August 28, 2016

In Defense of Individual Liberty: A Rejoinder to DG Hart

By In Articles, Society and Culture

DG Hart makes the bold claim that “a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state.” While intended to be provocative and certainly requires some sort of explanation, we know a severe equivocation of words is about to take place because, by definition, liberty (in the political/legal sense— which is what the context is) only exists where the state does not. Now, before I move on, let address the inevitable push back: “ah! but state’s reaction to criminals is vital to liberty!” True, but what I asserted was that state action is always an abridgment of liberty because, by definition, state action is coercive action.

So then, when the state reacts to the criminal, he is by definition (rightly) limiting the liberty of the criminal because the criminal lost his right to liberty to the extent that he transgressed his victim’s rights. The state is the antithesis of liberty. If the state initiates the coercion, the state wrongly encroaches on liberty; but if the state reacts to prior coercion on the behalf of a victim, the state rightly encroaches on the liberty of the criminal by defending the right of the victim to live free of coercion against body and property.

Now then, let’s see how Hart argues that defending religious liberty “for persons” expands the state. He maintains that “when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom… the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual.” One of the examples he gives is “a church member against her church officers.”

To clear up the language by using libertarian vocabulary, since Hart points his finger at libertarianism for being “hand in hand” with big government, let’s define what it means to be free. Freedom is defined in terms of property rights. Freedom is the legal ability to employ one’s body and exterior property toward any means that does not encroach on the body or property of another individual. Thus, man is free if neither the state nor any other human being systematically hampers that ability by force.

So then, if a person’s freedom really is at stake, and the government intervenes by liberating that person, the government gains nothing, but is merely providing the person what is rightfully his: his right to be free from coercion. And in fact, if a person’s freedom really is at stake (which would mean that some other group is coercively encroaching on that person’s freedom), then it is an act of justice for the criminal group to be stopped.

The problem, of course, is that Hart has fallen for the left’s own definition of the terminology (and sadly, nominal “libertarians” like Johnson are part of the problem). In the left’s paradigm (a paradigm, I would argue, that also belongs to non-libertarian social democrats like Johnson), someone is “free” to the extent that he can do what he wants regardless of the property rights of others. Now, obviously this leads to a plethora of contradictions, tensions, and conflicts. For instance, in Johnson’s case, should the Baker have the right to refuse service to a gay couple or should the gay couple have the right to the Baker’s products? Once you lose sight of the property rights-sourced nature of freedom, you have no way to figure this out; except perhaps by lame appeal to “niceness” or “non-judging mindsets.”

Thus, Hart writes that

“the baker who does not want to bake and decorate a wedding cake (why not an inferior one?) for a gay couple should not base her appeal on her own conscience but the teaching of her church. As a Free Methodist, not as Susan Eddy, she objects to being forced by civil rights legislation to bake a cake for a gay couple.”

He takes this approach because the pure private property solution is, in classic Kirkian language (I appreciate Kirk on many things relating to cultural matters, but he is not trustworthy on several topics— individualism being one) “highly individualistic.”

But the libertarian view is not that the baker should base her appeal on conscience per se, because it doesn’t solve anything. After all, it is in the conscience of the gay couple that they have a right to this cake. And who but the government can step in an arbitrate this predicament? Indeed, a distortion of the libertarian view does grow government!

Thankfully, the appeal to conscience, while relevant, is also put in a much more secure context when said conscience is rendered in terms of property rights. The baker has the legal ability to exercise her conscience because she owns the property and the good and therefore she decides the terms and conditions upon which the good can leave her ownership and be transferred to a customer.

In this case the government is not given the role of arbitrary decision maker, but rather merely upholds the right of the baker that preceded the existence of the Federal Government. The Government, to echo Hans Hoppe, does not create the law, but rather upholds the law by gathering the “facts of the case.” Libertarianism, then, far from encouraging big government, is unique in its ability to keep “government” small and contained.

As Machen wrote:

“It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God.”

Hart is quite wrong to throw the freedom of the individual under the bus of various social institutions, especially in a world that is abandoning Christianity, morality, and private property. It is individualism that most vigorously provides a bulwark against a civilization in collapse. It is a defense of individualism that is most needed in our time of collectivism and centralization of socio-political issues. Radical dissent alone can withstand the growing corruption of the institutions.

It is certainly true that local institutions and churches can provide refuge against the almighty state. But this is only true because they are closer to the individual! Indeed, social institutions are strong only inasmuch as they are made up of voluntarily participating individuals.

Anything else is collectivism. And, to quote FA Hayek, “collectivism is slavery.”

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