Liberty, Libertarianism, and Christian Ethics

A curious feature of American Christianity, rarely shared by Christians in other nations and cultures, is its propensity toward libertarianism, a philosophy that, at first glance, would seem to be intrinsically inimical to Christian teaching.  Where libertarianism tends to put the individual, his preferences, and his interests first and foremost, Christianity has always insisted that man is social, man is meant for community, and ought to put the interests of others first.  Where libertarianism exalts the value of unrestricted free choice, on the basis of individual preferences and interests, Christianity is committed to a strong view of objective moral norms which condition our freedom, rendering many choices unacceptable on the basis that they are in fact harmful both to the community and the individual.  Clearly a Christian cannot coherently be libertarian in this extreme sense.

For many American Christians, then, their libertarianism is of a pragmatic sort.  The argument, they will say, is not that the individual should in fact be ultimate, or that any exercise of free choice is good and lawful—on the contrary, individualism is harmful, and many free choices are very bad ones, and deserve censure.  Rather, the argument is merely that the restriction of choice by the tool of government coercion will do more harm than good.  Government simply should not be trusted with the enforcement of these moral norms, because law is a blunt instrument that will suppress legitimate freedoms along with illegitimate ones, and power corrupts, so it is not safe to entrust this duty to fallen men.  Better to allow individuals to make free decisions that might sometimes be harmful than give police power to the state to repress such actions.  Such a pragmatic libertarian logic, as I mentioned recently, seems to have traditionally undergirded the right of free speech—people will say lots of harmful, offensive, and unwise things, but giving the government power to suppress such statements will be much worse than living with the collateral damage of this liberty.  Likewise, some Christians may argue that yes, stockpiling excessive wealth is a bad thing, and ought to be used for charity, but we can’t trust the government with deciding what constitutes “excessive wealth.”


Fair enough.  Of course, we might object that many American Christians apply this logic selectively, declaring themselves all in favor of government suppression of vice on abortion, marriage, or anything that falls under the heading “family values.”  Or we might point out that if the argument is going to be pragmatic, then we must be committed to a serious empirical investigation of whether the suppression of a given liberty (e.g., stockpiling excessive wealth) really does do more harm than judicious legal restriction would do.  (This, incidentally, would yield something like more classical conservatism, which is genuinely committed to limited government, but also to a firm rule of law in those areas where liberty proves harmful.)  But let’s leave those objections aside for now, and allow the basic logic.  Now, according to this logic, if certain exercises of freedom are in fact harmful or morally objectionable, but civil authority should not be brought to bear in restraining them, then it would seem to follow that all other, non-coercive means should be brought to bear as fully as possible in restraining them.  I alluded to this in my discussion of Limbaugh and free speech.  If we are agreed that seditious or slanderous speech is a bad thing, but that we shouldn’t give government the power to suppress it, then it should fall to us, as responsible citizens, moral people committed to truth, and good Christians, to oppose such speech to the fullest of our ability.  We should use our own freedom of speech to denounce it, we should withdraw our support from those engaged in such wicked speech, should seek to leave them socially and economically isolated.  The fact that nowadays the right to “freedom of speech” is invoked to give any kind of speech immunity from criticism, to imply that those denouncing it are virtually fascists, is clear evidence that in this realm, the pragmatic justification has given way to an ideological one, that the idea that strong moral norms still individual freedom is being jettisoned.  The seductive logic of full-blown libertarianism has subverted the attempted pragmatic compromise.   

