LIBERTARIANISM: THE FORGOTTEN TRADITION OF CHRISTIANITY AND THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC
by Michael Schrader
(Written in 1998, and excerpted from his unpublished book, The Evolution of an Editorialist)
I am a libertarian. I believe in individual liberty and freedom of personal choice in how each one of us chooses to live his or her own life.
Libertarianism is not a novelty. It has a very long and proud tradition. True libertarianism, however, is very difficult, as it requires the opening of your mind to the realization that just because you would not make certain choices does not necessarily mean that no one else will, either. In short, what I may deem to be offensive my neighbor may deem to be acceptable, and what I may deem to be acceptable my neighbor may deem to be offensive. True libertarianism, then, is an acceptance that this contradiction can exist, that we are not our neighbor’s keepers.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a libertarian. An examination of Jefferson reveals a man who treasured his liberty and distrusted government. Jefferson’s ideal society was one in which each citizen (despite his libertarianism, Jefferson shared the view that women and Blacks were inferior and thus not deserving of the rights and privileges of citizenship) was free to pursue his own interests without the interference of the government or other men. Jefferson and his fellow Virginian, James Madison, were strict constructionists--that is, they believed that the functions of the government were only those functions allowed by the Constitution, which were those functions that involved the common good. In the view of many of the Republicans of his era (the Jeffersonians, who, ironically, later evolved into the Democrats), these functions consisted of taking care of matters of national security (war and peace), trade, and commerce.
Libertarianism was at the heart of one of the issues resulting in the Civil War--slavery. To the slave holders, the government had no right to legislate morality, in this case, abolition. It was up to each person to choose whether or not to own slaves; it was none of the government’s business. Slaves were property, and the emancipation of the slaves by the government was nothing less than the confiscation of property by the government, a violation of one’s liberty, one’s right to own property. To the northern abolitionists, denial of freedom and liberty to the slaves was not only a impediment to the slaves’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it was also an abridgment of the “common good” (the protection of which is the function of government, according to libertarians) through the forced subjugation of a sizable percentage of the population.
Libertarianism’s roots, however, are much deeper than the American Republic. Jesus was libertarian. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is shown as a person who holds no prejudices, a person who was more comfortable in the company of tax collectors and prostitutes than in the company of the religious elite, the Pharisees. Jesus taught his disciples that those who are pretentious and self-righteous and “morally superior” and quick to judge his fellow man will not share in the Kingdom of God. (Isn’t it rather ironic that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time are eerily similar to the Moral Majority of ours?) Rather, only those who are humble and non-judgmental and who will help their fellow man without prejudice will be received into the heavenly kingdom. This is the basis of libertarian philosophy--do not judge, and help all of your fellow men (and women) without conditions.
Jesus also tells us that life is not fair, that there will always be rich and always be poor. But, He tells us that we must use whatever talents and gifts God gave us to the best of our ability, and not worry about whether or not our neighbor received more. In short, we must only be concerned with utilizing what we have been given.
Jesus tells us that it is not easy to be His disciple, that to truly be His disciple may result in death, and that we are free to choose whether or not we want to be His disciple. The important thing is that we are free to choose--we do not have to. When Jesus sent the Apostles out, he told them that if a town would not accept them, to shake that town’s dust off of their feet and to move on to the next one. In short, if they did not choose to believe, do not force the issue; move on. It is up to each individual to choose whether or not to believe, and if an individual chooses not to believe, it is not our place as humans to tell them they have to. It is between each individual and God. However, with the choice comes consequences. If and individual chooses to believe, he will (according to Christian theology) have everlasting life; if not, then he won’t. But, it is an individual’s decision to make. This concept, the freedom to choose, is fundamental to libertarianism.
