Why I Am Not a Libertarian
The United States government spends more money than any organization on the planet. Like many, I find myself opposing the growth of this behemoth with its bloated debt and intrusive regulations into many areas of life. As Phillip Howard said in his book The Death of Common Sense, we have sacrificed individual human responsibility for a regulatory state with the hopes of greater security and institutional fairness. Many will agree that the U.S. government is too large and too intrusive, that it spends too much, and conserves too little. Those ideologues that tend to focus on the over-regulated and indulgent state are sometimes referred to as libertarians. Libertarianism finds its roots in the Enlightenment and emphasizes a smaller state that should be limited in its intrusion into the economy and civil liberties.
What is Libertarianism?
Libertarianism is an ideology that teaches that people are basically rational and that government is contractual. Because people are rational, they do not need an intrusive, regulatory state to dictate their economic, political, and other social choices. Modern libertarians tend to look back to the founders of classical liberalism for guidance, men such as John Locke and Thomas Paine. More recent guiding lights libertarian thinkers have been the novelist Ayn Rand and some of the twentieth-century economists from the Austrian School of Economics such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Hayek’s skinning of socialism in his The Road to Serfdom is unsurpassed. A number of famous people are libertarians, including the late philosophers Robert Nozick and John Hospers, entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, and the Koch Brothers; politicians Ron and Rand Paul, and actors Drew Carey, Gary Oldman, and Clint Eastwood.
Libertarianism is a reasonable and understandable reaction to the leviathan that we call the American government. And while I share the libertarian’s opposition to the statists that want to load onto our government even more spending and even more regulation—in effect, grow the government beyond its already grotesque size and habits—I cannot embrace libertarianism in its evaluation of the role of human reason, or its view of liberty and law. For these reasons, and others, I am not a libertarian. This essay is dedicated to explaining why.
Libertarians differ as to their views, but some common themes among them are:
- Individualism—Society is a collection of individuals. Social institutions such as families, churches, or schools should be considered mere aggregates of individuals.
- Natural Rights—Each individual is endowed with a set of rights derived from a “state of nature.” Each individual’s set of rights include the rights to “life, liberty, and property.” The task of the government is to protect those rights previously practiced, but not secured, in nature.
- Minimal, Contractual Government—The state is a voluntary association of citizens that make contracts among themselves as a primary means of protection or other means of socialization. As the libertarian Robert Nozick liked to put it, the state can be reduced to citizens that contract with others that will provide for a collective protection agency to protect their rights. Those citizens pledge to obey the protection agency. What force the collection agency does use is to enforce those contracts. These contracts allow the individual to pursue his self-interest, free of any social interference, save those conditions that are a part of the contract. Freedom is the right of the individual to pursue his self-interest and he may do so as long as he does not harm others in the process.
- Freedom—Freedom is the premier social value which is the right of the individual to do as he pleases so long as he does not hurt others in the process of exercising his freedoms.
Libertarians tend to oppose other isms such as socialism which puts too much emphasis on equality. For the libertarian, socialist regimes are robber-baron states that steal the wealth of its citizens, destroying incentive and rewarding theft. It goes without saying that libertarians would also oppose socialist-based dogmas like fascism. Libertarians also oppose conservatism which puts too much emphasis on tradition and experience. Libertarians are more likely to fall back on human reason as the primary condition and self interest (or perhaps enlightened self interest) as the primary motivation to guide us as we move through life. Both tradition and experience can be used to diminish, if not take from us our life, liberty, and property. Reason and self interest on the other hand should be employed because every individual can reason that it is in a person’s interest to protect his life, liberty, and property. We can then infer that if a person has the right to protect his life, liberty, and property, he then may employ others in a mutual contract where he and they can mutually protect their life, liberty, and property. This is the purpose of public law and the essence of the state: a mutually agreed-upon organization that exists to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property that are grounded in nature.
What's So Bad About That?
What follows are reasons for why I reject libertarianism as a Christian.
Human Nature—First, libertarians assume that the primary means to judge human behavior is rationality. This is a problem for the Christian as reason is not the final judge of human acts. Sure, reason can be used for good, but it can also be used for evil purposes. Because this is true, reason is an insufficient standard to judge human behavior. Rationality can’t do the heavy lifting if we are going to be concerned about the morality of our laws and actions.
Freedom—Second, libertarians assume that freedom is the premier political value to which all other political values are subordinate. If people are basically good, then they should be free from all constraints, except those constraints imposed by the state to protect all of us from the oppressive acts of others.
