November 12, 2013

To the Conservative Christian Constitutionalists: Be Libertarian

By In Philosophy

Often, the conservative Christian who is interested in politics refuses to call himself a libertarian.  He may very well consider himself a constitutionalist, but, in his mind, libertarianism might seem a little much.  The purpose of this present article is to convince the conservative and Christian constitutionalist that he should consider himself a libertarian.  I can relate to the struggle.  While libertarians have come from the right and the left, my own background is from the right.  And it is important to know that I have not had to change any of the principles that I grew up with in order to embrace a libertarian framework.  In fact, the reason I am a libertarian is because I sought to apply my principles more completely and more consistently.

I am convinced, therefore, that a consistent application of the principles of many more conservative Christians will produce a solid libertarianism.

What libertarianism is not

Assuming for the moment that by liberalism we refer to the post progressive use of the term, rather than the so-called “classical liberalism,” we must make it plain that libertarianism is not liberalism.  I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it here, that definitions are at the top of the totem pole of importance when it comes to articles such as this.  So if we can, for the moment, agree that liberalism is marked by an ever-expanding Government, a rising welfare State, affirmative action, politically correct anti-free speech legislation, more regulations, bigger public schools, more monetary inflation, a government-subsidized green industry, unions and labor laws, etc, we can easily say that libertarianism is the antithesis of liberalism.

Thus, if the conservative Christian is hesitant to embrace libertarianism because it sounds liberal, be assured, the libertarians oppose such a leftism.

Secondly, libertarianism as a political philosophy has nothing to do with the moral philosophy of the libertines.  There are many who might call themselves “lifestyle libertarians” and put forth their belief that libertarianism means that there are no personal standards and no divine system of ethics.  But we would like to point out that libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy that narrowly answers the question: “what is the role of the State in society?”  As for ethics and personal standards of a good and wholesome lifestyle, one must not look to political theory, but rather, should trust in the Word of God and find his standards in the Scriptures.  Therefore, for those secular “libertarians” that are angry at the lifestyle standards of Christians, it is obvious that they are reaching outside of the parameters of libertarianism as a political theory in order to put forth their preferences.

Thus, libertarianism is in no way a detriment to Biblical morals.  Everything we learn in Church and other settings when it comes to the way we ought to live, are still true and binding.  That we hold to the belief in a “hands-off” government (how hands off is a worthy debate too!) in no way indicates that we hold to a “hands-off” God.

Libertarians, then, are not liberals and neither are we libertines.

What libertarianism is

Libertarianism is the political application of, basically, one simple standard that we teach at home: “Don’t aggress against your neighbor.”  Don’t steal from him, don’t strike him, don’t murder him.  And neither should you threaten to do these things either so as to manipulate the activity of your neighbors.  That’s it.  The so-called Non-agression principle (known as NAP).

Generally speaking, and whether or not he is consistent in his application of his principles, the conservative believes in a free-market and private property.  He believes that we have rights, and much of the time those rights are said to have come from God.  We are “Created in the image of God!”  He might also believe that rights exist and are reflected in the principles: “Thou shall not steal” or “Thou shall not murder.”  In fact, both of these unethical actions rely on an initiation of aggression against another individual who was created in God’s image.

It is not at all difficult to convince the conservative that the Constitution reflects previously existing rights, that is, rights that were first designed and imputed by God.  Documents cannot create rights, only express them.

The Conservative is convicted, although he may not know why, of the fact that “Socialism doesn’t work!”  He is therefore hesitant and suspicious about higher taxation.  He knows that “redistributing the wealth” leads to bad results and hurts large populations of the community.  Regulations too are harmful to small business and impede the market process.  Leftist affirmative action efforts are usually excuses to increase bureaucracy and are fueled by special interests.

The Conservative agrees with all these things.  We, as libertarians, only ask him to be a bit more consistent than he has been in the past.

