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.
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
Markets. 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
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.
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.