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.

  • David

    I completely agree with your stance on war, but just to play devil’s advocate for further development:

    Some would argue against us by saying that (in the Iraq War for example) since tyrants have killed innocents, its morally acceptable to overthrow them and install new, better leadership that does not commit such heinous crimes.

    What would be your response to that?

    • David: It is immoral and unjust to steal the resources necessary to overthrow another government. There are a very few Americans who have volunteered to go help defend Kurds and Iraquis against ISIS, and are welcomed, I think that’s different.

      Also one should consult God’s voice of Wisdom. Sadam Hussein was a much better protector of Christians than U.S. troops turned out to be, or the new pro-Iranian Shia government has been capable of.

      In Libya we also see the fruits of the George Soros-denominated “duty to defend”. He means government of course, and it’s just another tool used by the “people of the prince that shall come” that sets up the “abomination that maketh desolate” in the holy place. Libya is now a nest of thugs and killers, the intervention engineered by Madame Sec. of State Clinton and supported by Obama and by many acolytes and neocons supported the obliteration of a town of 10,000 in Towargah, mostly black-skinned.

      Thus was stopped a danger to the money changers’ fiat dollar, the pan-African gold-based currency initiative. And another zone made MUCH more dangerous for Libyan Christians.

      Meantime, Saudi Arabia still enforces the most cruel treatment of Christian converts.

      God hates war, blesses peace.

  • DanielRCoats

    This is a very helpful summary. What is the Biblical case for this framework exactly? I feel that the political philosophy described here is arrived at through the Non-Aggression Principle, but what is the grounds in Scripture for the NAP?

    • Brian K. Jacobson

      Genesis 9:6 is an example of the biblical conception of the just use of force only in response and in proportion to a previous act of aggression, it (NAP) is also essentially the negative of the golden rule in Matthew 7:12. The non-aggression principle is grounded ultimately in the moral law i.e. the 6th and 8th commandment. NAP is “thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” applied individually and absolutely across the board.

    • Daniel, the framework for this starts with the bible’s framework: covenant theology. How we view God’s covenants will heavily influence how we view political philosophy. For example, Bahnsen’s monocovenantalism leads him to a very monolithic view of the law of God. However, if we allow each covenant in Scripture to speak for itself and stand on its own terms, we will have greater light to answer the question at hand.

      The question is not an easy one, so we have to approach it carefully. I think the bible does speak to the issue, but since the bible does not speak explicitly as to what laws nations today are to have, we must first establish what Scripture does speak explicitly about (LBCF 1.9). If we approach the issue saying “Scripture must give us a list of laws to enforce” then we are approaching it autonomously with unbiblical presuppositions. Instead, we need to say “Does Scripture give us direction in this matter?” I believe it does, but we should start with (at least) the following foundations that are explicit in Scripture:

      1) The moral law of God (decalogue) applies to all men, including “rulers.” “The government” is not exempt from this law. Those in the position of authority may not steal or murder.

      2) The civil penalties that were given to Israel were given as part of the Old Covenant, specifically as covenant curses (Deut 27:26; 21:22-23). Its purpose was to create a holy, earthly kingdom as a type of the holy, heavenly kingdom of Christ. Israelites were given explicit authority to execute God’s judgment upon sin with the iron sword in order to purge the physical holy land where God physically dwelt, of evil. They were thus not violating the moral law when they executed adulterers because God is free to judge as He pleases. However, the Old Covenant has been abolished. No one is under it today. http://www.1689federalism.com/1689-federalism-theonomy/

      3) The Noahic Covenant was made with all living creatures and men. It is a covenant of common preservation with the purpose of preserving the earth for the sake of the elect, so that they may be born and saved, and Christ may be glorified. Its purpose is not to create a holy, earthly society, but to provide a venue for God to gather a holy, heavenly society out of, in which they will become pilgrims.

      4) 1 Cor 5:12 says that we are not to hold non-Christians to the same standard of the law as Christians. We are not to remove non-Christians from community (city, state, nation) for the same reasons that Christians would be removed from community (church) – ie adultery.

      5) Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 was a central text in the reformation debate about liberty of conscience. Jesus teaches that the weeds (wicked) are to grow together with the wheat (saints) in the world (note: the field is NOT the church). See Benjamin Keach’s explanation here http://reformedlibertarian.com/blog/brandonadams/the-parable-of-the-wheat-and-tares-opened-keach/ “Some think our Lord refers [servants] to Christian magistrates, who have been, and may again be pious persons, and may be ready to cut off by death such offenders, whom our Lord would have lived in the world until the end thereof comes ; not but that [ie “no one but”] murders and traitors ought by the sword of justice to be cut off, or pulled up ; but not such who are only guilty of divers sorts of errors in matters of faith, or such who many ways are immoral in their lives.”

      6) Yet Romans 13:4 says that authorities who bear the sword are servants of God’s wrath. This clearly has some connection to God’s law. How can we understand this in harmony with the above? Contextually, the end of Romans 12 is addressing persecution and wrongs done to Christians. It tells us not to repay evil for evil, but to love our enemies (note: reference is to our enemies, those who do us harm – not God’s enemies). It tells us to leave vengeance to the Lord, right after which Paul speaks of the authorities who bear the sword as servants of God’s wrath. Clearly the two are connected. Thus we see that the use of the sword in society outside of the Old Covenant has connection not simply to offense against God, but specifically to violence done to other men. If we look back at Genesis 9:6, the Noahic Covenant that we are all under (as opposed to the Old, which no one is under) specifically commands men to use the sword against those who commit violence. Thus one is not committing murder who executes a murderer. He is enforcing justice as a servant of God. Furthermore, this authority is not given by God only to a special class of people, though particular societies may wish to formalize a process for completing this God-given task.

      7) Therefore the use of the sword is authorized by God to execute justice, not to generally “improve society.”

      Thus we have no warrant to make all the world holy by imposing the physical sword on all men, but we do have warrant for wielding the (iron) sword against men who do violence to other men. In this way God’s wrath is poured out against wrongdoers, yet in a way that does not try to impose the eschatological state on the present world.

      • Brian K. Jacobson

        his answer is way better than mine, just read his.

  • I agree, mostly, with rare exceptions like, for example, rapid intervention in emergencies to save a life, even if there is no visible invitation by a victim.

    But remembering that also , he that meddle the with a matter not related to himself, it shall be as one that “taketh a dog by the ears”.

  • “Reformed Libertarian” is an oxymoron.

    • jeff

      please explain; I’m not seeing it