December 9, 2014

On the Justification of Libertarian Conclusions and a Comment on Theonomy

By In Articles, Philosophy

A person who describes himself as a Reformed Libertarian seeks primarily to do two things: to express the fact that he adheres to the approach to political theory that was put forth by the libertarian tradition; and also to maintain that his Reformed faith is central to his worldview which, among other things, speaks to the nature of his political theory.  The question that must be asked regarding the first point is “whose libertarian tradition?”  Ideas would be so much easier to debate and defend if everybody in the world agreed to definitions and meanings of words and phrases.  Communicating our ideas would be so much easier if “libertarian” had a single definition that everybody accepted.  In the same way, “conservative” and “liberal” and “right” and “left” and “Christianity” and “evangelical” and all sorts of other important labels would be so much more impactful if there wasn’t huge nuances and contexts that impede the ease of discussion regarding them.

But alas, people in the real world use different words in different ways and we must deal with this.  J. Gresham Machen sought to fight off the religious liberals, the modernists, in the early 20th century because they confusingly and harmfully adopted “Christian” to describe themselves.  You say you are a Christian. What do you mean by that?  This is where the actual debate must take place. So then: “whose libertarianism?”

Things get even more complicated when we realize that two different people with two different approaches to the issue of political theory, reach many of the same conclusions, but take a different path to get there.  For instance, anybody familiar with the work of Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises will know that they both were virtually the same on economic theory and their political theories had many of the same conclusions.  However, they used different paths to reach these libertarian conclusions.  Mises used economic arguments: “what is best system to produce the most prosperity for the most people?”  Answer: laissez-faire and a extremely minuscule government (to enforce contracts and ensure defense of property and prosecution of those who breach property “rights”).  Rothbard used ethical arguments: “what is the system which is the most consistent ethically?”  Answer: laissez-faire in which “government” services are provided on the free market and by the voluntary decisions of property owners and consumers.  They were both libertarians, with almost identical conclusions, and with two different approaches to the problem of political theory.

The point of all that was to show that libertarianism must be defined (note: I did not say “justified”) by its conclusions, not its approach (which is where the intellectual justification comes in).  There are others who use ethics to defend their political theory, but reach different conclusions than Rothbard did.  And there are many more who use utilitarianism to defend their political theory, but certainly don’t arrive anywhere close to the libertarian system.  If the political theorist is one who agrees to the idea that “no person or set of persons shall initiate aggression against another individual’s body or exterior property,” (the so-called Principle of Non-Agression) then he is a libertarian.  Regardless of whether he justifies that by means of economics or ethics. From this point, the debate is over whether economic or ethical arguments are ultimate.  In other words, we Austro-libertarians certainly agree that the system that can best produce prosperity is laissez-faire; government intervention, no matter its style (i.e. fascism or communism), is harmful to the economy, which means it is harmful to the society.  But what if this were not the case? Although for one heavily immersed in Austrian School economic theory, a world where individual voluntary action is worse than government planning is literally inconceivable (because of the Austrian school epistemological stance), let us assume that free markets had a bad effect on the economy.  Let us assume that ethics and economics clashed, instead of reinforced each other.  In this case, what is the primary defense of political theory?  Should we advocate the “ethically good” system or the “economically useful” system?  If one chooses the ethical option, he finds ethics as more ultimate than utility; if one chooses the economic option, he finds utility more ultimate than ethics (and actually for Mises, he was convinced that an transcendent ethic could not be discovered by reason –something with which Rothbard disagreed vehemently with his mentor.)  For Rothbard, he agreed completely with Mises regarding the wonderful results and accomplishments of individual freedom; but for him, this was not the ultimate standard by a which a free society should be defended.  Rather, he took the ethical stance: that it is morally wrong for government to aggress the rights of individuals not just, as in Mises’ case, that it is harmful for the society’s economic advancement.

Categorically, my approach to the libertarian conclusions with which both Rothbard and Mises agree, is ethics.  If there is (generally) two approaches to a defense of individual liberty, I take the ethical approach over against the economic approach as ultimate. I still in no place deny the great economic benefits of freedom and agree completely with Rothbard/Mises on the importance of keeping the State out of the economic affairs of actors in the market.  But Rothbard and I are, at root, of the persuasion that ethics must drive our foundational argument.

