Religion and Libertarianism
by Walter Block
Recently by Walter Block: Won't You Come Back, Alan Greenspan? Won't You Come Back?
This column is a response to an over the transom letter I received (you young people, if you don't know what that is, look it up). First appears my response and then the letter that so outraged me.
I’m a devout atheist. A very devout one. You make some very good points against religion.
To many atheists, the claim for the existence of God is roughly on a par with the existence of the Easter Bunny, or witches, ghouls, werewolves, leprechauns, Santa Claus, whatever.
But, can theists be libertarians? Of course they can. All they need do is respect the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). What are religious people guilty of, precisely, that makes you think they can’t be libertarians? At worst, in the view of most atheists, mumble some silly words (prayers). They sing some silly songs. They read some silly fairy tale books (the Bible.) How any of this violates the NAP is totally beyond me. I don’t care if they are devil worshippers; stick pins in dolls, etc. That still would not violate the NAP. You say "when God does far, far worse." Come on, give me a break. As you and I believe, there is no such entity, so how can He be guilty of this, let alone of anything?
There are many other present day libertarians, besides Tom Woods and Ron Paul who you mention, who have also made magnificent contributions to our cause and are devout believers in religion: William Anderson, Professor of Economics, Frostburg State University, Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, William Barnett II, Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans; Gerard Casey of University College Dublin, Fr. Hank Hilton, S.J., Professor of Economics at Loyola University Maryland; Jeff Herbener, Professor of Economics at Grove City College, Norman Horn of LibertarianChristians.com, Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation, Guido Hulsmann, Professor of Economics at University of Angers, Jason Jewell of Faulkner University, Peter Klein, Professor of Economics at University of Missouri, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Andrew Napolitano of Fox News, Gary North of the Institute for Christian Economics, Professor of Economics at Loyola University Shawn Ritenour, Professor of Economics at Grove City College, Fr. James Sadowsky, S.J., Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham University, Joseph Salerno, Professor of Economics at Pace University, Fr. Robert Sirico, Director of the Acton Institute, Lew Rockwell, Director of the Mises Institute, Timothy Terrell, Professor of Economics, Wofford College, David Theroux of the Independent Institute, Jeff Tucker of Laissez Faire Books, Laurence Vance, Director of the Francis Wayland Institute.. These names come to me with very little research. I’m sure there are many, many more (if you qualify, please e mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll add you to this list when I next revise it). I’m not enough of a historian to give you an equally impressive list of figures from the past who would also qualify, but I have no doubt that there are many, many of them, too.
To say that a religious person can’t be a libertarian, I think, has about the same truth value as the claim that if you like chess, baroque music, handball, swimming, running, karate, movies, chocolate, Austrian economics (to mention just a few of my own favorite things) then you cannot be a libertarian. To repeat, all that is required of a libertarian is adherence to the NAP, and none of these things I mention, or religion, should disqualify anyone.
Second to Ron Paul, Ayn Rand, even though she didn’t call herself a libertarian, even though she explicitly rejected libertarianism and was venomous toward libertarians, probably created more of us than anyone else. However, many of them, you included?, come to our movement with some Randian baggage: very strong views on aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, and an unalterable and abiding hate for religion. I single out the latter for particular condemnation, not only because it is inaccurate to conflate this with libertarianism, but for strategic reasons given below. These perspectives may all be part of Objectivism — she imposed many of her personal tastes on this philosophy of hers — but have nothing to do with libertarianism, an entirely different kettle of fish.
We must as libertarians accept the best of Ayn Rand — her adherence for laissez faire capitalism, private property rights and economic freedom, most important the moral case she made in this regard — but jettison the rest of the package.
