Let me first say that the title of this blog entry is obviously false in any literal sense. A Christian can be a libertarian. A Christian can also be a fascist, a communist, a drug dealer, a liar, a democrat, a republican, a shoddy tradesman, an idiot, and any number of things. That’s not really the point here. When I use the word “cannot” in the title, I mean it in the sense in which you might use it when you say “Oh come on, you cannot be serious!” Of course, they might be serious, but what you really mean is “I hope you’re not serious!” or “you should not be serious!” Likewise, a Christian is capable of being a libertarian, but she should not be a libertarian. Libertarianism and Christianity are incompatible. A libertarian, by becoming a Christian, compromises and gives up part of her libertarianism. A Christian, by becoming a libertarian, compromises and gives up part of her Christianity.
I’m a Christian, and for the record, the political view that I’ve settled on can best be described as “classical liberalism.” I won’t try to go into too much detail, but in skeleton form, classical liberalism is a political outlook with moral roots. It’s the view of Locke, Milton, Pufendorf, Hooker, Montesquieu, Sidney and others (Google them). It’s a view that holds that the government’s power over private affairs ought to be very basic, limited to upholding those rights and duties laid upon us by the law of nature and nothing more. Although historically called a form of “liberalism,” the gradual change of language is such that it represents the opposite of what today is called “liberalism” in North America (i.e. large government, big spending, state involvement in many aspects of human life). It has more in common with political conservatism with its emphasis on smaller government and greater personal freedom within very wide limits.
As one who holds to a view that so many people associate with libertarianism (so much so that some even mistake it for libertarianism), why do I maintain that my view is compatible with Christianity, but libertarianism is not? Libertarianism goes wrong at first principles.
Each individual is the owner of his own life and has the right to live it as he sees fit, as long as he respects that same right in others.
SOURCE: Libertarianz (the New Zealand libertarian party)
The view that a person’s life is her property to dispose of as with as she wishes clearly allows for all of the freedoms that a classical liberal view allows, but it has a fundamentally different basis, and it allows for much more. For example, it permits men to legally hack each other to death in an arena provided the both consent to taking part. After all, a man’s life is his personal property with which he can do as he pleases. If he has the right to life, he can choose to give up that right if he desires. Similarly, a woman can, if she wishes, allow her friends to slaughter her like a pig and serve her up for a memorial dinner in her honour. Likewise, if a person is unhappy, sick, or in pain, he can give others permission to kill him. Interestingly, the libertarian position does not go so far as to allow for abortion (if only libertarians in general could figure this out), since the major arguments against abortion rights are not arguments against self ownership.
Can a Christian, honestly and without any doublespeak, consistently say that she accepts this first principle of libertarianism? I think the answer must be no. This is easily the most plausible reading of what the Bible teaches on the subject.
Ezekiel 18:4 – “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”
In this context, God is telling people that people who do evil will suffer for the consequences of so doing. But notice a principle that is appealed to here: All souls belong to God. The Hebrew word nephesh refers, not to some ghost or spirit, but to either a living being (in this context a human being), or the life of that being. God, we are being told, owns our life. A similar idea crops up every now and then in the Bible. God gave us life, and when we die he takes it back (Ecclesiastes 12:7), we are kept alive by God (Psalm 104:29). When God prohibits homicide, it is not because we are robbing a person of their life (although we obviously are taking away all their future experiences of life), but because human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 9:6). The basic dignity that human life has is not something that exists just because we really like being alive (let’s face it, there are times when some people don’t really like the life they are living at all). That sanctity – and a Christian has no problem putting it that way – is tied up with a unique relationship in which the human race stands toward God. Our life is God’s.
It’s true that as far as the Bible is concerned, everything in creation is God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” the psalmist famously wrote. God therefore owns our money, houses, cars and our furniture. There is a basic distinction here however. While there are some things in creation that God allows us to have possession and the right of disposal over even though God owns them, human life is never regarded as one of those things, and human life is something over which God alone exercises discretion. The right to intervene and take life requires some sort of important exception – exceptions which most readers of the Bible acknowledge do exist (e.g. defending oneself against an attacker, engaging in warfare, executing a murderer).
As far as a Christian is concerned, it’s false, therefore, that human beings are the owners of their own lives, free to dispose of those lives in any way they see fit. No human being owns anyobody’s life in this way, even his own. Now, obviously there are plenty of things that we’re capable of doing that might have the result of getting us killed, but this is not the same thing as presuming the right to end our own lives or the life of another (who consents). Rock climbing, motorcycle racing, even just crossing the street – any of these things might end our life if something goes wrong. We can all see, however, that they aren’t forms of suicide. Intentions play a basic role in determining whether or not a given activity is an affront to the value of human life, and while there is a kind of doctrine of double effect at work here (i.e. in addition to the intended effects of these actions, we realise that a possible, albeit not too likely and not intended, effect of these actions is that we will die), people generally don’t do these things so that one of the effects will be death, or even injury.
This view of basic dignities and the inability to voluntarily part with them is part of the historic classical liberal outlook, which has basic moral and even metaphysical foundations (see Locke’s Essays on the Laws of Nature for a decent introduction to this).
John Locke is about as good a representative of the classical liberal viewpoint as one might hope to read. He says:
Though the legislative, whether placed in one or more, whether it be always in being or only by intervals, though it be the supreme power in every commonwealth, yet, first, it is not, nor can possibly be, absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people. For it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to that person or assembly which is legislator, it can be no more than those persons had in a state of Nature before they entered into society, and gave it up to the community. For nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another.
Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Bk. 2, Ch. 11, par. 35.
Obviously by “power,” Locke does not mean “ability” (since we are obviously able to take our own life), and he means the power to do so lawfully, that is, in accordance with what he routinely calls the law of nature, something that he elsewhere calls the decree of God. His argument is that we cannot give the state permission to be tyrannical and arbitrary over our life and possessions, because that power is not ours to give, since we do not own the absolute right over own own lives to dispose of it as we see fit.
Yay Locke. Boo libertarianism.
- A brief comment on sin and political power
- Libertarianism vs traditional morality? No!
- John Locke on Voluntary Dictatorship
- The Liberal Theocracy?
- My Review of a Review of a Review of Waldron on Locke