Now then, “whose ethics?”  Rothbard adhered to “Natural law.”  Natural law just refers to the ethical standard that transcends time and place and cultural context.  Natural law refers to the “higher law” from which “positive laws” are derived.  Any piece of legislation that contradicts the standards of the natural law is a bad law and therefore unethical.  It follows from this than any act of “law creation” as opposed to “law application” (application of natural law into a given circumstance) is also unethical, because humans do not have the authority to create a moral standard that is binding on other human beings –only God can do this.  In any case, the concept of natural law is agreeable.  Where possible differences arise between natural lawyers like Murray Rothbard (who was a Thomist) and myself is the means by which we can learn the natural law.  Rothbard, following the tradition of the Spanish Scholastics, believes that these things can be derived by “natural revelation.”  His ultimate defense of liberty: “natural law by way of natural revelation.”  Here is where I am at a different place than Rothbard: I make natural law (higher, transcendent law) to be synonymous with moral law, which is the approach to ethics taken by the Protestant writers of the Reformed Confessions.  This moral/natural law cannot, in my epistemological conviction (which is more similar to Mises than Rothbard) be known via “natural revelation,” but rather by “propositional revelation.”  That is, by the means of learning ethical propositions from the place where God has written those propositions for us to learn: the Scriptures.  Therefore, my ultimate defense of liberty: “natural (moral) law by way of propositional revelation.”  Categorically, when looking at the utilitarian/natural law debate between libertarians (adherents to the so-called Non-Aggression principle expressed above), I am in the latter camp, which Rothbard. But for epistemological reasons, I justify this Natural Law in a different way than Rothbard.

Some who are more familiar with the debate in Christian circles might ask whether this makes me a theonomist; after all, theonomy from an etymological standpoint just refers to “God’s law.”  If that is what the word theonomy is used to refer to, then sure (how can I deny this by definition if morality is defined by God?).  The problem though, just like the word “Christianity,” is that “theonomy” doesn’t simply refer to its etymological meaning.  Once words are defined and principles are fleshed out, we learn that the most useful and common application of the word “theonomy” is the application of the Old Testament moral and judicial laws to our circumstances today.  Here is the problem: there is a debate about the nature of the Old Testament laws and I disagree with the theonomists on the nature of this law.  The Reformed Confessions divide the laws into these three: moral, judicial (civil), and ceremonial.  Some theonomists (like Christian Reconstructionist founder RJ Rushdoony) completely deny this “threefold division,” preferring instead a twofold division (moral and ceremonial) in which those laws which are historically referred to as “judicial” are actually “moral.”  Other theonomists accept the threefold division because of a desire to maintain their confessional allegiance (such as Greg Bahnsen, who was a minister in the OPC, which demands Confessional adherence), but define it differently than it was intended.  For Bahnsen, the judicial law is a subset of the moral law, not a different type of law altogether.  For Bahnsen, the Ten Commandments were the summary of the moral laws, and the judicial laws the case study applications.  Sherman Isbell explains this position:

The distinction made by some theonomists has to do with the literary forms in which the two are cast, the moral law giving a summary form such as the ten commandments, and judicial law providing a detailed illustration of the contents of the moral law.

I disagree with this formulation of the relationship between the judicial and moral law and see the two as different types of law, as was the position of the Confession’s authors.  In my view, the moral law is a “natural law” (transcendent and ever-applicable) and the judicial laws are a “positive law” (temporary and given within the context of a certain people, or more specifically, a certain covenant).  Isabel explains again:

In sum, the Confession 1) makes a threefold distinction of moral, ceremonial and judicial law, 2) characterizes the ceremonial and judicial laws as appointments for a given period in redemptive history, and 3) asserts that elements of the ceremonial and judicial laws remain obligatory only insofar as they embody the contents of the moral law which was given already at creation, republished in the ten commandments, and whose authority was strengthened under the Gospel.

So then, whereas the Reformed Libertarian denies that the judicial (positive) laws as such are applicable today, the theonomists actually does apply the judicial laws as the ideal for government.  Therefore, the difference between our position is not arbitrary, but comes as a result of competing understandings of both Covenant Theology as a paradigm for further biblical interpretation and the nature of the law as found in the Bible. Then comes the debate about precisely whether and to what extent the principles within the judicial law should be applicable for us today.  This is the “general equity” debate, and Brandon Adams has given an excellent overview of my (and his) position here.  I am not a theonomist, not because I deny the Bible’s use as foundational in a political theory, but because of the interpretation of the Bible itself!  A presuppositionalist I am, but even pressupositionalists differ on their interpretation of the presupposition.

