A Genuinely Original Libertarian Argument?

by Russell Arben Fox on March 5, 2014 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Philosophers & Saints,Politics & Power

christian_libertarian[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Yesterday evening, I participated in a symposium sponsored in part by Northfield School of the Liberal Arts, a private Christian academy, here in Wichita, KS. I’ve done a lot with Northfield over the years, as I strongly admire their sense of public engagement and their fascinating mix of evangelical traditionalism and downright hippie experimentation, including participating in an earlier symposium of theirs. The one last night, though, which focused on Pope Francis’s recently encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)–about which I’ve written before–was really our best conversation yet, not the least reason for which being that I heard a libertarian argument that was enormously clarifying to me (despite being, in view, both wrong and frankly kind of ridiculous).

This is how it came about. While I’d come prepared with some remarks about Pope Francis’s condemnation of consumerism, the discussion itself quickly veered in the direction which a couple of very pious, very evangelical Protestant, Tea Party folks wanted it to go, which is that Francis’s comments, as learned and as valuable as they may be, were completely undermined by insistence upon social and collective responses to the problems he diagnosed. While one of these two gentlemen was more willing than the other to recognize that “capitalism” itself is a financial construct which has no clear basis in Christian scriptures, both of them were absolutely resolute in their belief that God called his people to an individualistic, free-market social order. So far, so good: I’ve heard this before, and it’s never made any sense to me, but that’s par for the course. But then one of these good fellows (the same more radical one who I mentioned above, a quite successful businessman whom I know and get along with well from previous interactions) went on a long theological spiel that was actually kind of amazing. He emphasized that he, unlike Catholics, understood the words of scripture (particularly John 3:8 and Revelations 22:17) to stipulate an unforced, unguided, “whosoever will” relationship with God–and moreover, since all interactions between Christians are to be guided by the Holy Spirit, the obvious conclusion is that Adam Smith’s unforced, unguided, invisible hand is a good representation of the will of God, so long as the free market is population by Christians who are attentive to the Spirit. Thus, any truly Christian society, or even one which only aspires to such, must recognize that any regulation or redistribution which interferes with the free will decisions of individual Christians regarding how to dispose of their property or share their wealth–even edicts which exist to serve putatively Christian ends like community and equality–contravene the word of God. Hence, Pope Francis’s insistence that we need to perceive an additional commandment against an “economy of exclusion and inequality” [paragraph 53], to say nothing of his defense of states as defenders of “the common good” [paragraph 56] and his call for “politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots…of the evils in our world” [paragraph 205], is simply nonsense from a Christian point of view.

Have any of you readers ever heard this argument before? Maybe I have before, but if I have, I didn’t recognize it for what it was. In any case, I’ve never heard this particularly kind of Christian libertarian anti-statist spelled out in such detail, not to mention which such fervor. I really had to thank and congratulate this man; his sermon enabled me to understand just how deeply grounded in scripture some evangelical Protestants believe a radical individualism to be. And I should emphasize that, when it came to the particular details of his response to the specific ills that Francis condemned, I was in agreement with probably 80% of them or more, as they mostly revolved around attacks on powerful financial institutions and our addiction to a consumption economy which can be well expressed in localist and social democratic as well as libertarian terms. But for anyone who knows my writings, it won’t be surprising to hear me say that I find this overall argument both scripturally groundless (I don’t see anyway to present a fundamental–and I think mostly correct–Augustinian understanding of our will’s relationship with the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and marketplace decisions on the other, as somehow equivalent) and philosophically and sociologically ridiculous (the marketplace, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, is I think characterized far more by the concentration of social power than by the independent decisions of free agents, and consequently has to be responded to collectively–and, obviously, one hopes democratically). For now, though, I just want to know: has this kind of Christian libertarian argument been commonly expressed for a long while, and I’ve just somehow missed it? Or did I, last night, encounter a genuinely original claim? I’d appreciate someone more familiar with this line of thought letting me know. My thanks in advance.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar August March 5, 2014 at 2:04 pm

I have not heard this man’s argument before. I don’t like it, mainly because the Holy Spirit can’t seem to lead most Christians in the right direction now. The pope can’t see how his suggestions have zero chance to promote what he desires. You are calling capitalism a financial construct- now there is no denying you could make an argument that what passes for it now is a construct. Few people make a distinction any more between actual capital or capital good- which are used specifically for production- and mere money. So the descriptions Adam Smith gave are subverted by the deceptions rife through our modern corporatism.
I read more Christian and/or libertarian stuff than most, so I feel utterly qualified here, in that, if nothing else, this man’s argument is entirely his own. The Holy Spirit must feel like a man herding cats.

