Some years ago, Ron Paul wrote a book entitled Liberty Defined. Glancing over the topics he addresses, it might have been better called Liberty Described, because the bulk of the book works through various topics like conscription, and surveillance, and monetary policy—all the kind of topics where libertarians and conservatives might easily find common ground. And when it comes to such practical matters, there really is an enormous amount of common ground.
But as Russell Kirk once argued, one of the hallmarks of conservatism, over against libertarianism, is deep suspicion of ideology, particularly the kind of simplistic ideology that drives the “purer” forms of libertarianism. Kirk knows and understands that there are conservatives who think they are libertarians because of the common enemy we all have in the swollen state, and he does budget for this in his thinking. As should we all.
But Ron Paul, for all his practical side, and despite his sincere Christian faith, is nevertheless an ideologue when it comes to his political vision, and it really shows. And unless that ideology is rejected, we are all in for a world of hurt. The thing he is most interested in protecting—individual liberty—is left vulnerable and exposed by the ideology he espouses.
This is particularly evident in his treatment of marriage and family, an institution that is one of the most non-ideological things in the world.
Sex is Such a Complicating Factor
If sex is what our permissive and individualistic age has made it out to be—a recreational activity on the weekends for consenting adults—then that would fit nicely with key libertarian assumptions. But if sex was intended by God to be a binding agent at the center of that societal molecule called the nuclear family, then a completely different state of affairs will follow.
If the family is an objective reality that the state is obligated to see and interact with as an objective reality, then libertarianism cannot be the case. If the family is not such an objective reality, then libertarianism would then be at least a possibility. But if the family is an objective thing in the world, part of the created order, then libertarianism collapses.
One of the things that Ron Paul provides us with in his appendix is a revealing list of “ten principles of a free society,” and right off the bat, in the first two, we encounter radical problems. His definitions collide with a Christian vision of the world.
“1. Rights belong to individuals, not groups; they derive from our nature and can neither be granted nor taken away by government.”Liberty Defined, p. 327
The first thing that comes to mind when I read this is the glaring fact that under this scheme families don’t have rights. How could they? What is a family but an organic “group”? If groups don’t have rights, then families don’t have rights. This principle has the virtue of being simple to understand, but it is also radically simplistic.
That also means that “families,” besides now requiring scare quotes, can assemble themselves, by means of contract, however they please. More on this in a moment. The government, as the enforcer of these contracts, would not be permitted to distinguish between those unions in which God has joined a man and woman together and, say, a throuple of three gay dudes, where God has done nothing of the kind.
Not only so, but rights do not “derive from our nature.” They are given to us by God—in the fact that we were created in the image of God. And that image requires us to deal with the fundamental fact that we bear the image of God as male and female (Gen. 1:27). And if someone were to reply that the God-given nature of our rights was assumed there by Paul and that I shouldn’t snatch at words, I would be happy to grant that for the sake of the discussion, but then go on to point out that our nature is to congregate in families. It is not our nature to think in terms of atomistic individuals.
This is not a mere technical problem for the Christian libertarian—it is a real stumper. It is an axe laid at the root of a tree about to become its own version of a stumper. The objective reality of the family presents a problem that is fatal to every form of libertarianism, especially the Christian forms of it.
2. All peaceful, voluntary economic and social associations are permitted; consent is the basis of the social and economic order.Liberty Defined, p. 327
Now I agree that consent is a grand principle if we are limiting our discussion to the manufacture and sale of widgets. Smith promises to deliver ten widgets to Jones in exchange for the sum of 100 dollars. Lemon squeezy, right? If we are discussing the manufacture and sale of some lawful product like a widget, you could do no better than to heed the admonitions of Bastiat, and reject every form of legalized plunder.
But that is a relatively simple contract. We can actually have some grasp of the variables involved.
However all contracts involving sex, and the likely propagation of eternal beings resulting from that sex, are enormously complicated, with millions of variables. We cannot track all the variables, which is why we must be content to simply follow God’s law. Find a good woman, marry her, and be a father to her children. This is the law and the prophets.
What do I mean by variables? Remember that a tribe with 100,000 people in it is just ten generations downstream from one act of sexual intercourse. And that is only one possible example.
And an orgy is a peaceful social association. A child begotten in such an orgy is going to grow up without a father, and this state of affairs was foisted on him without his consent. Nobody asked him what he thought of such a deal. His prospects in life are radically inferior to those of a child begotten the evening after vows were exchanged in a church.
How about if a father and mother decide to move from Oregon to Texas when the oldest of their three children is four years old. The children are now going to grow up Texans, and all without their consent.
Now a libertarian might say that gaining the prior consent of young children, or children not yet conceived, is clearly not feasible. Exactly so, which is why we cannot say that “consent is the basis . . .”
Now when I use examples like this, it is likely that a libertarian could appeal to common sense. He might say that I am thinking up extreme examples. Nobody would ever demand that we make consent mandatory in the light of certain biological realities, like how children are conceived and where they grow up. But notice that this objection is being raised in a culture that is currently demanding that boys be allowed to become girls because they didn’t consent to be a boy. These are not the best times to appeal to the sturdiness of our universal common sense.
And how people are begotten, and where they grow up, all without their consent, is not exactly an outlier. It happens to absolutely everyone.
