We have established what the government isn’t supposed to do, but what are their actual responsibilities? Do they even have any? How will government workers get paid? The short answer is they get paid the same way any other worker gets paid in society: through voluntary arrangements and contracts. Too many Christians who have never read libertarian theory make the wrong assumption that “taxation is theft” libertarians are opposed to governance or laws. This is not the case. To be fair, some of this confusion is caused by voluntaryists (ancaps, or private law libertarians) themselves by their insistence on using the word “Anarchism” to describe our system. As CJay Engel has noted, the word “anarchist” should be completely abandoned due to the unnecessary confusion it causes in the uninitiated. I prefer the term “private law” or “civil magistrate” to describe our system of governance. It is within this system that a distinction is given between the State (what we are opposed to) and governance. The State is a term referring to a territorial monopoly on the initiation of aggression in a given society. It has the ability to outlaw other States from rising up and competing with it by establishing its own law code. It is what we typically think of when we think of government. However, government doesn’t have to monopolize its services. When there is no State outlawing competitors in the business of law and defense, we have a private law system. Such a system is funded entirely by voluntary means. Communities and cities have the ability to have one or multiple competing law services which their customers can choose from. How many is entirely up to the market. We do see this private law/community-based system in operation in the Bible. In John Frame’s theology of the state, he notes,
It is helpful to remember here that the state, as a tool for resolving disputes, is essentially a system of appeals courts. The rationale of the Moses-Jethro organization of Israel in Exod 18:17-27 is not to center authority in one man who would then make all the decisions, but rather the reverse: to free up Moses so that he would not have to consider every little problem. By analogy, I would think that the “officials over thousands” would not seek to solve all the problems among their people, but would hear cases “too hard” for the officials over hundreds, and so on down the line. Thus the chief decision-making unit is on the “tens” level—possibly the nuclear family itself. The higher levels of state power only handle cases too small to be decided locally. The essential localism, the from-the-bottom-up nature of this organization protects the nuclear family against intrusive assaults from broader courts, but also allows the wisdom of the wider community to be brought in cases where the nuclear family admits its inability to handle a problem. This is essentially the same model presupposed in Presbyterian church courts…I conclude, therefore, that state authority is essentially family authority, developed and extended somewhat by the demands of number and geography. Thus I believe we may eliminate from our consideration the views of the Lutherans and Meredith Kline, as well as others, who see the state as a distinct institution ordained by God, with powers and responsibilities different from those of the family.
His entire essay is very helpful, as he comes very close to a Reformed Libertarian framework. Much of it could be fixed by simply replacing the word “family” with “individual.” I believe he would benefit very much from interacting with the Reformed Libertarian philosophy highlighted elsewhere on this site.
The nature of the State is that of aggression, force, and violence (“the sword”). Libertarian philosophy states: “no one shall ‘initiate or threaten to initiate physical force against others and their property.” The word “initiate” is in there for a purpose. Not all forms of aggression are sinful. First of all, self-defense is an approved form of aggression. But beyond this, it is the role defined in Genesis 9:6 of “government”/individuals to respond to a previously initiated act of aggression by executing justice according to the principles of lex talionis (let the punishment fit the crime). Brandon Adams notes,
“Therefore I would argue that crime is limited to acts of aggression against an individual. The civil magistrate is not a parental authority punishing society for its immorality. Rather, the civil magistrate is an authority delegated by an individual who has been wronged and thus has the right to retributive justice. What was done to him must be done to the criminal. Therefore using force (the sword) to punish anything less than initiated force (aggression) is not just.”
“Government,” “the civil magistrate,” and “private law” are all just terms we use to describe an individuals’ delegating of his responsibility to others. He does this by voluntary arrangements and contracts, the same way any other form of employment is arranged in the private sector. Used in this sense, government is merely a collection of individuals who provide the services of defense, law, and justice through a system of voluntary actions. There are a handful of reasons why it would not be advantageous for an individual to take it upon himself to execute justice and become the avenger of blood, although they would certainly have that right. For starters, using government services would eliminate the need for a trial to be conducted over your own “trial” to see if you actually executed justice righteously. Outsourcing the execution of justice to trusted arbitration agencies in the community gives much-needed validation to the verdict. Another obvious reason would be the need to be reliant on those whose expertise it is to execute justice and resolve disputes.