Jesus also takes a libertarian viewpoint when it comes to Mosaic law and Jewish customs. When asked which of the Ten Commandments was the greatest, He replied that none of them were, as there are two commandments that supersede all the rest: love your neighbor as yourself, and love God with your whole body, heart, soul, and mind. He intentionally did not specify how to go about loving our neighbor and God--we as individuals must decide for ourselves how to go about enacting these two Great Commandments. In short, we have the freedom to choose how we live our lives (love of God) as long as we don’t hurt others (love of neighbor). In other words, we have the freedom to make up our own decisions about our own lives as long as those decisions are made within the context of the “common good,” which is libertarianism.
Despite the fact that libertarianism is endemic to the Jesus tradition, it is not endemic to Christian philosophy. How can this be, as Jesus is Christ? Simple. Christian philosophy as we know it is based on the Pauline tradition, that is, it is based on the teachings of Paul, which are basically one man’s, Paul’s, interpretations of the teachings of Jesus. Paul’s works constitute the bulk of all books of the New Testament (including Acts, as Acts is basically a book about Paul). Unlike Jesus, Paul was not a libertarian; he did not buy into the philosophy that each individual should be free to choose how to do God’s work. Instead, Paul’s approach was heavy-handed and autocratic--if you did not do things the way that Paul believed, then you were wrong and deserving of chastisement, as Paul “knew” the true way to the Lord. It was either Paul’s way or the highway.
This should not be taken as an attempt to discredit Paul, because it is not. Paul was a great evangelist, who did more to promulgate Christianity than any other person in the Christian era. I admire Paul enough to have taken his name as my “Christian” name at confirmation. (In the Roman Catholic Church, one is considered an adult, and thus a full member of the Church, when one is confirmed. Upon being confirmed, a person adopts a Christian name, a tradition dating back to the early church and the “confirmation” of Saul as Paul. By adopting a new name, a person is giving up his old life and beginning a new life with a new identity as a Christian. Islam has a similar tradition, which is why Cassius Clay became Mohammed Ali upon his conversion.) However, as Paul was not divine, but human, I have accepted some of his flaws, and in particular, his “in-you-face” style of preaching. Unfortunately, it was Paul’s “my way or the highway” conformist philosophy that later became the justification for wars, murders, and horrible cruelties, most notably the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Northern Ireland conflict, and the atrocities in the Balkans. The most tragic manifestation of the Pauline conformist policy was the wholesale persecution of “Old Believers” in Russia during the reign of Alexei Romanov resulting from a disagreement on whether the Sign of the Cross should be made with two fingers or three.
Libertarianism, then, is the forgotten tradition of Christianity, as well as the forgotten tradition of the American Republic. Yet, there is a tendency to mislabel libertarianism. To many, libertarianism is an outgrowth of the flower power and free love movements of the 1960s. How can a philosophy that was espoused by Jesus himself have its genesis in some fringe movement in the United States in the 1960s? It can’t, and it is insulting to Americans and Christians everywhere to say that it does, as libertarianism, i.e. individual free choice, was a foundation for both our religion (making the argument that, since the overwhelming majority of Americans are Christian, then our country is Christian) and our government.
A second fallacy regarding libertarianism is that libertarianism and anarchism are interchangeable. Libertarians are not anarchists. Libertarians believe that individuals rights are superseded when they negatively impact the “common good.” From a libertarian viewpoint, government is necessary to protect the common good. Libertarians believe that individuals are free to basically do whatever they want unless it affects somebody else. Under this view, if a women, for example wants to do drugs, and it will not impact anyone else, then that is her right to destroy her own body, and there is nothing that the government should be able to do to stop her self-destruction. However, if she harms another, then the government has the right to intervene on behalf of the “common good”, in this case the good of the other. In other words, individual rights end when they interfere with another’s individual rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Anarchists believe that government should not exist, period. Under the anarchist philosophy, there is no such thing as the common good, so every individual has the right to do whatever he or she wants, regardless of the impact on another. If you want to steal, no one should be able to tell you you can’t, except the people from whom you are stealing, and if they are too weak to stop you, that’s their problem. Anarchism is an extreme form of Darwinism--anything goes, and only the strongest will survive. In short, under the anarchist philosophy, the social order will be determined by a convoluted form of natural selection, as the selection will not only be determined by physical attributes, but technological attributes as well.