Yes, yes, religion has done great harm in the past, and even in the present. There were the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Nowadays, people are murdering each other quite enthusiastically over religious belief. Horrid. But, compared to that great evil, the state, the number of deaths from this quarter is relatively small. Did you know that the best estimate for the number of innocents killed during the Inquisition was only something like 3,000 — 10,000? In very sharp contrast, the number of people killed by the government (mainly atheist communists) is estimated at some 173 million, in the 20th century alone. And this is just the number of its own citizens murdered by statist leaders. It ignores all the wars promulgated by government. It also fails to take into account the number of people killed due to socialized medicine, and on our government roads. See here on the latter.
My strategic view on all this is that the "enemy of my enemy is my friend." So who is my main enemy, qua libertarian? The government in general, of course, and in particular, Stalin, one of the most brutal of all statists. And what pray tell was Stalin's outlook on religion? It was particularly vicious. He attempted to undermine religion (along with the family by getting children to tattle on their parents for great rewards). So, I am, somewhat paradoxically, an atheist who is friendly toward religion. Since virtually every human in virtually every time has been religious, and since libertarianism is a political philosophy that says nothing about God, for libertarians to be offensive about religion is just plain stupid. It is far worse than linking our philosophy with practically any other adventitious calling. Are we next going to come out against motherhood and apple pie?
Long live religion, say I, and on libertarian grounds! Yes, these people believe in unproven things, but we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of the people. Ranged on one side is the government; on the other, religion. The choice between them ought not be too difficult for those of us intent upon bringing about freedom. The one is diametrically opposed to liberty. The other is per se entirely orthogonal to our movement. By "per se" I am including only a belief in God. The desire to impose this belief on others is of course antagonistic to libertarianism; it is itself a version of statism.
So, please reconsider your enmity toward religion. It is not per se incompatible with the freedom philosophy. Some of our very best libertarians were and are believers in religion. Let us instead focus on our real enemy, statism.
For some time now, I’ve pondered how libertarians (especially anarchists) can be religious without contradicting their libertarian philosophy. I’ve sent a note to Tom Woods about it, too. The reason I ask is that it seems that quite a few libertarians are very religious, something that LRC.com makes very evident. And Ron Paul, I think, is religious to the point of doubting evolution. Considering how the Christian/Jewish god is described in their own scripture, every libertarian and certainly anarchist should be a raging anti-theist.
What I mean by that is that those who do believe in the Christian or Jewish version of God, and in the Bible, believe in an all powerful and all controlling deity. They view heaven as paradise, even though Christopher Hitchens was spot on when he described heaven as a celestial North Korea. Because that is exactly how it is described; a place ruled by one person and the purpose of everyone in their (sic) is to spend eternity praising this person. Isn’t that a rather good approximation of the lives of the North Koreans? Except for the starvation of course.
It should be undeniable that if God was a person and did even a fraction of all the things his followers believe he did and does, and even praise him for it, he’d be light years worse than all human dictators put together. Libertarians oppose the state and praise individual freedom, which is logical for people who oppose the use of violence. But at the same time religious libertarians believe in and praise a God, who condemns people to death and damnation for the thought crime of doubting his existence. If it is wrong for people to use violence against people, why is it praiseworthy when God does far, far worse?
Why, for instance, isn’t the story of Noah appalling to libertarians? God committed mass genocide just because people weren’t worshipping him enough. Or the story of Job? God killed his family, deprived him of everything, made him sick and endure unimaginable hardships. Why? To prove a point to Satan of all things. The whole Old Testament is a litany of genocide and fantastical violence and atrocities, mostly because God didn’t like what people, his own creations, were doing. How’s that for “free will”?
And again, it doesn’t matter if these stories are true or not. I of course don’t think they are, but I can’t understand for the life of me how person can be any sort of libertarian at the same time he not only believes, but praises, someone (God) like that. That God doesn’t exist actually makes it worse, because that means the believers at least hope these stories are true. I’m rather interested in understanding how the same person can abhor human violence and tyranny while praising godly violence and tyranny.
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable, The Case for Discrimination, Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective, Building Blocks for Liberty, Differing Worldviews in Higher Education, and The Privatization of Roads and Highways. His latest book is Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty.