June 23, 2014

Libertarianism and Libertinism: Murray Rothbard’s View

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Murray Rothbard once responded to six myths about libertarianism.  Here is Myth #2 with my emphasis added in bold:

Myth #2: Libertarians are libertines: they are hedonists who hanker after “alternative life-styles.”

This myth has recently been propounded by Irving Kristol, who identifies the libertarian ethic with the “hedonistic” and asserts that libertarians “worship the Sears Roebuck catalogue and all the ‘alternative life styles’ that capitalist affluence permits the individual to choose from.” The fact is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism. 

It should not be surprising, therefore, that there are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative life-styles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of “bourgeois” conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory. Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that “liberty is the highest political end” – not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values.

My view is the same.  Libertarianism is not a holistic moral theory.  Self-described “Christian Libertarians” deny the “Christian” aspect of such a phrase when they see libertarianism as the complete expression of moral standard.  Rothbard is right to note that libertarians can hold to a variety of moral theories. What is mine? The Moral Law of God as found in the Ten Commandments.  When asked what is right and what is wrong, I do not answer by pointing to the Non-Aggression Principle.  I point to the Bible.  I do not approve, and no one will be able to find anything on this site to suggest otherwise, of lifestyles that are contrary to the prescriptive commands of God.

However, I do not think that it is the role of the State, which is an institution that is part of the present “kingdom of this world,” to implement with force or threat of force the moral law of God.  The judgement for disobedience toward God has either already been received (by Christ for the elect) or is otherwise still to come (for the non-elect).  The great question that political theory seeks to ask is: when should physical violence by the State, which is by definition an institution of organized violence, be permitted in society?  Should physical violence by the State be permitted against those who have conducted no physical violence of their own?

I have previously written:

I think that many Christians do not understand what it means for something to be “illegal.”  And thus they do not understand what it means when the Christian libertarian says that something immoral should actually be “legal.”  All we are referring to, once we honestly consider the situation [and the nature of the State], is that “illegal” means that the use of aggression is justified against a given activity and “legal” means that the use of aggression is not justified to prevent it.

We are not libertines nor are we antinomians by virtue of our libertarianism.  We should not be seen as against the moral law of God or as compromising God’s standards.

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
  • TJ

    Bravo. What’s so sad is that the difference between what should be legal and what is moral from a Christian perspective was articulated centuries ago by men like Thomas Aquinas, yet now we still have these discussions from people who probably don’t even know who Aquinas was or anything about his contribution to Christian philosophy.

    It is immoral according to the Bible to covet your neighbor’s wife. St. Paul also instructs husband’s to love their wives. But would anyone actually think that passing a law could help stamp out covetousness or promote love from husband’s to wives?