The difference between conservatism, Constitutionalism and libertarianism

Is there a difference between the three?  Yes, they are different categories, but not different theories of government.  Constitutionalism is the belief that every action that the Federal Government takes should be in pursuit of the pure application of the Constitution.  Interestingly, for all the talk of the Constitution from the right, it is extremely difficult to find someone who actually adheres purely to the Constitution.  Ron Paul is one of the only constitutional purist that I can think of in politics as of recent.  In the previous generation, we had people like Howard Buffett.

Conservatism, on the other hand, is a mindset and a personal tendency.  Like Constitutionalism, it is not a philosophy of government.  Whereas Constitutionalism relies, obviously, on the existence of a Constitution, Conservatism relies on the existence of a culture, or societal institutions, and societal structures.  Conservatives are hesitant toward change, like things the way they are, and are skeptical about outside influence on the way things are.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, is an political ideology.  It is a political theory that does not depend on culture or constitutions.  It is libertarianism that provides that framework by which we can determine whether something is worth conserving and whether the constitution is worth keeping.  This can be exemplified by noting that if the Constitution stated that it was the right of the Federal Government to hang Latinos on the second Tuesday of every month, nearly every single person would oppose this section of the Constitution.  That is to say, we have a political theory that causes us to determine whether or not the document itself is good.  And secondly, if it was commonplace or tradition in society, to burn liberals at the stake, nearly every single person today would not find this practice as something worth “conserving.”  Our political theory therefore is the most important part of our political ideals.  It tells us whether our conservatism and our constitutionalism is good and whether it is worth pursuing.  Our ideology must be pure if it is able to do its job.  Is the status quo worth conserving?  Is the Constitution worth adhering to?  We depend on our ideology to answer this question.

The point of this section is to show that one can be a conservative and a constitutionalist and a libertarian, depending on how all three are defined, at the same time simply because they are different categories.  In other words, one does not have to give up his conservatism or constitutionalism at all.  The only thing that must be done is to consider them in light of a solid political theory.

Two issues: public education and the drug war

Sometimes the conservative will support the existence of Public Schools.  But doesn’t this, like “public health care,” rely on redistributing the wealth?  Perhaps the conservative will point out that education is very important.  I agree.  But so is healthcare.  The argument must be consistent here too.  In fact, isn’t healthcare and education so very important that we must do all that we can to keep the government out?

If socialism means forceful redistribution of wealth, then health care is not the only industry in which socialism can take place. The conservative should be aware that socialism is all around us and when we focus only on the health industry, not only do we miss some great examples of socialism, but we also advocate for their existence.  We must open our eyes and be more consistent.

To be a libertarian is to embrace private property rights across the boards.

Regarding the drug war, an issue that is a weakness for many conservatives, the issue is actually quite simple.  Constitutionally, there is no justification for such a war.  If conservative means that we ought to prefer “what was,” and the drug war is a twentieth century policy (started early, but became very ugly in the 80’s), then shouldn’t it be obvious that, at one point in American history, the war on drugs should have been seen as liberal?  And if as a conservative I want to go back to a government that did not declare a war on a plant, doesn’t that make me more conservative than the drug war proponents?  Thirdly, if we use the political philosophy mentioned above, the argument would be:

Every man has the right to his property.

It is wrong for the government to breach that right.

The war on drugs requires the government to breach the right of property.

Therefore, the war on drugs is wrong.

Conservative Christians ought not practice any form of ideology

If you are a Conservative Christian and your first response when there is a problem is to wonder how the government can help the situation, chances are that you struggle with an idolatry that emphasizes the role of the State over the influence of the Holy Spirit.  Christians and Churches are called to help the poor and to be a light in the world.  Why, then, have they in recent years lobbied the Federal Government to be that light?

Want to change the culture? Preach the Word!  Want to increase the wealth?  Let the people be free in the market!

Conservatives Christians have what it takes to be libertarians.  They just need to wrap their minds around it.

