Libertarianism, Christianity, and the Problem of Human Nature
The question of human nature has always left libertarians and freedom lovers with a dilemma. Conservatives, particularly Christians, routinely accuse libertarians of neglecting the sinfulness of human nature when they advocate such measures as non-interventionism in foreign policy, legalization of vices such as prostitution, drug use, alcohol use, pornography, sexual immorality, and other things that we Christians ought to abhor, as well as rejecting the role of government in criminalizing these sins. So, since we libertarians reject coercing morality and foreign interventionism, we are attacked as naive and careless. Of course, there are leftist arguments against libertarians with regards to human nature, but I will primarily deal with conservative arguments against libertarianism, for these arguments are popular among my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I will defend libertarianism against these false and exaggerated charges.
Arguments Against Libertarianism
1. Libertarianism is contrary to the Bible since it rejects the legitimacy of the state's coercing of morality on its subject. The argument holds that since Romans 13 is supposed to tell us that the role of governments is to promote good and condemn evil, then that means "legislating morality." Such laws would include legislation placing restrictions on narcotic drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, premarital and extramarital sex, adultery, homosexual relations, polygamy, prostitution, peep shows, and other things that are deemed immoral by the conservative. Since libertarianism rejects the role of government in restricting such activity, the conservative Christian will argue that libertarianism is contrary to God's design for government. They may concede that the laws would be unenforcable, or that such laws won't make a man moral or regenerate. But they do argue that the law is there as a guide and a terror to evil, so that even if such laws don't increase the amount of born-again Christians, it will decrease the amount of immorality. I will refute this argument later on, but this is a pretty good summary of what is being held.
2. Libertarian foreign policy rejects reality because it is utopian in its view of nations, States, and terrorists; it also rejects America's superiority because it rejects America's foreign interventionism. Conservative Christians often attack libertarians on their foreign policy views because it rejects interventionism, American exceptionalism, pre-emptive warfare as a deterrent to rogue nations, and the use of nuclear weapons as a defense tool. The libertarian rejects the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction because he sees them as totally incapable of pure defense and limitation of the toll of lives it takes. The conservative Christian will usually protest that it is not so much the weapons that are evil but rather who has them and how they will be used. Thus, he will be more comfortable with certain governments (such as the American, British, and Israeli governments) using nuclear weapons and uncomfortable with other governments (like North Korea, China, and Iran) possessing them. Also, libertarians often reject interventionism because they see it as a provocation for terrorists to attack a country due to discontent from a nation's intervention. For example, the majority of libertarians (including myself) hold that the attacks on 9/11 were in part (or wholly) a result of America's interventions in the Middle East (an example of this would be the CIA's participation in the 1953 Iranian coup and the support for the Shah, which discontented many Muslims). Ron Paul brought this view to light, and he was attacked by many for it, including Christian conservatives. And most libertarians (including myself) believe that economic sanctions should not be placed on Iran or any other alleged "rogue nations." Conservatives will object to this for fear of Iran's developing nuclear capabilities and for fear that Iran might use it to develop nuclear weapons and use them against America and its main ally Israel (this is due to some alleged statements that Islamic leaders have made). The accusation goes that libertarian foreign policy is naive, stupid, and immoral because it doesn't subscribe to conservative viewpoints. This is false, as I will show later in the article.
3. Libertarian views on vices, crimes, and the State are based on a moral standard other than the objective standards of God's Word. Similar to the first argument against libertarianism, they hold that since libertarianism rejects government's role in enforcing laws against vices (not including murder, theft, fraud, or other things), they are rejecting God's role for government and basing their morality on a base other than God's Word in doing so. The libertarians would say: "Government shouldn't legislate morality." By this, we mean that government shouldn't use the law to crack down and punish those who practice vices that otherwise don't infringe on other people's rights. The conservative will say, "All laws legislate morality, and all laws have a moral base. Therefore, you libertarians are hypocrites for condemning use for using the law to crack down on vices and yet saying that there is no moral basis in law." They will also say, "Since God is the author of morality, then we should codify his law into legislation, which means banning porn, prostitution, drugs, sodomy, as other stuff." They see libertarianism as hypocritical because it allegedly rejects the source of morality: God. The conservative may concede that the law might not make a person regenerate or at the very least good, but at least it prevents even further corruption. Therefore, laws against vices are moral and decent. This is also going to refuted later on.
