A Libertarian Perspective on Morality

Sometimes in life you find yourself at the nexus of two groups that appear to be mutually exclusive, an intersection that people say doesn’t exist. I find myself at such an intersection. I am a Christian. I am a libertarian. In that order.

A significant number of people in both groups consider this to be an impossible contradiction. I once observed that the most difficult part of being a Christian libertarian is explaining to Christians why I don’t think it’s right to use the force of government to enforce morality and then explaining to libertarians why morality is important.

Oddly enough, I think Christians are more accepted within libertarianism than libertarians are accepted within Christianity. Outside of a fringe strain of libertarianism called libertinism, most libertarians believe to some degree in morality. Their conceptions of morality might not always agree with mine or have the same basis, but the basic concept is accepted.

Libertinism, on the other hand, says that morality is unimportant or even undesirable, and that any social pressure to curb hedonistic behavior is a dangerous intrusion into personal liberties. Libertinism is the Westboro Baptist Church of libertarianism. – people know that it is associated with their movement, but pretty much nobody takes it seriously.

Christians, however, have a harder time accepting libertarianism. Part of this is because of the vocal strain with the libertarian movement that condemns morality. As inextricably linked as the Christian moral traditions are with the religion, the church’s rejection of libertarianism is somewhat understandable. Yet I also believe that Christians are missing the point of what libertarians are saying. And, to be fair, so are the libertines.

You see, libertarians are not saying that there should be no moral codes in society. We’re not even saying that there should be no social constraints. What we are saying is that people should not confuse government and society. Government exists within society, but it is not society itself. There are many functions which society fulfills that the government should stay out of, an idea that Frederic Bastiat wonderfully expressed in The Law:

“We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

For Christians, most of whom agree with this logic, the question then is when is it right for government to become involved in our lives. This is a question on which I have changed my opinion over time, believing at one time that it was government’s role to enforce morality. However, I have come to see that I was mistaking government for society. It certainly is a societal function to moderate morality. But there is one very good reason why this should not be a governmental function.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the biggest moral crisis facing the country was extramarital affairs. The church would most certainly have its own ways to correct this behavior, putting guidelines into place about acceptable behavior for pastors, church officials and even church members. The church certainly would not condone the behavior by agreeing to officiate marriages among people who had unrepentantly engaged in affairs. But let’s say that the church goes a step further and asks the government to intervene. The government, filled with like-minded people, passes legislation making it illegal for someone who has had an affair to remarry.

But over time, the makeup of the government will change and as it does, some of the old positions will be reevaluated. So there may come the day when government is filled with politicians who have no qualms about affairs (hard to imagine, I know) and seek to force their own views on society. At that point, they can take the power to monitor morality that the church has already given up and turn it against the very people that initially asked for it. Maybe the government begins to force the church to marry unrepentant adulterers, or even force it to accept them as pastors and other spiritual leaders.

It is this kind of situation that the libertarian position seeks to avoid. Libertarians believe that it is dangerous to give up power to the government because it is a certainty that whatever power you relinquish will be used against you at some point down the road.

And history bears this out. People support the ability of government to control what other people put in their bodies when it’s an issue like drugs, but they are surprised when government uses the same logic to tell them they can’t drink soda or eat cheeseburgers. The objectors will say, “But drug use is a moral problem!”, but that misses the point. The point is that the authority you have given the government has been expanded beyond what it was originally intended to be, and this will always be the case.

Some Christians will object that a lack of laws regulating morality will result in declining moral standards. To this I would ask when morality has ever been effectively governed by laws. To be sure, I believe that there is a correlation between the morality of government and the morality of society, but I think that many Christians have inverted this relationship. A moral society will make a moral government. However, once society begins to slide downward into immorality, it will change the laws to reflect its new moral code. The only effective guard against a society’s moral decline is the continual appeal to the hearts and minds of its people by social institutions like the church.

C.S. Lewis once noted that all human institutions tend toward decay. Because of this, legal theorist Richard Epstein observed that, “the study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections.” It is my belief that it is more tolerable and wiser for Christians not to give government the rope that they will eventually use to hang us. Christians should understand that the libertarian mindset is not one that necessarily embraces immorality, but one that understands that the moderation of morality is a social function, not a government one.

Libertarianism is nothing more than a political philosophy about the scope of government. When its adherents say that government should not be involved in questions of morality they are not saying that morality itself is not important.

Ultimately what libertarians believe is that to give government the power of deciding morality is to unwisely place an important issue in incapable and unsafe hands.

2 comments

  1. “However, once society begins to slide downward into immorality, it will change the laws to reflect its new moral code.” Very true! I see so many Christians just banging their heads against brick walls with the fight against abortion and gay marriage in particular.

  2. ” It is my belief that it is more tolerable and wiser for Christians not to give government the rope that they will eventually use to hang us. ”

    I strongly agree with this. Christians have abdicated their responsibility and allowed the state to dictate things it has no business dictating. We’ve largely had a Christian culture and so haven’t had to deal with much adversity. However, I believe the tides are turning.

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