It’s 2015. There has been an undeniable surge in interest in the political philosophy known as libertarianism. Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, with his recent bids for the White House, can take some credit for this. His brand of libertarian thinking managed to create a groundswell of excitement among young voters who might otherwise have sat on the sidelines.
The reaction from within evangelical churches has been interesting, if not well-informed. Celebrity pastors have uttered cryptic warnings to their own young people. Libertarianism is libertine; libertarianism is codified atheism; libertarianism is an abandonment of biblical morality, and etc. Better by far to stick with the GOP and its election-time, half-hearted stammering about morality, followed by its own brand of codified atheism and abandonment of biblical principles!
It must, nonetheless, be admitted that modern libertarianism is dominated by atheistic thinkers. No doubt, many rank-and-file adherents are unbelievers as well. Several of the classic writers associated with libertarianism, from Rothbard to Hayek to Bastiat; to Silva and Mises; and on up to Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, were not Christian in their beliefs. This has contributed to the notion that libertarianism is an atheistic phenomenon.
This widespread notion has caused detractors to wonder out loud whether or not a Christian version of libertarianism is even possible.
We won’t bother to answer that question here: Instead, we will go a step beyond that, and assert that there is no basis for libertarianism apart from Christianity. Secular libertarianism is the real oxymoron.
As I have shown in my book, Resistance to Tyrants, it is only Christianity, with its special revelation, a full Bible breathed out by the one living God, that is capable of supplying the philosophical and moral foundations that will allow human freedom to weather the storms and remain standing. Christianity is the basis for genuine libertarianism. Atheistic libertarianism is the contradiction. It only ever gets anything right by stumbling into a biblical principle now and again. It is the proverbial blind squirrel that manages to accidentally find a few nuts.
But let’s give credit where it is due. Murray Rothbard and those like him in the list above have done some really good work in terms of thinking things through. The blind squirrels who are at least looking for nuts, and rejoicing when they find them, have been wiser than generations of Christians, who, having been handed buckets full of acorns in the Scriptures, sniffed their wrinkled noses at them and went off chasing shiny things.
With all due respect, then, and even with a great deal of gratitude, this article will show why secular or atheistic libertarianism is doomed to inconsistency from the get-go. It cannot secure true liberty. It cannot even offer a defense of individual rights, which is supposed to be the whole point of it. You cannot build a fortress on beach sand, and you cannot defend freedom from the ramparts of human opinion, either.
Atheism can provide no secure defense for liberty, precisely because it cannot provide a secure defense for any thought in particular. Here is how C.S. Lewis explained this:
“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”
Given atheism, and materialistic naturalism, as popularly expressed in evolution theory, both the reader and the writer of these lines are nothing more than accidental conglomerations of chemicals. Sure, we’re happy it turned out this way. We’re not complaining. But even that happiness we have about the current outcome of all the universal randomness, the happy feeling itself, is nothing but a chemical release caused by several other chemicals bouncing off of circumstances and stimuli. Change those latter constituents a little bit, and our happy feeling becomes a sad one, just as meaningless.
Every thought in every human brain is the bio-electrical result of other chemical processes. How can such things be meaningful at all?
To borrow an illustration from contrarian author Douglas Wilson, given evolution, two humans arguing about anything at all can be compared to two cans of warm soda, popped open and set next to each other on the table. One doesn’t like the way the bubbles are fizzing in the other. It’s doing it wrong. The other one says, no, you’re the one fizzing wrong.
How ridiculous, right? They’re both only fizzing, releasing bursts of carbon dioxide in random fashion. The fizzing just is. It’s stupid to assign any meaning to it, one way or the other.
And so we basically have about 6 billion fizzing cans of soda on the planet right now, arguing with each other about all sorts of things, including politics and morality and libertarian theories. Some recent atheist apologists have even suggested that we fizz the way we do because we cannot do otherwise. Every thought in our head is a hardwired result of all the other things that have ever happened to us, both in terms of external stimuli and internal chemistry. Forget “free will.” The whole concept is a bust. There is no will at all, free or otherwise. There is only the chemistry. Things fizz, man.
Once there was a can of soda called Ayn Rand, and the random bubbles of her spongy brain-stuff came up with something called objectivist liberatarianism. She couldn’t help it; don’t get mad at her. The chemistry! But now it’s been a long time since she stopped fizzing altogether, and, y’know, really, why should anyone fizz in a manner that looks like “caring” about how she happened to fizz? Six billion of one, half a dozen of the other.
Given man as a bag of chemicals, and his thoughts as basically involuntary electric sparks, why should libertarianism be given any more of a hearing than, say, Communism or fascism? Communism, after all, is an officially atheistic theory of government, just like Hayek’s brand of libertarianism. They’re not really all that different, at least in terms of their beginnings. Both are founded on the notion that the smartest of the fizzing bubble bags among us can fizz in such a way as to get it all figured out. Neither one can stomach a belief in absolute truth. Especially if (horrors!) that truth has a name.