1. Because we libertarians reject the right to coerce morality, we recognize the freedom of choice (or "free will") bestowed by God on humanity, and we reject the use of statist and immoral means unto morality. Libertarians reject the use of immoral and statist means as used by leftists and conservatives to instill morality into citizens and people, because we recognize the right to freedom of choice. For the Christian libertarian, it is recognizing that humans have a free will, and that government attempts to deny this free will through legislation is wrong. The agnostic scholar Murray Rothbard said, "By attempting to compel virtue, we eliminate its possibility." And the religious scholar Frank Meyer said in his book In Defense of Freedom:
. . . freedom can exist at no lesser price than the danger of damnation; and if freedom is indeed the essence of man's being, that which distinguishes him from the beasts, he must be free to choose his worst as well as his best end. Unless he can choose his worst, he cannot choose his best. (p. 50)
Why do we say this? We say this because we recognize that freedom is part and parcel to a moral action to be truly moral and virtuous, and that if the government tries to compel morality or remove immorality, then the action is no longer truly moral nor is it truly free. Thus, while we libertarians may have differing opinions on the ethical or moral nature of an activity like prostitution, premarital and/or extramarital sex, or drug consumption, we know the the law should not use force to stop these types of activities, or the law can only be used against coercive activities (such as murder, rape, fraud, theft, or kidnapping). Vices do not fall into the realm of coercive activities, so they should not be banned by legislative fiat.
As for a Biblical case for the freedom of choice, there are many examples in Scripture in which goodness is a choice rather than a compulsory choice. Joshua 24:15 says to choose who should be served. Isaiah 7:15 says, "Choose good." And in Genesis 3, in the story of the Fall, we see God giving the freedom of choice in that he doesn't automatically use His power to kill Adam and Eve when they sinned against Him. Yes, it is true that He punished them and made them leave the Garden of Eden, and He did command them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But there was a freedom of choice, and even when they abused it, God did not take away that freedom of choice from them. Proverbs 16:9 says this: "A man's heart plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps." This implies that indeed God does direct the footsteps of man and He is ultimately sovereign, but man is ultimately what plans his way as well. Actions and choices most certainly have consequences, but that does not negate God's gift of the freedom of choice at all.
But how does the issue of Romans 13 square with this? Let me say this: even if, as the conservative says, all laws legislate morality by definition, the role of government (if it is to exist at all) is to use violence only when violent aggression takes place. In Genesis 9, before the Mosaic civil codes were established, the role of violence was only limited as a punishment for prior aggression, and the only roles of violence are for self-defense and rightful punishment. And when the Mosaic Law was fulfilled and the legal and ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Christ, the Ten Commandments remained and so did the Noahic covenant. And not only that, the Scriptures gave us ways to deal with the immoral actions of sins committed among Christians and non-Christians: for Christians, that method is forgiveness for confessed sin and expulsion for unconfessed sins (1 Corinthians 5). So my final conclusion is that use of government force on immoral actions is not necessary and is outside the role of government.
2. Libertarian foreign policy is the most sensible and moral foreign policy of all, contrary to claims from conservatives. The second point in my defense of the libertarian creed is with regards to foreign policy. Libertarian foreign policy, the policy of non-interventionism, is moral and compatible with Christianity and a realistic understanding of human nature, contrary to the claims of the conservative. But before we can defend the libertarian foreign policy from a Christian perspective, we must learn what it is. And since I cannot go fully in-depth into this (as many great libertarian theorists and scholars have), I will give only a brief outline of libertarian foreign policy. The essentials are:
- The policy is based on non-aggression, that no one should have the right to commit aggression against another man's life, liberty or property. Violence is limited only to the defense of life, liberty and property (or even to proper restitution and retaliatory violence).