Now then, to close, I’d like to comment on an observation that has been made apparent over the years of mulling over all of this. It is utterly wrong to claim that theonomists are “tyrannical” or “authoritarian.”  It is wrong for two reasons: first, it fails to consider that not all who want to “apply God’s law today” interpret that phrase in the same way.  There have been all kinds of political groups that have wanted to pursue something like this; from the magisterial reformers to the establishmentarians that wanted to give one church denomination political power.  Theonomy must be defined before it is understood.  The group that has used this word to describe themselves most consistently are those in the Rushdoony/Bahnsen/North tradition.  Let them speak on their own terms.  You will surely find that they too, despite any hermeneutical and practical differences, have an interest in limited government, because the Hebrew Republic itself was a limited government.  They have gone to great lengths to show this, and to dismiss them as authoritarians and the like is to stand atop a mountain and declare to the world: “I have never read anything they have written.”

The second reason why this is wrong is an extension of the first reason: within the actual Bahnsenite/Northian world there are distinctions and differences.  For instance, North vehemently disagrees with Greg Bahnsen’s son, David on many matters of money, markets, and political theory itself (admittedly, David is pretty neoconservative). Those theonomists that are closest to the libertarian positions are those associated with American Vision and Gary North.  Fun fact: most of the theonomists in this camp are for smaller “government” than other Christians who are struggling between general conservatism and libertarianism.  Joel McDurmon, whom you should be reading daily at American Vision (with the understanding that not everything is completely agreeable –just as anything posted anywhere else, always read with discernment), doesn’t even agree with the idea that taxation is “legitimate” (which means morally sound).  People who just assume that theonomists are these fascist monsters are so out of place with reality that it is almost amusing.

Theonomists associated with the likes of North and McDurmon (included here is Bo Marinov) do not pander to the neoconservative mentality in any sense. They do not get caught up in nationalism, they do not get caught up in war-propaganda or the rhetorical tricks of the mainstream “government is always right because Romans 13” crowd.  If you are at odds with some of the conclusions of the theonomists, it should be because you have biblical/hermeneutical concerns, not because you “don’t like” what they are advocating, think it “tyrannical,” or because you “can’t imagine how it would work.”  Let me be clear: I have some important differences with the theonomists in the American Vision circles (such as “dominion,” the nature of our Covenant Theology, the nature of the law, eschatology, and more), but I agree with them on 95% of the issues relating to actual policy matters. How can this be? How can a Rothbardian libertarian be so close to the theonomists? If this is your question, you don’t understand their theonomy.  These theonomists are friends of the Mises Institute, fans the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, fellow cheerers of Murray Rothbard’s system (with their own understandable qualifications), and promoters of Ron Paulian politics.  Other self-described theonomists who aren’t as aware of the political movement of libertarianism (in its Rothbardian, “paleo” form), aren’t as enthusiastic about “Austro-libertarianism” as the “libertarian leaning” theonomists.  Thus, theonomists have their own differences and distinctions. The theonomists you’ll find online and in the Facebook groups are on a spectrum which reflects these differences.  Wherever the theonomists disagree with Murray Rothbard and modern Rothbardians (like Hoppe) on the conclusions of a libertarian society, I usually am more Rothbardian.  But that is more because of the differences in hermenetics and theological principles than anything else.

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
  • FYI there is also an important note regarding Bahnsen’s understanding of the decalogue as a “summary” of the moral law.

    To emphasize the point, Bahnsen also claims that, for the Divines, “the substance of the judicial laws was just as binding as the Ten Commandments. The judicial laws served to give definition to the Ten Commandments; to invalidate the former would therefore be to invalidate (or alter) the [latter]. That is why we read that, according to the Westminster standards, the Decalogue is not the full extent of the moral law, but rather the ‘summary’ of the moral law ([Westminster] Larger Catechism [WLC] #98). We are bound to the whole moral law and not simply its summary expression.”…

    Finally, WLC #98 and its answer do not state that the Decalogue is an incomplete summary of the moral law requiring supplementation from elsewhere in the Scriptures. Instead, the answer to this question claims that the moral law is “summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments,” something quite different. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the following contemporary meanings for summarily. Available meanings were: “in a summary or compendious manner; chiefly of statement, in few words, compendiously, briefly.” The OED also shows that compendious then meant “containing the substance within small compass, concise, succinct, summary; comprehensive though brief; esp. of literary works; also of their authors.” Finally, comprehended in such a context meant either “understood” or “included,” as in “education comprehends the training of many kinds of ability; from the Latin comprehendere” (a meaning well known to the Divines, all of whom had received their university instruction in Latin)…

    Since summarily and comprehended both assumed that the concept summarized was comprehensively contained within a small compass, when the WLC teaches that the moral law is “summarily comprehended in the ten commandments,” it is teaching that anything not in the Ten Commandments is not included in the moral law as the Divines defined the term.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=94dMAwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA29&dq=how%20firm%20a%20foundation%20theonomy&pg=PA166#v=onepage&q&f=false