In this respect, the thinking of the libertarian is little different from the thinking of the socialist who assumes that equality is the premier political value, or the fascist who assumes the same about the exaltation of the nation-state. These ideologues merely quibble over which political value is primacy. The problem with these ideologies is that they take a political value (like liberty) and try to absolutize it to the exclusion of other values. Libertarians think they can manufacture liberty by reducing the size of government and telling people that “you can do whatever you want to do so long as you don’t hurt anyone else while doing it."
But freedom or equality or social order are not the contrivances of reason; they are the deliverances of our Creator, or more specifically, they are the fruit of living rightly. Sure, we can use human institutions to secure or magnify a value and we can discuss the proper environment in which certain results will flourish. But in the end, we don’t produce freedom. Freedom is the product of righteousness, or what we can call “moral excellence.” We cannot mass produce freedom by minimizing government and magnifying contracts any more than the socialist can mass produce equality by hyping leveling legislation and demonizing the wealthy.
Law—Third, libertarians assume that law is suspect. Of course, libertarians are happy that there are laws that collectively protect him and his property. But what of those laws that speak to man’s obligations to keep God’s laws? Most libertarians have little stomach for these. So, the libertarian accepts property rights, but shuns laws that protect marriage or fetal life. Since freedom is the premier value, libertarians view laws regulating drug use or prostitution as the dictates of tyrants and “big government.”
Less government, without God, will only move states closer to anarchy. Since God comes to us with laws such as do not kill, steal, commit adultery or blaspheme, those laws become our moral obligations. In them are the sources of true freedom. Law is not necessarily an infringement on liberty. Rather, true liberty emanates from divine law. So liberty, like many other social goods, is the fruit of righteousness. After all, it's righteousness that exhalts the nation (Proverbs 14:34) and we will find the “spirit of liberty” wherever the Lord is present (II Cor. 3:17). Righteous nations will have greater freedom, be accorded more rights, be more equitable, among other things.
Atheism—Fourth, libertarianism is a haunt for atheists and skeptics—This is an ad hominem argument, but I am going to use it anyway. Many of the bright lights of libertarianism are characteristically atheists or agnostics: Thomas Paine, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, Walter Block, Henry Hazlitt, and Ayn Rand. Yes, there are some "Christian libertarians" like the Pauls, but they tend to be the practitioners, and not the theorists that have laid the foundation for the ideology. Today libertarians, like those that hang out at the CATO Institute, promote legalized abortion, prostitution, and gay marriage. The Biblical denouncement on these men is that they are “fools” and I don’t know what is to be gained by having a gaggle of them commenting on law, economics, or much anything else.
Libertarians pave the road to tyranny by asserting that we can have freedom without moral obligation to God or others. Several have tried to find a moral haven in utilitarianism, a long-ago rejected moral framework. The more the libertine asserts a freedom apart from moral excellence, the more he tightens the natural chains that bind such men. Edmund Burke was supposed to have said that “Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
A national reformation of freedom and prosperity will not come as we lead revolutions to restore our natural rights; it will come as people are transformed by the life-changing power of the Gospel. Once converted men and women begin to love God’s law as the Psalmist did (“Oh how I love thy law; it is my meditation all the day”), and as their lives come into conformity to God’s standards of righteousness, they will be free. A prominent theme throughout the Bible is this: once a people submit to God’s law, the result is political freedom. They may be enslaved momentarily, but the shackles will easily slip from off them because “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The “Father of the American Revolution” Samuel Adams said that “While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal..." 
Whence the Revolution?
The American Revolution took place in the milieu of spiritual renewal. This is an important antecedent for why the American Revolution did not spin off into a bloodletting like that of the French Revolution. The American Revolution ended well, but only because it was preceded by a spiritual awakening of the American people. According to the British historian Paul Johnson, "the Great Awakening was thus the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history, preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible."  No less than John Adams, the cousin of Samuel Adams, recognized this. In an 1818 letter he spoke of his understanding of the American Revolution by saying “But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was affected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations...This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” 
As an American, my heart is knit with the libertarians in many respects. The American story is a story of freedom and those that have paid much in order to secure it. Our history has been one of promoting and protecting human freedom both for ourselves and for many worldwide. But no amount of personal sacrifice will secure what we do not possess. We are watching our freedoms of speech and even thought drain away as our nation embraces immorality as defined by the Bible. If we lack a minimal amount of national righteousness and morality, we won’t hold onto our liberties no matter how much we sacrifice, how often we appeal to rationality, or how loudly we clamor for our rights and freedoms.
 Samuel Adams, Letter to Joseph Warren, February 12, 1779. Wikiquote. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Samuel_Adams (accessed 1/13/19).
 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper-Collins, 1997), 116.
 John Adams, Letter to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818, National Archives: Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6854 (accessed 1/13/19).
© 2019 William R Bowen Jr