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.