The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

A Christian cannot be a libertarian


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.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Derek

    The vast majority of libertarians do not adhere to a statement quite as extreme as the one espoused by “Libertarianz.” The US Libertarian party, for example, is primarily classical liberals who are disillusioned by the Republican party’s abandonment of the principle of limited(not absent, but limited) government.

    Also, it needs to be said that when we talk about rights, we are specifically talking about our rights in respect to *other humans*, including governments. No libertarian worth his salt would claim the same rights in reference to God. Even most of those who aren’t themselves theists would admit that if God does exist that their definition of rights would not hold in relation to Him.

    I’ve also seen it argued that abortion is inconsistent with libertarianism on the grounds that it violates the self-ownership principle at the center of libertarianism(again, only in relation to other people, not God). It further went on to argue that the same principle logically followed requires family responsibility and government non-intrusion(for the most part; not absolutely as libertarianism is not anarchy). I’ll see if I can find that article. It was a good read. Your reasons against abortion on the grounds of numerical identity and the argument from the future actually bolster the argument against abortion on grounds of self ownership.

  2. Derek, the arguments that I offer against abortion don’t use the idea of self-ownership, so I am unsure what you meant there.

    My understanding is that a libertarian talk of rights/liberties is made in reference to oneself. It’s basically about non-interference and negative rights, and as soon as one takes away or adds limits to one’s rights with repspect to how one treats oneself, it’s no longer libertarianism.

    I see no conflict between the views of libertarianz and simply libertarian thought a la Aynd Rand.

  3. I decline to read an author who says “she” when English language dictates that he say “he.”

  4. What can I say – I prefer women.

  5. Derek

    On the abortion issue, to argue on the grounds of self-ownership one must show that there is a self and/or ownership that can be violated. Your numerical identity argument is especially relevant here, as it strongly supports that a fetus is a “self,” which is kind of a prerequisite for self-ownership to even apply. Most libertarians I know also argue that self-ownership also extends to one’s property, and I think it could be argued that one’s future as presented in your argument from the future is a type of property. Ergo, libertarians could rightly reference both arguments to illustrate that abortion is contrary to the self-ownership principle.

    I suppose you could see libertarianism as “negative rights.” There are still definitely limits, at least as libertarianism in the US is practiced. Again, it’s not anarchy, and libertarians recognize the need for some governmental authority, primarily where such authority is used to keep people from violating the self-ownership of others.

    And I don’t doubt your assessment of the Libertarianz’ views as being consistent with Ayn Rand’s version of libertarianism. But their views seem to be a bit more extreme than those of most modern libertarians I know. Libertarianism in the US is pretty much interchangeable with classical liberalism, which I’ve also seen referenced as consistent conservatism.

    My guess is that in the US we just don’t use the term libertarianism in exactly the same sense that it was originally intended. So I’m kind of torn on this. I like for words to be used properly, but the use of the term that I said above is so ingrained at least in the American consciousness that I’m not sure it would be useful to try to “recover” the word at this point.

  6. Derek, as far as I know, most followers of the thought of Ayn Rand are American. It’s not a matter of recovering an historical or outdated usage of the word here – far from it. Those followers and those who hold their view are a contemporary movement.

    But on self ownership – as long as that is a tenet of libertarianism, it is off limits for someone who embraces Christianity. It’s true that being a self is a necessary condition for self ownership. I argued that a fetus is a human being. It’s not true (as you’d agree) that being a self is the same as having self ownership. My argument was not about self ownership. It accepted the common view that killing human beings is wrong (and I do not believe it is wrong because of self ownership), and then I argued that a fetus is identical with one of those things that we shouldn’t kill (although again, not because the fetus owns anything, much less its life or self).

    Now, if some Americans have hammered out a view that is the same as classical liberalism, and they call it libertarianism, then OK, I’m fine with that position. However, the Libertarian Party in America is not like that. They have the same fundamental committment that I reject as unchristian. Namely:

    “We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

    This is identical in meaning with the principle of Libertarianz that I reject.

    That party (at the same page) also says that the government should stay out of the abortion issue, which means that the government should allow abortion. I couldn’t accept that either, nor should any Christian.

    So if there’s a difference between those values and those of the New Zealand version, I’m not seeing it.

    But as I said, if someone held a view different from this but still called it libertarianism, I wouldn’t have a problem with that – it would only be confusing.