That’s it. That is all the civil magistrate is supposed to do. They are only allowed to do the same things the moral law allows individuals to do. The question “How big should government be?” is mistaken from the start. The government’s size should not be determined by a central committee or bureaucracy. It is to be determined by the many actors and actions of the free market. Each county or jurisdiction is allowed to voluntarily fund its services to whatever degree they desire. Its size and function should be entirely dependent on the funding it receives from those who use its services. It is beyond the scope of this article to help the reader think through the ways in which the market can provide for privatized services that are typically paid for by mass theft (the resources section provides some helpful guides). I have merely been trying to show that they should be funded voluntarily. It is instructive, however, to remember our not too distant past. The US didn’t even have a permanent income tax until 1913. Before this time, we somehow managed to have schools, roads, colleges, hospitals, an army and a navy, subways, railroads, and a highly functioning industrial economy. Granted, some of this was paid for with tariffs, but the point is that years of taxation render its citizens unable to imagine how life could function without it. Indeed, a popular libertarian quote notes,
“It has been easier to convince people to hand over half their income, their children to war, and their freedoms in perpetuity-than to engage them in seriously considering how roads might function in the absence of taxation.”
This is despite the fact that many roads in our history were built privately and that we still have some privatized roads today. What happens is that, over time, a citizen forgets how various industries and services functioned without the use of theft. If the State suddenly decided to take over the grocery store business, for example, within one generation or less we would have individuals who could not conceive of a way in which groceries and food could ever be funded by the free market. If the State decided to take over the education industry even more than it does now by “educating” babies as soon as they were able, after a generation we would have parents who could not conceive of a baby learning to walk and talk without the State’s control. This is how the State works. Once you step on the road to serfdom, you rarely get off. It gets you dependent on their services and before long you are unable to imagine a world that doesn’t function on aggression and theft. It is this inability to “imagine” the unseen that is at the root of all bad economics, as Frederic Bastiat notes:
“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”
I have always been amazed at the depth of thought that Christians will devote to some subjects, as evidenced in the seemingly endless exegetical studies and commentaries that are churned out with each passing year (for which I’m grateful). This makes it all the more surprising when not even the slightest amount of thought is given to speculating how a free market could provide for government’s services. It is easy to look at a State taking a dollar from one person and then seeing it arrive in another person’s hands. It is more difficult to imagine all of the spontaneous and voluntary interactions that make up life in the private sector (think of our grocery store example). The “hard” work of thinking is given a backseat to “just pass a law and steal from people.”
It is crucial to note what is taking place in the State’s actions. Government spending is not conjured from nothing. It is not a Santa Claus. Every dollar they spend was either printed out of thin air (also an act of theft), borrowed, or taken from somebody else. It is simply the government acting as a middle-man. It is introducing a layer (or many) of bureaucracy. These layers of bureaucracy have to be funded by additional theft. So, right out of the gate it is more expensive. Thomas Sowell once noted, “It is amazing that people who think we cannot afford to pay for doctors, hospitals, and medication somehow think that we can afford to pay for doctors, hospitals, medication and a government bureaucracy to administer it.” His example of healthcare provides us with a perfect example of what I have been getting at. Once the State is allowed to take over an industry, it almost never relinquishes its power over it. As the failures of government intervention grows, people wrongly just decide to give the State more power and money to fix the problems created by the State’s involvement in the first place. We have had over a century of government involvement in healthcare, but for some reason people always seem to be convinced that just a little more government involvement will fix the problem. Too many people have become dependent on the government and too many people have an interest in keeping the status quo for us to ever be able to easily relinquish control from the State.
Beyond these points, why should we imagine that theft is a better way to fund certain “public” goods than through the market? In fact, this is where the intellectual shallowness of conservatives and progressives is made plain. Conservatives have certain economic arguments that they use to argue against various forms of socialism that they are not currently on board with. Why then do they not use these arguments consistently for every other service, including those services that are always thought of to be under the domain of the State, such as the military and law? When pressed, they never have any real answer for their arbitrary denunciation of socialism and State intervention (for an easy critique of “public goods theory,” see the resources). The libertarian, especially the private law libertarian, has the advantage of staying entirely consistent with his use of the economic calculation problem and his critique of the State’s ability to provide a good or service.
Theft and the covetousness it stems from are not treated lightly in the Bible. Over and over again, we see nations and individuals who are judged for their love of money and possessions. It should not be too hard to see that this is one of the many reasons our nation is in the predicament we are in today. Frederic Bastiat again provides us with a poignant word:
“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
Ours is a society completely taken over by covetousness for other people’s property. The fuller expressions of socialism as exemplified in the rise of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is simply a judgment for our failure to deal with the socialism-lite that has been found in the Republican and Democratic Parties for over a century. Hopefully, the church can somehow find a way to build a society based on cooperation and voluntary exchange over against aggression, force, and theft. If it doesn’t, we should only expect social disintegration to be further increased and the church’s influence to be further decreased.
Private Law in the Bible
Reformed Libertarian Theory
Private Law Theory
How Could Privatizing Everything Potentially Work?