Four Questions for Christian Libertarians

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Introduction

“When is it moral for a civil society to permit, authorize, or use coercion?”

As I attempt to address this complex question adequately, I want to set out four basic concerns that I have with the non-coercion principle, at least as it is commonly applied as a stand-alone maxim.

Who? Whom?

First, when we talk about permitting, authorizing, or using coercion, we have to determine who lives behind and underneath the nouns in the implied sentence. Who does the permitting, or authorizing, or coercing? Secondly, what entities may receive such permissions, or authorization, such that they can then pass it on down the line? And what entities may lawfully then be coerced and why? The last question is the one that is usually addressed, and the answer is that an individual may be coerced when by his behavior or threatened behavior he is coercing somebody else. Coercion as a matter of self-defense is not controversial, at least in our circles. As far as that issue goes, I believe we probably agree.

But in these calculations, the basic building block of society is assumed to be the individual. And because one of my central criticisms of libertarianism is the individualism it assumes throughout, allow me to focus on this point for a moment. Libertarianism has an important part of its appeal in the fact that it is formally individualistic, and is therefore quite appealing to a generation chock-full of individualism and me-first-ism.

So can it be moral for a civil society to recognize a marriage or a family as, say, the owner of property? Can it be moral for a civil society to permit, say, the spanking of a toddler? Or, to raise the stakes a bit, should a civil society permit a father’s use of “the belt” on a thirteen-year old son when that son had in actual fact done something egregious (but not overtly criminal), like yelling at his mother? Or for accessing porn on his sister’s computer and then lying about it?

We have to begin by asking what the constituent parts of society are. Does society always and in every case break down to atomistic individuals? Or should a civil society recognize the oneness of marriage, or the unity of the family, or the covenants involved with a local Christian congregation? Are those unities a social reality? Are Burke’s little platoons a thing? Are those larger entities some of the “eggs” in the civic omelet? Or are individuals the only possible eggs? Idaho is a community property state . . . should it be?

Here is another place where this problem could be manifested. Would it be consistent with libertarianism to have a civil society vote by household? After all, if the husband and wife were to vote differently, they just cancel their own household out. And if they voted the same way, we have only doubled the vote tally. Could a civil society apply “devote” logic to household voting?

In Liberty Defined, Ron Paul has said there should be “no limits” to the “voluntary definition” of marriage. His position is that he is supportive of all voluntary associations, and people can call these voluntary associations whatever they want. But this is thunderingly naive—an orgy is a voluntary association, and sinners may want to call it any number of things other than what God calls it—a ripe occasion for some sulfur and brimstone, and hailstones the size of cantaloupes.

Would it be appropriate for a civil society to outlaw pride parades out of self-defense? Say they wanted to defend themselves against possible fire from Heaven? “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them, in like manner giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7). That fire fell on a collection of cities.

So if a civil society treated marriage the way Scripture does, it would not be as a private contract between two individuals, one that could simply be abrogated if both parties wanted out. I could see an enforcement of marriage on libertarian principles if one party wanted out and the other one didn’t (under enforcement of contracts), but what if both wanted out? Is the oneness of man and woman, settled in the first pages of Genesis, to be ignored on the basis of modernity’s beau ideal of individualism?

So here is my basic question on this point: what is the scriptural case for treating each individual, and his free choices, as the basic building block of society? Because if larger units are seen as necessary, then there will be at least some instances where coercion will be permitted or allowed.

Restraint of Evil Elsewhere

My second concern is this. It is certainly the case that voluntary military bands could form under the non-coercion principle. Say they did in fact form in order to, say, fight off an invasion, and they did it so well that after the war, they happened to be a hegemonic superpower. What should they then do? Should they use that military might to do some good as the world’s policeman, or should they promptly demilitarize? Let us stipulate that as the world’s policeman, their goal was to limit themselves (at least at first) to fighting unjust uses of coercion around the world.

The example that comes to mind is the suppression of the international slave trade by the British Navy after the British had outlawed slavery in their own dominions. Their actions were coercive, certainly, but it was a coercive use of force to suppress slave-trading. But at the same time, it was certainly not being undertaken out of self-defense at all. It was an altruistic use of force, preventing parties “out there” who had nothing to do with England from shipping their slaves from point A to point B, with none of the three entities having anything to do with England’s security.

