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- Ben studied law in London before doing Relay with UCCF. He now works for St Helen's Bishopsgate. View all resources by Ben Ramanauskas
UCCF and bethinking.org offer this paper to assist those interested in politics to think through some of these important issues. However, we do not endorse any particular political perspective. The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author. Further articles on political issues can be found on bethinking.org in Paul Bickley's paper State Expectations, and in Philip Vander Elst's article Power Against People.
This essay has been produced in order to help Christians who are studying or who are interested in politics. It is hoped that by reading this essay they will have a better understanding of what Libertarianism is and how it relates to Christianity. As a result of this better understanding, Christians should feel better equipped to engage with Libertarians from a Christian perspective.
It is essential that Christians grasp the fundamentals of Libertarianism, perhaps now more than ever. Our television and computer screens remind us hourly of the fact that we live in a fallen world. Violent crime, terrorism and war have become the norm. We are seeing the erosion of the traditional family, increased greed and corruption, civil unrest and fear for the economic stability of the world.
Partly as a response to this, the previous Government introduced measures that have dramatically increased the power of the State. This increase in the regulatory power of the State, coupled with the rise of the internet, has greatly enhanced the Government’s ability to interfere with our lives.
The increased power of the State and the departure of society from traditional views on morality have made it increasingly difficult to publicly proclaim and defend Christianity without running the risk of being branded a bigot and possibly receiving a visit from the local constabulary. This raises huge questions about the value, function and purpose of liberty.
Within this quagmire of cultural decay and intellectual confusion an old ideology is re-emerging. Libertarianism is experiencing something of a renaissance in both the UK and the USA, therefore it is imperative that Christians familiarise themselves with this philosophy.
Libertarianism: what is it about?
The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy defines libertarianism as the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things.
Although developed by a diverse range of people, many of whom have different views on many different topics, it is possible to set out the core beliefs of Libertarians. A close analysis of the writings of Rand, Rothbard, Nozick and Hayek reveals that Libertarianism is based upon 10 key propositions:
(i) The individual is an end in himself and possesses ‘natural rights’ originating from the requirements of his nature as an active and rational being;
(ii) The individual mind is the source of all creativity and the fountainhead of all human progress;
(iii) Liberty is the essential condition of all human progress and achievement;
(iv) The right to personal liberty is absolute so long as its exercise does not infringe the equal rights of others;
(v) Private property rights are sacrosanct as the individual has an unlimited right to the fruit of his labour;
(vi) Free market capitalism is the only economic system compatible with Libertarianism;
(vii) The role of the State should be strictly limited to the protection of life, liberty and property, and to the enforcement of contracts;
(viii) Taxation for any other purpose than for the protection of life, liberty and property is tantamount to theft;
(ix) In the areas of sex, marriage, and the family, there are no moral or cultural absolutes;
(x) Since individuals have an absolute right to do what they like with their lives, bodies and property as long as they respect the rights of others, there is no justification for prohibiting drugs, pornography, sadomasochism etc.
There is also a tendency amongst the majority of Libertarians towards atheism and anti-theism. Libertarian literature is riddled with the view that belief in a god to whom they owe their very existence and are accountable to for the use they make of their lives is extremely unpalatable. They also view reverence to God as an attack to their own personal pride and liberty.
Key thinkers and advocates
It could be argued that the provenance of Libertarianism can be traced to particular thinkers of the last few centuries. However, it is submitted that the growth of Libertarianism was down to two key thinkers: Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.
Rand managed to spread her worldview to millions of people through her emotionally powerful philosophical novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s books are a celebration of individuality, creativity, integrity and achievement. However, she glorifies individual freedom to such an extent that she equates helping others with slavery. Her novels also exalt materialism, selfishness and personal pride as virtues. It should also be noted that in Atlas Shrugged Rand unleashed a savage and vitriolic attack on religion. It is clear from Rand's writings that she viewed religion as a form of psychological self-abasement which promotes and celebrates irrationality, obscurantism and tyranny.
