Libertarianism got some serious press time over the past few
months because of the campaign of Congressman Ron Paul. I personally found many
of my Christian friends were energized by Ron Paul’s message. I also found that few of
these same people understood a great deal about libertarian philosophy. They liked
Ron Paul’s views of money and the gold standard and they liked a great
deal of his commonsense approach to personal freedoms and liberty in general. He sounded reasonable,
even Christian to many of these good folks.

So, what really is libertarianism? It has two distinct historical phases in
American thought. The first phase arose in a radical nineteenth century version that was strongly opposed to Marx. It actually fostered varieties of "individualistic anarchism." In American it spread through the writing and work of Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) who argued for the substantial unconstitutionality of most American law. Map_3

There is a modern version of libertarianism that arose during the past twenty-five years or so and it appeals to a laissez-faire economists and wealthy conservative businessmen. This second, more moderate and modern form of libertarianism,
is that which Ron Paul represented in the recent debates. Libertarianism defies
easy social and political description but the best way to say this is to argue that it is a philosophy that
believes the best government is really little or no government at all. Robert Nozick’s
understanding, given in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974),
reasoned that allowing government to do anything more than protect my person and
property is a violation of my freedom
. This pretty much sums up the basic
message of Ron Paul when you look at it carefully.

The problem here is that there are libertarians of all
sorts, just as there are all sorts of liberals and conservatives. There are “anarcho-capitalist” libertarians, there are socialist libertarians and there are now even
fundamentalist Christian libertarians, many of whom were drawn to Ron Paul. I am persuaded that many
of these Christians did not know exactly what they were drawn to, and the
dangers inherent in the philosophy of libertarianism, but they liked some of the ideas of the candidate. They often presented
Ron Paul as a devout Christian (which he may well be in private but to a libertarian this is irrelevant publicly) and thus he was the candidate
who wanted to launch a “Love Revolution.” (The signs seemed to be everywhere in my county and the number of votes Paul got was so small it made me wonder about the zealotry behind the effort!)

One major source for serious libertarian thought is the
magazine, Reason: Free Minds and Free
. In the current issue of Reason
there is an article about the four great religious awakenings in American history.
It is written by Reason’s science
correspondent, Ronald Bailey, the author of Liberation Biology
(Prometheus). It is precisely this kind of argument that I wish my Christian
friends, who were so drawn to libertarianism in the recent months, would read
very carefully.

Bailey, after trashing the impact of the Christian Awakenings on American
society in general and on personal freedoms in particular,  concluded:

In 1908 Clarence Darrow told the
Personal Liberty League, “The world is suffering more today from the good
people who want to mind other people’s business than it is from the bad people who
are willing to let everybody look after their own affairs.” That has been true
for a long time now, but we may finally be heading toward a better world—one
where Americans are increasingly willing to live and let live.

Classical liberalism, which has much in common with modern
conservatism, believed that “that government is best which governs least.” The
radical libertarian corollary is that of Lysander Spooner who reasoned that the best government
governs not at all
. Modern Christian libertarians need to admit that their view
of government, even if it is not as radical as Spooner’s nineteenth century version, is rooted in more
than some new form of political conservatism.

Paul Lately I have done a fair bit of reading on this subject online. Some of the stuff I read is useful and some of it is dangerous. I sure wish Christians would pay more attention to philosophy before they adopt ideas that have massive consequences. I am probably expecting too much since most Christians have a deep and aiding hatred for serious philosophy and thus would rather adopt popular views that seem so reasonable to them and require less rigorous thought. This is another case where The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Mark Noll) has major consequences.

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  1. Bobber March 4, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Ron Paul ran as a libertarian in ’88 but seemed to make a slight distinction during this campaign. He mentioned the conservatism of Taft as his model and the moderate foreign policy of George Bush in 2000. He also identified with Ronald Reagan on occasion. So was he really running as a pure Libertarian this time?

  2. Travis Prinzi March 4, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Why the flat-out assumption that Christians have not considered the philosophy of libertarianism and concluded it’s a good one? It’s not possible that a good many Christians have engaged in rigorous thought prior to deciding in favor of a libertarian candidate?
    Other than that, I’m really not sure what the point of this post is, especially when you (a) criticize Christians for not engaging in solid philosophical rigor in discussion, and then (b) quote one paragraph out of one Reason article as your evidence that libertarianism is “dangerous.” What exactly are you saying here? “Some libertarian ideas are good, some are dangerous, and I wish Christians would think before deciding.” Isn’t that potentially true of any political philosophy?
    Simply portraying all Christian libertarians as unwilling to do the rigorous mental work needed to come to your conclusions is incredibly unhelpful to the discussion.