Should a nation that has (legitimately) acquired military might abandon it as soon as threats to them have been dealt with? Or should they use their power for good “just this once?” Or should they become a godly libertarian empire, intervening simply and solely to enforce global respect for the non-coercion principle?

So my second question is this: was the 19th century British suppression of the international slave trade a thing to be applauded, or not?

Is Libertarianism Consistent with Historic Reformed Orthodoxy?

The preamble to the New St. Andrews Statement of Faith references its commitment to the historic Reformed confessions, and specifically names the Westminster, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Synod of Dort.

According to them, the civil magistrate has the power to suppress “all blasphemies and heresies” (WCF 23.3). And then this in the Belgic: “We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, hath appointed kings, princes and magistrates, willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose he hath invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the protection of them that do well” (Belgic 36). That I show “all honour, love, and fidelity to . . . all in authority over me” (Heidelberg 104). And although the contents of the Synod of Dort do not address the question of civil authority directly, the fact that the decision of the synod was afterwards enforced by the civil government, and those ministers who differed with it were sent into exile and banishment, gives us some notion of their outlook.

On this score, the American Westminster (1788) is the most liberal of the historical Reformed confessions, saying that the magistrate may not interfere with matters of individual faith “in the least.” But even here, it says that the magistrate has an obligation to “protect the Church of our common Lord, without giving preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest” (WCF 23.3). It also assumes the ongoing existence of the magistrate, and says that it is lawful for Christians to hold this office in order to, among other things, “maintain piety, justice and peace” (WCF 23.2).

The question here is this: should our work in political theology seek to work within the established framework of the historic Reformed position?

Naked Coercion?

A common assumption among libertarians is that civil government is nothing other than coercion. Now it is certainly coercive when it comes to the lawless and reprobate:

“Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.”

1 Timothy 1:9–10 (KJV)

But what is rightly-ordered civil government to the righteous? Can a righteous citizen hear anything other than threats?

“The God of Israel said, The Rock of Israel spake to me, he that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; As the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.”

2 Sam. 23:3–4 (KJV)

“Just rule” here is compared to that which makes righteous grass grow. It is not compared to the lawn mower that cuts the unrighteous grass down.

“And the LORD magnified Solomon exceedingly in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel.”

1 Chron. 29:25 (KJV)

Whatever else majesty is, it is not coercive. It is, however, compelling. And this is why I would much prefer to learn my civics from King Lune rather than Murray Rothbard.

“And in mercy shall the throne be established: And he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness.”

Isaiah 16:5 (KJV)

Another foundation stone of the righteous throne is the mercy that is shown when oppressors are dealt with righteously. A different way of putting this is that coercion has a flip side. Coercion against the international slave trade established Britain’s moral authority, which certainly caused the godless to fear, but the slaves who were delivered had other motives for supporting the righteous throne.

So my last question is this: what is the scriptural ground for saying that civil authority rests upon nothing but coercion?

My Four Questions Asked Again

  1. Do we have an exegetical ground for considering individuals simpliciter to be the basic unit of society?
  2. Is it consistent with libertarianism to right an injustice that has nothing to do with self-defense?
  3. When it comes to the role of the civil magistrate, is it possible for a Christian libertarian to affirm the system of doctrine that exists in the historic Reformed confessions?
  4. And last, why is it assumed that government is necessarily nothing but naked coercion when Scripture speaks of a righteous rule, one that evokes loyalties that have nothing to do with fear of coercion?

Presented at NSA Disputatio
September 18, 2020

Comments open for those who want to discuss these four questions.

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bethyada
Member

I think many of these questions are useful to ask. And even though I kind of like the label “Christian Libertarian”, it is not without its problems. What you haven’t mentioned in your discussion is that we live in a fallen world. Our redemptive world will be a monarchy under Christ and not clearly a democracy. One I happily give up my vote to live in. Yet we are not there yet, and I suspect that the postmillenialists and the other-millennialists will disagree. The postmill moving away from libertarianism as the world becomes discipled, and the others very much wanting… Read more »

bethyada
Member

To your questions. 1. I would say that the individual is the unit. And we see that the government and church are institutions made from these. I suppose that one could argue for the family from Genesis 1. The unity of husband and wife. And also the separation from one’s parents to become a new family. But even that separation to form a new family speaks against the family being the unit. One can only really argue for a husband and wife as the unit. Yet Jesus says the kingdom exceeds familial bonds. 2. Are you including property, or just… Read more »

Mike Metokur
Member

I find myself agreeing with both you and Doug on most of this. I think Doug raises good points, but I don’t know that he necessarily concludes correctly. The oneness of a union between two individuals does not negate the essential reality that it is two individuals voluntarily being joined together that constitute a marriage, or that in divorce it is one individual who is harming another and causing them to commit adultery, etc (simplifying things here). Most people are not married, and to argue that the family is the actual basic unit of society ignores those people. Certainly if… Read more »

Bro. Steve
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Bro. Steve

A lot of people who hoist the libertarian flag are just guilty of a vocabulary error. Many of them would be properly classified as minarchists, believing that the best government is the least government we can get by with. If you dial down to specific questions, especially on the abortion holocaust, you discover that they aren’t libertarians at all. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to warrant mentioning.

Wisdumb
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Wisdumb

At the base, libertarians incorrectly believe that they have ownership of things, primarily that they own their own bodies. They don’t understand God’s ultimate ownership and our delegated stewardship.
Of course, neither do most of us.

bethyada
Member

I think you can still have a libertarian system that understands that God owns us and our property and that we are stewards; but as stewards it is us that deal with our lives and and property and are faithful or not before God with it. Thus God can take it away, but the government doesn’t decide that a man is a bad steward and takes away life and property. A libertarian allows men to be answerable to God for their stewardship.

bethyada
Member

I wrote this a decade ago to address the complaint that libertarianism is any community. I actually think it can be pro-community. Libertarians are sometimes criticised that their position favours individualism. For those that promote individualism this is not seen as a downfall; but the complaint, if true, is a reasonable one to make to a Christian libertarian. Christianity teaches the importance of community. The early Christians shared their property, and Christendom views itself communally, as a city on a hill, we talk of the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. We are bondslaves to our master Jesus.… Read more »

Joshua Dyke
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Joshua Dyke

Still reading. BUT, Talking about military “Should they use that military might to do some good as the world’s policeman, or should they promptly demilitarize?” Most Christians can’t touch the nuisances of international interventionism causes and effects. Such as when the united nation force 3rd world countries to adopt 1st world child labor laws.. good right? Expect the fact it sent many families into poverty and children into sexual prostitutions. Modern Military interventionism has always a high minded goal.. unfortunately they march on glass to enter the house I’ve heard too many “accomplishments” done by the state when it was… Read more »

Baus
Guest

Addresses some of the issues:
http://tinyurl.com/r13anarchism

Kevin Regal
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Kevin Regal

Kudos to you, Pastor Wilson, for really trying to understand the libertarian ideas before criticizing them, not everyone is so gracious. My responses to your 4 questions: 1) The image of God is a characteristic of individual humans, not collections of humans. God saves (or condemns) us as individuals (Ezk 18). This one seems obvious to me; am I missing something? 2) Absolutely. As long as there are finite and sinful humans, there will be need for dispute resolution (even in “libertopia”). But many (perhaps most) offenses could be addressed without engaging in coercion. That seems like it might be… Read more »

Buford T. Justice
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Buford T. Justice

1: Yes. Individuals were created before organizations, and the very first organization was instituted for the benefit of an individual, and not the other way around. All other organizational possibilities – families, states, or even churches – will pass away; only individuals are eternal. All of the aforementioned may be, and are even commanded to be in certain circumstances, broken or disbanded – at which point you have …individuals. And while consequences may be dispensed upon groups in this life, at the final judgment, the Book of Life will contain the names of people, not groups. Surely there’s something here,… Read more »

John Bunyan
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John Bunyan

Maybe not on topic but as I was reading I had a revelation. I always thought it would be good to promote household voting for the reason that husband and wife should be of the same mind, so there should only be one vote for each household. But as I read you address the topic I had the horrible realization that, given the state of our society, implementing this policy would effectively cut the conservative Christian voting bloc in half, while barely touching the liberal secular voters. So, unless we can turn back the clock really far and implement male-only… Read more »

eric schansberg
Guest

I like to start from another angle: When should Christians pursue government as an ethical/biblical and practical means to godly ends for individuals, families, society? This question leads one to positions that are consistent with libertarian inferences about public policy.

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