Libertarianism, Absolutism, and Christianity
It may come as a surprise that libertarianism does not require one to hold liberal views on social issues. By requiring only adherence to the non-aggression principle (NAP), the free market, and the institution of private property, the libertarian view allows for disagreements on, as President Obama might say, a whole host of issues -- including the hotly debated subjects of abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage. In short, there are several ways in which libertarianism and conservatism might be amenable to each other.
It is my intention here, as a sort of conciliatory effort, to clear up some possible misapprehensions of libertarianism which may serve to lead conservatives to dismiss it as contrary to their purposes. I will attempt to offer grounds for understanding and cooperation between the two worldviews by demonstrating (1) the way in which moral absolutism relates to libertarianism and (2) the importance of not simply religion, but Christianity in the libertarian movement's formation.
It is an understandable misconception that libertarians are, or must be, moral relativists; after all, no less a revered libertarian than Ludwig von Mises strongly maintained that value judgments are merely matters of fancy. However, just because Mises was a moral relativist doesn't mean that all libertarians are as well. In fact, it is my contention -- as well as that of theorist Murray Rothbard, referred to in certain circles as "Mr. Libertarian" -- that moral relativism is incapable of fostering a comprehensive doctrine of liberty1. It must be replaced with an objective morality -- one that acknowledges that certain things are right or wrong independent of the opinions or tastes of different individuals. This notion is nowhere better demonstrated than in the thought experiment involving a libertarian moral relativist, believing all value judgments to be no more than taste preferences, saying that "the NAP ought to be adhered to." What this moral relativist is really saying is "I like the NAP." As philosopher J.P. Moreland has offered, such a subjective statement carries no weight whatsoever and is simply insufficient as a normative appeal.
So moral absolutism sustains libertarian theory in a way that moral relativism does not. And, as argued by this peer-reviewed libertarian essay, to say that there exist moral absolutes is to allude to a detectable realm of objective moral values -- a moral order of good and evil, right and wrong. But the existence of such a realm presents some interesting questions: what is its cause? And who is the author of its values?
The most comprehensive justification of libertarianism in this regard, then, is arrived at through the acknowledgement of a moral order -- replete with laws and duties -- and, I contend, of a Moral Law-Giver (the most plausible basis of said order2), serving to grant significance and moral authority to appeals for society's adherence to the NAP.
Historically, Christianity and Christian thinkers were instrumental in communicating to humanity the necessity of establishing value systems separate from those imposed upon it by governments. French historian Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges skillfully articulated this reality:
Christianity ... refuses to assume the empire which [ancient] worships had exercised over civil society. It professes that between the state and itself there is nothing in common. It separates what all antiquity had confounded. ... [It establishes] an abyss between the domain of the government and the domain of religion; and ... this distinction became a plain and incontestable truth. ... This new principle was the source whence individual liberty flowed.
Rothbard, in fact, concurred with this assessment. He ascribed the concepts of individualism and liberty to Christianity. And Rothbard is not alone among libertarians in giving Christianity its proper due. Libertarian theorist (and atheist!) Walter Block noted that the priests of the school of Salamanca3 were the intellectual and moral predecessors of the libertarian doctrine.
And the list does not end with Dr. Block's appraisal.
Respected libertarian economist and author of Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism (liberalism here meaning the philosophy of freedom, not progressivism) Jörg Guido Hülsmann claimed that his assessment of the relationship between Christianity and libertarianism is not simply "a skin-deep statement of the truth," but rather one that "goes to the root of the matter." Hülsmann stated:
The Christian faith ... is fundamental for individual liberty, both as far as the historical record is concerned and on the conceptual level. ... The light of [the truths of libertarian political theory is] but a reflection of the encompassing and eternal light that radiates from God through His Son and the Holy Spirit.
Suffice it to say that Christianity is indispensible to libertarianism (well, to Western civilization and to humanity at large), and it seems justifiable to posit that in its absence, any society with individualism and liberty as its basis would never have formed, at least not in any organized or substantial manner.
Elsewhere I have attempted to demonstrate not that every libertarian, in practice, is a social conservative, but that, in theory, it's possible for one to be a libertarian and hold non-NAP-violating conservative views on social issues. In this paper, I am not in any way arguing that all libertarians are moral absolutists or Christians. I am arguing, rather, that both moral absolutism and Christianity are consonant with libertarianism and that this branch of law would not be complete without the former and, likely, would not exist without the latter.
There exists common ground between libertarians and conservatives, and if each strove to better understand the other, our efforts at halting the oppressions of collectivism would be far better served.
Sean Parr is an enemy of constraint. He can be contacted at Parrfection@bellsouth.net.
1 Rothbard stated that "Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics ... must be supplemented by an absolutist ethics-an ethics of liberty ... grounded on natural law."
2 Morality cannot be scientifically approached, and one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that moral objectivity might derive from biological evolution -- a process subject to a degree of capriciousness so considerable that a moral system could hardly be thought of as absolute that developed by means of its randomly selective nature.
3 The Dominicans: Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546), Domingo de Soto (1494-1560), Juan de Medina (1490-1546), Martin de Azpilcueta (Navarrus) (1493-1586), Diego de Covarrubias y Leiva (1512-1577), and Tomas de Mercado (1530-1576). The Jesuits: Luis Molina (Molineus) (1535-1600), Cardinal Juan de Lugo (1583-1660), Leonard de Leys (Lessius) (1554-1623), and Juan de Mariana (1536-1624).