avatar dave walsh March 6, 2014 at 7:44 am

I don’t know, seems to me if I boil it down he’s saying it’s God’s will that I buy a large screen television, so I’d put it in the struggling with affluence category. Money changes things (thinking in part of Jo’s response to Kaller’s recent post). I’d say this is an argument many of us make one way or another, if we haven’t already left out the back door.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 6, 2014 at 7:55 am

Money changes things

I actually think this three-word comment speaks volumes as to the intellectual and conceptual divide which became clear to me Tuesday night. For someone who sincerely believes that the individual will is the only moral category with which we have to work, and with which God interacts, then money (or political power, or one’s race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or anything else) really can’t change things, because the only “thing” there is, is you, listening for God’s word, attending to the Holy Spirit, striving to live justly towards one’s fellow man, and in the meantime, well, buying a large-screen television set, I suppose. The argument that such large-screen television sets, or anything else, might contribute to systems of production and styles of living which exercise real social power over the choices and limitations which others face, just never shows up in this way of thinking. Hence, Catholic “social justice” is dangerous, unscriptural nonsense. And Adam Smith’s invisible hand, as manifest through market transactions, is easily imagined as reflecting (or at least being a close analog to) the operations of the Spirit, because they both show off the bottom-line rule that what happens in the world is solely a matter of personal inspiration and choice, and nothing else.

avatar Thomas McCullough March 6, 2014 at 8:51 am

My judgement is this is someone devout in his religion called Libertarian who is attempting to shoehorn Christian texts into it. I don’t know why he feels the need to enlist Christ. He has his god and he has his temple and they don’t include the Nazarene. Oh, and no, I haven’t heard this one before but it’s been a while since I’ve listened much to that class of proselytizing.

avatar Rob G March 6, 2014 at 4:01 pm

“The Holy Spirit must feel like a man herding cats.”

How does one fellow know whether or not the Spirit is leading the other fellow? If the Spirit leads both to contrasting conclusions, who is right and how would you possibly know? The Scriptures say “God is not the author of confusion,” but this seems to be a certain recipe for nothing but.

(By the way, I grew up Pentecostal, so while I never heard this type of thing being applied to economics, there was an awful lot of stock put in personal “witnesses of the Spirit” and the sensing of “anointings,” and it’s easy to see how these ideas could be transferred to other areas of life.)

avatar August March 7, 2014 at 4:55 pm

I know the principles, so I know, in a very general sense, whether or not the Holy Spirit is leading the other person. Paul mentions something about the testing the fruit, and obviously the confusion that abounds doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit.

Consider the absolutely nonsensical idea the invisible hand has anything whatsoever to do with whether or not you choose to engage in flat screen tv buying. The invisible hand was meant to be a description of how producers were incentivized in a free market. Meanwhile, flat screen tv buying exists in our modern markets, which are constructed, and appears to be a euphemism for consumerism in this argument. Something as basic as the Fed setting the interest rate, rather than letting people determine that on their own, leads to confusion. In this age when the Fed keeps the interest rate ridiculously low, savers suffer, and people are encouraged to borrow. Projects that shouldn’t be started are started because the government’s pro-growth policies create an illusion that there are resources available to complete them.

So this is why I am quite comfortable with herding cats metaphor. This Christian gentleman is certainly right that God does not like these deceptions, but he is wrong that Christians listen all that well to the Holy Spirit. God would certainly prefer a free market, because under all this artifice lies theft, but it seems a majority of Christians prefer to simply change what is done with the plunder, rather than stopping the theft.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 7, 2014 at 5:13 pm

August,

It would seem that you and my colleague at the symposium would get along well–and, I suspect, we could probably get along well also, seeing as how I was basically in agreement with his (and your?) specific criticisms of the Federal Reserve as a symptomatic expression of a global economy which has become almost wholly dependent upon tricking people (and corporations, and states!) into continually spending, risking, investing, and consuming, rather than tending responsibly to their own limits. But this criticism, in his (and your?) case, appears to arise from an understanding of Christianity that strikes me as very strange. You conclude that “God would certainly prefer a free market, because under all this artifice lies theft…”–but from where in scripture comes the particular understanding of private property and unregulated markets which you privilege here? Yes, of course, God condemns theft–but does that mean He, for example, went back on His word when He commanded the Israelites to practice the Jubilee and forgive debts, regardless of who owed what to whom, or how much? The connection between market transactions and God’s word just doesn’t seem uncomplicatedly plain to me, though obviously more than a few Christian libertarians are certain of it. That’s one of the reasons I liked this fellow’s presentation so much: I found it an utterly implausible reading of scripture, but at least it was a reading (the Holy Spirit = Adam Smith’s invisible hand) which coherently supported his position.

avatar JimWilton March 12, 2014 at 3:08 pm

There is actually a lot of practical economics in scripture. As a bankruptcy lawyer, I have marveled at how Luke Chapter 16 (parable of the untrustworthy steward) is an entirely up to date description of the behavior of the management teams of too many distressed businesses.

