Saturday, 30 January 2016

A Christian libertarian response to Bruce Ashford

Bruce Ashford, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently published an article entitled “The (Religious) Problem with Libertarianism”. It was brought to my attention by Tom Woods, who responded to it in a podcast a couple of days ago.

Mr. Ashford is a respected theologian and the co-author of a recently published book entitled “One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope forAmerican Politics.” From what I have read, his theological views are pretty similar to my own, and his political thought has, like mine, been strongly influenced by the thought of Abraham Kuyper.

Hence, when I discovered that he had written an article about libertarianism, I was interested to read what he had to say, and decided to write a response. My response differs in approach from that of Tom Woods. Tom Woods is far more knowledgeable than I am about libertarianism, history, and economics, and that shows in what he has to say. My response is based on the fact that I am coming from pretty much the same theological position as Bruce Ashford.

I have reprinted his article in full.  My response is in blue.

The (Religious) Problem with Libertarianism

In the last twenty years, American life has seen the rise of libertarianism as a force to be reckoned with in American politics, especially within the Republican Party. Libertarianism is a view that places an extraordinary emphasis on liberty—as it defines liberty—and orders society in a particular manner in order to achieve that liberty.

The first sentence is fairly uncontroversial. The second has two rather peculiar phrases: 1) “places an extraordinary emphasis on liberty” and 2) “as it defines liberty”. The latter is designed to suggest that libertarianism’s definition of liberty is flawed. The former - part of Ashford’s definition of libertarianism - is odd in that he could simply have said “Libertarianism is a view that regards liberty as so important that society should be ordered in such a way as to achieve liberty.” Why did he describe the emphasis as “extraordinary”?

Libertarianism’s View of Liberty

Libertarianism elevates liberty to pre-eminent status in politics and public life. Those who hold this view tend to consider state power as a necessary evil, and one that should be confined to the functions of protecting people against harm.

I would have ended the first sentence after the word ‘politics’. What does he mean by “public life”? As for the second sentence, many libertarians consider state power to be unnecessary.

In The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia, Karl Hess defines libertarianism thus:

Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit; that all social actions should be voluntary; and respect for every other man’s similar and equal ownership of life and, by extension, property and fruits of that life, is the ethical basis of a humane and open society. In this view, the only function of law or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself.

Indeed, libertarians argue that government power is justified only to protect certain negative rights of its citizens, rights such as private property, privacy, and personal security. Such a limitation of government’s powers, they argue, enables society to achieve liberty and justice for all. In fact, justice is simply the outcome in which free agents voluntarily act within their rights to create the life they want—to the extent that they are able to do so. Many libertarians also argue that this view of government and liberty is the only one that ensures citizens to live meaningfully.

That all seems fairly uncontroversial.

The rhetoric and values underpinning libertarianism should sound familiar. With the extreme emphasis on liberty, one could be forgiven for confusing it with its estranged cousin, liberalism. Both ideologies place paramount value on personal liberty. Both see the government’s role primarily as one of protecting that liberty. But liberals and libertarians part ways quite early on in the discussion, because they define liberty so differently.

No quarrel with that, except that I find the word “extreme” in the second sentence rather strange.

American liberals, in their emphasis on liberty, focus on the way traditional social norms restrict a person’s freedoms. Thus they elevate their preferred values (most prominently, sexual freedom) and seek to enact laws that give pride of place to those values. Libertarians, on the other hand, focus primarily on the way that the state restricts a person’s freedoms. Consistent libertarians will articulate that they care little about elevating their pet values; they simply wish for the state to be as small and unobtrusive as possible.

The comments about libertarianism strike me as quite fair.

Libertarianism as False Religion

From one perspective, libertarianism may be seen as the foil to socialism. Socialism takes a good and virtuous goal (equality) and stretches it too far by making it the standard for all of social life. Libertarianism is guilty of the same stretching, but instead of equality, the idol of choice is liberty. The fruit of these ideologies may look different, but the root problem remains the same—making a good aspect of God’s creation into a functional god.

I have two comments on this.

First of all, I find the comparison between libertarianism and socialism curious. As a Christian, I see a lot in the Bible that speaks positively of freedom - and in particular, freedom for believers to serve God without the interference of the state, (including freedom of speech for prophets, apostles and evangelists). There is also a strong current running through the Bible suggesting that rulers should not use their power to kill people or take their property. Liberty is a biblical virtue. However, I see nothing at all in the Bible that suggests that economic equality is a virtuous goal. The rich are warned about the dangers of wealth, and encouraged to be generous, but that is very different from saying that economic equality is a worthy goal.

