obsolete.computer/reflections/

A Christian’s case for libertarian society

I hate politics with a passion, but I realized a few years ago that if the politically apathetic don’t start thinking, caring, and voting, then those who wish to gain power over others — especially over the apathetic — through our crooked political process will only succeed in doing so. Previously, I attempted to logically and rationally ground my belief in the central teachings of Christianity, now I’ll try a similar thing and flesh out the reasons behind my political “leanings”.

Ideas have Consequences

While chatting online a couple years ago, A friend inadvertently gave me a good starting point for this post. In reference to a conversation he had with a mutual friend, he said: “i told him that his faith in the free market was about as strong as his faith in Jesus, and that it was borderline idolatry... ;)”. At first, I was struck that what he said might be true, that such faith was borderline idolatry. However, as I thought about it throughout the day, I wondered “why is it borderline idolatry?” What is wrong with believing in something almost as much as you believe in Christ? If you’ve had obsessions, as I have, with getting to the roots of both Christian theology and Austrian economic theory, you’ll realize that they have something in common: they are both rational, warranted philosophies. In both schools of thought, faith is not blind, it is justified. Both thought systems (worldviews) can be built on the unshakable foundation of axioms we all already accept, coupled with reason, logic, a careful investigation of history, and even the support of science when appropriate. In fact, I think it’s fairly easy to show that market freedom and other libertarian principles are derivable from core Christian principles... not only that, but Christian principles may form the only valid libertarian foundation, or at least the best one.

Before I dive in too deep, let me explain the core of the libertarian philosophy. Many (probably most) libertarians derive their system of thought from something called the Nonaggression Axiom, which, paraphrased, says: A person may not aggress against another person or their property except when aggressed against. I’m not sure who initially coined it, but I don’t think it matters because it’s a fairly straghtforward and obvious assertion when it’s openly stated, and most people would agree that it is a good foundational principle[1]. The Nonaggression Axiom can then be extrapolated to give solutions to a wide variety of policy issues. Here are some examples of violations of the axiom (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to restate these as syllogisms) :

  • Dropping bombs or establishing military bases in a country that did not first initiate force against the U.S.
  • Breaking into someone’s house because they are using a “controlled” substance.
  • Sending someone to jail for refusing to surrender a portion of their lawfully-obtained business earnings.
  • Killing the leader of a militant organization without going through due process to establish guilt.
  • Fining and/or threatening jail time when a person makes copies of a CD to give to friends.[2]

Another implication of the axiom is that the same acts that would be despicable should an individual perform them, are also despicable when performed by a government. I.e., murder, theft, coercion, etc. are just as wrong when a politician or someone under a politician’s command performs them.

I won’t go any deeper, because there’s lots written (PDF) on the application of the Nonagression Axiom.

Ethics vs. Conventions

As I got to thinking about this axiom, I wondered: what makes it so axiomatic? In other words, why should this be a foundational principle? Rothbard, for example, spends a good chunk of his Libertarian Manifesto (linked just above) grounding the principle in what he calls “natural law”. But the best I can figure is that his logic boils down to: “Economizing, or freely controlling scarce means to accomplish desired ends, is what man does (it’s in his nature), and other entities in the universe do not, so it’s what he should be free to do.” Needles to say I wasn’t exactly moved by his defense of the principle (but please check it out yourself, there’s a lot more to it of course).

Then something hit me: The Nonaggression Axiom sounds an awful lot like a mashup of two of the ten commandments: “You shall not commit murder” and “you shall not steal”. Furthermore, these commandments can be summed up by what Jesus told his apostles: Do unto others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31)[3]. Maybe the axiom is valid because it is something that God desires for us? I happen to think that God gave us (or initially, the people of Israel) laws not because he’s a control freak — if he was, why would we have freewill? — but because he knows what’s best for us individually and for the development of our society. Perhaps what’s really happening is that God has “written his law on our hearts”, a la Jeremiah 31:33, and the deep resonance of this axiom with our ethical sensibilities is due to the fact that it is a reflection of its true foundation, i.e. the character of God. God does not commit murder or steal unless he is aggressed (sinned) against (and besides, life and property are ultimately his to freely give and take), and he’s even gone as far as to come up with a way for our debts to be paid, i.e. the sacrifice of Christ. Though again, salvation is not forced upon us: you will only be saved if you wish to be, which requires the recognition that you have debts to pay in the first place.

The more I think about it, the less I see how libertarian philosophy could stand on its own without being rooted in God’s character. As I’ve said before, our desire to do what is right makes no sense if there is no standard of rightness aside from social convention. So why should we embrace this idea of nonaggression if it’s just a convention, i.e. it’s just what’s getting popular this century? I would certainly prefer to go to the store and just take what I want without paying, or hire someone to kill the people that annoy me — I could even try to justify my actions by saying I’m stealing or killing for someone else’s benefit. But no one goes around saying that we shouldn’t initiate force against others because peace is conventional — actually peace is quite unconventional. Instead, we say peace is good... universally good I would contend, and violence only justified when used to correct prior wrongdoing (contrary to many of the actions of our government).

