The Reformed Libertarian, for those brave enough to take on such a label to describe their political theory, has the ever present task of defending his position from critics in both the Christian world as well as the mainstream libertarian world. The secular libertarian will protest against the Reformed Libertarian’s Christian religion and, perhaps more violently, against his Calvinist worldview. Conversely, many Christians are concerned about our endorsement of a political ideology which seemingly endorses all kinds of anti-Christian positions. By looking at the libertarian world as a whole, especially its loudest proponents, many a Christian remains hesitant about adopting the whole of the libertarian program. But what is “the libertarian program?” This important question has implications that cannot be dismissed.
So then, when I was asked to engage and interact with a fantastic lecture by Philip Vander Elst recorded and published online by The Christian Institute in the United Kingdom, I was happy to do so. By dealing with some of the claims contained in the lecture, it gives us more opportunity to define what is meant by “Reformed Libertarian,” a challenge which we cannot reject at this point.
I am very happy to report that the lecture was done with a spirit of good will; that is, it was not typical of many Christian critiques of libertarianism which completely misunderstand and distort libertarian ideas. It cannot be emphasized enough that Elst understands libertarianism decently and recognizes that the philosophy is not monolithic in the least. He is not hostile to the movement per se, and he has even had articles published at libertarian sites such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Mises Institute Canada. But more importantly, he was outstandingly courteous and thoughtful, which is a breath of fresh air indeed. It makes responding a joyful activity. I aim to offer the same respect and good will.
Elst is not a libertarian, and describes himself as a conservative. He admitted he had spent years in the libertarian philosophy and respects its intellectual accomplishments. He described libertarianism as a phenomenon that has many strands of thought, two of which can be found in Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. He noted that the modern libertarian movement really began in the 1950’s although its American roots can also be found in the anti-New Deal movements of the 1930’s. But this modern libertarian philosophy, he correctly notes, actually goes back to the so-called classical liberals. His history of libertarianism is good enough.
My goal in this article is to give a short “Reformed Libertarian” stance on some of his comments and I do not aim to make this long at all. In fact, the reader will not find a complete defense of our position at all in this piece.
For starters, we must note that we base our libertarianism on our Reformed Faith, and thus, his claims that Christians should not be libertarians are obviously disagreeable in our view. We completely reject the philosophy of Ayn Rand and see no need to defend her. Even Murray Rothbard, who we identify with in many ways, was a bit annoyed with Randian Objectivism. For a complete takedown of Ayn Rand, I would recommend John Robbins’ book Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System.
Elst lists eleven points of summary of libertarianism. He also mentions which of these eleven he affirms, and which he denies. Interestingly, I would disagree with some of the so-called libertarian principles he lists, while he affirms these same ones! How could that possibly be? The answer is because I would define libertarianism differently than he does and more in line with Murray Rothbard. Which then logically implies that the Rothbardian strand of libertarianism is not fully on board with Elst’s list. In other words, Elst’s list is not the best way to understand libertarianism, at least as we, and some others, define it. The following is Elst’s list, but not in his exact words, along with my stance (and his where he mentioned it) on each point:
1. The individual is an end in himself and posses natural rights stemming from his nature. Elst: Agree, but rights are God-given. C.Jay: Since the chief end of man is to glorify God, the individual himself is not an end. But we also agree with Elst that rights are God-given
2. The individual mind is the source of all creativity and the fountainhead of human progress. C.Jay: If this means that only individuals (as opposed to collectives) think and act, then I affirm it. But I also, following St. Augustine and Gordon Clark, believe that God is the source of mental creativity and thus human “progress” depends on Him.
3. Liberty is the essential condition of all human progress and achievement. C.Jay: Liberty is vital for these things, but not essential. God works wonderfully through times of tyranny and the like. The Reformation itself, which arguably produced Western Civilization did not occur during an era of liberty.
4. The right to personal liberty is absolute so long as its exercise doesn’t infringe the equal rights of others. C.Jay: Define right. We have no moral right to sin. But I do agree that others have no right to interfere physically with our non-criminal activities. This is known as a “negative right” which means that our legal rights are defined by what individuals are not allowed to do to others.
5. Private property rights are absolute because the individual has unlimited right to the product of his labor. C.Jay: Insomuch as this refers to the fact that others are not allowed to take what God has given to the individual, we agree.
6. Free market capitalism is the only economic system compatible with freedom and the individual’s rights. C.Jay: Agreed
7. The role of the state should be strictly limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property. C.Jay: Decent enough, although I distinguish between government as a role and the State as an institution. Further, I would change the word “protection” to punishment. Notice that the role of the authorities in Reformed history and even in Romans 13 is one of punishing the criminal, not protection. Protection, I am convinced, should be provided on the free market.
