Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Ivory Cubicle | Why I'm Not a Libertarian (Part 1)

To borrow a quote I found hovering around Jeremiah Lorrig's blog....

"I consider Libertarians to be like Celtic barbarians deployed by British kings in the Middle Ages against the Scots or the French. They are extremely useful for fighting your enemies, but you would never want one to actually sit on the throne." -Jonah Goldberg

Translation: Ron Paulians are good for making a lot of noise and going all hack-and-slash at Obama's politics, but when it comes down to it, nobody really wants Ron Paul to win.

Personally, I believe it is best to be standing on a solid foundation of truth, goodness and beauty when attacking a deviant philosophy like liberalism, and I'd rather have a team of well-educated, passionate conservatives than a posse of hot-blooded libertarians blogging that "Ron Paul is the only candidate that offers us a real choice!" So here's the first of a handful of blog posts on "why I'm not a libertarian" (the precise number will be determined as soon as I figure out exactly how many objections I have to libertarianism).

Objection 1: Whose right is it anyways?

Attempting to define libertarianism is a sticky subject,since any 14-19 year old kid with a Ron Paul sign reserves the right to define and expound upon "libertarianism" at their discretion. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, realizing the problem, presents a strict definition ("the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things") and a loose definition ("any view that approximates the strict view"). Personally, I like defining libertarianism as "any political activist who swears absolute loyalty to Locke and Bastiat," but a more sympathetic definition comes from libertarian philosopher Roderick Long, who calls it "any political position that advocates a radical redistribution of power from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals," typically through a free market (one notes the similarity to anarchism and angsty '70s punk bands).

Formal definitions aside, the biggest rhetorical slogan we’ve seen tossed around is that "libertarians like limited government." Why? Because people are generally decent chaps, and besides, they have natural rights such as "life, liberty and property" that cannot be violated by rational, thinking, enlightened citizens. The government is a necessary evil whose sole function is keep in line those people who overstep their bounds and prove themselves "irrational" by violating someone else's rights.

Now there's plenty of rabbit trails to chase here. For example, are people generally decent chaps? Where do rights come from? Are citizens typically rational, thinking and enlightened? Is government a necessary evil or a positive good? Can government serve a legitimate function other than policing the bad guys? But Joel put a word cap on my blog posts (and I'm looking at going over it anyways), so I'm just going to pick the second one (for now).

Drawing heavily from John Locke, libertarians start their philosophy of property with the notion that you have a right to your body. From this ownership of your body, you may "mix your labor" with goods from the commons, thereby acquiring private property. Consequently, you are entitled by nature to life and liberty, since none can destroy or enslave the body that you own, and property, since none can deprive you of property that you have legitimately acquired by "mixing your labor" with it.

But the foundation for this theory of natural rights, the ownership of your body, hits a small snag with the Apostle Paul's notion that "you are not your own, for you were bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:20). If your body is owned by someone else, then wouldn't you be bound in service to that person? In fact, if one acknowledges the lordship of Christ in all areas of life, "my rights" suddenly begin to be viewed as subordinate to duties rendered to Christ and to those around you. In that case, any supposed right to do whatever you want with your own body, is subordinate to your duty to do what God commands you to do with your body, and any exercise of rights comes from God, not nature.

Let's come to the same point from a different perspective. The existence of a right entails the existence of a duty. If you have a "right to life," then others have a duty to protect your life, or at least to avoid taking it from you. And as we found in last week’s blog post, it is a more fundamental part of human nature to serve (execute duties) than to be served (demand our rights). So a right cannot be viewed apart from a more fundamental, correlating duty.

All of this ultimately builds to a shift in thinking from rights to duties, and by doing so changes the emphasis from self to others. If I have a duty, I'm focused on the person to whom I owe my duty – others. But if I have a right, I'm concerned with the person who has the right – myself. As you might expect from a "rights-heavy" philosophy, libertarian rhetoric is laden with the mentality of "hands off my stuff," "I have a right to start my own business" or, in reaction to Obama's latest gaffe, "yes I did build that, thank you very much, and it's mine." When rights are treated as an entitlement from nature, this philosophy leeches off into other areas of life, causing ourselves to become increasingly self-focused, arrogant and selfish.

Conservatism approaches the question from a different perspective. The traditional conservative claims that man enters the world in a particular context, that he is molded by his family, friends, community and nation. He is saddled at birth with an irreparable debt to his society for making him who he is. He has duties to family, duties to neighbors, duties to community, and duties to country which he can never fulfill. But he finds joy in finding his place in this community and beginning a lifelong process of discharging as much of this debt as he can, something unthinkable in a libertarian paradigm.

Questions? Comments? Objections? Feel free to comment below.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. Thanks for the post, Nick. I think I like it so far. Towards the end you started hashing on duties quite a bit (which for the most part, I agree with). However, I think that what drives us to community and service for our community (to include all levels of that) is attached to the essence of what it is to be human. We are made complete by living in community with other humans and all the obligations that entails. So I would like to add to your concluding paragraph that yes, gratitude is one of the most propelling forces and best ways to understand our purpose in society, but I think a metaphysical understanding of "this is what we were made for," should be included, not just "I am eternally grateful so I am going to try to pay it back."

  2. Nick, I had a lady call the office other day describing her right to an abortion. Her right was part of ownership over her body. She described it literally as property. I could not explain why at the time, but I found this self-description disturbing.

    Probably outside the scope of why you are not a libertarian but do you see any distinctions between Liberalism and Libertarians?