Rothbard’s works were more scholarly yet still had huge popular appeal. In For a New Liberty he not only outlines detailed arguments for dismantling the State, he also sets out the moral principle upon which the whole of Libertarianism is based:
“The Libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else… If no man may aggress against another … this at once implies that the libertarian stands foursquare for what are generally known as civil liberties: the freedom to speak, publish, assemble, and to engage in … pornography, sexual deviation and prostitution… since the libertarian also opposes invasion of the rights of private property, this also means that he just as emphatically opposes government interference with property rights or with the free-market economy through controls, regulations, subsidies, or prohibitions.”
Libertarianism: the good bits
So then, what are the good things of Libertarianism? What should Christians encourage and support about this ideology? It is these questions that this article will now attempt to answer.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous assertion that people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has become somewhat of a Libertarian mantra and has been quoted with approval in some form by virtually every Libertarian thinker. Interestingly, it would appear that this finds support from the Bible. As Christians we know that human beings have been given the gift of free will and that all humans are made in the image of God. The Bible also teaches us that God loves human beings so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us so that we could enter into a relationship with Him. In fact, the incarnation shows us that God Himself, in the person of His Son, became a human being. Therefore, we can see that there is great dignity in being human and as a result, every human being should be treated with respect. It is therefore submitted that Libertarians are correct to say that all totalitarian systems are immoral and evil because individuals do not belong to the State. We are not to regard people as the property of the State or other people but instead view them, and ourselves, as objects of God’s love who possess reason, conscience and free will. As Christians we should support the Libertarian high view of the value of human life and we should reject the opposite, misanthropic view of ideologies such as Communism.
Libertarians often insist that personal liberty is a pre-requisite for moral growth; it is submitted that they are correct in this belief. Surely if we are not free to choose between right and wrong or good and evil then we cannot be held responsible for our actions? Furthermore, if we are not free to choose then we cannot learn from our mistakes and grow into better people. We see this within Christianity; God has given us free will with the ability to choose our actions and He holds us responsible for them. He does not force us to obey or worship Him. Instead, He invites us into a relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ, a relationship we are at liberty to either accept or reject.
With Libertarianism, as with Christianity, we can see the value placed on people being able to make their own decisions. To prevent people from making their own decisions is to deny their humanity and is a perversion of God’s plan for human beings. Furthermore, both Libertarianism and Christianity state the importance of freely entering into relationships. This is one area where Christianity shares common ground with Libertarianism: people can, if they wish, enter into a relationship with other people and revel both in the relationship and their own individuality.
An issue that should concern and alarm both Christians and Libertarians is political correctness. We live in a society where it is becoming increasingly difficult to express an opinion on homosexuality, other religions, abortion, etc., if that view is not shared by the State. Christians and Libertarians should be concerned about the curtailment of the right to believe something, even if that view is not shared by the majority of society or the State. Furthermore, freedom of conscience is an essential requirement for the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Unless we are free to compare and discuss ideas, and to pursue different avenues of inquiry, we cannot grow in our understanding of life, society and the world in which we live.
Therefore, it is clear that the Libertarian arguments in favour of the right to liberty and freedom of conscience find compelling support from the Bible. However, should Christians be as supportive when it comes to economic freedom and the right to private property?
It is submitted that Christians should support, at least to some degree, the right to private property and economic freedom. First of all, we see in Proverbs, encouragements to work hard in order to provide for yourself and your family. Therefore, it could be argued that individuals have a qualified right to the fruit of their labour. Secondly, a strong argument can be made for the view that private property rights and the right to free choice of occupation and employment provide the only conducive environment for productive achievement and prosperity.
History teaches us the result of abolishing these rights, as Trotsky remarked: “In a society in which the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation.”
