What is Reformed Libertarianism?

[One] misconception is that the Ten Commandments… apply only to private individuals and not to governments. This notion, which has absolutely no foundation in Scripture, illustrates how far we have gone toward deifying government, for it is attributing divine qualities to rulers to say that they in their official (or private) capacities are exempt from the law. –John Robbins

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 offered forth in at least one school of thought in 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.

Libertarianism can be a very diverse political philosophy, especially in recent years as it has grown in popular attention. While there are a variety of different camps within the broadly labeled “libertarian world,” the closest tradition to our own perspective can be described as “paleo-libertarianism” or perhaps “Austro-libertarianism.”  The “Austro” part of that label refers to the fact that this tradition of libertarian political theory is in very good company with the proponents of the so-called “Austrian School of Economics,” a laissez-faire, free market tradition which is set apart chiefly by its more rationalistic epistemological background and anti-empirical methodology.  Whereas economics is a value-free science, that is, it only deals with the logic of human action and does not address questions of ought and ethics, political theory fills this gap. Economics is a science of is; political theory is a science of ought.

The central proposition of our school of libertarian thought is this: “no person should violate the life and property of another human being unless that other human being has first violated the life and property of another,” and we define the libertarian as any person who assents to that proposition, and gives no exception to any individual, State, Congressional body, or corporation.  All are bound in the same way to this moral rule.

Thus, there is a hard and fast rubric for determining where the libertarian thinker will stand on a variety of so-called “policy issues.”  If a given action in society is not a violation of the above principle, then no aggressive force is required to address it.  The “aggressive force” that addresses crimes in society can also be referred to with the phrase “The Sword.”  Those who legitimately “wield The Sword” must do so justly, that is, in response to an actual crime or in self-defense.  The sword-bearer has been referred to in history as a “magistrate” or “government,” and we think it is monumentally helpful to make a distinction between the just sword-wielder and sword-wielder that thrives in corruption and criminality.  We have explained the logic of this distinction here and here (in which we cite Augustine).

The purpose of “civil law” (as opposed to moral law —which details what is required of man to be right with God) is to make men right with each other by seeking the avoidance of actual conflict in society, given our world of scarce resources and mutually exclusive wants.  We agree with J. Gresham Machen when he wrote:

There are vast departments of life with which they [civil laws] should have nothing whatever to do.  They are exceeding their God-given function when they seek to enforce inward purity or purity of the individual life, since theirs is the business only of enforcing –and that in necessarily imperfect fashion — that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man.

In all this, we understand precisely what is meant when society advocates for something to be “illegal.”  And thus we also know what it means when we say something should be “legal.”  All we are referring to, once we honestly consider the situation, 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.  As we have stated before in a review of an essay,

Baptist Isaac Backus who, opposing the  “interrelation of church and state” of a certain paedobaptist, stated: “Therefore the dignity of [Christ’s] government is maintained not by carnal but by spiritual weapons….

The rubric by which we determine the legitimacy of punishment against the criminal is the criminal’s transgression against the person and property of another individual.  Beyond that, in our estimation, the Christian ought to use all sorts of “spiritual weaponry;” that is, we must use persuasion and instruction to speak truth into the life of those around us, especially those in sin.  To use Backus’ vocabulary, “The question between us is not whether it be the duty” to act ethically and obey God’s commands, but rather, the question is “whether that duty ought to be enforced by the sword.”

This serves to address the concern that, in allowing a variety of immoral deeds to go unpunished, we are in effect refusing to make it plain that these deeds are wrong. But in the same sense that most would agree that lying is both immoral yet should not be illegal, so there are many things which require “spiritual weaponry” and not the sword of the state. God will have his own vengeance in due time.