- The application to foreign affairs is clear. No nation or State may commit aggression at all, not in the name of spreading democracy or protecting an ally, not in the name of imperialism, and not for any other supposed reason. In fact, such warfare depends on theft and taxation, which is unnecessary and wrong (unlike in voluntary revolutionary forces).
- Collective security, the idea that one nation should take the moral responsibility to fight for another nation (like country A fighting against country B to defend country C), is immoral, for it involves aggression and initiation of force.
- Nuclear weapons and aerial bombs are forbidden under libertarian standards, for not only have they opened doors for mass murder, but they also cannot be used in a libertarian manner; in other words, they cannot pinpoint to the enemies and thus avoid killing innocent non-combatants and civilians (which is a rule of just war theory)
Libertarian foreign policy is the most moral foreign policy out of all of them, for it not only recognizes the principle of non-aggression and consistently applies it, but that it is a negative expression of the Golden Rule (“don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you”). That means: no participation in coups, no support of foreign government leaders, no entangling alliances, and no imperialism. But some might say, “What about terrorists and rogue nations that threaten to kill us or might do harm to us? Then we ought to attack them preemptively, and that would be self-defense.” Such preemptive attacks fall outside the realm of self-defense, for if person A jumps out and attacks person B (who is practicing open carry), he is not justified in his attack, for there is no clear and present danger. It would be justified for A to prepare and keep watch, but it would not be justified to attack him and initiate force.
Another example would be if Jonas heard of a thief by the name of Doug who is robbing many houses and persons. Would Jonas be justified in initiating force on Doug merely because the thief threatened to rob his house? No. He would be justified in taking heed and preparing to defend himself and his family, but he would not be justified in starting violent action against Doug. In fact, Doug himself would have the right to defend his own person against Jonas in this case (though the thief would not have the right to keep what he stole).
As to the Christian argument for libertarian foreign policy, let us look at why it is compatible with Christianity;
a. Aggression is fundamentally immoral and not, for not only does it profane the image of God (Genesis 9:6-7; Exodus 20:7), but it violates the rights of others not to be aggressed against. An offensive war is based on initiation of violence, which is immoral.
b. The wars in Scripture, which are used to justify America's current wars, are not license for offensive warfare. For example, many of the Old Testament wars were only called of by Gld, and they were for specific purposes (i.e. taking the Promised Land and purging it of pagan influences). While those wars have important lessons to teach us, they are not meant to be a template for warfare per se. And even then, many of the wars God commanded had limitations, and the nation of Israel, even under a monarchy, did not wage wars against other countries to "spread God's laws." Even when they did face threats, most of the wars were solely designed as self-defense, not any grand schemes.
Laurence Vance, the great anti-war Christian writer and libertarian columnist, says of the Old Testament wars and their relation to the Christian view of war:
...it is wrong to invoke the Jewish wars of the Old Testament against the heathen as a justification for the actions of the U.S. government and its military. Although God sponsored these wars, and used the Jewish nation to conduct them, it does not follow that God sponsors American wars or that America is God’s chosen nation. The U.S. president is not Moses, Joshua, King David, or God Almighty, America is neither the nation of Israel nor God’s chosen nation, the U.S. military is not the Lord’s army, and the Lord never sanctioned any Christian to go on a crusade, commanded him to war on his behalf, or encouraged any Christian to kill, make apologies for the killing of, or excuse the killing of any adherent to a false religion.
c. Aggressive warfare, for any reason whatsoever (even in the name of "spreading democracy and freedom" and "combatting terrorists and rogue nations"), violates the Biblical doctrines of peace and the Golden Rule. For in aggressive warfare, one is basically doing what one does not want to be done to him. 1 Peter 4:15 says not to be a busybody in the matters of other affairs and persons. An aggressive foreign policy does just precisely that.