The same thing, I suggest, has happened to American Christians, particularly on issues such as economic ethics.  A serious Christian, attentive to the teaching of the Bible and the Christian ethical tradition, would recognize that much of what we as individuals like to do with our money is morally vicious and socially harmful—we greedily stockpile far more than we need, and withhold excess resources from those who urgently need them, we covet material pleasures of every description, we deceive and rip people off in order to come out on top in our exchanges, we pay people the lowest wage we can get by with, pocketing all the extra profit, etc.  Logically, then, a Christian “pragmatic libertarian,” while convinced that employing government power to restrain such things would do more harm than good, ought to be committed to opposing them by every other means.  Ministers should denounce such sins from the pulpit, and individual Christians should oppose them whenever they saw them.  Christian ethicists should write and speak about the dangers of wealth and greed, and seek to establish, in the absence of legal guidelines, moral guidelines for discerning a just wage and a just price, for when too much is too much.  Christians should be committed to bring non-coercive social pressures to bear, for instance boycotts, protests, etc., to seek to restrain such vices.  Right?  And yet, in my experience, we find the opposite.  In fact, whenever such moral pressures and objections are brought to bear, the reaction is no less indignant than if legal force were being used.  Not only must Wal-Mart be legally permitted to pay its workers a minuscule wage, but Christians should not be so “Pharisaical” as to critique it on moral grounds.  Rather than welcoming moral guidance on issues of economic ethics, most Christians balk at it as an intolerable restriction on freedom, and woe betide the pastor who dares to address such questions.  Instead of reasoning, “sure, there’s a such thing as excessive wealth, but the government shouldn’t be trusted to draw the line,” we are told that any attempt to draw the line is oppressive.  “How dare you judge me?” instinctively says the Christian with five cars and three houses.  But of course, this confusion—of moral judgment with genuine tyranny—is the same that modern libertine secularism routinely makes, when it decries the moral claims of Christianity as fascistic, treating any statement of disapproval as tantamount to a restriction of freedom, and hence demanding an immunity from any statement of criticism.  The homosexual rights lobby has gone from asking for civil liberty to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to sexuality, and the Christian Right has gone from demanding immunity from redistributive taxation to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to wealth.  


My suspicion, of course, is that this is no coincidence, and that in fact the “pragmatic libertarian” position, as I have called it, is inherently unstable, logically incapable, by its starting point in individual rights, of sustaining genuine social norms.  But for those who don’t want to accept that conclusion, let’s at least see an attempt at consistency—if you don’t want the government dealing with vice and injustice, then at least step up to the plate and be willing to deal with it yourself.

7 thoughts on “Liberty, Libertarianism, and Christian Ethics

  1. Brad, which libertarian's definition of libertarianism are you using? As a full-blown, doctrinaire libertarian anarchist, I don't recognize the position you are critiquing. In order to avoid attacking strawmen and distortions, I recommend interacting with something a libertarian has actually said.Let me suggest Gerard Casey. He wrote a nice piece here: also addresses some of your objections to distortions here:, the "individualism" of libertarianism is a methodological individualism. As a neocalvinist, I'm not a genuine individualist (methodological or otherwise), and when I critique it, at the very least, I want to understand what I'm arguing against.This should be helpful: look forward to your more informed interaction on this.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Heh, I was waiting for someone to post just this sort of critique. Surprised it took a week. I am aware that I offer, in the first paragraph, a very oversimplistic, perhaps even caricatured, account of libertarianism, which does not attempt to address its various forms as a fully-worked out social philosophy. That is because the first paragraph is really intended just to set a backdrop against which to analyze and critique what I'm calling "pragmatic libertarianism" as found among many Christians today. I'm saying, "Clearly Christians can't be libertarians in this full-fledged sense, so many of them are libertarians in this qualified sense, and that's what I want to discuss." If it turned out to be the case that almost *no* libertarians, Christian or otherwise, were the "full-fledged" sort, but were more what I have called the "pragmatic" sort (as Rothbard and Casey seem to be arguing here), it doesn't seem to me that that would undermine my essential point, which is to say, "If it's just coercion you're concerned about, why the allergy to non-coercive forms of social pressure?"That said, I think it's a little hasty to dismiss the idea that there are no libertarians of the sort I describe in the first paragraph. Perhaps not among its most respected theoreticians (although Ayn Randians would seem to meet the description, though perhaps some libertarians would deny that Randians meet the criteria of libertarian orthodoxy), but certainly in society more broadly, where a general cultural shift toward moral relativism and extreme individualism has intermixed with libertarian ideas.Be that as it may, it would probably be much more clear and helpful to reword a couple things in the first paragraph—instead of "libertarianism always puts the individual…", "libertarianism tends to put the individual"; and instead of "in this doctrinaire sense," "in this extreme sense."