  3. Brodi, I'd completely agree with you. I think that's another blog post all to itself, though.

    Forrest, the two are very closely related, which is why libertarians often refer to themselves as "classical liberals." The big difference is that libertarians argue more for a right to be left alone, whereas liberals would argue for a positive right to certain services, say, healthcare, welfare, public education, etc. The result being that libertarians want small government and little government interference, while liberals want large government with a lot of government interference. If you want to read more on modern liberal thought, I'd suggest checking out John Rawls and the "original position." But yes, when it comes to standards of morality and personal freedom, both liberals and libertarians tend to be more of the "my body, my choice" philosophy.

  4. While Lockean libertarianism is based on the notion that we own our bodies. The rebuttal from Corinthians misses the mark. Libertarians really only argue from the corollary that the government does not own our bodies. Even within the Christian paradigm, one cannot reason from God's ownership of the body to Government's authority. This argument would be more complete if you looked exegetically at what authority God, who owns the body, delegates to the civil authority. I know you were short on space, though, so maybe treat that in a different post?

  5. Ben, I'm not arguing that since God owns our bodies, the government does, but rather that since God owns our bodies, we are obligated to serve our fellow man. I think that's where one clash with libertarian thinking comes in- pop libertarianism rarely holds itself as obligated to serve their fellow man. Furthermore, constructing any political philosophy based on rights is problematic, since Scripture places duties as the foundation of Christian interaction with others.

    1. Alright, so let's go with duties. It is your duty to respect other people's right to live. It is your duty to respect other people's rights to liberty. It is your duty to respect other people's rights to property.

      Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not murder. And kidnapping was punishable by death in the Old Testament.

      Done, its really that simple.

      Do we have a moral obligation to serve our fellow man? Sure. I don't have a problem with that. Does government, or anyone else, have a moral right to FORCE you to fulfill this moral obligation? Of course not. You can't find that anywhere in scripture. Its also against what all of our consciences believe if you really consider it. If you take away the uniform and badge, is it OK for YOU to force your neighbor to fulfill some duty to serve his fellow man? Of course not. Take a look at Deuteronomy 17:14-20. The King is bound by the same moral law that you are.

  6. Well, I respectfully disagree. It's not wise to alienate libertarians as they do have much of the same ground, we need to unite to achieve our common goals and worry about the rest later. Same goes for those people who aren't voting for Romney because Paul lost. We can't blame them and do the same... If a libertarian runs for office and is better then the others, we should be all means support him. Also, it's not wise for us to say bad things about libertarians for risk of offending them and dividing our party. United we stand, divided we fall.

  7. We should compromise our principles so Ron Paul and his ilk will like us? Or vice versa? Paul and Romney have a larger gap separating them then Romney and Obama do. A true libertarian would never honestly support the vast majority of Romney's views, just as a true Romney supporter could never truly support Ron Paul. As Nick said, our duty is to serve others, not to blindly serve a political party, as you seem to suggest.

    1. I support both :) We have so much in common, especially against Obama.

  8. I have always thought that libertarians believe that they have the right to take care of themselves, but liberals think that they have the right to be taken care of by others. That is the basic difference that I see, and the reason that I believe libertarianism makes sense.

  9. I thought this was one of the worst rebuttals I have ever seen. It may come from a failure for libertarians to explain their principles in the exact right language, but I think its fairly obvious what "self-ownership" means.

    Self-ownership is a legal principle, and it deals with how human beings relate to other human beings. I own me in the sense that you don't own me, nor does anyone else. Nobody has a right to use force against me to make me live the way they want to. The only way anyone has a right to use violent force against me is to prevent or punish my use of violent force against someone else. Replace "me" with any other person and the same principle would hold true from their perspective.

    This in no way says that God does not own us as Christians.

    The problem is that God is not running the US government. Mind you, he's in control of the actions it takes, much like he's in control of everything else that happens, but God is not the President of the United States.

    Your "well-meaning conservative candidates" (I don't buy it for a second) such as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are not God. These people have no rightful claim on the ownership of any American (except for themselves.) These people have no right to send violent police officers to someone's house on a no-knock raid in order to arrest someone (and kill them if they resist) for using drugs. Does that mean its right to use drugs? Of course not. Should the person's family, friends, church, and community discourage it? Absolutely. Could excommunication from the church be justified for someone who does not repent of drug use? Sure. But its not in any way the business of a distant politician in Washington DC, or even the governor of the particular state in which they live. It just isn't, They own themselves, the politician does not own them. Does God ultimately own them all? Of course.

    Replace "drugs" with any other peaceful activity which you dislike, and the same argument stands.

    1 Corinthians 5 makes it clear that sinners of the world are not our concern as Christians. If they are of the world, we are to use our voices and the Bible to show them that they have sinned against an infinitely Holy God, and that they are commanded to repent and believe in Jesus Christ for their salvation. If they never do so, they'll spend eternity in Hell. Apparently that isn't enough for these "Christian" politicians. They believe that just because God ultimately owns all mankind that apparently politicians do to. This is simply absurd. And its probably the worst argument against libertarianism that I have ever seen. And I've seen a lot of bad arguments.

    The Bible commands against theft and murder. That makes the institution of the State illegitimate, since all States "tax" their subjects, in other words, they steal their money without permission. Do I owe a lifelong debt to my family, friends, church, and community? Sure. Does it follow that I owe any kin of debt to the thieving, murderous, parasitical organization known as "the State"? Of course not.