Secondly, I cannot see how a political movement making the pursuit of liberty its main goal is idolatrous, any more than it is idolatrous for a school to make educational excellence its main goal, or for a business to make profit its main goal, or a football team to make winning games its main goal.

Libertarianism is right to emphasize the importance of liberty and its connection with a non-intrusive government. As Christians, one of the reasons we appreciate liberty is that it allows us to worship and act according to our religious convictions. Abraham Kuyper expresses this well when he writes, “Can it be denied that the centralizing State grows more and more into a gigantic monster over against which every citizen is finally powerless?” The more expansive government becomes, the more liberties are taken from individuals.

I completely agree.

And yet, as John Bolt has shown, libertarianism manifests itself as a false religion in the instances when it deifies freedom, giving it a sort of autonomy that God alone should have. Ideological libertarianism seeks to free us from nearly every conceivable restriction. The error of liberalism creeps in here, though in a different guise. Libertarianism, like liberalism, rests on the faulty foundation of the human autonomous will. It is a manifestation of our first parents’ tragic sin, a way of saying, “What I want must reign supreme.”

Bolt is, no doubt correct that in the instances in which libertarianism deifies freedom, it has made itself a false religion. But how many instances are there of that? And what exactly is this 'ideological' libertarianism that seeks to free us from nearly every conceivable restriction? Political libertarianism does not seek to free us from every conceivable restriction. It does not say or imply that “what I want must reign supreme.” It simply says (broadly speaking) that the state should not injure people, or seize their property, or restrict their freedom of speech or their freedom of association.”

In the place of this sort of autonomous freedom, we as Christians should seek a different type of liberty. True freedom, according to Scripture, does not entail removing every possible restriction, but removing those restrictions that violate our nature as beings made in God’s image. For example, it is perfectly good for Americans to achieve a legislative and judicial consensus that taking the life of unborn babies is wrong (a position that cannot be justified, according to some libertarians). Our personal freedoms conflict more often than we realize, and the government must arbitrate those conflicts to prevent anarchy.

I’m happy with the first two sentences. The third sentence finishes with a rather odd parenthetic comment, but other than that, it's fine. The fourth sentence, however, puzzles me. Do our personal freedoms really conflict more often than we realize? What does he have in mind? I suspect that in reality, our personal freedoms rarely conflict except when one person uses their freedom to defraud, steal from, or injure other people. And in those instances, most libertarians wouldn’t have a major problem with government arbitrating.

Libertarianism is also right to make a connection between liberty and justice. They rightly emphasize that modern nation-states should foster an environment in which people are free to acquire property, sell property, have privacy, and be protected from violence that would undermine those rights and freedoms. However, most libertarians seek to restrict government’s role so dramatically that it would prevent the government from achieving other good and legitimate ends.

I, of course, agree with the first two sentences. When it comes to the third sentence, I suspect that in the real world, government may often claim that it will achieve good and legitimate ends, and that it has indeed done so. But that the truth is that its promises are usually hollow, and the good things that it boasts of having achieved would generally have happened without its intervention.

One such legitimate end is a modest levelling of the social playing field. Libertarians define justice in terms of “just acquisition of wealth.” As they see it, if a person has acquired property, possessions, and financial resources in a way that is legal and moral, justice has been achieved. In other words, true justice depends upon autonomous agents being able to keep all the fruits of their labors. However, the Christian notion of justice does not exist without a Christian notion of compassion for the poor, which sometimes means extending aid to those who cannot care for themselves. After all, when it comes to wealth, we are always liable to exaggerate our role in acquiring it, and to ignore those who assisted us in getting there. Not a one of us can truly pull himself up by his own bootstraps.

I don’t know what Ashford means by “a modest levelling of the social playing field”. I also am interested in the implication that an immodest levelling of the social playing field may not be legitimate, and wonder just how modest a levelling is legitimate. Where in the Bible does he get the impression that it is legitimate for government to level the social playing field - at least modestly? As for the third sentence, I would quibble. It should read “if a person has acquired property, possessions, and financial resources in a way that is legal and moral, no injustice has been committed.” This is quite different from justice having been achieved. Similarly the fourth sentence is strange. I, and I suspect most libertarians, would prefer “True justice does not permit people to have the legitimately acquired fruits of their labours seized from them.” And yes, compassion for the poor is part of justice, and it does mean extending aid to those who cannot care for themselves, but what has that got to do with the government? I am sure that the apostles would have thought that it was completely bizarre to think that it was Caesar’s job to take the money of ordinary people so that he could give it to the poor. The teaching of the Bible is that helping the poor is something that people should do voluntarily. And yes, it is undoubtedly true that most people do exaggerate their role in acquiring their wealth. As a Christian I believe that everything I have has been given to me by God. But I don’t see what this has to do with the role of government.