  3. John March 4, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    I am persuaded that many of these Christians did not know exactly what they were drawn to, and the dangers inherent in the philosophy of libertarianism,
    Such as?

  4. Ken March 4, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    As a Christian, and a conservative turned libertarian, I too have to disagree with your portrayal of Christians who identify with the libertarian philosophy as people who don’t know what they are agreeing with.
    As for quotes – I would like to offer the following by C.S. Lewis:
    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
    Sounds rather libertarian to me.

  5. Ken Caudill March 4, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I don’t think liberty endangers anyone. Paul’s detractors have used the word libertarian the same way Rush Limbaugh uses the word liberal. I see no reason to label any of Dr. Paul’s views as dangerous.
    I think Christians want the right to believe as they please and express themselves as they please.
    Certainly, Dr. Paul would stand for that.

  6. Sam March 4, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    To all misguided pro-life, Christian libertarians and/or Ron Paul supporters: Your governmental philosophy is humanistic and wicked, and Ron Paul is not pro-life.
    Educate yourself:

  7. Steve Scott March 4, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    John, I didn’t quite get the point of your article. Doubtless, people jumped on the Paul bandwagon without understanding everything behind it, but that’s true of liberalism and conservatism all the time. I couldn’t tell if you thought libertarianism was dangerous, or if some of your online sources that described it were.
    I don’t hesitate to use either the terms “libertarian” or “anarchy” to describe my political views (or “theocracy” for that matter), but these have to come with definition and overall description of my views. There are quite a number of Christians who HAVE thought out libertarianism in amazing detail and actually embrace [what they believe to be] the consequences wholeheartedly. Could you give some examples of the “massive consequences” that are bad?

  8. jls March 5, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Hi John,
    I am not a libertarian. But I must agree with some of the sentiments expressed in the posts above. The most important parts of your article are points that you made in passing and didn’t explain. I agree that Christians must guard themselves against getting sucked in by the latest political fads. I agree that many Christians have a distaste for hard critical thinking and are not often unaware of the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the social theories that they adopt. (But, in fairness, that applies to plenty of non-believers as well. Everywhere we look, fair, critical thinking seems to be in short supply.) However, I didn’t understand your point in quoting that particular passage from Bailey’s article.
    That intellectual libertarians would trash the Awakenings should cause serious Christians to pause and consider before forming any kind of alliances with that movement. On the other hand, there’s a big difference between (a) wholesale buying into an intellectual/political movement and (b) supporting a particular candidate in a particular election because you agree with many of his positions. Surely you can do (b) without doing (a). Perhaps Christians should rarely do (a), because we are called to be citizens of God’s kingdom, not political hacks. But (b) is something that we often must do, whether or not we support everything about a particular philosophical movement. Candidates for office are flesh and blood. They are influenced by historical lines of thinking but are not bound by them. Understanding the writings of Spooner may be helpful, but Spooner is not running for office.
    For me, the most relevant questions that we need to ask when deciding whether to support a particular candidate are: What does that candidate really believe? Can I trust him to do what he says? What are his principles, vision and character? Who are his supporters, to whom he is beholden, and how will they influence him if he takes office? And what will be the actual (intended and unintended) consequences of the policies he is likely to adopt? Scholarly study of intellectual movements is helpful but it cannot answer all of these questions.

  9. Phil Wyman March 5, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Hi John,
    Good thoughtful post. I am not sure myself that the issue of Christian Anarchism is quite as black and white though. I been reading Peter Chelcicky recently, and appreciate his Bohemian Reformer position. His material can be found on an anarchist website.
    Christian Anarchism may be a little too idealistic for me, but it recognizes the inherent evil of men’s organized controlling powers. Whether it has been trying to follow God, or men trying to improve society, the attempts to do so by large centralized structures often create more harm than good.
    All denominations, and even heroes of the faith like Calvin prove this point by their histories.
    I may not agree fully with the Christian Anarchist, but I understand their position, and applaud their ability to identify corporate wrongs.
    Someday the Kingdom will not have the tension of having to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the whole. What benefits the individual will benefit the whole in heaven. For now we balance these tensions in a corrupt system, and try to navigate the best way to overcome the inherent weakness of law and sin. Perhaps sometimes the Anarchist is correct, and perhaps sometimes the Republic is correct. Who knows how to navigate perfection on this twisted dust ball?

