March 20, 2015

Authority is Necessary to Libertarian Theory

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory

The failure to carefully and strictly define our terms has led to a disaster in the libertarian world.  There are dozens of possible meanings to the political theory’s most important words and terms.  This is, in part, why there are so many different factions within libertarianism.  This problem is not restricted only to libertarianism.  It also reaches into the Christian world as well.  The liberals call themselves evangelicals and there is also abuse of the meaning of justification (think New Perspectives on Paul and Federal Vision).  Part of the reason for this is that there are alien thinkers (those who do not actually belong to a given intellectual tradition) that attempt to redefine the vocabulary of a given philosophy or theology so as to define themselves into a movement.  This not only has the effect of blurring lines, but it can also lead to a identity disaster as well.

Progressivism, like a stubborn weed, has made its way into libertarianism.  It has not taken over resources like the Lew Rockwell Column and the Mises Institute.  But that is only because of the near-dogmatism and sharp-headedness of its leaders.  They ought to be praised for their unrelenting commitment to the libertarian tradition of Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises.  They are often castigated for being inflexible in their doctrines, for failing to mold their theory to meet the demands of the liberalized masses (See Gary North on Mises).  But their uncompromising attitude is a blessing to the minority of us who greatly appreciate it.

One claim that I have read in different settings throughout the (nominally) libertarian world is that libertarians should be “anti-authority.”  Authority, say these leftists, is inherently bad.  This is not a libertarian position. This is a Marxist position. It is disturbing to see the loud-mouthed youth claiming that authority is to be necessarily associated with the State.  These libertarians then are against the very thought of God and they despise civil institutions like the Church.  This is a very real and very dangerous trend in “libertarian” circles.  And it came to the surface precisely because few can adequately define libertarianism. And just as few forget that libertarianism is strictly a philosophy of the State. It is a political philosophy; a subset of, but not in itself, a holistic ethics.

Libertarianism is not against authority.  Libertarianism is against improper authority; which means that libertarianism is for proper authority.  After all, private property necessitates authority. If an individual is said to own property, anything whatsoever, then he has the legal authority to determine the use of that property.  He is only legally restricted when his own property invades the property that some other individual has authority over.  For instance, if I owned a baseball, a bat, and a plot of land, then no other person or State has the legitimate authority to tell me what I can and cannot do with those three things.  However, if I hit the ball into the window of the adjacent house, I have breached the authority of the owner of that house to authorize the use of his property.  I am responsible for my actions, which means that I must give a “response” to the owner for my actions.  Authority is assumed in ownership.

Now, we as Christians need to be even more precise.  God owns the cattle on a thousand hills –God owns everything.  That which we are said to own under the law is ultimately owned by God.  Thus, to be precise and technical, we are stewards, not owners.  When it is said in libertarian property theory that we are property “owners,” Christians should remind themselves that this is not to infer that God has no right to intervene with our property.  Rather, it means that no other human (this includes the State) can breach our authority (given by God, the rightful owner) over the property over which we are stewards.  For practical reasons however, and to maintain the ability to communicate with others, it is entirely acceptable to use the words “property owners” to describe ourselves.  It is not prudent to demand that other libertarians use “steward” anymore than it is prudent to demand that a judge use this word in a legal situation.  Moreover, if by “owner” the libertarian theorist refers to the person with the right to control property over against the claim of any other individual human or group of individuals, then surely we can agree.  What is left unspoken is the nature of God as First Owner of all that exists -even life itself.  It is in this way that the Christian libertarian cannot claim that God has no right to demand that we use what He has given us in a way that honors him.

It breaks no libertarian creed to say that God has authority over all of life.  For the property owner always has authority over his property in libertarianism.  God owns everything, therefore God can do as He pleases. Is this not logically necessitated by libertarian property theory?  The response by man to God that he has been given any stewardship over God’s property should be gratitude.  For surely this is an excersize of God’s great grace.

This necessity of authority in a libertarian world has important implications.  The self-described but self-deluded “libertarians” who have Marxist mindsets often express frustration at parents, Church leadership, and even business owners and bosses.  But each of these has a type of authority as well.  Parents have the authority to raise their children in a way they see fit; this of course includes applying sanctions and negative consequences for unapproved or inappropriate behavior.  Church leadership too has authority in matters of non-coercive discipline.  They have every right, in extreme circumstances, to ostracize an unrepentant sinner.  Bosses can fire you if you do not meet the terms of your employment and business owners can restrict entry and service to any person that they desire.  Authority abounds in a free society.

Thus, the problem with the modern State, which is the institutionalized monopolization over the provision and price level of “civil government services” in a society, is not that it is characterized by the existence of authority; but rather the problem of the modern state is that it has given to itself a set of authorities which are morally illegitimate.  That is to say, it has accumulated by a mixture of coercion and propaganda (it is the coercive aspect which makes it unique amongst “legal” human institutions), the authority to do things that, if done by any other institution or individual in society, would have justly been determined criminal.

One simple example will clarify what is being articulated.  Any man has the right, if he so desires, to transfer a given amount of his wealth (his property) to another individual who is deemed by the first man to be impoverished or in need of financial assistance.  He has the right to do this because it is included in the principle of “property ownership” that the owner can do as he wishes with the property that has been granted to by by the ordination of God.  However, if the State wishes to transfer a given amount of wealth to someone considered to be in need, it must, having no property that it owns outright, first expropriate from the property owner and then transfer this sum to the beneficiary. In other words, the State conducts “welfare” activity by robbing Peter to pay Paul (and usually it rewards itself as being a broker in the exchange).

What one will find when he considers the outrageous levels of influence provided by the modern state, is that, actual justice aside (giving the actual criminal his due for the actual crime he has committed), everything that the State does is done without the moral authority to do so.  From business regulations, to forced retirement accounts (social security), to welfare and warfarism, to minimum wage laws, to price controls, to the bureaucratization of education, agriculture, food/drug production, money, insurance, and health and safety standards, it operates outside the framework of the justice of the property-ownership order.  The problem of the State not that “authority” is present, the problem is that the authority that it claims for itself is artificial; that is, it has legislated for itself a set of powerful and immoral tools that it uses, not to further the interests of individuals in society, as the free market necessarily does, but rather to further the interests of itself or some perceived “ideal.”  The problem of the modern state is not that it is “inefficient” or “doesn’t give people (usually the poor) what they want” or “doesn’t tax enough” or “only benefits the rich” or “doesn’t provide subsidies for Christian programs” or any number of other claims that both the mainstream right and left complain about.  The problem is that the State has transferred authority away from property owners and market actors to itself. It has made gigantic efforts to replace the market. And in doing so it has replaced the God-ordained authority of property owners to exercise dominion over God’s creation.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Proof positive above: Reformed libertarianism, is none other than Paleo-libertarianism; from its inception; just plain chtristian living, live and let live. Norman Rockwell tried capturing it on canvas, and Jesus taught its principles.

  • MikeD

    Great reflection, especially as it pertains to the authority of God. Thanks. I was reminded of a Robbins lecture where he referred to Marxist polylogism. Even there they deny authority… the very nature of God, in fact!