Let freedom ring.


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
  • Thanks for the work that has been done here, Mr. Engel. Keep up the good work.

    As for conservatism, while I agree somewhat on what you say, there are still things that should be kept in mind when discussing it.

    You said that the conservative and/or constitutionalist should consider himself a libertarian; I would say that he should become a libertarian. And keep in mind that much of conservatism today (political conservatism) is actually a reflection of the conservatism of the Ancien Regime and the viewpoint of the Old Order. In one of my older comments I said this defines the conservative: “the proponent of ancien regime-style legislating of morality, the war hawk, the protectionist, the nationalist, and whatever.”

    In the first chapter of BETRAYAL OF THE AMERICAN RIGHT, Murray Rothbard says this of conservatism: “[T]he banner said simply: ‘God Bless the Establishment.’ In that single phrase, so typical of the current right wing, the hard-hats were expressing the age-old political philosophy of Conservatism, that philosophy which formed the central core of the originally labeled ‘Conservatism’ of early nineteenth-century Europe. In fact, it is the philosophy that has marked genuinely conservative thought, regardless of label, since the ancient days of Oriental despotism: an all-encompassing reverence for ‘Throne-and-Altar,’ for whatever divinely sanctioned State apparatus happened to be in existence. In one form or another, ‘God Bless the Establishment’ has always been the cry on behalf of State power.”

    Ronald Hamowy, in his criticism of NATIONAL REVIEW conservatism (quoted in BETRAYAL OF THE AMERICAN RIGHT) says this: “They may be summed up as: (1) a belligerent foreign policy likely to result in war; (2) a suppression of civil liberties at home; (3) a devotion to imperialism and to a polite form of white supremacy; (4) a tendency towards the union of Church and State; (5) the conviction that the community is superior to the individual and that historic tradition is a far better guide than reason; and (6) a rather lukewarm support of the free economy. They wish, in gist, to substitute one group of masters (themselves) for another. They do not desire so much to limit the State as to control it. One would tend to describe this devotion to a hierarchical, warlike statism and this fundamental opposition to human reason and individual liberty as a species of corporativism suggestive of Mussolini or Franco, but let us be content with calling it ‘old-time conservatism,’ the conservatism not of the heroic band of libertarians who founded the anti-New Deal Right, but the traditional conservatism that has always been the enemy of true liberalism, the conservatism of Pharonic Egypt, of Medieval Europe, of Metternich and the Tsar, of James II, and the Inquisition; and Louis XVI, of the rack, the thumbscrew, the whip, and the firing squad. I, for one, do not very much mind that a philosophy which has for centuries dedicated itself to trampling upon the rights of the individual and glorifying the State should have its old name back.”

    While we do try to convince conservatives to be libertarians, they should be hit hard with these facts and (political) conservatism should be exposed for what it is: statism.

    • cjayengel

      I completely agree with what you are saying and Rothbard’s analysis is always on my mind. But the thing is, for those that don’t study history and philosophy, their understanding of conservatism is this: conservatism = limited government. So my goal was to reach out to them where they are. I wanted to connect with the conservative layman. Who knows he is not a liberal and thinks that limited government is better. For people like that, they need the message in the article more than anything else. Once they begin to learn what libertarianism is, I think that many of them will soon reject their statism. My own path to libertarianism took place through the conservative mindset. And people like Tom Woods, an anarcho-capitalist, has said on numerous occasions that, if defined right, he is fine with the title of conservative. Call me a Woodsian.

      • Thanks for the reply. Thus, you must try to convince these types of conservatives that conservatism ≠ limited government. While I recognize that you are trying to connect to them to show libertarianism as the truth, and I know that they may become libertarians once they recognize it for the truth it is, they will definitely need this knowledge and the perspective I showed to be able to clearly distinguish between libertarianism and conservatism (at least of the traditionalist statist kind as promoted by Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, Edmund Burke (though, if Rothbard was correct in his analysis, he was an anarchist once) and the eighteenth and nineteenth century opponents of classical liberalism), and to be able to put historical perspective into current objections to libertarianism.