However, it seems that what your friend seeks is (i) religious imprimateur for his radical free market views (and presumably damnation for those, however virtuous, who disagree with his views), and (ii) an assumption that Christians by “salvation” through grace in one moment conquer desire and transform acts of Christians into acts of Christ. The first of these points is dangerous (and decidedly un-Christian). The second is just silly.

avatar David Naas March 12, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Well, I thought I was versed in most of the stuff around, but this one is a true original.
Although, its essential silliness reminds me that Libertarians, like Marxists and Freudians, being OCD candidates with a One Cause Remedy for all the world’s ills (“If we could only get the gummint/evil capitalists/sexual repression off people’s backs, everything would be hunky-dory.”), are blind as to how contrived their arguments get, and how divorced from reality they really are.

avatar Rob G March 13, 2014 at 9:10 am

“this is why I am quite comfortable with herding cats metaphor”

I am too — I was trying to describe it from the POV of one of the cats.

avatar Frank Pearson May 1, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Economic libertarianism is becoming the mainstream of what is identified as “Republican” or even “Conservative” in popular culture so that traditionally social conservatives have more and more adopted the libertarian economic views. I have certainly seen it in my life. Protestants, particularly non-denominational, appear to consider you a sham Christian if you don’t espouse libertarian economic views yourself.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 17, 2014 at 5:22 pm

I’m politically libertarian, in the sense that I believe governmental powers need to be restrained from areas of life government is incompetent to regulate, reserving individual choice about private matters, and that for exercise of legitimate government powers, there should be ample avenues for appeal and review of inevitable abuses. But I’m not economically libertarian at all, and I know of no Scriptural basis for anything of the kind.

If we take Old Testament prescriptions as meaning anything, sale and mortgaging of property could last ONLY until the Jubilee, and then everything was re-equalized, more or less. I hardly think Jesus was promoting consumerism and investment portfolios when he told the rich man “sell all you have, give to the poor, take up your cross and follow me.” (The provenance of that verse is suspect, since prior to THE crucfixion, “take up your cross” would not have had a positive or inspirational meaning to anyone living under Roman law.)

President Obama had a very incompetent speech writer at work when his “You didn’t build that” speech was drafted, but in essence, his point was entirely accurate. One reason Abraham Lincoln backed both Whig and Republican programs for promoting railroads, and other means of transportation, was that he remembered his father, Thomas Lincoln, being dirt poor for lack of means to get his agricultural products to market, where he could get some cash money in addition to subsistence. Once the railroads were up and running of course, they bullied the farmers, charged exorbitant rates, paid miserable wages, and brutally smashed strikes, with the unstinting support of the federal government.

Business depends on publicly funded infrastructure, and private enterprise alone could never sustain or coordinate such infrastructure. Those who conceive and develop a new business plan to offer a new product or service deserve a handsome return for their perseverance, originality, organizational skills… but the value of the business embodies the work of everyone whose time, labor, etc, went into it. It is, anytime there is more than one person working on the business, a COLLECTIVE endeavor.

So economically, I’m socialist. The bigger and more pervasive the business becomes, the more socially controlled it should be. And if you want to be Christian about it, what does the Book of Acts say about economic and property relations among early Christians? What happened to the couple who tried to hold out a bit of their own private property for themselves? No, I’m not saying we all must share all our property in common or we’re all going to hell… I’m just saying, if you want to play that game, that’s what the Book says.

(Culturally I’m conservative… which means, while you have the libertarian right to possess pornography in the privacy of your own home — so long as children were not exploited to produce it — I have the right NOT to have it displayed on billboards or in shop windows in public, or to look at your big fat ugly naked body sprawled on a public park bench.)

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 18, 2014 at 6:23 pm

Siarlys,

I’ve been reading your comments for years, here and at Rod Dreher’s blogs and elsewhere, and I’ve probably told you this before, but if I haven’t: I really like your style. In regards to this particular comment, over the past year or two, I’ve found myself wanting more and more to be able to articulate what you say in your first paragraph in terms of participatory democracy or even forms of anarchy, rather than libertarianism; that privileges individual liberty too much for my tastes. But other than that quibble, I pretty much agree with you 100% here. Bring on localist Christian socialism!

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 18, 2014 at 8:44 pm

That is probably the highest praise I’ve received commenting on the web, and from the most worthy source, with a close second being some occasional encouragement from gospel columnist James Watkins. Its good to know that the Appeal to Reason and Kate Richards O’Hare have worthy successors.

avatar Crprod June 3, 2014 at 7:46 pm

I’m voting for Siarlys who covered most of the things that I think are important.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: