This article was originally published by the Christian Institute in 2003 and was subsequently republished in 2008 and 2015. It has been republished in this abridged format with permission from the author and license from the Christian Institute. Readers may access the article in full on the Christian Institute's website.
At the social level, all the destructive trends we have observed since the cultural revolution of the 1960s are either still with us or getting worse. At the same time, and partly in response to this, there has been a huge increase in the regulatory power of the State, which, combined with the revolution in information technology, has greatly enhanced its ability to monitor our activities and interfere with our lives.
At the ideological level, the spread of ‘political correctness’ is gradually eroding freedom of thought and speech by discouraging legitimate criticism of contemporary ideas and fashions. The most obvious example of this is the change that has taken place in the meaning of ‘tolerance’. Instead of signifying, as it used to, a readiness to respect the right of individuals to express opinions or engage in activities of which one disapproves, the whole concept has been turned on its head so that ‘tolerance’ now implies approval.
Underlying this Orwellian corruption of the old liberal idea of tolerance, is the politically correct but question-begging assumption that all cultures and lifestyles are ‘equal’, and that it is therefore wrong to make critical or ‘judgmental’ comparisons.
But is this moral and cultural relativism really justified? Does history suggest that all religions, ideologies and institutions have been equally beneficial? Is it logical to suggest that conflicting philosophies or belief-systems are equally true? Furthermore, if all ‘truth’ is subjective and therefore illusory, what is the moral justification for making the politically correct value judgment that it is ‘wrong’ to be ‘judgmental’?
Given this background of intellectual confusion and cultural decay, close analysis of the ideology of Libertarianism can throw valuable light on many contemporary political and social issues.
What is Libertarianism and why is it important?
Libertarianism is an eclectic philosophy and movement. Although it is made up of different political and philosophical strands, and there is plenty of disagreement among Libertarians over particular issues, its core doctrine encapsulates the following propositions:
(1) The individual is an end in himself and possesses ‘natural rights’ stemming from the requirements of his nature as an active and rational being;
(2) The individual mind is the source of all creativity and the fountainhead of all human progress;
(3) Liberty is the essential condition of all human progress and achievement;
(4) The right to personal liberty is absolute so long as its exercise does not infringe the equal rights of others;
(5) Private property rights are also absolute because the individual has an unlimited right to the product of his labour;
(6) Free market capitalism is the only economic system compatible with freedom and the individual’s ‘natural rights’;
(7) The role of the State should be strictly limited to the protection of life, liberty and property, and to the enforcement of contracts;
(8) Taxation for any other purpose than the protection of life, liberty and property (i.e. to finance the ‘Nightwatchman State’), is theft;
(9) In the areas of sex, marriage, and the family, there are no moral or cultural absolutes: all forms of sexuality, ‘marriage’, family structures and ‘lifestyles’ are equally valid and permissible so long as they result from freedom of choice; and
(10) Since individuals have an absolute right to do what they like with their lives, bodies, and property as long as they respect the rights of others, there should - in a free society - be no restrictions on the consumption or sale (at least by adults) of drugs, pornography, and other perverse substances and forms of ‘entertainment’.
Finally, in addition to a belief in these propositions, there is a marked tendency among most (though not all) Libertarians towards atheism and theophobia.
By that, I mean they not only tend to disbelieve in the existence of God; they actually dislike the very idea of God. To many Libertarians, the possibility that there is a Creator to whom they owe their existence, and to whom they are ultimately accountable for the use they make of their lives, is extremely unwelcome. It not only poses an unacceptable threat to their sense of personal pride and autonomy, but also offends their moral sensibilities, since they equate reverence for God with the totalitarian worship of power.
At the political level, it has exerted a strong influence on the younger and more intellectual elements within the Conservative Party, whilst the numerous publications of the London-based Libertarian Alliance attract many intelligent readers and political activists.
It is, however, the cultural impact of Libertarianism which is most significant today. In a nutshell, it both appeals to and reinforces that dislike of authority which is such a marked feature of contemporary British and Western culture. Whilst its attitude to taxation, government regulation, and the Welfare State, is only shared by a small minority, its agnosticism in the area of ‘personal morality’ and its indifference or hostility towards Christianity puts it firmly in the cultural mainstream.
What is true in Libertarianism?
What can Christians learn from Libertarianism? How much truth is contained in this ideology? A great deal, is again the short answer.
Individuals, the Bible teaches us, are not only made in the image of God, possessing the gifts of reason, conscience and free will, but are also the objects of God’s love. It therefore follows that individuals are ends in themselves and have God-given rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ - to quote the famous phrase from the American Declaration of Independence. This in turn means that the individual does not belong to the State and that all totalitarian political ideologies and systems are therefore immoral and evil.
Libertarians are not only correct in insisting that we have ‘natural rights’ which no government ought to be allowed to violate; they are also correct in their insistence on the fact that personal liberty is essential to moral growth. Unless we are free to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, we cannot be held responsible for our actions and we cannot learn from our mistakes and grow into better people. It is also true, from a theological point of view, that we cannot enter into a love-relationship with God if our obedience and worship is coerced. That is precisely why God has given us free will, and with it, the ability to think and discover truth. We are not robots to be ordered about by the Church or the State.
If freedom of conscience is essential to moral and spiritual growth, it is also an essential requirement for the pursuit of knowledge and truth, as Milton argued in defence of the freedom of the press in the 17th century, and John Stuart-Mill argued in his famous essay On Liberty in 1859. Unless we are free to compare and discuss ideas, and to pursue different avenues of inquiry, we cannot grow in our understanding of life, society, and the world in which we live. This is especially important in religion, politics, and science. The more controversial the issue, the more wide-ranging its implications, the more we need to be free to listen to different points of view and form our own opinions.
The great traditional arguments in defence of ‘civil liberties’ are extremely compelling and need to be rediscovered and restated in every generation, but does the same apply to private property rights and economic freedom?
Undoubtedly. In the first place, individuals have a right (though not an absolute one) to the product of their labour, especially if that labour has brought into existence resources or benefits which did not previously exist.
Secondly, it does not take a genius to realise that private property rights and the right to a free choice of occupation and employment are essential conditions of productive achievement. But even more important is the fact that the existence of private property and economic freedom is essential to the maintenance of a free society, since power is then diffused throughout society rather than being concentrated in the State.
If the ‘positive’ case for liberty is a powerful one, the ‘negative’ case is even more conclusive, and is similarly rooted in the inherent nature of human beings. Not only does liberty give us the ‘space’ we need for personal growth and fulfilment; it also offers some protection against evil by limiting the extent to which we can harm each other.
Here we hit upon a vital truth which Christians, above all others, ought to appreciate, but have all too often forgotten. It is this: since human nature is inherently flawed and imperfect, as we know from our personal lives and are reminded by every news bulletin, power always has a tendency to corrupt unless it is strictly limited and controlled. Even the most benevolent rulers may turn into tyrants if their good intentions are thwarted or their appetites aroused by the temptations of office.
It follows from this, that one of the primary functions of any political system, is to create a framework of checks and balances which will prevent governments from oppressing their own citizens. It also suggests that people must not automatically assume that State intervention or regulation is the best answer to every social problem.
For all these reasons, Libertarians are right to be inherently suspicious of the State, particularly when one examines the record of the State throughout history. History not only teaches the lesson that power corrupts and government should be limited; it also teaches that this lesson applies to the Church as much as the State. Whilst the Church acted as ‘the conscience of kings’ and a check on secular rulers during most of the Middle Ages, it often abused power in its own domain and it did not respect freedom of conscience or allow dissent except within very narrow limits.
What is wrong with Libertarianism?
Its first great failing is that it suffers from an idolatrous tendency to make freedom and personal choice an end in itself, forgetting that freedom is only a means to other ends. The question that must be faced, however, is why should we value liberty?
If, as the great traditional arguments for liberty insist, freedom is essential to the cultivation of goodness, the pursuit of truth and the release of creativity, it follows that freedom derives its value and significance from its anchorage in an objective moral order. But if this is the case, it also follows that it is legitimate to criticise or restrain liberty if its pursuit in any particular instance damages or endangers other important values. Is there not, after all, a conflict between unlimited freedom of expression and the desirability of preserving a civilised culture?
The second great failing of Libertarianism is its illogical and unjustified assumption that the right to personal liberty cannot be restricted in one area without inevitably destroying it in others. Is it not possible to achieve a balance between conflicting but good objectives? Why will the ‘Tree of Liberty’ be cut down just because some of its twigs and branches have been pruned?
This tendency within Libertarianism to rhetorical exaggeration and ideological rigidity reflects a failure to appreciate that even the best and most clearly thought-out philosophy can never encapsulate and do justice to the full complexity of human life and society. It can only offer rough guidelines on which to base choices and decisions, not a foolproof blueprint which covers every eventuality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of ‘personal morality’.
