Libertarianism and Christianity

Originally published at: https://coreyjmahler.com/2020/11/25/libertarianism-and-christianity/

I am not a Libertarian. I have never been a Libertarian. I will never be a Libertarian.

It is not that I am insufficiently familiar with Libertarian thought or that I am familiar only with the antics of such unserious actors as the US Libertarian Party; rather, I am only too familiar with Libertarian thought, as it has become more or less, the only (supposedly) right-of-center thought that may be allowed some hearing on campuses (among other places), although typically only when the topic is (a lack of) morality. If I never again hear ‘the conservative case for [immoral or anarchic policy proposal here]’, it will still be too soon. However, I am not setting out here to offer a comprehension critique of Libertarian thought (I believe that contact with reality has already done a sufficient job of that); instead, I wish to argue that Libertarian thought is incompatible with Christianity.

Inevitably, self-proclaimed Libertarians will accuse me of attacking a caricature of Libertarianism, so let me be clear about what I mean when I say “Libertarianism”: I do not mean mere limited government (happily, we are not forced to choose between Totalitarianism and Anarchy); rather, I mean a minimalistic approach to the State. Those who wish to lower taxes, introduce regulatory sanity, or protect civil liberties are not my intended villain; those who wish to eliminate all taxes and regulations and even the State itself (or come so close to doing so that the distinction has no difference) are my target. Those who advocate for the decriminalization of all (or most) drugs (or, worse, the legalization of such) can safely consider themselves as falling into the category targeted by this article.

For my part, some years ago, the thought occurred to me that the Libertarian often (if not, necessarily, always) cries out with the voice of Cain. To my sensibilities, it seems as if they have built an entire system (if we are being charitable) of thought on ignoring the lessons of Cain and Abel (let us proceed under the presumption that such ignorance is not willful and may, therefore, be cured). The blood of righteous Abel cries to Heaven, and the Libertarian response is to say that he has no duty to Abel, and so, naturally, declining to intervene was entirely proper (and, of course, he should be allowed to market the video of the attack that he recorded). Contrary to all morally serious men who have read Genesis 4 (and concluded, correctly, that, yes, I am my brother’s keeper), the Libertarian starts asking after titles and deeds to see if Abel were trespassing.

Where one can find warrant in Scripture for Anarchy, I do not know. From my reading, I find a God of order and not chaos, a Savior who commands me to ‘render unto Caesar’, and an Apostle who tells me to pay my taxes, and this is to say nothing of the wider application of the Fourth Commandment. Is it not God who appoints the rise and fall of nations, God who grants rulers their authority, and God who entrusts the Sword to the State? I do not find passages in Scripture that grant us leave to do as we please if only we cloak our actions in the words “liberty” and “freedom”. Certainly, we have Christian liberty, but such is properly expressed when selecting liturgical colors, not when hoisting the black flag.

As the pastor, priest, and bishop are to care for the flock entrusted to their care, so the prince is to care for the flock entrusted to his. Why should we take any more (morally) seriously the person who would tear the crown from the prince’s head than the man who would tear the robe from the pastor’s body or the Bible from his hand? Undoubtedly, it is worse to attempt to destroy the right-hand Kingdom than to dismantle the left-hand kingdom, but only in a fashion similar to how it would be worse to chop of one’s dominant hand or pluck out one’s dominant eye than to so treat its non-dominant counterpart. Surely, neither is advisable.

Although my critique is primarily a matter of morality, I cannot help but ask a ‘practical’ question: What is the end goal of Libertarianism? If we assume a truly minimal State that merely defends the national borders (without levying any taxes, naturally), then we find ourselves in a predicament without infrastructure. No private entity is going to run — much less maintain — water and power to the entire population, and any entity that did would be a monopoly. And let us not even entertain arguments (if they can even be construed as such) that an ‘infrastructure market’ will arise. It both boggles the mind and beggars belief that anyone would seriously advance that there could be a market for such things as roads, sewers, electric grids, water pipes, and telecommunications infrastructure. Without getting into the technicalities (as things do get very technical very quickly, and this is not the place for such), suffice to say that creating markets for these goods and services is actually, literally impossible. There is such a thing as a natural monopoly, and Libertarianism has absolutely no way to address the problems presented by monopolistic players (except denying their exist, which works about as well as refusing to believe UV rays exist would prevent one from getting sunburn).