As Christians we should be concerned for the rights, welfare, and prosperity for individuals within society. Therefore, it is submitted that we should promote economic freedom and private property rights, at least to some extent.
It is surely the case that liberty does not just allow us to grow as human beings and pursue happy and fulfilling lives, but it also protects us from evil by limiting the extent to which humans can harm one another. As Christians, we know that we live in a fallen world and that human nature is inherently flawed and imperfect. We are also aware that power has the tendency to corrupt those in office. It is therefore essential that as Christians we should support a political system that not only protects individuals from being harmed by other individuals or organisations, but also one that provides protection from those in power. If we allow the State to gain too much power we will find ourselves in a world of bloody ruins, gulags and concentration camps. As Christians we should pray and work against this happening.
In conclusion it is clear that there are many things that are positive in Libertarianism. As Christians we should join with Libertarians in celebrating human creativity, individuality and our God given rights to freedom and liberty. Libertarians are right to be wary of the State as it can impose its will onto individuals with the result of slavery, misery, starvation and death.
Libertarianism: the bad bits
We saw in the previous section that there are some compelling arguments in favour of Libertarianism and that history teaches us that those who support the ideology have good reasons to view the State with suspicion. However, like all ideologies, Libertarianism is not without its problems.
The first major failing of Libertarianism is its assertion that taxation is tantamount to theft and forced labour, as it violates the property rights of individuals. Libertarians would therefore argue that it is immoral for governments to tax individuals in order to provide a Welfare State. It is submitted that this view is flawed for a number of reasons. First of all, forced labour involves the degradation of its victims and deprives them of their rights and status as human beings. Therefore, to equate taxation with forced labour is a false analogy.
Secondly, as Christians we are well aware of our duty to help others. We see in the Gospels that Jesus has a real concern for the poor and sick and He went out of His way to help and to heal them. Therefore, as followers of Jesus we should view healthcare as a positive thing and should want as many people as possible to have access to it. As Christians we ought to relieve undeserved suffering and increase the opportunities of the poor to live a fuller and happier life. Libertarianism should also view this as a positive, as it gives a greater number of people access to liberty. Furthermore, if people have their needs met by the State then they are less likely to infringe the rights of others by violence in order to provide for themselves.
This points us to the second great failing of Libertarianism in that it regards anything as immoral that in any way interferes with an individual’s freedom of choice or the operation of the free market. Libertarians have made personal choice and freedom ends in themselves and this is all part of their idolatrous view of man. Libertarians have exalted man to the position of God.
According to Libertarianism, individuals can do anything they want because their own freedom and happiness is the most important thing. With Libertarianism we are encouraged to worship individual freedom and creativity. Libertarianism is nothing more than the worship of self, of ego. However, as Christians we know that this is wrong. The Bible teaches us that we are not God but that we have been created by God and we will one day have to give an account to Him. Furthermore, Jesus commands us to serve and love one another and to put the needs of others before our own. In fact, the one man who deserved to be worshipped came to Earth to serve others and to lay down his own life in order to save the lives of others. Christianity is the complete antithesis of Libertarianism in this regard.
The third main failing of Libertarianism is its misguided belief that restrictions on sexuality, the sale of drugs or the production of pornography weakens liberty. It is submitted that not only is this a deeply unchristian view but that it is also illogical. For example, John Stuart Mill argued that freedom and liberty were not to be viewed as absolute rights but that there had to be proper restrictions. He would, no doubt, be appalled at our licentious society and would argue that the increased exposure to a culture of brutality and sexual depravity actually threatens individual freedom and liberty.
For example, a society where individuals live simply to gratify their own desires and where they are taught that all lifestyle choices are equally acceptable will almost certainly produce a collective mind-set which dislikes hierarchy and authority. This will lead to a social vacuum of growing confusion, division and lawlessness which is filled by an increasingly intrusive and authoritarian State.