In direct opposition to all of this, Christianity believes in ultimate, absolute, unchanging truth. We even know His Name. He is Jesus of Nazareth, the creator and sustainer and judge of all things.
We are not randomly formed, purposeless accidents of a universe full of stuff colliding chaotically. We were made in the image of God, for the privileged purpose of bringing glory to Him. We were created with the capacity to know things that are really true. Maybe not the whole truth, at least not in this world, but the truth we know is really true. As Cornelius Van Til taught, we can know some things reliably because God knows all things exhaustively.
Some things are right and some are wrong. In the atheist’s world (and, therefore, in the secular libertarian’s world) right and wrong are meaningless categories fizzed up out of nowhere.
Let’s shift for a moment, from political theory to science. The secular scientist is a walking contradiction. She goes to work, throws on her lab coat, and does what she will do, having simply assumed some things that her own worldview will not allow her to account for. She assumes that her senses, her powers of observation, are basically reliable. She assumes they will tell her the truth (the what?) about what she’s observing. She assumes she lives in an orderly universe that follows its own rules with a fastidiousness that rivals the nuns who taught her in grade school. Otherwise, what would be the use of testing and investigation? She thinks she can know things. She doesn’t think she’s merely fizzing. She believes that the truth of a thing can be found out through processes that involve rational, logical thought; with the caveat that she won’t believe in anything apart from testing and solid evidence. She is adamant about this, though she has no way of testing the rules of logic, or of confirming that rational thought really is better than the irrational flavor.
She prefers rational to irrational thought. But there are a lot of folks who don’t, obviously, like the guy who walks around my town in a cowboy hat and tiny, red shorts, and believes he’s from outer space. I’ve talked to him. He’s really happy. That’s just it: given atheism, and naturalistic evolution, who’s to say he’s fizzing wrong? Our scientist, in order to live in the world she prefers and pursue the career she enjoys, must borrow all her foundational ideas from Christianity, the worldview she has rejected.
It is the same with secular libertarianism. It can offer no compelling reason why maximum liberty should be preferred to slavery. Libertarians can only appeal to the preferences of people who fizz a lot like they do.
Human history has shown us some things more clearly than other things. One of the more clear ones is that the institutions of slavery, and of government tyranny, are constant threats to take over. History teaches us that not everyone has a big preference for liberty. Lots of folks enjoy tyranny, particularly the ones in charge of it.
A truly consistent secular libertarian has no basis on which to say to the fascistic tyrant, “You are wrong!”
The best he can muster on his own view of the world is, “I do not prefer your way of doing things!” Or, “All things considered, I myself would rather be free!” Rousing battle cries, those.
What we see when we read the works of the atheistic libertarians are repeated attempts to present axioms (unproven and unverifiable truths) that can form the cornerstones of their different systems. Popular in our day is the recourse to a so-called Non Aggression Principle. For many modern libertarians, this is the touchstone of their thinking. Without it, they cannot really proceed. Basically, the Non Aggression Principle (NAP) is the idea that using force of any kind to coerce someone into doing your will is wrong.
Okay, I can go along with that, as long as we leave room for things like self-defense (some use of force is justified sometimes.) But given atheism, the NAP is neither right nor wrong, morally speaking, precisely because such categories are fictional inventions of the blobs of goo we call people. Given atheism, nothing is either right or wrong. Whatever is, just is. Period. Your moral judgments about them are pretty, petty nothings that merely express your preferences: Fizz.
For an atheist to plead for governments to follow the NAP makes as much sense as if he was to explain to a fire why it ought not burn down his house because of NAP. The fire won’t care about the NAP. It’s a force of nature. But, assuming atheism is correct, everything is merely a force of nature. Some forces are dominant and some get dominated. The law of the jungle trumps the NAP. Survival of the fittest. It’s not wrong: it just is.
Another popular attempt at proposing an axiom that could ground libertarianism was Murray Rothbard’s brand of utilitarianism. He proposed that free markets and minimum government should be the rule because they “work.” They get the job done, so to speak, in terms of providing maximum wealth and happiness to the maximum number of people. Again, I have no problem agreeing that they do work this way. In fact, I strongly wish we’d all give it a try and see what happens.
But the issue is, again, that libertarianism only “works” if we agree that the goal is maximum wealth and happiness for most people. Lots of people, and entire cultures throughout history, in fact, have not agreed with this. Some have reacted violently to the notion. Islam is one stark example. Many cultures value other things, like a sense of community, over the accumulation of wealth. Who’s to say they’re wrong about that? Well, not the atheist. He can only prefer one thing over the other, and try to persuade people to fizz like him.