Try as I might, I cannot conceive of any way to enforce laws within a Libertarian framework, and an unenforceable law may as well not exist (assuming the point of the law in question is to regulate behavior or punish transgressions, anyway). Are we to rely on volunteer law-enforcement officers? Whence would officers derive their authority? If no one volunteers, how are we to create incentives? Without taxation, we cannot offer a salary. One would think that those who praise economics so highly would understand the concept of incentives a bit better.

The insurmountable problems created by Libertarian thought are legion. Should we quietly mourn the tragedy of the commons while doing nothing or should we look for ways to monetize it? Shall we simply pretend that the tragedy of the anticommons does not exist? Are we to abandon all dreams of human spaceflight and the exploration of God’s magnificent Creation? (And those who believe private individuals would fill the void would do well to more deeply scrutinize the reality [and the history] of current ‘private sector’ space-related endeavors.) What of the arts and the sciences? Have we not yet suffered enough of what the market has wrought upon our culture? I simply cannot fathom a good faith defense of Libertarian thought in light of the shared reality to which we are all party. (And do spare me the ‘Well, real Libertarianism hasn’t been tried.’ nonsense — I get enough of that ‘argument’ from people in Che Guevara shirts.)

We have, by the grace of God, clawed our way up from the dust. We have health and safety regulations that protect our food and our workers. We enjoy our weekends because of the blood, sweat, and tears of those who fought for labor standards. We need only look to most of the rest of the world to see how things could be if only the Libertarians are ever handed the reins of State. And, of curiosity, why would anyone ever hand the reins of State to a group that insists the State is ‘bad’ (or even ‘evil’)? Surely that makes as much sense as pouring your Baptist friend a glass of your favorite Scotch, or cooking beef Wellington for your dog and expecting him to appreciate the time, effort, and flavor profile.

But it all comes back to Cain, standing in a blood-soaked field and screaming at God. At least Totalitarians have the decency to be somewhat honest about their intentions. In a very real sense, Libertarians are simply attempting to enact their own form of eugenics (which they inevitably call “meritocracy”, firmly believing they will rise to the top of such a system — much like Nietzscheans always seem to believe they are Übermenschen). The accusation may seem polemical, but what else are we to call a system that would remove all safeties — and safety nets — and declare a general melee of every man for himself? I do not know whom we should hail, but: Morituri te salutamus.

And yet we are still standing in the field with Cain. Abel’s body is lying at our feet, Cain is lying to God, and all I can think is: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And why has that phrase passed from our discourse? Are we now so fearful of chance that we dare not risk invoking it? Or is it that our arrogance has blinded us to the role of luck in our lives? I have more than once in my life been in very much the wrong place at almost the wrong time. Some tens of meters down the boulevard or a day earlier at the street market and Libertarians would probably be hearing a great deal less about Cain — at least from me.

As has been often observed, we are not — none of us is — an ur-individual, some promethean being that is wholly, completely, and totally himself, dependent upon nothing and no one. Very much to the contrary, we are all deeply integrated into societies and systems upon which we are profoundly dependent. More and further, we are all a great deal closer to disaster, from one moment to the next, than we are generally comfortable contemplating. Libertarianism would deny (or at least ignore) all of this, and instead assert that we are individuals, islands of self-reliance and independence. The claim would be laughable if it were not so pernicious. Does our society not already suffer sufficient isolation and atomization? What moral monsters would we have to be to offer as a cure more of the poison that is already killing our fellow man?

I understand what motivates Libertarians — I truly do. I have spent so very many hours discussing these issues with friends and colleagues (and the occasional stranger) who profess to be Libertarians, and Libertarian volumes command more than a shelf in my library. It may seem that I am being uncharitable, and perhaps that is so, but I am not sure that being ‘charitable’ is the moral course when responding to someone who suggest we should throw morality out the window because he would really rather not have to pay taxes. I find Libertarianism both incoherent and morally repugnant (and, for the record, I find Anarchy reprehensible and insane), but the point of this article is not to share my personal preferences. What I advance is that Christianity, which commands us to obey proper authority and fulfill our duties to our neighbor, is fundamentally incompatible with Libertarianism, which agitates against (virtually all) authority and denies we have duties to our neighbor. I do not see a way to reconcile these Weltanschauungen; in fact, I believe them to be wholesale incompatible. I would consider terms like “Christian Libertarian” or “Libertarian Christian” to be roughly as coherent as “Christian Buddhist” or “Buddhist Christian”.

Some things, like the proverbial — if not necessarily the culinary — oil and water, simply do not mix.