A fourth negative aspect of Libertarianism is its contention that countries should function in response to market forces. Although free markets and capitalism are a positive contribution to the world, it could be argued that as Christians it can have negative contributions. For example, we are used to seeing ourselves as consumers and are always on the search for things which will give us better value for money or give us greater satisfaction etc. While these things are not bad in themselves, they can be very damaging for the spiritual well-being of Christians. For example, Paul instructs us to be content in all circumstances, whether we have plenty or nothing at all (Philippians 4:11-12) and not to derive our happiness or sense of self-worth from material things but in the fact that we have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, there could be a tendency to become a consumer Christian when it comes to church. The New Testament paints a picture of what the local church should look like: one where the members serve one another in a self-sacrificial way, putting the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ above their own wants and desires. This goes against Libertarianism which says that you should always act in your own self interest even at the expense of others. Therefore, if we start to take a Libertarian, free market view of the local church, we will start going to church so that we get built up and not so that we can build others up. If we do not like the church we attend because we feel we are not getting the best value for money, or we do not agree with the teaching or because the Pastor has dared to infringe on our personal liberty by telling us that our conduct is not Christian, we will simply move to another church.
In addition, if we put too great an emphasis on Libertarian, free market considerations for how we make decisions, it could have a devastating impact on Christian values and morality. For example, Christianity teaches that marriage should be between one man and one woman for life and, as a result, the Christians in California supported a ban on same-sex marriage. As a result, the pro-gay lobby tried a different tack by stating that moral arguments were irrelevant when considered in the light of economic arguments. The argument was that if same-sex marriage was lawful in California, it would attract more homosexual couples to the State who would then spend their money and boost the economy (there is a whole episode of The Simpsons devoted to this). This kind of argument has been very successful in the United States and other parts of the world for gay pressure groups, giving Christians pause for thought on whether countries should make decisions based on economic factors.
However, this argument can have even deeper consequences for the most vulnerable in society – the people Christians should be trying to protect. For example, we know that ‘unwanted’ babies born to teenage mothers in Britain cost the State millions of pounds each year. Therefore, an obvious economic solution is to have the children aborted before they are born. Hence even if abortion is seen as abhorrent in moral terms, in a recession it makes good economic sense. In fact, the hugely popular book Freakonomics has provided evidence which suggests that, as a result of abortions in the United States, crime and anti-social behaviour have decreased. Or how about the elderly? As Christians we know that we should look after people who are old and infirm. However, it cannot be denied that taking care of people in their old age costs their families and the State a lot of money. These people no longer contribute to society and cost us millions of pounds each year. They are a burden. Would not bringing in euthanasia make economic sense and reduce this burden? In a society which values making money and being self-sufficient, the elderly are no longer treated with the respect they deserve but as a burden.
This essay is not arguing against free markets and capitalism. However, they go hand in hand with Libertarianism, an ideology which many Christians support. Looking to the markets to inform our decision-making can have chilling consequences. If we replace the Bible with the financial markets as our ultimate authority in life, we will soon begin to see same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia as viable options to save us.
The fifth aspect of Libertarianism which makes it incompatible with Christianity is a distrust of collectives. As mentioned above, Libertarians are rightly wary of political systems that attempt to infringe on individual personal identity and free will. This has led many Libertarians to argue against all forms of collectives by regarding them as misanthropic because some humans have the skill and ability to perform multiple tasks and therefore should not be limited to performing one or two. Furthermore, Libertarians believe that their sole purpose in life is to serve their own ambitions and so being part of a collective where they have to work towards a common goal and for the welfare of the group would be completely illogical and tantamount to a violation of their human rights.
The images which come to mind when one contemplates collectives are deeply disturbing. For example, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia forced people to live in collectives where each person was forced to do a certain task, work from dawn until dusk, marry against their will, not get paid and survive on starvation rations. An excellent Christian book entitled Killing Fields, Living Fields, describes the horrors of life in Cambodia under the Khemer Rouge. Furthermore, Ayn Rand paints a vivid and disturbing picture of collectivism in her book, Anthem.