Contrast this to the non-interventionist foreign policy, a policy that rejects entangling alliances, supports free trade among the nations, rejects aggressive warfare and limits it only to defensive purposes, and even then only uses war against enemies rather than using intimidation and killing of civilians to prove one’s point.
Laurence Vance has some wise words regarding an aggressive foreign policy as opposed to the non-interventionist policy:
A noninterventionist foreign policy is a policy of peace, neutrality, and free trade. A noninterventionist foreign policy would mean no more invasions, no more threats, no more sanctions, no more embargoes, no more foreign aid, no more spies, no more meddling, no more bullying, no more foreign entanglements, no more entangling alliances, no more military advisors, no more troops and bases on foreign soil, no more NATO-like commitments, no more trying to be the world's social worker, fireman, and policeman, no more nation building, no more peacekeeping operations, no more spreading democracy at the point of a gun, no more regime changes, no more covert actions, no more forcibly opening markets, no more enforcing UN resolutions, no more liberations, and no more shooting, bombing, maiming, and killing. A noninterventionist foreign policy would also mean no foreign aid, no humanitarian aid, no disaster relief, and no payments to the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank.
Does this mean that America should let the rest of the world starve in a famine, die of disease after a natural disaster, labor in sweatshops, participate in fraudulent elections, suffer human rights abuses, or be killed in a civil war? America yes, Americans no. The American people are a compassionate, concerned, and generous people. There would be no shortage of American people and American dollars to help the rest of the world in these situations. There would be no shortage of organizations to monitor foreign elections and point out human rights violations. But those who desire not to provide assistance should not be forced to pay for it with their tax dollars.
The United States cannot police the world. We have no right to police the world. It is the height of arrogance to try and remake the world in our image. Most of what happens in the world is none of our concern and certainly none of our business. It is not the responsibility of the United States to remove corrupt rulers and oppressive dictators from power. The kind of government a country has and the type of leader it has is the sole responsibility of the people in that country. There is absolutely no reason why the United States would be justified in attacking and invading a sovereign country — no matter what we thought of that country's ruler, system of government, treatment of women, economic policies, religious intolerance, or human rights record. If the people in a country don't like their ruler, then they should get rid of him themselves and not expect the United States to intervene. The truth of the matter is that the handful of men who hold political power in a country cannot in and of themselves compel that country's citizens to obey them in every respect. They have to have the cooperation of the people. If an individual American feels so strongly about one side in a civil war or border dispute, then he can send money to the side he favors, pray for one side to be victorious, or enlist in the army of his preferred side; that is, anything but call for sending in the U.S. Marines. How strange it is that advocates of U.S. military interventions consider us noninterventionists to be unpatriotic and anti-American when we are the ones concerned about the life of even one American being used as cannon fodder for the state. We never considered the shedding of the blood of even one American to be "worth" the latest lie that U.S. troops are dying for.
So what should the United States do? In the words of the late Murray Rothbard, the United States should "abandon its policy of global interventionism," "withdraw immediately and completely, militarily and politically, from everywhere," and "maintain a policy of strict political ‘isolation' or neutrality everywhere." Political isolation is the only isolation we desire. Our example should be a country like Switzerland. This is a country that has consistently practiced neutrality and nonintervention, and remained secure when the world was at war. The first step toward abandoning an interventionist foreign policy and completely withdrawing would be for the United States to immediately withdraw all of its forces from Iraq. But not because we have suffered too many casualties, not because there are too many insurgents, and not because the troop surge is not working — we should withdraw our troops because the war was a grave injustice, a monstrous wrong, and a great evil from the very beginning.