Ayn Rand’s own “objectivism” was yet another attempt at grounding freedom on something other than the truth of God. Nobody holds to it anymore. Few can even explain it.
This is why secular libertarianism cannot be trusted to protect individual rights. What in the world would a “right” be in Atheist Land anyway? Where do rights come from? Do all humans have a right to life in Atheist Land? Thankfully, all their libertarian writers seem to think so (unless, of course, we’re talking about humans in the womb): they just can’t account for it, or give any reason why it ought to be that way.
The 20th Century saw mind-boggling numbers, multiple millions of people murdered by the atheist regimes of Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Lenin, Castro, etc. The brutality continues in North Korea. Just looking at the numbers, we can’t assume that atheists cherish any particular belief in a basic human right to life. Atheist Land: It’s the Bloodiest Place on Earth. ™
The same atheistic regimes proved without a doubt that they also had no use for any theory of a right to private property. In fact, a cardinal principle of theirs was/is that the community owns everything, not the private citizen. Private property, in their eyes, was a vicious fiction invented by greedy capitalists to keep the working man down. Not only was it not really a right, but it was actually a great evil to be opposed at every turn.
Granted, I’d rather be ruled by a libertarian atheist than by a so-called Christian socialist (both being anti-biblical contradictions, by the way) but my worry would always be that the atheist, although agreeing with me about my rights now, may at some point find the whole notion passe’ and decide it’s time to break a few eggs for the new, communal omelet.
The Christian who studies his Bible understands that you and I have rights because, as the US Declaration of Independence said, we are endowed with them by our Creator. God’s law gives us an authoritative list, not merely of moral duties, but of rights.
It works like this. How can I know you have a right to life? Because the 6th of the Ten Commandments forbids murdering you. How can I know you have a right to ownership of private property? Because the 8th tells me it’s unlawful to steal your stuff. If it wasn’t really yours then it wouldn’t be possible to steal it from you. Every violation of the law of God impinges on someone’s rights, whether your neighbor’s or God’s Himself.
You have a right to hear the truth from people and to not be lied about. That is part of why it’s wrong to bear false witness. If you are married, it’s actually a violation of your rights in the matter to have someone try to seduce your spouse, or for your spouse to cheat. God has already told them not to commit adultery, thereby proving your right to have your own marriage left alone.
We could go on like this all day. The point is twofold. For one, your rights come from God, and therefore no atheistic theory can protect them. And two, if a government did in fact protect these God-given rights, well, what would we have? We’d have the very thing the first settlers of America risked their lives to try to attain, the shining “city on a hill” that formed the centerpiece of the original American vision.
Atheistic government has another issue. No humanistic theory is able to sort out the philosophical puzzle called the problem of the one and the many. That is, while rejecting the revelation of God, no government is going to be able to provide the proper balance between the rights of the individual and the interests of the larger community. Communism goes all the way over to the community side (and thus the name of it) while secular libertarianism occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. But the God of the Christian is Himself both a unity and a community, as per the historic doctrine of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwell together as separate Persons, and yet in perfect oneness. The Christian God, in His own nature, is the ultimate solution to the problem of the one and the many. As we implement His word to us, in every area of our lives, we will strike that balance that humanists will never know.
Why libertarianism and not Communism, socialism, or the Soma-induced happy place of Huxley’s Brave New World? While these cans of soda bubble angrily at each other for dominance, Christianity can actually provide an answer. The answer, boiled down, is this: God the creator is also God the lawgiver. His declaration, and not my preference (or yours) is what makes a thing right or wrong, good or evil. He gets to say, because He’s God. And it turns out that when we study the laws God has given us, and try to follow the principles He’s told us to live by, we find that these things call for very minimal civil government intrusion into society. These things provide very strong protections for individual liberties. These things create a free economic market which encourages innovation and efficient production (and thus, low consumer cost.) These things insure that the lowliest outcast will have the exact same legal standing as the mightiest king or general.
In conclusion, I am happy and thankful for the spadework done by the “classic liberals” (as libertarianism used to be known) even if many of them were inconsistent with themselves, having to borrow Christian presuppositions and worldview features in order to make their theories workable. F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, for instance, landed smack-dab in the middle of my comfortable evangelicalism like a bunker-busting smart bomb. A Christian economist pointed me to it, and I’m thankful to God. I am also thankful that many believers are experiencing that same sort of awakening, an awakening to Biblical ideas and how to apply them in every area of life. Just because a blind squirrel hands you a nut, doesn’t mean it isn’t a nut.
Can one be an atheist and a libertarian? Certainly. There are many of them. But none of them are consistently so. None can provide a grounding for libertarianism that is more substantial than their own likes and dislikes. But the Bible can do this. The Bible does this. Truly, it is not for no reason that the apostle James referred to the Law-Word of God as “the perfect law of liberty.” It is freedom’s only ground, its only solid foundation.
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