Libertarians, Marxists, and Christianity

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In an earlier article, I looked at two of Jim Wallis’ criticisms of libertarianism, and also compared his own historical u201CChristian Marxismu201D to the libertarian point of view. What I found was something akin to Jesus’ admonition that people with beams in their own eyes should focus first on their own condition rather than to be criticizing others.

This time, I examine the following two attacks that Wallis makes on libertarian thinking:

  • u201CThe Libertarians’ supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sinu201D;
  • u201CThe Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christianu201D;

We read the following from Wallis:

The Libertarians’ supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin. The exclusive focus on government as the central problem ignores the problems of other social sectors, and in particular, the market. When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment ― which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it.

Wallis then adds:

But such theorizing ignores the practical issues that the public sector has to solve. Should big oil companies like BP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean? And is regulating them really un-American? Do we really want nobody to inspect our meat, make sure our kids’ toys are safe, or police the polluters to keep our air clean? Do we really want owners of restaurants and hotels to be able to decide whom they will or won’t serve, or should liquor store owners also be able to sell alcohol to our kids?

Now, I cannot say that I have read anything on any libertarian website or any publication or book espousing a libertarian point of view, and that includes Walter Block’s u201Cplumb line libertarianu201D book, Defending the Undefendable, in which someone claims that markets are u201Csinless.u201D For example, a Christian who believes that adultery is a sin will not endorse prostitution, even if that same person believes that prostitution should not be a crime.

The reason that Christian libertarians might be against criminalization of prostitution is not because they believe market processes are u201Csinless,u201D but rather because we believe that crimes should be limited to those acts in which one person intends to harm another, and in which the participants in the action are not acting in a mutually-agreeable fashion. Again, to say that an act in which the participants are engaging in mutually-agreeable behavior does not mean the act is good or even Godly. Rather, our view is based upon recognition of the limitations of where we believe the law should go.

As for the environmental issues, I know of NO libertarian who believes that u201CBP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean.u201D That is not even a caricature of the libertarian position; it is a false representation of our point of view, and I would contend that Wallis knows it is false.

Indeed, the u201Cplumb-line libertarianu201D position on BP and other firms that cause oil spills and the like probably is more environmentally sound than anything Wallis and his fellow Marxists might believe. Wallis forgets that pollution is not a u201Ccapitalistu201D endeavor, given that communist countries have much worse pollution records than any nation where at least some free markets exist.

For example, in recent edition of Sojourners Magazine, blames poverty, pollution, and mine safety problems in West Virginia on capitalism and coal companies. Yet, the death toll and pollution that comes from state-owned coal mining operations in countries like China and the old U.S.S.R. dwarf problems that exist here.

In fact, state-owned firms are more likely to engage in pollution and have bad safety records precisely because they answer only to themselves, and the state is the ultimate u201Cowneru201D of property. (Wallis falsely contends that private property is the source of pollution and oppression, but has no explanation for socialist pollution, except to ignore it altogether.) Libertarians, on the other hand, believe that private property is at the heart of production and exchange, and that if one violates another’s property, there must either be compensation or the violator of the property must cease and desist.

One of the real problems regarding the BP oil spill is that BP essentially was able to drill in u201Ccommon property,u201D as opposed to operating in private property in which the owner could make environmental demands. Instead, we have companies operating according to politically-based government permits which provide a poor substitute for private-property rights.

Wallis then declares:

Do we really want nobody to inspect our meat, make sure our kids’ toys are safe, or police the polluters to keep our air clean? Do we really want owners of restaurants and hotels to be able to decide whom they will or won’t serve, or should liquor store owners also be able to sell alcohol to our kids?

First, he makes some heroic assumptions, the first being that private producers really don’t care about pleasing their customers. (In fact, elsewhere, he decries u201Cconsumerism,u201D although I must admit that I don’t know what u201Cconsumerismu201D really is, given that people don’t go to Wal-Mart to satisfy some ideological itch.) My experience with purchasing services from both people in private markets and from the government has told me that government agents are much less concerned about u201Cpleasingu201D u201Ccustomers.u201D If anything, government agents engage in a master-servant relationship, and regulators are no exception.

Second, he forgets that racial segregation did not begin with private businesses, but rather was enforced by the state. The Jim Crow laws (emphasis on u201Clawsu201D) came about because politicians forced their views on everyone else. Furthermore, it was that great u201CProgressiveu201D Woodrow Wilson who made the federal government into a racist institution, not J.P. Morgan.

Here is his next line of attack:

The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian. u201CLeave me alone to make my own choices and spend my own moneyu201D is a political philosophy that puts those who need help at a real disadvantage. And those who need help are central to any Christian evaluation of political philosophy. u201CAs you have done to the least of these,u201D says Jesus, u201CYou have done to me.u201D And u201CBlessed are those who are just left aloneu201D has still not made the list of Beatitudes. To anticipate the Libertarian response, let me just say that private charity is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of either fairness or justice, let alone compassion. When the system is designed to protect the privileges of the already strong and make the weak even more defenseless and vulnerable, something is wrong with the system.

What is Wallis saying? First, he is saying that if someone wishes to be left alone and not be harassed by state authorities, then that person is engaging in a u201Cpreference for the strong over the weak….u201D Say what? Is this guy really telling me that whenever SWAT teams invade private homes or government agents harass people in airports or elsewhere, that the government is u201Cweaku201D and individuals are u201Cstrongu201D?

This is ludicrous. Second, his view that if the so-called weak can harness the power of the state to take property away from the u201Cstrong,u201D then who is weak and who is strong here? Wallis is claiming that there is a class of u201Cstrongu201D people who always have been strong and a permanent class of the u201Cweaku201D who need to be able to plunder the u201Cstrong.u201D

At this point, we are not dealing with economics or even a political/religious philosophy. Wallis is claiming that unless the state is free to plunder whomever the Left determines is u201Ctoo wealthyu201D or u201Ctoo strong,u201D then the state is not strong enough.

Don’t ever forget that this man endorsed some of the most murderous and bloody regimes in history because the leaders of those regimes claimed they were engaging in their acts in the name of u201Chelping the poor.u201D As Lew Rockwell wrote a few years ago about the death camp that was Mao’s China, the u201Cpooru201D were encouraged to murder landowners and anyone else deemed to be a u201Ccapitalistu201D or worse. Thus, if the u201Cpooru201D were able to plunder and murder the u201Crich,u201D then just who was weak and who was strong?

Wallis, you see, believes that u201Cjusticeu201D is served only when those who are u201Cweaku201D are able to access the violent power of the state to become u201Cstrong,u201D and when that occurs, then and only then can real u201Cjusticeu201D exist. This is a curious philosophy, for Wallis seems to believe that when the u201Cpooru201D are in charge, then they cannot be oppressive — by definition.

Libertarians believe that private property gives people the right of exclusion. Indeed, at some level, we exclude people, and that includes Wallis and his friends. For that matter, I have found libertarians and people who own private property to be much more generous with their possessions than anyone representing the state.

Is the White House the u201CPeople’s Houseu201D? Fine. Try walking into the u201CPeople’s Houseu201D without an invitation and permission from the authorities. Try dealing with the Internal Revenue Service on your own terms. You will find out quickly who is u201Cweaku201D and who is u201Cstrong.u201D

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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