What you are, where you are, and how you are, are not chosen by you. They are chosen for you. You do not choose your family. Your family did not choose you. All of this is a gift, and moreover an assigned gift. All genuinely free human choices must occur from within this context of assigned grace. Pretending to be autonomous in your choices, separated from your God-given context, is childish and simplistic.
So when we introduce sex into the equation, and the fact human beings all start out as a single cell, all of a sudden we are like a June bug trying to do astrophysics. No longer are we talking about ten widgets for a hundred dollars. We are suddenly talking about babies, and generations, and tribes, and nations, and migrations, and religion, and covenants, and wars.
We are not capable of drawing up contracts that cover all these exigencies. We can only pretend to. And that is what simplistic ideologies try to get you to do.
Marriage is Not a Widget
Let’s go back to Smith and Jones for a moment. Suppose a couple months after the widgets were ordered, Jones lost his ability to pay for them. And suppose that Smith’s factory burned down and he lost his ability to deliver them. And suppose that this was discovered by the two of them in casual conversation at some gathering or other. Do the two of them have the right to tear their contract up? Of course they do, because they were the two consenting parties to it, and consent really is foundational in such situations. If they do, it is a “no fault” dissolution of a business deal. They have the authority to call the whole thing off. They have a joint authority over that agreement.
But when a man and woman come together in marriage, they are not in the same position. They make the vows, but they are not the Lord of the vows. God Himself is the one who joins them together, making them one flesh (Matt. 19:6), and no human authority has the right to separate what God has joined together.
So suppose a man and a woman get married, and they have no kids. After five years, they both decide they are tired of the other. Do they have the right to just tear the “contract” up? Of course not. Because marriage is much more than a contract resting upon the simple consent of the parties. And besides, the terms of the “contract” anticipated such possible problems, and consequently included clauses like “till death do us part.” They shouldn’t be allowed to walk away because they both promised, in a solemn and legally enforceable way, that they wouldn’t walk away.
When we add other likely variables—such as children, or the fact that one party does not want the divorce—we discover what our permissive generation really means by consent. They intend a running consent. They mean consent in the present. When the consent goes away, so does the obligation. But when the obligations of marriage go away, so does your civilization.
But notice how Ron Paul speaks about this in his chapter on marriage. It frankly makes the blood run cold.
If the government were not involved there would be no discussion or controversy over the definition of marriage. Why should the government give permission to two individuals for them to call themselves married? In a free society . . . all voluntary and consensual agreements would be recognized. If disputes arose, the courts could be involved as in any other civil dispute.”Liberty Defined, p. 183
Two individuals? I wonder where he came up with that arbitrary number?
And the courts? What standard will the courts use? By what standard? is a question that has been raised before. Suzy Q voluntarily entered the harem of John, the Sultan of Cincinnati, when she was twenty years old, and she really thought it was a good idea at the time. His eyes were so deep and so brown. Ten years in, the shine has worn off somewhat. Does a libertarian court make her remain because the vows she took included the phrase “as long as the moon remains above?”
In a prescient essay called “We Have No Right to Happiness,” C.S. Lewis discussed the modern tendency to assume that all solemn promises should be honored . . . except for the sexual ones. If it involves “four bare legs in a bed,” then all bets are off.
It is like having a morality in which stealing fruit is considered wrong—unless you steal nectarines . . . If I object to boys who steal my nectarines, must I be supposed to disapprove of nectarines in general? Or even of boys in general? It might, you know, be stealing that I disapproved of.C.S. Lewis, “We Have No Right to Happiness”
Love, Loyalty, Liberty
My reason for focusing on marriage and family in this way is because the family is a bulwark of liberty. The family is one of the most important of Burke’s “little platoons,” and it enables us to resist the encroachments of the swollen and self-aggrandizing state without becoming selfish and self-aggrandizing ourselves. It is what makes a true fusion possible between self-interest and altruism.
As Christians we confess that God is love. This is possible because the Godhead contains the Lover, the Beloved, and the Spirit of Love between them in the three persons of the Trinity. But if God were a monad, a unitarian god, we could no longer confess that God is love.
In a similar way, the family is love. A man and a woman become one flesh, while at the same time remaining themselves. They are not just roommates with sexual privileges, but are rather called to be a living representation of Christ and the church. They are one flesh, and have become an entity in the world that the state is obligated to deal with as a real entity. Now of course the fact that the world is a fallen place, and the fact that the husband and wife are both recovering sinners complicates the picture. But complicating the picture is not the same thing as erasing the picture.
To make the individual the ultimate bastion against the encroachments of the state is to cede the game to the state. It makes society into a giant atomistic bag of greased BBs. But if we recognize that civil society is made up of three governments, arranged in God’s system of checks and balances, that society will grow to have a true molecular strength—there is the government of the family, and we have millions of families. There is the government of the church, and we have hundreds of thousands of churches.
And last, bringing up the rear, we have the government of civil society. Because we were inspired by what God did in His system of separating the powers, we imitated Him in the way we structured our civil affairs. We adopted a federal system, with some powers retained by t he states or the people, and a handful delegated to the central government. We then divided the central government into three branches, with each one charged to be jealous of the other two. For good measure, we split one of those branches into two again,
At least, that was the way we used to think before our rampant individualism laid waste to the only environment within which individuals can thrive.
Liberty can only flourish in an ordered society, and ordered societies cannot exist without recognizing God’s order in the family and in the church. These institutions were established by God Himself, and do not arise as the result of fallen humans making sinful contracts.
There will likely be future installments.