  3. Well, without going into everything else that I find very problematic in what you write (despite your re-wording), let me address your main point.You wrote:"If it's just coercion you're concerned about, why the allergy to non-coercive forms of social pressure?"I believe I'm safe in taking the word 'just' to mean, not 'justice,' but rather 'only' or 'simply'. However, in a proper libertarianism, the concern is not coercion per se. The concern is aggression. There may be defensive or responsive coercion, and assuming its proportionality, this is the legitimate use of coercion. However, there is an illegitimate use of coercion, and that is initiatory or offensive coercion, and this is what libertarians mean by aggression. And such aggression is a physical attack against another's person or property.And, in answer to your objection, I must say that I do not perceive any such allergy to non-aggression, in the form of social or other pressure, among libertarians. In fact, non-aggressive 'pressure' is acknowledged as essential for libertarian conceptions of minimal-state or stateless societies to function.In light of this, I'm not sure there's anything left to say in defense of your point. But, I would love to know how you might engage with all or any of the articles that I linked in my previous comment, because I suspect you nevertheless find libertarianism objectionable.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Gregory,While I appreciate your precision in terminology, I think you are being considerably more precise than many of your fellow libertarians and anarchists, many of whom routinely use the term "coercion" as opposed to your more precise "aggression," even if that is what they have in mind. In any case, I think the simple bifurcation thus proposed is politically naive, and founded on an untenable concept of the priority and integrity of the individual as a rights-bearing person over against the community. Is the community's regulation of certain kinds of economic action "defensive or responsive" against foreseen harm that such action will do to the community, or is it unprovoked "aggression" against a legitimate use of property? Such terminology proceeds on the assumption of a war of individual against community, an assumption I wouldn't want to grant and which in any case is unhelpful for the practical resolution of questions over legitimate regulation.But this is, as you well know, a huge debate, on which our principles are quite diametrically opposed, I'm afraid. In case you haven't seen them before, you can see where I'm coming from on a lot of these questions in my series on coercion and my series on private property. But, as for your response to the main objection I am making in the post, I would just say, "If the shoe fits, wear it." I mean, if you and your breed of consistent libertarian are innocent of this charge of inconsistency, then great. Pat yourself on the back, don't get defensive, and move on. (At least for now. My ultimate view, of course, is that this "consistent view" remains in the end incoherent, and perhaps I shall have opportunity to post on that in due course.) However, I believe that there are plenty of Christians out there who are guilty of this kind of double standard—saying that their objection is to government aggression, rather than legitimate forms of social pressure, but then balking at any form of social pressure. It's possible that in this, I am tilting at windmills, but given Borneman's kind comment above, I am comforted to think that there are at least some who feel they have also observed the same problems I am critiquing here.


  5. Fair enough. I suppose I ought to direct further critique towards your series on coercion and property.(Just because I'm eager to engage the issues).But here, then, I feel it's worth voicing a contradiction to your claim that libertarianism, as such, is a philosophy that, at first glance, would seem to be intrinsically inimical to Christian teaching. I certainly grant that such an idea may be drawn from encounters with a kind of pseudo-libertarianism, but to Christians whose first glance at libertarianism is a more precise one, it seems to be intrinsically concordant with Christian teaching.Thanks for your patience with my missing your point. I'm on board with your opposition to 'egoism,' etc. But I don't think libertarianism should be dismissed in that way.


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Gregory. Naturally, I think that even these careful, nuanced, and precise statements of libertarianism, with its "non-aggression" principle and all, are very far from "intrinsically concordant with Christian teaching." But that's not the sort of claim of which I would try to convince you overnight; if you're anything like me, it might well take several years. I hope you'll come around in the end, though. 😉


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