However, the New Testament describes the Church in terms which appear strikingly similar to that of a collective. Of course there is no forced labour or marriage, but the local church does appear rather collectivist. For example, there is great emphasis on members sharing everything they have with each other so that nobody has to go without food or shelter. Also, the New Testament writers are keen to stress that Christians should put the needs of other Christians above their own and to work for the well-being of others and the church as a whole. Furthermore, Paul is emphatic that we all have different roles and gifts to contribute towards the building up of the church. In the local church we do not all do the same thing, nor has God gifted us to do the same job as another Christian and we do not use these gifts for ourselves but for the welfare of other Christians.
A sixth aspect of Libertarianism which is contrary to Christianity and is linked to the previous point concerns its teaching that we are to live for ourselves only. To live for someone else is, in the words of Ayn Rand, "cannibalism". Therefore, we should be self-centred and live for ourselves. We should not live or die for anyone else nor should we ask others to live or die for us. To live or die for someone else or to ask someone to live or die for us would be anathema to Libertarians.
However, Christianity is the complete antithesis of this view. For example, the Bible repeatedly teaches us that our lives are not our own as we belong to Jesus. Our very purpose in life as Christians is to live for Jesus by submitting to His Lordship over our lives and telling other people about Him, whatever the cost to ourselves. In fact, the Bible is clear that being a Christian means that we should not only live for Jesus, but also be prepared to die for Him. Furthermore, Jesus Himself died for us. Therefore, if Libertarianism is correct, then Jesus’ actions were foolish, cannibalistic and masochistic. As a result, as Christians, we can clearly see that Libertarianism is in error in this regard.
Libertarianism is a fascinating ideology developed and supported by a diverse range of people, many of whom are highly intelligent and well thought out in their views. There are many good things about the ideology such as the high value placed on human life and the respect for personal freedom and liberty.
However, as Christians we are called to live our lives in accordance with God’s will as revealed in the Bible and so should reject anything that goes against the teaching of Scripture. Therefore, insofar as the beliefs held by Libertarians, or their implications, are un-Biblical, Christians should reject those beliefs.
If we view the Bible as our ultimate authority and allow it to change our worldview under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we can see Libertarianism’s failings. There are many fine things in Libertarianism and so the ideology should not be completely discarded by Christians. However, in the light of the word of God, we should view Libertarianism as a severely weakened ideology and not as an infallible way of viewing the world.
 Peter Vallentyne ‘Libertarianism’. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/ (Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University. Retrieved November 20, 2011).
 Ayn Rand The Fountainhead (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007) and Atlas Shrugged (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).
 Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness (London: Penguin, 1992).
 Murray Rothbard For a New Liberty: the Libertarian Manifesto (Oxford: OUP, 3rd Edition, 1985).
 Peter Vallentyne, op. cit.
 Leon Trostsky The Revolution Betrayed (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2004).
 R. Nozick Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975).
 Peter Vallentyne, op. cit.
 R. Nozick Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975).
 John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism, On liberty and Considerations of Representative Government (London: Dent, 1972).
 G. Mulgan Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government (London: Allen Lane, 2006).
 The Simpsons, ‘There’s Something About Marrying’, Episode 10, Series 16.
 Max Pemberton 'Teenage pregnancy: a national talking point' www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthadvice/maxpemberton/5794780/Teenage-pregnancy-a-national-talking-point.html.
 S. Levitt and S. Dubner Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (London: Penguin, 2007).
 F. Hayek ‘Freedom and Coercion’ in D. Miller (ed.) Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
 D. Cormack Killing Fields, Living Fields: An Unfinished Portrait of the Cambodian Church (OMF: Kent, 2009).
 Ayn Rand Anthem (London: Penguin, 2011).
 Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness (London: Penguin, 1992).
© 2012 Ben Ramanauskas