  10. TJ Turner March 5, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    As a Christian who was formerly a libertarian I have to completely agree with John and would suggest, with humility, that some of you who take issue with what he said may not be seriously considering whether libertarian philosophy is compatible with a biblical worldview.
    I say this not disrespectfully but because I was a libertarian for a number of years before I realized the problems it created with Christianity. To get an understanding of this read Ayn Rand, the quintessential libertarian philosopher. If you read her and take the ethic of Jesus seriously you will see that the two are incompatible. This is surely at least in part due to the influence of Neitche on Rand. You can also listen to and read Neal Boortz ( a popular libertarian talk show host to get the same idea.
    For just one example a true libertarian would eliminate all social programs. The basic philosophy behind this (often explicitly stated by Boortz) is that people’s problems are the consequences of their own actions and decisions and that there is no place for the government to make up for their mistakes. The problem, of course, is that if you have biblical worldview you must admit that people are subject to the consequences of the fall, including many consequences beyond their own control. In addition, we are commanded repeatedly in the bible to care for the orphans, widows, defenseless and helpless and to demand justice for the oppressed. This necessarily includes those who are economically and socially oppressed. This is precisely what libertarianism says we should not do.

  11. George C March 6, 2008 at 12:05 am

    I agree that most people do not think much of anything through before adopting a groups label.
    While I do believe that we as Christians must submit to whatever government is in place, I whole heartedly believe that the ideal government is one that protects us from physical harm and hold people accountable to contracts contracts and does nothing more.
    God’s ideal government for Israel was a direct theocratic government/monarchy with Him as the King and those under Him functioning according to clear commands and miraculous intervention. They wanted a King and He made it clear that it was a BAD choice. He knew that that kind of power would corrupt the king and abuse the people.
    It is obvious to most of us that a theocratic government/direct monarchy with God as visible King is not in the cards until Christ’s return (let’s not get into a argument about God’s behind the scenes rule. Hitler was God’s man, but we would be sinning to put another one in power ourselves).
    While it is obviously immoral for anyone to sit by and let someone be robbed, raped, or murdered; it should be equally obvious that in the end people cannot be forced to do good and that “good” is ultimately not pleasing to God.
    Social program and the like do not count as charity any more than someone giving money they stole from me to the poor.
    Two things we seem to always forget is that a command to do good is not a command to force others to do good and that a government acting is not the same as a people acting. Our government sending money in foreign aid is not America sending money. It is our government sending Americans money. Huge difference.
    Again, we must protect the innocent from active harm form others (I admit this is not always a simple thing to sort through), we should appeal to others to do good, and we must voluntarily do good ourselves, but ultimately we must let people choose their own path even if it leads to hell. To use the sword to do otherwise is misguided and ineffective. God is as concerned about the means and the motives as much as the ends.
    I think there is more than a little arrogance in the idea that my agenda is God’s agenda and that I am justified in using force to bring it about, yet this is what government does.

  12. Fred Carpenter March 6, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    We live in interesting times; Ron Paul has a standard, the US Constitution. Those are the boundaries, and that is what he has practiced in Congress for the past 30 years as a 10 term Congressman. And yet it seems he’s suspect as he has fearlessly spoken truth to the power Establishment — the man John McCain called the “most honest man in Congress.” Ron Paul is a Constitutionalist and whatever he has in common with Libertarianism is not connected to ‘beltway big gov Libertarianism’ or “lifestyle libertinism” but that of Rothbardian-Mises thought in being constitutionally against both the warfare-welfare state. He doesn’t follow WFB-type totalarian bureaucracy on our shores to fight wars abroad. There must be confusion here. Did you really mean John McCain rather than Ron Paul? All the candidates except for Ron Paul are for some form of big government to take (steal) from one group to give to another, and yet Ron Paul, aka “Libertarianism” gets singled out for being kind of dangerous? I guess I don’t really understand the post.

  13. Mike Clawson March 7, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    I am personally acquainted with some of the Christian Ron Paul zealots in your county John who were likely putting out all those signs, and I can attest that their main motivation for being libertarians are 1) belief in several extreme conspiracy theories about the US Gov’t, including the belief that our own government actually orchestrated 9/11; and 2) an almost fanatical passion for the 2nd Amendment.