8. Taxation for any purpose (such as welfare) besides the role in point seven is theft. C.Jay: Good enough for our present purposes of this article.
9. Sex, Marriage, and family are not bound by moral or cultural absolutes. All forms of sexuality, marriage, etc, are equally valid and permissible as long as they are voluntary. C.Jay: Strongly disagree. These things are bound by the moral law of God and thus to deviate from Biblical teaching on the matter is an abomination to God. We must never say that sexual immorality is permissible. It must be preached against and opposed at every level. However, it is the Church and the Christians who should be opposing it with the Truth and with passion, not the State with aggression.
10. No restrictions on the consumption of sale of sin items. C.Jay: Upholding private property is a more effective, and moral, means of restricting such consumption. We agree that the State should not restrict these things and we also hold that the State is fundamentally incapable of restricting these things.
11. Most libertarians are atheists. C.Jay: Today, that is true. But libertarianism does not require it. In fact, I agree with Elst when he later states that atheism cannot intellectually justify libertarianism.
Now, the reason why there seems to be great distance between Elst’s list and my qualifications and objections is because Elst has described what should be described as tendencies of many libertarians, not principles. Fundamentally, libertarianism is summed up with Murray Rothbard’s Non-Aggression Axiom: No person may breach the life or property of another human being. This is it, the full extent of the libertarian philosophy. The libertarian thinker then has the task of discovering the implications of this view. Now for the Reformed Libertarian, our difference might be seen in that we reject that the Non-Aggression Axiom is actually an axiom. It is not an axiom because it is not our starting point. We might describe it as a principles (making it NAP) or as a rubric for determining how to apply God’s law to the role of government (see our post on Reformed Libertarianism and theonomy here). But our axiom is, in fact, the Bible. That is our starting point, and we find that stealing is wrong, murder is wrong, and initiating (we are not pacifists) physical aggression is also wrong. Thus, we find that the Non-Aggression Principle has Biblical support and it is on God’s Word that we stand.
There is a running debate in libertarian circles over whether libertarianism should be “thick” or “thin.” A Thick Libertarian might be described as one who believes there is more to libertarianism than just NAP, including views on culture, morality, and authority. These folks are nearly always cultural leftists, moral relativists, and anti-authority. They also express frustration with “thin libertarians” who believe that they extent of libertarianism is that which can be derived from NAP. Everything else (morality, culture, values, religion) is outside of libertarianism as a political theory. These thin libertarians include myself, Murray Rothbard, and most of the scholars at the Mises Institute. As for me, ethics, culture, and the like are derived from my Christian worldview, not libertarianism. NAP is the extent of my “libertarianism” and this is also how libertarianism in the tradition of Murray Rothbard was expressed. Morals are absolute, not relative.
Elst agrees that some stances held by libertarians are good: freedom is valuable and leads to moral growth. We need choice and opportunity to thrive. Private property does exist, though not absolutely. He notes that power tends to corrupt and this liberty is a check and balance to those in power. Libertarianism, according to Elst, but not be dismissed in total. We must take the good out of it and reject what is bad.
Thus, Elst also has some disagreements with libertarianism and the Reformed Libertarian must respond.
He mentions that one weakness of libertarianism is that there is a tendency to to make freedom an end itself. Perhaps this is so, but tendencies do not mean that the thing in question is wrong per se. For instance, the Apostle Paul indicates that the Law (this is for use as an example, as Paul’s discussion on the Law here has nothing to do with political use etc.) is good, if used lawfully. There was a tendency in Paul’s time and among Paul’s readership to misuse the law. But the abuse of the law does not make the Law bad. In the same way, while some libertarians might worship liberty as an end, this does not make libertarianism wrong.
Interestingly, this same fallacy might be applied to Elst’s own position. Namely, we could say that since power has a tendency to corrupt, therefore power is bad. But the abuse of the thing does not in itself make the thing bad.
Elst points out that, in practice, libertarians value freedom as an end in itself and thus people tend to conclude that whatever is chosen freely and voluntarily is “alright.” This leads to moral relativism, he says. But again, this is not necessary for libertarians at all. God’s moral law defines ethics for all time and for all people. There is no relativism whatsoever and God has determined what is right and what is wrong. The tendency of some libertarians to be libertines does not make the Reformed Libertarian an antinomian.
Following this argument, Elst notes that the moral disaster in Europe and America stems from moral relativism. We agree, but clearly the State did not stop it despite being greater in power and reach than any government before. In fact, we would argue that the State fueled the immorality problem by subsidizing it and using it as fuel to win over the opinions of the masses. The State has in both countries defended various immoral lifestyles and used them to further its own control over the masses. One of the most effective ways it has done this is by taking over the education systems and flooding the minds of the youth anti-Christian ideas. The State cannot stop these things and only tends to make them worse. In its constant appealing to the people at large, it seeks to tickle their ears with messages that satisfy the emotions of an already immoral people.
