TOWARD A CHRISTIAN LIBERTARIANISM: I have returned, after an extended-weekend hiatus, from a week-long seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies. As someone whose exposure to libertarianism is limited to the blogosphere and several dubiously successful forays into economics, it was enlightening to see, as it were, actual libertarians in their native environment. It should surprise no one that there was a constant, low-level tension between the economists and the philosophers/political theorists: economists understand the logic of institutions very well (probably better, as an abstract matter, than theorists), but the importance of history is not always clear to them. This led to several interesting, and, I think, productive, conversations about how it is the nation-state comes to be the primary form of sovereignty over the 13th-19th centuries. I'm not sure great interdisciplinary ground was broken, but it was still an interesting and worthwhile experience.

One sociological note, observed by a friend in philosophy who had attended many such events in the past: the seminar had the highest proportion of religious believers of any that he had attended. The possibility of, for example, a broad libertarianism that has its basis in Christianity is quite interesting.

Let me explain why: from a Christian perspective, it seems clear enough that one ought to never entirely make one's peace with Caesar. Render up to him what's his, respect the civil authorities, but recognize that for a Christian, the admonitions about politics are not unlike those about slavery ('be content where you are' but also 'if you can gain your freedom, do so'). Much as I hate to use this example, the situation of the German churches in 1933-1935 or so are very much to the point. The RCC signs a Concordat, the majority of Lutheran churches affiliate with the political regime: only the Reformed and some Lutherans can see what's objectionable. The politics of a Christian ought to hold the state in some suspicion, and do so all the time.

The Skip Gates affair is another example of this. Both Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan V. Last make a moderate conservative point. Police power is limited power, and we should be worried about any attempt to inflate it beyond its proper limits. The response, as the comments sections to both demonstrate, is to either re-assert the importance of order and authority as values prior to any theory of rights, or else to argue that in this imperfect world, it's a tragic reality that one must defer to abusive policemen, but a reality all the same.

To this, I think, the libertarian is well prepared to agree with the Christian: not every order is order worthy of the name, authority does not mean total authority. As the Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright is fond of pointing out, one of the things it means to say "Jesus Christ is Lord" is "Caesar is not." Therefore Christianity shouldn't be limited to what is, in the sense of the second objection to Last and Friedersdorf--if we can speculate on and bring about a better world, we should. To the first, well, it appears to make the state logically prior to the person: if order is really what matters, and order can only come through the state, then my theory of what it means to be human can only be applied after order has been established. But we have good Christian reasons to think it otherwise.

Now, other features of libertarian/classical liberal thought are also compatible with Christian thinking, like the idea that threats to liberty can come from sources other than the state, but I'll save that for another time.

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