Another key distinction between libertarians and anarchists is in their world view. Libertarians believe in the inherent goodness of people, that people will rise to the occasion and “do the right thing” without being coerced into doing so. Anarchists have the opposite worldview -- people are inherently bad. Under this worldview, it is necessary to act preemptively before someone else does. For example, it is okay to steal, because if you don’t, someone else will, because all people are inherently thieves.
Libertarianism begets freedom; anarchism begets totalitarianism. In a truly free society, individuals are trusted to do what is right, as people are inherently good and will strive to be good. In a totalitarianism society, since people are inherently bad, they cannot be trusted with any responsibility or freedom of choice, and must be subjugated through oppressive legislation and force. To do any less than total and absolute subjugation would result in anarchy.
Because I view government with a healthy dose of skepticism, I have been mislabeled as an anarchist. I am not. I don’t want to eliminate government, I want to change it, to remove the unnecessary burdens that have been placed on us with respect to how we live our individual lives. Thus, I am a libertarian.
I have been a libertarian all of my life but did not realize it until recently. When my daughter was five years old, I had a conference with her teacher at the time. When her teacher began explaining to me how she responded to various tasks and situations, I realized then and there that the teacher was talking about me, except a younger feminine version. You see my daughter is very libertarian, although she does not realize it. After all, what does a kid know about political philosophy?. My daughter has just about the same independence, manifested in a desire to come to her own conclusions, as I do, and, as my desire to think for myself is a manifestation of what I know to be libertarianism, then hers is, too. Except, being a child, she does not know what libertarianism is, nor does she care, either. Come to think of it, when I was her age, I also did not know or care that my desire to think for myself was something called libertarianism; all I knew was that I took it as an insult to my intelligence if I was not given the opportunity. In my case, it seems, even after thirty some-odd years, some things never change.
I have felt compelled to explain libertarianism to make it known that my libertarian roots have a deep and proud tradition, and that the libertarian philosophy is not just some “flash-in-the-pan” philosophy of the day espoused by only some lunatic fringe. I am one who believes that the best way to understand where is person is coming from, what motivates a person to do or say what that person does and says, is to understand that person’s life philosophy. Thus, one must know my life philosophy to fully understand and appreciate my writings. I never ask that everybody agree with me; all I ever ask is that everybody try to understand my point of view, what makes me tick. Hopefully, knowing my underlying life philosophy will enable others to understand my point of view--they may not agree with it, but at least they will understand it.
The problem with libertarianism is that unless there is a concerted effort to understand the traditions and principles of libertarians, there is a tendency to portray libertarians as non-conformists who cannot get along with anybody and have difficulty dealing with authority. Libertarians are only portrayed as such in those societies that value conformity above all else. Societies like Nazi Germany, where those who did not join the cause were persecuted. Societies like Soviet Russia, where people were treated like interchangeable cogs in the machinery of state.
Unfree and authoritarian societies have great difficulties with libertarian ideals because libertarianism encourages free thought and individuality, which in turn encourages freedom. A populace that has the ability to think for itself is not as likely to be duped by a strongman as one that does not have such an ability. A truly libertarian society, then, is truly free.
This is the ideal I have followed throughout my life. So, while it may seem like I am taking both sides of an issue, I am not. I do not take “sides”, per se, because taking sides implies that someone is right and someone is wrong, and, as long as the action in question does not affect more than one person, then rightness is in the mind of the one doing the action. An important caveat here--when actions do affect others, I do take “sides”, as there is only one morally correct action; in other words, when the rights of others are violated, the offensive action’s rightness is not open to debate, as it violates the absolute morality of “love your neighbor.”
I am proud to be a libertarian. I am proud to be a Christian. I am proud to embrace the principals of tolerance and individual choice cherished in both libertarian philosophy and the Gospels. It is from this context, then, from whence I am.