Once again, Ideas have Consequences

What reinforces the idea that the Nonaggression Axiom is true is that it yields practical results; that is, it benefits society on every level. Of course it would yield much peace, but the benefits of respecting others’ private property are not as obvious. One of the main lessons I’ve taken away from economics is that, demonstrably, protectionism (i.e. government intervention which attempts to control prices or supply on purportedly ethical grounds) of any kind is harmful to the market and society as a whole, and it often hurts those it is intended to protect. While it can — and is usually intended to — benefit one party, the other party is invariably hurt to the point of reducing the efficiency of the whole market. For example, when we tax only the rich (producers), we also hurt the poor because we’ve made it more expensive to produce the goods that the poor need; not to mention that taxes make the government more powerful and as such increase the danger of companies using government influence to protect their position as market leader (think about the patent thicket in spartphones, for example). But when the rich are not taxed, and the government has no power to act as market gatekeeper and competitors are free to enter the market, the consumers (you, me, and the impoverished alike) are the ones who become empowered because they now have choice, and the producers must bring prices down and drive innovation forward to win the consumer’s business. Throughout history, time and time again, this is how goods have become more affordable for everyone... it’s been the free market and the drive of individuals, not protectionism or central economic planning, that have brought up the standard of living for even the least fortunate.

And now the politics part

It pains me, deeply, to even mention the name of a politican. It goes squarely against my desire for everyone to think out these questions and seek solutions on their own without coercion. But perhaps if you end up agreeing with what I’m saying here, I’ll be giving you a shortcut by mentioning Ron Paul, the anti-war, anti-taxation, anti-coercion anti-politician who happens to be a member of congress and is running for president (and doing pretty well so far). Don’t take my word for it though, do your homework. I’m not even going to link to his website.

Boiling it Down to a Syllogism

So as before, here’s the syllogism that simplifies what I’m trying to say here:

  • We should enact all laws which are both good and yield practical results.
  • A good law is one which reflects God’s character because he is the source of goodness.
  • God’s universal commandments reflect his character (I say “universal” to contrast with case law and Levitical laws which were given to the Israelites and thus applied specifically to them).
  • The Nonaggression Axiom is good because it is a form of various universal commandments already given by God.
  • The Nonaggression Axiom yields practical results (peace, prosperity).
  • Therefore we should enact the Nonaggression Axiom as law.

As such, policies which derive from the axiom — such as eliminating taxation, ending all non-reciprocal violent intervention overseas, legalizing the use of any commodity as currency, getting all coercive and regulatory laws off the federal books such as those regarding healthcare, marriage, drugs, the internet, and education — will end up yielding practical benefits and they will be on solid ethical ground.

Of course we have some laws like the axiom on the books, the real root of America’s problems is that our government does not “practice what it preaches”, nor does it base our legal system on a logical outworking of universal law (as it was originally intended to do). And it goes without saying that politicians should either follow the law or lose their privilege to govern. This should be bleedingly obvious but I’ll make it a syllogism anyway:

  • The Nonagression Axiom applies to all people.
  • Politicians are people.
  • Therefore the Nonagression Axiom applies to politicians.

On second thought, maybe my argument is flawed after all, I’m not so sure about that second premise...

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[1] Though a pacifist would leave off the “except” clause. I am still torn about being a pacifist: Jesus seems to advocate it on a personal level (turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute you, give to everyone who asks you, those who live by the sword, etc.), but if as a society we never sought justice for wrongdoings how would we not be crippled by fear of, say, the mob or local militia we don’t happen to agree with? How do we carry out the law if when we disobey we’re simply given the chance to disobey again? And should I stand by and watch if my family is being murdered? The compromise I’ve come up with is that pacifism is preferred when it comes to one’s self, but in protecting others aggression is justified as long as one is acting from love (as long as another person’s possessions are not taken to enable the action). So when something of mine is stolen, there’s no need for me to act out against the thief but when we see others harmed we should act. The law, then, should always be carried out in love for both the victim and the trespasser, which seems odd but makes perfect sense when you consider that God gave us laws for our benefit (out of extension from his character). But I’ll admit it’s still somewhat of a grey area.

[2] I don’t think that “intellectual property” follows the same rules as actual property, because it is not scarce in the economic sense. That is, when you use an idea I’ve come up with, you haven’t stolen it, you’ve only copied it, which does me no harm because I still have it. If you then claim it was entirely your idea, you’re simply lying (or “bearing false witness against your neighbor” — which is the real target of trademark laws). Because ideas, art, software, music, and other intangible things are infinitely divisible like this (and in fact they only become more valuable the more they are divided), they need not be “economized” as real property is, and thus private property laws don’t need to apply to them. Libertarians are still somewhat divided on this issue, but due to the permeation of artwork, music, technology, and ideas via the internet, as well as the widespread realization that all creative work including software is derivative by nature, a consensus seems to be slowly emerging that copyright and patent laws are not logically consistent with the first amendment, and that they stifle innovation and creativity in profound ways. This upholds the libertarian idea that government intervention is not necessary for a vibrant, healthy, creative culture and, more often than not, damages that which it seeks to uphold. See the book by Stephan Kinsella (freely downloadable PDF), Against Intellectual Property.

[3] Other religions of course have their own versions of the golden rule, which lends to its universal truth. The difference of the Christian version is twofold: First, it is stated more positively than other versions; i.e., “do that which you would have...”, as opposed to “do not do that which you would not have...”. This makes it an even stronger statement. The bigger difference in my mind, however, is that while Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions are striving to achieve a higher good through the principle, the source or foundation of the principle is not explicit; whereas in Christian theology, God’s very nature is the source of goodness, which will always be the same in every possible universe. In other words, goodness and godliness are necessarily synonyms; otherwise you run into Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Contrast this also with Islam, or even the old polytheistic religions, which state that God’s laws are his arbitrary, off-the-cuff decrees. This is why I ground my argument in specifically Christian principles (though I think Jewish principles would technically work for the same reason), rather than some “universal ethics”: because we can see why Christian ethics are valid, and will always be valid.