Sunday, January 23, 2011

A match not made in heaven

Libertarianism: A political philosophy that emphasizes the autonomy of the individual in making economic and moral choices, and hence seeks to minimize government and de-emphasizes community obligations and responsibilities.

Christianity: A religion that professes to believe that God actively and willingly became involved in human history on human terms, challenging us to believe radically in the Old Testament admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” to give up any claims to possessions and status and, ultimately, to lay down our lives in service to others.

What do these two belief sets have in common? At present, the only answer I can give with confidence is “a large number of adherents.” Not all Christians are libertarians, of course, and not all libertarians are Christians. A surprising number of people, though, seem to be both.

This surprises me for two reasons. I am a Christian – although, as I stated in my post “Let me introduce myself,” I hardly fit the current cultural profile. I am not conservative. I do not believe the world was created in seven days. I have little interest in converting people of other religions, since I believe I have a great deal to learn from them as they are. I am also emphatically not a libertarian, and I find it hard to understand how anyone who is a Christian can be one.

Libertarianism, after all, is profoundly individualistic, and Jesus told people to deny themselves and follow him. Libertarians don’t like being forced into adopting other people’s agendas, and Jesus told his followers to “take my yoke upon you.” Libertarians believe, with Benjamin Franklin, that heaven helps those who help themselves, and Jesus said that he came into the world to save the lost.

Much of modern American libertarianism, furthermore, derives from the fiction of Ayn Rand, a radical atheist, and the economic writings of Friedrich Hayek, who approved of those religions that conferred an evolutionary advantage by confirming the right to own property. Neither had much use for a religion that urges self-denying love as the highest virtue and sees personal property as, at best, a distraction.

Jesus did, of course, reject and condemn the kingdoms of this world, and some see this as a reason to oppose government-based solutions to almost anything. There is no evidence, though, that Jesus saw radical individualism and autonomy as a valid alternative. His earliest followers seem to have had very little concern for worldly possessions, and to have adhered to a communitarian ethic. They gave gladly with no thought of themselves, embraced strangers and pariahs, and extended free healing as a fringe benefit to many. St. Paul summed up his experience since his conversion by saying that it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived in him. Freedom meant not autonomy, but liberation from the forces of greed and selfishness that constrict and bind most human lives.

I may not be a typical Christian, but I have read the entire Bible – both Testaments – pretty thoroughly. I have even taught myself enough Greek to read the New Testament in the original language. I don’t see any reason to believe that any of the authors of those influential words, from the Deuteronomist to Jude the Obscure, would have had much use for modern American economic libertarianism, or for most of the other kinds either.


  1. There you go, reading incendiary documents. :D

    Weirdly, this is going to appear as a post by some entity identified as Van. This is actually Mary Ann, though.

  2. You make two mistakes, I think: You want others to lead lives or rational thought that leads to a coherent philosophy of life; two, you assume people are reading the Bible and understanding it. What are you thinking?

  3. I don't know, Paul. Maybe it's time we started teaching that class again. Then people would remember we don't have all the answers in a book somewhere.

  4. Libertarianism is the utopian philosophy of selfishness. It fetishizes individualism to such an extreme extent that it is sees binding social contracts as coercive and thus elective. It pretends that there is no function for government other than national defense, yet ignores the fact that the two tangible things it worships, wealth and property, only exist in the context of government.

    Whether or not libertarianism is compatible with Christianity cannot be incontrovertibly determined since Christianity derives its authority through the Bible. Clever people can find support for any philosophy through selective reading of the Bible.

    All societies rely on a rough and shifting balance between individual freedoms and binding and coercive social contracts in order to function. This balance is weighted differently in different societies, but I know of no stable society that is free of binding and coercive social contracts. Libertarianism is a utopia. Those who espouse "libertarianism," on close inspection are simply using it as an intellectual fig leaf to justify personal selfishness.

  5. One of these days, if I'm feeling particularly masochistic, I'll undertake a critique of libertarianism itself. I agree that it's based on many false premises. It's not clear to me that there ever has been, or ever can be, such a thing as a "free market" in the real world. We certainly don't have one in the US, and it's not the government's fault.

  6. Regarding libertarianism itself:
    "no function for the government other than national defense" - in "Atlas Shrugged," John Galt - Rand's mouthpiece, asserts that the government should serve two functions, namely maintenance of a police force to protect against internal violence and maintenance of a military to protect against external violence. I remember thinking even when I was a teenager that this was bizarre - the existence of a police force implies the existence of a legislature, code of laws, prisons, civil intelligence, and a judicial system; the existence of an army implies the existence of a military hierarchy, military intelligence, and an executive branch. Namely, the functions of police and military imply the existence of the government we have now.

    I have known several Christian libertarians, and I can't pretend to understand the connection or the compatibility. Jesus' parables describe individuals being judged based on their treatment of the poor - "I was hungry and you fed me not"; "you had your portion, and Lazarus did not"; etc. I have no idea how this is supposed to be made compatible with Rand's abhorrence of social obligations or of her equation of the poor/indigent with the lazy and unmotivated.

  7. It's not compatible. Rand's books can seem ingenious until you realize that they contain no children. A society without people who depend on social obligations for survival exists only in fiction.

  8. Good point about children in the novels of Rand. Likewise, there are no handicapped or "special needs" individuals either...

    One other thought comes to mind - of Christian libertarians in my acquaintance, three out of four I know to be professed Calvinists. I wonder if this is what is used to justify the connection?

  9. I guess I have trouble taking seriously any philosophy that is grounded in a novel.

    "I have known several Christian libertarians, and I can't pretend to understand the connection or the compatibility."

    I know such people too. To the extent that they have addressed this point explicitly, it is to say that the record of Jesus' words refer only to personal choice and not to the state. By this reasoning, the state can make no claim on their personal property (other than for national defense) and that Jesus never said otherwise. According to this logic, Jesus' commands of charity and nonviolence are personal and elective.

    As I have noted previously, libertarianism is the apotheosis of selfishness. Personally, I don't see evidence for that in the (utopian) philosophy expressed by the Jesus of the Bible. But from where I sit, both libertarian and Christian philosophies are utopian, and thus the practitioners of each have to read selectively in order to reconcile these philosophies to the real world.

  10. @Joel - Fair enough. The difference is that Christianity makes no pretenses about what happens when you try to apply its ideals in the real world. Most Christians compromise to some extent: hence Luther's admonition to "sin boldly, but trust and rejoice even more boldly in Christ." This is, in part, a call to be honest with ourselves. Christian libertarians, it seems to me, are not even trying.

    @Zachary - Of course Rand's novels contain nobody who needs special treatment. That would have required her to compromise with the real world, which she was absolutely unwilling to do.