  14. ColtsFan March 8, 2008 at 2:57 am

    One relevant book to this very interesting post by John Armstrong is the following book:
    Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative Libertarian Debate
    by George W. Carey
    Hardcover: 231 pages
    Publisher: Intercollegiate Studies Institute; Subsequent edition (March 1998)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 1882926196
    ISBN-13: 978-1882926190

  15. Adam S March 9, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    While I find some libertarian ideas interesting, I have to say that the concept of social welfare programs being “robery” perposterous. If you read the Old Testament, certainly there was a concept of the government as being responsible for the poor, destitute and alien. Currently many conservatives and libritarian (not mutually exclusive or inclusive categories) are against any help to the poor, destitute or alien. While government assistance may not be the best help to those people, the fact that they church isn’t stepping up to help them, says that someone should. So the charge to the Christian librertarian must be, “step up and show that government programs aren’t needed.”

  16. Dan Glover March 10, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    I have a hard time taking the above post seriously. Have you examined the personal background, track record, proposed bills, proposed policies and personal view points of Ron Paul? Have you compared them with each of the other candidates? Your own lack of thorough thinking comes through in the faulty reasoning of this post (some libertarians hold dangerous ideas, therefore Ron Paul is dangerous). He is not an anarchist libertarian. He believes firmly in the rule of law. Unlike any other candidate or leader in recent memory, Ron Paul is a strict constitutionalist. None of the other candidates could even be remotely construed as constitutional. Ron Paul is advocating a return to the kind of republic envisioned by the framers of the constitution rather than the democratic tyrany the US currently has. As much as I appreciate much of your usual material and perspectives, I think this is really shallow and betrays a lack of critical interaction and thought.

  17. Adam S March 10, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Dan and other “constitutionalists” do you really want to revert to our original state. We were a very loose federal system. We thought that slavery was fine and in several states women couldn’t even hold property, let alone vote. Do you like voting for the president and the senate? Not part of the original constitution. What part of that do you want to go back to? It just doesn’t even make sense to say that our constitution should be held to a strict idea of what our founding fathers thought at the time.

  18. Chris Kelly March 12, 2008 at 10:23 am

    John, I have a little problem with your title: “What Most Christians Do Not Understand”. This implies that you have special knowledge most of us lack. I know you understand why this is offensive. (But we are brothers, so we don’t really take offense.)
    Now, what Ron Paul supporters do understand is what they hear the man saying. They (myself included) don’t really CARE what Libertarians over the ages have said, partly because they’ve said different things at different times, and mainly because Ron Paul is a dedicated Republican. He differs from today’s party-line because the GOP has abandoned its Christian traditions (along with the majority of America).
    You’re supposed to be advancing these traditions, not opposing the guy who wants to bring them back.
    One of our American traditions is a general opposition to imperialism. When you label Ron Paul as “Isolationist” you are standing in support of the Wilsonian argument FOR imperialism, popularly marketed as “Spreading Democracy”. This may seem a “Christian” thing for us to do, but it isn’t being done in a Christian way (by the military).
    It is hard to kick against the goads.

  19. Dan Glover March 13, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Adam S, have you heard Ron Paul advocate taking the vote or the right to own property from women or reinstating slavery? When you do, let me know. Until then, keep up the good work building straw man arguements. Now, about those mainstream candidates, I think their fiscal policies are the closest thing I’ve seen to reinstating slavery to an overbearing nanny state and their foreign policies are basically a new form of imperialism. As to your specific question of going back to a loose federal system, why yes, that is something I would advocate. I fully agree with Ron Paul that the federal government must shrink drastically and the individual states must be given the broader jurisdiction they once had. When I say Paul is a strict constitutionalist, perhaps a better term is to drop the ‘strict’. What I mean is that he has never supported any federal legislation that is not constitutional and that shrinks the liberty of the average citizen. If you want to talk about not being able to own property or becoming slaves again, you ought to examine the inflationary and interventionist policies of the federal gov’t, either under every administration for the last several generations or as it would be under any of the other candidates. When you combine overbearing taxes and gov’t controlled inflation, what you have is deceptive sanctioned theft of private property from people who worked hard to earn and save in the first place. How is this not both slavery and theft?

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