        And thus since they came to libertarianism from a conservative background, they might still have some baggage that needs to be dealt with (I’m not saying that they have to become libertines and “lifestyle libertarians,” just saying they need to give up some right-wing dogmas that are just plain wrong).

        And as for Woods being fine with the title of conservative, if he wants it that way, that’s fine with him.

        • cjayengel

          You know Anand, I think you have too narrow a view of Conservatism. Part of that might be where you grew up. But when you try to apply the old European conservatism to the conservatism that marks American rural culture, it simply makes no sense. Rothbard’s analysis was a very broad overview of the history of conservatism and its goal was to compare the Ancien Regime to the rising proto-libertarian left. But Rothbard, in the essay we are referring to (Left, Right, Prospects for Liberty), didn’t take the time to talk about the distinct American conservatives. For that analysis, refer to “Betrayal of the American right.” In that book, it is clear that for America, the reactionary right during the New Deal called themselves conservatives. And there is no reason to oppose their use of the name since the progressives took on the term liberal.

          It is important to work with the definitions of the context.

          As more of a side note, Kirk and Kristol represent two very different types of Conservatism. There are three: traditionalism (Kirk and Burke), movement conservatism (Buckley), and neoconservatism (Kristol).

          Here is what I would want you to understand. Ancien Regime conservatism is the European Statism. American conservatism is unique and was born in the early twentieth century as a reaction to the New Deal. My goal is to speak to the American Conservative. I think you should try to research some differences between the American and European Conservatives.

  • RA Jameson

    The issue I have with ‘conservatives’ is the actual word. What exactly are they conserving? At least liberalism, in the classic Bastiat and Mises sense is easy to associate with those that seek to liberate. But what exactly are conservatives trying to conserve? It can’t be traditional values, at least not in the context of US history since the brevity of this country’s history would necessarily need to include slavery etc. So, then, what are they trying to conserve?

    But I see what C.Jay is attempting, in that he is trying to meet them on some common ground. Which I have no issue with. In my mind, C.Jay is not conservative, at least not in the post-reconstruction, Buckley sense of the word. More in a rule-of-law, abide by the constitution sense. Therefore, I see him extending the olive branch to reach others, like myself, that came to libertarianism through Christian Conservativism. And I think that our Lord always honors those that seek to make peace through truth.

    • cjayengel

      “What exactly are they conserving?” I completely agree here. Conservatives tend to be nostalgic over something that does not exist. I fall victim to this all the time.

      I will always consider myself a conservative on the basis that there is meanings of conservatism that are more cultural than political. I will always try to convince “my tribe” that to be a more consistent conservative (at least how they define it), requires them to be libertarians. I love the word conservative. It describes my personality, my characteristics, and my mentality on society…. even beyond the nasty world of politics.

  • cjayengel

    No way… the two hate each other’s form of conservatism. Even today. The Kirkians at The American Conservative Magazine and the Neocons rarely agree.

  • cjayengel

    Yeah, I did say that conservatism is not libertarianism. Because they are categorically different. One is a political philosophy. The other is a way of seeing the world.

    “And the old right seemed conservative only because…” Exactly. That is my point. They created a new type of conservatism. And the only reason it was called that was because of the Progressive left. But you also have to understand there was more going on at the time. In Christian circles, the debate was between the conservative fundamentalists and the liberal modernists. Many time, the conservatives in the Churches identified with the laissez faire economic principles of the rising political right. Thus, the religious movements too supported the right/left divide as I am articulating. It would have been to confusing for the conservative Christians to say that they were conservatives in the church but liberal in politics. As culture and society and language changes, we need to be aware of that.

    You and I both agree that the European order of Conservatism was Statist. I’m just saying that the American Conservatives during the new deal were not.