  7. Brandon Marone

    Interesting post. I’ve been considering leaving my libertarian stance lately for a more classical liberal stance and this may have given me that push I needed.

  8. Glad to be of assistance Brandon. 🙂 In practical terms it’s not a huge leap, but the mindset is very different.

  9. Do libertarians really say it is fine to fight in a death arena, or was that just hyperbole?

  10. Joel, they wouldn’t say it’s fine personally for them because they wouldn’t want to do it, but yeah, they do say it should be legal if both parties consent.

  11. Luke

    I know this blog was written a while ago, but it intrigued me…I have a few questions.

    In terms of policy….what are the differences between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism?

    I like the quote from John Locke, but how would that apply to issues like prostitution or drug use?

    I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m just curious.

    PS… Ayn Rand may be associated with libertarianism, but she did not consider herself a libertarian. She disliked libertarians and considered herself to be an “Objectivist”.

  12. Hi Glenn, interesting post!
    I was wondering about what your position of marriage was then, given that you are a classical liberal? Would it not be intrusive of the state and not at all neutral to favour certain lifestyle choices over others?
    Also, would rewarding marriage in the tax system be a no-no?

  13. Hi Michael – Here’s where I stand on marriage and the state:

    (Incidentally, the state quite appropriately favours some lifestyles over others all the time. And what’s more, classical liberalism is irreconcilable with libertarianism and does not take this same stance on liberty, but that’s another story!)

  14. You’re confusing the polity with one particular basis for it.

  15. I don’t think I am David. The philosophical basis, in this case, has a direct affect on the type of policies that would be permitted.

    For example – can two people contract to fight to the death? Given a libertarian polity – and precisely because of this philosophical basis – the answer must be yes. But I say no, precisely because of the way in which I disagree with this philosophical basis.

  16. Thanks Glenn, I’ll check it out.
    Would be interesting to hear if you had a response to that comment from my libertarian friend I posted on your facebook page.

  17. I take exception – in the nicest possible way, of course! – to being told that a Christian cannot be a libertarian. As would my co-blogger, Tim.

    Meanwhile, on SOLO, Ayn Rand’s disciples are arguing that an Objectivist cannot be a libertarian!

    “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” is not an inviolable first principle of libertarianism. Check your premises! Just reword it a little.

    “Each individual is the custodian of his own life and has the political right to live it as he sees fit, as long as he respects that same political right in others.”

    Pernicious redefinition is rife in Rand-land. I’m against it. ‘Libertarian’ is a nice label. I don’t want to see it meet the same fate as ‘Liberal’. If for no other reason than that when you unstick and restick labels, they lose their adhesion.

  18. Richard, maybe you’d like to modify the libertarian principle of self ownership. I think that’s a great move, but in its present form, it is what it is.

  19. If two people agreed to have a duel to the death should the victor be punished?

    Would capital punishment be unjust penalty for the victor?

  20. RobertH

    Dr. Peoples,

    Several things:

    I am pretty sure Ayn Rand was not a libertarian nor did she like libertarians so the image you have seems a bit odd :p

    I became Libertarian (or Ron Paul Republican) after learning who Ron Paul is during the US’s last (’08) presidential election and before becoming Christian. Oddly enough this lead to me becoming Christian. The point I want to make is that this is a pretty serious matter for me so I hope you will respond to my questions 😀

    1) I have considered something along the lines of what you wrote before I read your post. As a serious Christian (almost 3 years now) I am not going to interpret Biblical Teaching in light of man’s philosophies; rather, I want to interpret everything else through a biblical lens. I agree that no one owns theirself. God owns us twice over: once as creator and then second as redeemer.

    But in America I do not hear much talk of self-ownership from libertarians. For instance, I am reading “Libertarianism Today” by Jacob Huebert and in the 1st chapter “What is Libertarianism?” he is pretty much saying a libertarian is someone who holds to the non-aggression principle and that libertarianism is, “not a complete moral philosophy or a philosophy of life. It is just a political philosophy…” (pg. 6).

    Perhaps there are just other ways of being libertarian?

    2) Does a (L)libertarian have to hold to self-ownership?

    3) What are the differences between being classically liberal (which is actually what I thought libertarianism was) and libertarian? Are they so significant I should refrain from using one of these labels?

    4) What if “self-ownershp” is re-worded or is replaced with something similar but doesn’t violate Scriptural teaching? Or is that just a lame back door go around that doesn’t really get anywhere?

