 10 commandments and the golden rule, you basically wouldn’t need any law, police and little government.
    I find the notion that people left to themselves, without law, government, or religion; will some how manage themselves in an enlightened, civilised manner: naively ridiculous. The anarchistic side of libertarianism seems to believe this by a process of faith without works when in reality men without god/God become more like wild beasts, as we know from history.
    I am not saying that all forms of christianity (or even the true, right forms) are always friends to liberty. Far from it. When the biblical, christian idea of freedom of conscience is bypassed- Romanism for instance, or the rational appeal to ‘infallible proofs’ and to ‘prove all things’- mysticism/charasmaniacs/quakers ect: the opposite can be the case: sometimes on a large scale (medieval Europe) and sometimes in a small fringe element. But as Peter Hitchens often mentions- would be political activists of an atheistic/agnostic tendency are living on the good- ‘the fumes’ of a christian civilisation. Sean Gabb does not seem to be ignorant of this. L Neil Smith does however.
    Obviously, as a believer, my personal views of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation through faith in his blood, and the inspired words of truth (KJV) as a divine revelation; supersede any merely political theory or actions; though I don’t claim any more right to propagate this, more than that afforded by common freedom of expression, promotion and speech than any other exclusive claim to truth-secular, atheistic, humanism for example.
    I do think the UK has benefited and been blessed by it’s protestant, christian heritage and shouldn’t be so quick to discard this (KJV discarded 1881) and the gradual rise of current liberal negative trends seems to parallel it’s rejection.

  • Casual Observer

    Cultures shape religion, not the other way around — despite what many pretty stories claim. Where a broad cultural base already values individual sovereignty, that will be a central tenet of the most widely adopted religion(s) in the region (or at least given a nod of acceptance to lure the people in). In cultures that do not already broadly value the individual as a sovereign entity, the local major religion(s) does not either (nor even pretend to) — even if the religion(s) in the two different types of areas share the same name and the same stories.

    Valuing the individual as such is a very, very rare cultural thing, and for whatever reason seems to have originated and gained a foot-hold in what are now referred to as “Western Cultures”, and then spread to what has become known as the United States. Even when non-Western Cultures adopt the _trappings_ of Western Civilization (WC), and gain various degrees of material prosperity (or not, as is often the case too), if the central tenet of individual sovereignty is not likewise integrated throughout the culture, the trappings of WC become a yoke of further oppression and cultural/personal disconnect, confusion, and malaise. It can be fairly easily demonstrated that this one core cultural tenet, (individual sovereignty, and all that goes with it) is what is responsible for all of of the truly great & meaningful accomplishments of mankind throughout history.

    Unfortunately, just because a culture broadly accepts and utilizes the concept of individual sovereignty for a given period of time does not mean that it is a permanent state of affairs for that culture. Currently the various founding Western Cultures in Europe and the U.S. are losing/abandoning/suppressing that cultural concept, and the depressing/oppressing results are evident everywhere. And to further add to the misery, despite the material successes in some places, there does not yet appear to be a new “Bearer of the Torch”.

  • “Cultures shape religion, not the other way around”.
    The other way round definitely is the case in historical reality (though not absolutely or exclusively). The British Isles are a clear example of nations who’s culture and identity has been obviously and powerfully shaped by the glorious gospel.
    Think of the 100s of nations that didn’t even have any form of literary “culture” until the influence of christianity. I would hazard a guess that the number of preliterate cultures to develope writing without christianity, in the last 2000 years, is pretty close to 0.
    At the same time countries where false religions and ideologies (evolutionary/secular/atheistic/agnostic/humanism ect) predominate; can be seen to be effected by those false, morally deadening views.
    “Culture” as such is a term that in may ways is pretty meaningless, although we all use it in a way, as if we we think it has an assumed fixed meaning. Dabbling and messing with it can be a root of all kinds of sin, even to the point of excusing peoples individual actions on their culture.
    Any negative cultural attributes can be changed by the entrance of the words of the glorious gospel and the positive attributes amplified and encouraged; but the opposite is not normally the cast: although it can effect a nations predisposition to receiving the good news of Jesus Christ.

  • Both statism and thiesm believe in some ultimate authority.

    Libertarianism does not and should not require any thing based on faith. Any worthwhile ideolgy can be justified by purely rational and logical argument.
    Both the non agression principle and justification of property rights need nothing to do with any religion.

  • Gary North believes in stoning people to death? Who does he want to stone to death? For what sin or crime?

    Does Gary North really believe himself to be without sin?

    This does not appear likely to me.

    • Here you go, Paul – a pdf of the original text of North’s Book ‘the Sinai Strategy’ published in the ’80s (I’m informed he’s toned in down in the more recent editions).

      http://www.entrewave.com/freebooks/docs/a_pdfs/gnss.pdf

      Flick down to page 122 for the section ‘In defense of Stoning’ from Chapter 6 ‘God’s Monopoly on Execution’. As to who he’d have stoned – he details that throughout the preceding chapters. All the usuals: gays, blasphemers, disobedient children, loose women, etc. It’s all very old testament.

      Who needs the Taliban, eh?

  • What Christianity gives to libertarianism is an epistemological and metaphysical basis for private property. If libertarianism doesn’t have that it won’t have the long term advantage over other worldviews.

    Hoppe and others have worked on providing a more rigorous philosophical basis for private property. I don’t know enough about their work to be able to comment; but here is a helpful analysis by “reformedlibertarian.com”:

    http://reformedlibertarian.com/articles/philosophy/mises-hoppe-rothbard-and-gordon-clark-some-thoughts/

    reformedlibertarian.com like CR are presuppositionalist Christians, but they are more consistently libertarian.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s