Elst also notes that libertarianism brings about a hostility to natural authority. Now, there are many libertarians that are indeed hostile to authority. But there are also many who are not. Philosophers like Hans Hoppe have spent much time pointing out that there are indeed natural hierarchies in society and, contrary to popular thought, it is the State that commonly destroys this natural order in its efforts to determine and mandate, from its own autonomy, an artificial hierarchy in which, conveniently, the State sits on top. The State, with all its interventions, liberal courts, powers of taxation and regulation, have completely destroyed the family unit, Churches, and religious private institutions. It is the State that constantly renders it “hate speech” to oppose sexually immoral lifestyles, and “discrimination” for private businesses to deny services out of religious conviction. When it comes to the moral downfall of society, one must not look to the State to oppose it. The State naturally loves it, and feeds off of it.
It is the failure of the Church to speak boldly against homosexuality, adultery, and other sins, on which we as Christians should focus. The Church itself must experience a new Reformation if we are to change society. Using the coercive power of the State will prove, I am convinced, to backfire on our freedoms as Christians.
Elst also makes the common argument that the Rothbardian idea of a victimless crime is misguided. He argues that some activities do not seem to have victims, but, in considering the holistic picture, actually do. His example, admittedly a tough one for Christians to come to terms with, is that pornography can lead to rape and therefore, we should outlaw pornography. The problem though is that there is a conflating of the cause of the activity and the activity itself. Given that there are scarce resources in this world, it is obvious that the more time and material the State spends trying to focus on outlawing pornography, and punishing those who partake in this vicious sin, the less opportunity and means we have of finding actual rapists. When we focus on using the State to halt sins between man and God (or a man, God, and his wife –although more rapists are single than married), we lessen the chance that crimes of physical aggression between one individual and another will be addressed. The Church and Christian community would be far more effective in ostracizing and disciplining these sins than the State. When the State begins to take over more and more, the Christian community and the Church begin to become apathetic to these sins because they think that, since the State is handling the issue, Churches do not have to. But it is the Church that really ought be handling these things.
Another benefit of the Church handling these sins that that their opposition can consist of a statement on the moral law of God, rather than some utilitarian and pragmatic justification for use of force against the private property of individuals. The issue of pornography, and how it would be handled is an important one, and is worth another article to focus entirely on the best ways to combat the problem in a libertarian society. We must not leave the issue alone.
In short though, the minds of the people must be changed!
Elst also affirms the idea of limited welfarism. Again this takes the responsibility away from the Christian to love his neighbor and help the poor and hands it over to the State. The State is tasked with the command to be the good samaritan and, in order to fulfill this role, it must take from those who have to give to those that do not. It must decide how much each person should give and requires the State to expropriate what God has given the individual to be stewards over. Compare this arrangement to the Scriptures, which place the burden of helping out those in need on individuals who must voluntarily give of what God has given them. The idea that without the State to do these things, the poor will suffer, is historically misguided. In fact, there were far less people in poverty and in need of State assistance before the rise of the Welfare State. Those with generous hearts had more to give before their money was whisked away via taxation.
One important book on this issue is David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State. It was government intervention into healthcare and welfare which causes prices to skyrocket and the poor to become more and more in need.
The final point that is worth mentioning is that Elst argues that libertarian’s atheistic tendency leads to an epistemological failure. The Reformed Libertarian is happy to agree, but we also state that libertarianism does not require atheism at all. There are many articles on this site which seek to defend libertarianism from a Christian worldview. We fundamentally agree with Elst that atheism cannot account for issues of justice at all.
In the end, we think that the burden of proof is on Elst to show that the State has the moral authority to take from those that have and give to those that do not have. We seek to point out that Elst has no reason to hold that “Thou shall not steal” means something less than what it says. For even in Israel, there was no welfarism. Elst must also show where it is morally acceptable to initiate aggression against an individual who has not previously aggressors against his neighbor. He may not believe that property rights extend as far as the Reformed Libertarian does, but it is up to him to justify his decision to use aggression against some sins, and not others. Lies, greed, dishonor toward parents, idolatry, and even atheism itself are sins which have a negative impact on society.
We are pilgrims in this land and Christ is the King over His Kingdom. Therefore, he will uphold his perfect law in due time. He will judge the nations at his coming, according to his standard of morality which is holy and good. We must not be idolatrous so as to hand over Christ’s role to the State. Until His coming and in the meantime, it is the Reformed Libertarian suggestion that crimes be defined as breaches of the life and property of the individual. All crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes in civil society.
For more on these issues, you may benefit from the following articles: