“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.
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?
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
- Do we have an exegetical ground for considering individuals simpliciter to be the basic unit of society?
- Is it consistent with libertarianism to right an injustice that has nothing to do with self-defense?
- 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?
- 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.