One final criticism of libertarianism concerns its belief that the free market will somehow always act as a benevolent force. Most libertarians believe that if the government would simply get out of the way, the free market economy would naturally fix society’s problems. This is naïve, both historically and theologically. Historically, all that is needed is a quick glance at those moments in our nation’s past when innovation outstripped regulation, such as the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. When the free market has no checks or balances, the strong tend to prey on the weak.

At this point, I would want to say that no, I do not believe that the free market will somehow always act as a benevolent force, and I suspect that there are very few libertarians that believe that if the government would simply get out of the way, the free market economy would naturally fix all society’s problems. However, I do think that on balance, the free market does tend to work for the good of society, and I think that there is plenty of empirical evidence which shows that the free market is good for the poorest people in society. And one could argue that the truly free market provides checks and balances as effectively as most alternatives.

And so I might also be tempted to write “One final criticism of non-libertarians concerns their belief that government will somehow always act as a benevolent force. Most non-libertarians believe that if the government would simply act, it could fix society’s problems. This is naïve, both historically and theologically. Historically, what is needed is a detailed study of our nation’s past when innovation outstripped regulation to show how much the poor actually benefited.”

Theologically, it is naïve to assume that individuals acting out of self-interest will naturally create a society in which freedom increases. Sinful greed and envy, which in practice play a major role in the free market, cannot lead to sinless utopia. In other words, the free market, for all of its benefits, is a medium of exchange for fallen humanity. It excels other economic systems and often minimizes the harm that our sin would otherwise cause. But as long as human beings are the ones doing the exchanging, the free market will be to some extent twisted and corrupted. As J. Budziszewski writes, “In the marketplace our desires are aroused so insidiously and scratched so efficiently that we spend our lives and fortunes just finding new places where we might itch.”

OK - so the free market will not lead to a sinless utopia. Who claimed that it would? Theologically, it is naive to assume that state intervention will do better.


Ideological libertarianism latches on to the real value of individual freedom. And as our government increases in scope and strength, appealing to a less intrusive government will continue to find growing support. But liberty is not God, and we tread on shaky ground when we treat it as such. Liberty can only be true liberty when it is not our reigning god. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth [about me], and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 ESV). We need not only freedom from restrictions, but freedom for a life ordered toward Christ.

I cannot find anything that I disagree with in Ashford’s conclusion.

But my own conclusion is that it is difficult to see that anything that he has said in this theological reflection on libertarianism actually shows any significant problems with libertarianism, religious or otherwise. I think that it is good and necessary for theologians to subject ideologies, including political ideologies, to scrutiny. Every ideology requires scrutiny, and I appreciate the fact that Mr Ashford has written this article about libertarianism. But as a Christian who is politically libertarian, I am not convinced that any of the shots he has fired are on-target. 


Mr Ashford's article on libertarianism is one of a series of seven, beginning with "The (Religious) Problem with American Politics"  and ending with "A (Religious) Alternative for American Politics".  In between, he surveys the (religious) problems with liberalism, socialism, libertarianism, conservitivism and progressivism and nationalism.  

On the whole, I like his approach.  I think that the first and last articles are very good.  The others are more a mixed bag, but contain a lot of good comments.  In my opinion, the one on libertarianism is, by a considerable margin, the weakest.  Since I write as a libertarian, it will not come as a surprise to Mr Ashford that I should say so.  Indeed, in his opening article, he writes 
“The great problem with a project like this, of course, is that we always have a keen eye to see the idolatry operative in other ideologies. Conservatives spot the idolatry of socialism quickly, and vice versa. But as Christians, we must have the humility to recognize that we all are “prone to wander,” that our view of politics may be much more idolatrous than we have yet to realize. May God grant us the courage to discern and oppose idolatry wherever it is found, beginning in our own hearts, our own churches, and our own preferred political parties and ideologies.”
So, obviously, it will be said "You say that because you are a libertarian".  

Well, all I can say is that I think that what I have said in my response will stand up to examination.  As a cynical character in C.S. Lewis' book The Pilgrim's Regress says: "What is the response to an argument turning on the belief that two and two makes four?  The answer is 'You say that because you are a mathematician."  Just because I happen to be a libertarian does not mean that I am wrong in my assessment.

My final comment is that I think that part of the problem is that Bruce Ashford, like a lot of observers, doesn't really understand libertarianism as fully as he might.  Libertarianism revolves around not just the importance of freedom, but also around the non-aggression principle and the rejection of force and violence - a point that Tom Woods makes very effectively in his response to Ashford, which is why Woods' response is a necessary supplement to mine.