Is Libertarianism a Heresy?

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I’ve still been thinking about Joseph Farah’s article “Why I Am Not a Libertarian”, (June 18, 2002, WorldNetDaily). The reason is that there is an aspect of that article that I have not seen addressed by LRC writers but is actually the critique of libertarianism I hear the most from Christians.

Mr. Farah writes: "Libertarians make a fundamental mistake about the nature of man. Man is not inherently good." I’ve heard this charge before and, for Christians, it is a very serious one. It says, in essence, that to be a libertarian one must accept a view of human nature contrary to the scriptural view. In other words, these critics are charging that libertarianism is a heresy.

I argue that libertarianism is not a heresy on two grounds. First, libertarians do not believe, or need to believe, that man is inherently good. Second, the Christian conception of human nature is rather more nuanced than "Man is not inherently good." The orthodox scriptural view of human nature turns out to cause no problems for libertarians. Quite the contrary.

This charge that libertarians believe man is inherently good is a strange one. It betrays a serious misunderstanding of libertarianism. Let me briefly slip into Christianese to make this point clear to Christian readers. Libertarianism is the Law, not the Gospel. A libertarian society is the very opposite of a libertine society in which we trust the "natural goodness" of men. In the libertarian society, no one is above the law, not even presidents and kings. No man’s "natural goodness" is trusted. As Jefferson so eloquently put it, "In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution [the Law]." If you really understand libertarianism than you should be more concerned about where grace and mercy fit into the libertarian society. As libertarians love to say, "the rule of law, not the rule of men." They’re really serious about this.

I am rather more understanding in regards to Farah’s implied summary of the Christian view of man. There is no quick way to summarize the Christian view of human nature. Merely saying "human nature is good" or "human nature is bad" doesn’t actually determine very much. I have heard people argue for both libertarianism and statism from both premises. The Christian view is a bit more nuanced than either of these assessments. In fact, either statement can mask views of human nature that are heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity (e.g., that man is irredeemable or, alternatively, that man has no need of redemption).

The Christian view is that, first, mankind was created by the Lord. When man was initially created, he was designed perfectly and was declared "good" by the Lord. Man was made to live in harmony with the Lord, the natural world, himself, and other humans.

But this understanding of the creation leaves us with an incomplete and unsatisfying picture of man, who now murders, steals, and blasphemes the Lord. The scriptural account goes on to record that man abused the freedom of choice that the Lord had granted him. This "Fall" from the originally created situation of harmony created disharmony between man and the Lord, man and nature, man and himself, and man and other men.

In sum, Christian orthodoxy attests that a benevolent and loving creator made man out of his overflowing love in perfection and with the gift of freedom of choice. Man then used this gift to rebel against the Lord which was the first of many wrong choices that has resulted in the fractured and blood-drenched world we now live in.

So is human nature Good or Bad? Obviously, Christian orthodoxy tells a story that is too nuanced to fit into such a simple-minded question. Let us ask a more useful question: Given the originally perfect but now fallen nature of man, how should a society construct its institutions so that the most harmony results? Does Christianity have anything to say to this?

The answer is that it certainly does. First, Christianity preserves a record of a civil law inspired by the Lord. A careful study of this "Mosaic" law reveals that certain kinds of rules are most likely to yield social harmony. These rules are largely "negative," that is, they do not instruct the people in society what to do so much as what not to do. These prohibitions may be usefully summed up as "Do not harm others or their property and don’t break promises you have made." Later, Y’shua (Jesus) adds "Don’t even think about doing these things" as an obviously not legally enforceable command.

It should be noted that though Christians certainly hope that adopting the Christian faith will yield people more likely to obey this civil law, this "natural" law can be known and obeyed by all humans (Paul writes about this in the first chapter of Romans).

Now, having laid this groundwork let us return to the question of whether libertarianism is a heresy. Whether libertarianism teaches that "human nature is good" or "bad" seems to me entirely unclear. The libertarian tradition does not speak with anything like one voice on such things. What is quite clear though is that the libertarian tradition argues that it is morally right and also yields a more harmonious society for individuals to not harm others or their property and not to break the promises they have made. Furthermore, libertarians argue that this rule ought to be applied to all individuals whether they are kings, presidents, or laborers, Christians or non-believers. Libertarians argue that when this rule is ignored it yields disharmony; when it is ignored systematically it yields Power which corrupts and kills. But the good news is that when this rule is obeyed it yields harmony, when it is obeyed systematically it yields an incredibly complex and beautiful system of cooperation which results, not in utopia, but in incremental improvements in the condition of man according to his own judgement.

I have written all the above without reference to my personal beliefs but merely to clarify the Christian and libertarian traditions and their relationship to each other which is, I believe, clearly not one of deep opposition. But I would like to add a personal note. As someone who was brought up with a Christian worldview and came to study the libertarian tradition later in life, there are two things that I find continually striking and to the Glory of the Lord. First, when the natural law is systematically ignored the results can be phenomenally destructive. R. J. Rummel was quite correct to update Lord Acton’s dictum based on the bloody 20th century: "Power kills, absolute power kills absolutely." But I have also seen with wonder and even awe that when the natural law is systematically respected, the results are beyond what any utopian dreamer could have imagined. Who, even of libertarian forebears like Thomas Jefferson, could have imagined that social cooperation under law could yield jet planes, open heart surgery, computers, and the elimination of poverty throughout Western Europe and the United States? If Jefferson had predicted such things he would have been considered a crazed utopian.

In both these ways, the goodness and rightness of the Lord is revealed. When His law is respected, the blessings are beyond our imagining. When His law is treated with spite, the destruction threatens to swallow up whole peoples. As a Christian and a libertarian, I urge you to stop finding rationalizations for ignoring His law. If you wish well on yourself, your family, and your people, then live consistently with the Lord’s law and demand that your leaders do as well.

Stephen W. Carson [send him mail] works as a software engineer, studies Political Economy at the graduate level at Washington University and works with inner city children in St. Louis through a ministry of his church. See his reviews of Films on Liberty.

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