    One last question: 5) If libertarianism and Christianity really are irreconcilable then what should someone who views politics the way I do, do?

    I appreciate your blog and hope you respond to these questions. I am trying to be thoughtful about this because I take both my libertarian concepts and Christianity very seriously but I would never violate Biblical teaching for a man made philosophy.

  21. Ayn Rand was a libertarian, but not a Libertarian. I.e., she was not a member of the Libertarian Party. Rand published a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, but she did not think selfishness was a virtue. By ‘selfishness’, Rand meant rational self-interest. See what I mean about pernicious redefinition? It’s confusing at best.

    (1) Huebert is correct in what he says.

    (2) A libertarian does not have to hold to the Principle of Self-Ownership.

    (3) What are the differences between classical liberalism and libertarianism? I don’t know.

    (4) Please feel free to replace the Principle of Self-Ownership with my Principle of Self-Custodianship. But bear in mind that God commanded, “Thou shalt not steal.” It would seem that God endorses the conventions that underpin property rights. In fact, he insists on them. Thus, it could be argued that, for a Christian, the Principle of Self-Ownership is mandatory.

    (5) If libertarianism and Christianity really are irreconcilable, you must abandon one or the other, on pain of inconsistency. But they’re not.

    I don’t find it odd at all that your conversion to libertarianism lead to your conversion to Christianity. The same thing happened to me.

    Ron Paul, of course, is a born-again Christian.

  22. RobertH

    Thank you very much for your response, Richard. I have talked with others about how I do not think the Bible condones or sets out libertarian theory or free-market theory it none the less is very compatible.

    I like your redefinition. In fact I was thinking something along those lines. Specifically this: Even though God owns us He allows us to control our own lives; the Christian can maintain many parts of libertarianism but recognizes God’s proper role as rightful owner of their life.

    What do you think about that?

  23. Robert, I think the Bible does condone libertarianism. For example, here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say about Prohibition.

    Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

    Paul recognised that Prohibition doesn’t work. Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! Don’t take drugs! These rules lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

    Exegesis or eisegesis?

  24. RobertH

    That’s an interesting take.

    All I meant above was there isn’t anything in the Bible to explicitly favor things such as libertarianism as well as modern liberalism, federalism, etc. etc. The only thing recognized is a monarchy with God at the head.

  25. Giles

    Sorry to comment so late but I dispute your argument. Mill was a classical liberal and endorsed self ownership. “over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign” . Your rejection of self ownership flows from your denial of free will (IMO) I believe God ultimately owns my soul. I also believe he has gifted it to me with free will and will ask an account of my stewardship on the last day. I am sovereign over my body and mind, and accountable for how I exercise my sovereignty. I consider myself a classical liberal and a Libertarian. Ayn Rand doesn’t exhaust the Libertarian tradition.

  26. “Your rejection of self ownership flows from your denial of free will (IMO) ”
    I don’t really see how that can be a matter of opinion. Free will has literally nothing to do with my view that God owns us. That’s not just an opinion, it’s a fact and any contrary opinions are wrong.

    I could be wrong about God owning us of course. But’s it’s a fact that this is how my position works, rather than relying on a theory of the will.

  27. Glenn, I understand where you are coming from with your rejection of the libertarian principle of self-ownership, as you stated it (and as many libertarians state it, to be fair). Still, I’m curious about how you would interact with what libertarians call the “non-aggression principle.” That is, no person is free to initiate the use of force (aggress) against another person or their property. Obviously, this implies some sort of self-ownership. However, I think that one approaching a libertarian-type position from a Christian perspective might be able to say that persons are given stewardship over themselves and their possessions, instead of saying that they outright own those things. Thus, the rightful owner of persons (God) is still in a position to set rules of conduct for the stewardship of those persons (such as refraining from suicide, among other things).

    So, in your view, could a Christian hold a “self-stewardship” / “non-aggression” style of libertarianism without being inconsistent to a biblical worldview?

    *For what it’s worth, I do not think that the objectivism of Ayn Rand is an appropriate representation of libertarian political philosophy. Nor do I think that many of the libertarian political entities represent libertarian philosophy well either. I can’t stand it, for example, when I hear a libertarian say that libertarianism is about being fiscally conservative and socially liberal. This is a rather unfortunate situation, but it is what it is.

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