3. We have our differences on the morality of certain things, but we view libertarianism as a way of life, not a lifestyle. We see libertarianism as a way of approaching the proper use of coercion, force and violence. Many libertarians have differing views of the morality of certain acts, such as participation in non-martial sexual activity, prostitution, gambling, drug use, or any other things. But we are all united in our opposition of using violence to prevent such activities. That means that legislation passed to prevent this is forbidden. This section is dedicated to showing that the Christian creed not only doesn’t command the use of violence to prevent such things, but that the use of violence in these cases is actually wrong by Christian standards. As I have pointed out before, the Scriptures show us God’s gift of freedom of choice, and that we can reject compulsory morality (which is what “legislating morality” really is) and criminalization of vice.
First, compulsory legislation unto morality is immoral because, like aggressive warfare, it violates the Biblical principle of not being a busybody in other people's matters (1 Peter 4:15; 1 Timothy 4:15). And not only that, Proverbs 3:30 reminds us to “Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm.” When we depend upon compulsory legislation to use violence against sinful activity that is in no way criminal, we violate these two principles.
Second, if mankind is indeed sinful, then why should we have to trust the government, which is composed of fallible human beings, to intervene in such personal matters such as sexuality, gambling, prostitution, and other things? Murray Rothbard, while he was not a BIble-believing Christian at all, made this crucial insight when he dealt with the government and morality:
There is an odd aspect of the statist position on the enforcement of virtue that has gone unnoticed. It is bad enough, from the libertarian perspective, that the non-libertarian conservatives (along with all other breeds of statists) are eager to enforce compulsory virtue; but which group of men do they pick to do the enforcing? Which group in society are to be the guardians of virtue, the ones who define and enforce their vision of what virtue is supposed to be? None other, I would say, than the state apparatus, the social instrument of legalized violence. Now, even if we concede legitimate functions to the policeman, the soldier, the jailer, it is a peculiar vision that would entrust the guardianship of morality to a social group whose historical record for moral behavior is hardly encouraging. Why should the sort of persons who are good at, and will therefore tend to exercise, the arts of shooting, gouging, and stomping, be the same persons we would want to select as our keepers of the moral flame?
Government, while it does have the legal power to commit violence against sinners, should not have that legal power. As I have said before, freedom is part and parcel of morality, and if government attempts to coerce this morality by passing laws compelling moral actions or forbidding immoral actions, it destroys a crucial aspect of moral actions, which are done from the heart and from the free choices of man.
Third, in response to the “All laws legislate morality by definition” argument, I would say that when we argue against legislating morality, we don’t say that laws have no ethical basis, for indeed, we libertarians, for the most part, have moral views and base our view on the State and liberty on moral foundations. We say that the government should not use violence to prevent immoral actions from being practiced or to jail someone who has already committed them. The Christian libertarian viewpoint does not forbid the use of violence to defend against initiation of violence, but rather it forbids the use of violence with regards to preventing immoral and unethical actions (which are different from violent and aggressive actions in their nature). So when we libertarians oppose the use of violence to prevent such victimless actions, we are not being selective in our morality or being hypocrites at all. Rather, we recognize that only aggressive violence deserves to be punished with the use of responsive violence by either the victims or the governing agencies. This does not mean we oppose the cultivation of virtue and order, for those things can be cultivated by the church and the family and through civil organizations (that are based on voluntary organizations rather than on monopoly force). But we oppose the forced morals and virtues of the State, and this is what differentiates the libertarian from the conservative.
While this essay is imperfect and written by a fallible human being such as I, I have made the case for libertarianism from the perspective of a Christian understanding of human nature and morality, and I have attempted to show that libertarianism is compatible with Christianity. I have not went too much into specific issues, for that will be for other essays. And I myself have much to learn and I am never too young or too old to grow as both a Christian and as a libertarian.
But I hope that this essay will convince some to look further into libertarianism, to read writings from Christian and atheist libertarians, to delve further into Christian thought, both early and modern, to test it by Scripture, and to learn from it.
If this was not the most definitive take on the subject, then let it be a starting point for others to delve further into the subject.
Here is the link where the footnotes I intended are included into the essay.