On the possibility of Christian libertarianism, round two:

Joe Carter kindly responds to my previous thoughts on the topic here. I suspect that Joe's attempt to find a libertarianism that is different from conservatism is actually doing a lot of the work here, and I'm not entirely certain that's fair to libertarianism. A few observations to kick the can further down the road (n.b. I think of my purpose here as demonstrating that liberty-facing libertarianism and Christianity, at least of my particular Dutch-tinged Reformed variety, are not incompatible):

1. Conservatism and libertarianism share intellectual patrimony, as do conservatism and liberalism, and liberalism and libertarianism. In this respect, I regard Russell Kirk-like attempts to define conservatism as the precise opposite of liberalism to be retrofitting. Religious conservatives and libertarians will both attempt to claim, for example, Locke, Tocqueville, and Acton. The reason for this shared tradition is, perhaps obviously, that the political labels of the present day rarely fit the intellectual categories of those thinkers, both with respect to the politics of their time and also with respect to their genius or perception, which often including seeing possibilities of thought that had previously been unexplored. So I don't believe anyone's claims to the tradition, where it is shared, can be logically prior to anyone else's. That is to say, where conservatism and libertarianism dispute, they stand on equal ground. (More precisely: the ground they stand on has most to do with the particularities of the thinker involved, but cannot be pronounced without an in-depth examination)

2. One of the consequences of this historical fact is that conservatism and libertarianism will often appear to 'double,' i.e. adopt the same general attitudes and policy positions. But there is almost always a difference of language and concept that is identifiable. To give a negative case: both conservatism and libertarianism have a Civil War Problem, in that certain segments of each are not quite convinced of the moral necessity of the Civil War (liberalism does not have this problem). For conservatism, the Civil War Problem is that the war destroyed the yeoman farmer tradition, which is the (sometimes only) true source of American Tradition, see e.g. FPR. For libertarianism, the Civil War Problem is the great centralization of state power needed to win the war and effect Reconstruction. Both are, in certain ways, valid concerns. Both require overlooking the centrality of chattel slavery to antebellum life, and acting as though it did not constitute a moral evil to be ended at any cost. But each uses a different vocabulary to make its argument, and so the subject matter differs ever-so-slightly.

3. There are more radical elements in both conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatism must deal with straight-up racists, Birchers, and people who value tradition much more than liberty. Libertarianism has people who think markets should solve everything, that the state is always illegitimate, and that no one should ever tell them what to do. Neither is representative of their movement as a whole. George Wallace and Strom Thurmond are not conservatism; von Mises and Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand are not libertarianism. If I had to guess, given my experience of libertarian and classical liberals through the Institute for Humane Studies, most people are probably in the Hayek-Nozick camp: Hayek who, in Law, Legislation and Liberty argues for a minimum income, and Nozick, who famously argues that redistribution of unjustly acquired goods is a requirement of minimal justice. It's a complicated movement and its politics are usually more subtle than usually acknowledged.

4. As to Joe's specific example: there are three general principles in play here: one, decisions should be made at the lowest possible level; second, threats to liberty must be limited; third, government is legitimately within its power when it attempts to maintain public order.* The nudity example seems to me to be a classic public order example, not least because it's nudity in public: if local government legitimately believes it causes a problem for the functioning of the community, it can impose a restriction. If it doesn't, it need not (New York City, as I recollect, has a law making it legal to be topless at least in Central Park, if not in the whole city). So if a city collectively decides to restrict it, that's fine; if it wants to allow it, it can too: it's the liberty-maximizing position given the relatively low-stakes 'right' in play. It might be a different case if it were a group, rather than an individual, who wanted to live as a nudist, in which case a city might legitimately choose to zone some areas clothing-optional, to allow people to make the choice about entering or not.

5. The reason for 4 is that even when individual rights (or claims to rights) are in play, laws still need to have a general form, and public order is a legitimate aim of even the most minimal of governments: a libertarian might think that laws against obscenity are absurd, but laws against yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater, or speech aimed to incite violence, are areas that can be restricted. And state power can legitimately be used against free individual actions, as in the case of the slave trade. Nor does merely claiming something to be a right make it a right; nor does something being a right require anyone else to provide it; nor does something being a right require the state to provide accommodation for it. All of these are going to vary depending on cases.

6. If I had to guess, the place where Christian libertarians are most likely to disagree with Christian conservatives is on the Supreme Court's privacy jurisprudence: that's where arguments about liberty and its importance are going to differ most strongly, and where a libertarian's belief that law need to (perhaps should not) track morality is going to be most notable.

*To avoid having to say it in all instances: government has the right to legitimately maintain public order through legitimate means, i.e. the least restrictive that can accomplish the end. Not all instances in which public order is claimed is it actually under threat.

No comments: