Monday, July 04, 2011

Libertarianism and God

When wandering about the internet, I seem to have stumbled across another instance where someone is declaring that libertarianism and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible. As a man who considers himself both moderately libertarian and devoutly Christian, I'd like to take a moment to defend those of us who believe that they can be reconciled. First, I'll let the article in question state its objection:
In their book The Declaration of Independents, authors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch argue for a Libertarian ethic based on the Declaration of Independence, a document they describe as “the most influential English-language formulation of liberty written during the 1700s” (ix). They focus on what they consider to be “the refreshing blast of radical Enlightenment thought contained within” the following “three dozen words” (ix):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I was surprised that the authors would begin their defense of Libertarians by an appeal to this section of the Declaration that specifically links Inalienable rights” with a “Creator.” A Creator assumes the existence of God. The existence of God presupposes a law-giver, and yet Libertarians almost never reference God in defense of their worldview. They can’t and be consistent. It’s one thing to appeal to a Creator in defense of inalienable rights and the undefined “pursuit of happiness” to keep politicians from ruling our lives, but it’s another thing to ignore the Creator when it comes to moral particulars given that the Declaration also states that the He is “the Supreme Judge of the world.”
Once God is gone, everything becomes permissible and possible, whether it’s consented to or not.
While this is just an excerpt of a longer piece, I believe it to be a fair representation. The objection seems to boil down to the fact that the author can see no way to reconcile (1) not wishing for the state to ban certain things, and (2) the Bible clearly condemning many of those things as sinful. Also, the author seems to think that the absence of religious references in defense of libertarianism means that we libertarians know that they cannot be reconciled, and seek to conceal that knowledge.

Allow me to tackle the latter question first. Libertarianism, in general, is founded upon the principle that the liberty of the individual should be the primary value of a political system. Whether we believe that the "unalienable rights" of which such liberty is composed were bestowed by a benevolent deity, merely exist independently of the existence or nonexistence of any deities, or simply think it sounds like a pragmatic way to structure a society is immaterial. The source of the liberties is not the basis for the movement, so why bring it up? I believe, as a Lutheran, that the natural law from which our unalienable rights are derived was written on our hearts by the triune God of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But I would only piss off the atheists who share my political goals by bringing it up. So long as we agree on the route and the destination, I am not of a mind to complain about others' reasons for trying to get there.

But, the first question still remains - how do I reconcile my personal Christian beliefs with libertarianism? Specifically, why don't I want to ban sinful things? While I have several reasons, my primary two are merely pragmatic. First, I have a long list of things that I believe are sinful, and that good people ought not do. I believe that in the world that conforms with God's law, none of the things on that list would occur. Other people (e.g. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc) have very different lists of what does not conform with God's (or gods') law. They believe that their list is correct just as strongly as I believe mine is, and I do not believe any earthly authority is capable of justly adjudicating which list(s) are correct. As the price for being safe from a theocracy forcing me to live under Old Testament law or Sharia law, I am willing to also forego banning everything I think is sinful.

Second, and equally pragmatically I believe that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Accepting, arguendo, that we can all agree on what constitutes the perfect system of governance and all laws that are fully in accordance with God's law. I do not believe that any earthly person or system can be trusted to justly implement such a system (that would, of course, strive to ban all sinful actions). The more things the state is granted power over, the more opportunities we sinners have to bend others to our will using the mechanisms of the state. Any system that attempts to be perfectly just must be administered by people who are perfectly just. Therefore, I am again willing to accept a system wherein the state's ability to force people to act justly is reduced, in order to reduce the abuses that will inevitably befall those who do not control the levers of the state.

Finally, God has commanded us "do not judge, or you will be judged." In this fallen world, such a standard is impossible for a state to live up to while fulfilling its obligation to protect its citizens' rights. But that is where the state's obligations end. A state restricted to protecting our unalienable rights is what libertarians are striving for.

This is basically how I arrive where I do. I believe that this world and its people (including myself!) are deeply flawed and sinful, and cannot be trusted with the power that necessary to implement God's law, nor can we be trusted to determine it in the first place. If such is attempted systematically, it will inevitably fail in its aims, and in such a way as to make us wish the attempt had never been made. When it is attempted piecemeal, it does not fail so spectacularly because those who are abused as a result of any individual act or law are neither so numerous nor so prominent that the majority can be made to care.


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