The Libertarian rule that personal liberty should only be limited by the obligation on all individuals to respect the equal rights of others, not only ignores the fact that there are other moral values with which a compromise may need to be struck; it also makes the mistake of thinking that there is an absolutely clear and rigid distinction between actions which only affect ourselves, and actions which affect other people. The truth, however, is that most of our actions have some impact on other people.
If, for instance, no proper limits are placed on the sale and consumption of pornography, and hard drugs, and no real attempt is made to control the amount of sex, violence, and bad language allowed in films and on television, what is going to be the likely result?
The answer to the last question is that it is not only the quality of our social life which is threatened by the prevailing climate of permissiveness and amorality; freedom itself is endangered.
In the first place, a society whose members are too absorbed in the pursuit of pleasure to develop high standards of personal behaviour, tends to have little respect for moral and intellectual excellence, especially if its cultural leaders preach the subjectivity of all values and treat all choices of ‘lifestyle’ as a matter of personal taste like food and clothing.
This, in turn, produces a truculent and egalitarian mindset which dislikes hierarchy and authority within social institutions like the family, schools and colleges, and other ‘private’ and non-governmental bodies. The end result is a social vacuum of growing confusion, division and lawlessness, which is filled by an increasingly intrusive and authoritarian State.
The second reason why contemporary moral decay threatens liberty has to do with the logic of ideas as well as the psychology of human behaviour. If it is generally believed that individuals have the right to do anything they like in their private lives, because moral values are not absolute but a matter of ‘personal choice’, rulers and officials can similarly argue that they should be able to do whatever they like with power, if this advances their own interests.
Moral relativism, in other words, encourages the pursuit of personal gratification and expediency within the organs of the State, and so paves the way to tyranny. Or to put it another way: if totalitarianism is thought of as ‘permissiveness with power’, the link between moral laxity and despotism becomes even more obvious.
The potential threat to freedom posed by our currently ‘permissive’ culture, is becoming all the greater, because the damage caused by moral relativism increases if it reinforces existing tendencies towards self-indulgence and violence. As the evidence of history demonstrates, there is a close psychological connection between unchecked lust and physical cruelty and brutality. In both cases, there is a common lack of self-control and a tendency to treat other human beings as objects.
Hence the fact that cruel societies are often sexually self-indulgent ones, as ancient Rome was in the first century. To quote the great psychologist, Jung: “At a time when a large part of mankind is beginning to discard Christianity, it is worth while to understand clearly why it was originally accepted. It was accepted in order to escape at last from the brutality of antiquity. As soon as we discard it licentiousness returns, as is impressively exemplified by life in our large modern cities...we can hardly realize in this day the whirlwinds of the unchained libido which roared through the ancient Rome of the Caesars.”
If Libertarianism deserves criticism because its unbalanced view of liberty helps to weaken the moral and social bonds which hold a civilised society together, what should be our response to the Libertarian dogma that ‘taxation is theft’ and that there should be no tax-funded public welfare? An equally critical one, is again the answer, for two reasons.
Firstly, property rights ought not to be absolute. Like personal liberty they derive their justification from an ethical system which, at the same time, provides reasonable grounds for their limitation so as to achieve other equally important moral objectives. This means that taxation is not necessarily theft if it advances moral goals or produces moral benefits which would not otherwise be achieved. Taxation must not be excessive or confiscatory, for obvious moral and economic reasons, but it is nonsense to say in principle that it can never be justified to relieve poverty or safeguard public welfare in other ways.
Secondly, helping others who are in need through no fault of their own is a moral duty. We ought to relieve undeserved suffering and increase the opportunities of the poor to live a fuller and happier life than would otherwise be possible. By doing so we help to create a better society because we increase the number of people who can share in the benefits of freedom and contribute their gifts and talents to the common good.
The great 19th century Italian liberal, Mazzini, in his eloquent book, The Duties of Man, denounced selfish individualism but made it equally clear that a State-owned and controlled economy is totally destructive of freedom. He also, interestingly enough, criticised atheism and insisted that we have duties to God as well as each other.
This naturally throws the critical spotlight onto Libertarian atheism and theophobia. Is it really true that religious belief is irrational? Is it really the case that reverence for God is a form of self-abasing power- worship which breeds intolerance and is incompatible with the spirit of liberty?
To begin with, it is the rationality of atheism, rather than belief in God, which is truly questionable. To accept atheism, you have to believe that our extraordinary universe, with all its amazingly complex life-forms, structures, and scientific laws, is simply the accidental consequence of random physical and chemical processes. Is this really credible?
Libertarian atheists are confronted by an even greater problem nearer home. They cannot explain human consciousness, and therefore their own capacity to think, choose, and discover moral values, including the desirability of liberty.
If atheism is true, our minds are wholly dependent on our brains (we have no souls) and our brains are an accidental by-product of the physical universe. But if this is the case, it means that all our thoughts, beliefs, and choices are simply the inevitable end result of a long chain of non-rational causes. How then can we have free will or attach any validity or importance to our reasoning processes?
Our awareness of objective moral norms and values has similarly theistic implications. We cannot explain away our innate sense of right and wrong by saying that our moral perceptions are instincts, since our instincts are often in conflict with each other, and are themselves in need of moral adjudication before we can know how we ought to act.
In the end, unless we are moral nihilists, we must recognise that our moral perceptions about the value of life and liberty, and the rules we must obey in order to safeguard society, are self-evident truths, or axioms. As such, they are as rational and objective as the rules of logic and mathematics, and failure to understand them is the moral equivalent of colour-blindness.
But if this is the case, how can it be explained or justified if human beings are only biological machines put together by chance in an accidental universe? How can their moral ‘thoughts’ have any inherent meaning or significance? Only, surely, if the Moral Law ‘written on our hearts’ is somehow a reflection of an eternal, self-existent ‘Goodness’ outside ourselves and ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ the physical order of ‘Nature’, in other words, God.
Libertarian atheism, then, cuts its own throat philosophically and, by doing so, deprives liberty of any firm philosophical foundation. Belief in the existence and goodness of God is far more rational than disbelief.
Why libertarian theophobia is misguided
Libertarian theophobia is not only foolish because atheism is philosophically untenable; it is also misguided because it ignores the obvious implications of the discovery of God’s existence and nature.
If reason, let alone revelation, tells us that we are the products of an infinitely good, loving, and powerful Creator, it means that we owe the gift of life to God. It means that our whole being, our whole capacity to think, and feel, and act, is dependent on God, who not only created all that exists, but sustains it in being.
The truth is, if God is our Creator, to knowingly ignore or reject Him is to be like a plant that refuses to grow towards the sunlight. It is an act of ingratitude and supreme idiocy. If, on top of this, we subsequently reject His grace and forgiveness, it will separate us in eternity from the true source of all life, love, and joy.
As the Bible repeatedly teaches us, our first and most important duty is to love, honour, and obey our Creator, who has made us in His image, and has given us free will, so that we can share His love, His life, and His joy. Reason and the Bible also tell us that all our gifts, talents, and resources, come from God and are therefore to be used in His service to make the world a better place to live in. This means that God gives us the wonderful opportunity to share in His continuous creative act, by making our own personal contribution to the pursuit of beauty, knowledge, and goodness.
Since we are not biological robots, but have free will, we can either make good use of our freedom or prey on other lives and become evil. If we make the wrong choice, we cannot blame God for the suffering we inflict on ourselves and others.
Our knowledge of the Moral Law not only reveals our link with God and challenges us to love and obey Him; it is also an essential part of our inner freedom to choose and act. Without this sense of right and wrong, our ability to control our desires and appetites, and resist our worst impulses, gradually weakens, and we eventually lose control over our wills and actions.
If it is the case that a belief in objective moral values sustains our inner freedom and teaches us our duties towards each other, what is likely to happen if people stop believing in God? The answer ought to be obvious. Belief in the absoluteness of the Moral Law will tend to wither, and the fear of violating it will also tend to vanish, since it is no longer perceived to have an eternal sanction behind it. This in turn will sooner or later have a predictably harmful effect on personal behaviour.
That is precisely what has happened in our increasingly godless and secularised Western societies. As high-minded 19th century agnostics like T.H. Huxley and George Eliot feared, the erosion of religious belief and Christianity in the West has been followed, after a long time-lag, by the cultural and social decay we see around us today. As a result, liberty itself is now in danger of committing suicide, because the moral self-discipline required to sustain a free and civilised society is rapidly disappearing.
Libertarian theophobia not only encourages licence and social dissolution: it also fails to see the importance of the State in restraining evil in society – something St Paul refers to in Romans 13. The greater the lack of moral self-discipline in society, the more the State will be forced to intrude in personal affairs.
As the great Conservative philosopher, Edmund Burke, famously observed in the 18th century: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power on will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”
It is therefore appropriate that I should conclude with George Washington’s famous warning to his countrymen, contained in his farewell address to Congress as America’s first President (17 September 1796):
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports...Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”