29 April 2013

Libertarian Rhetoric

Not long ago I posted here about why I'm not a libertarian. I would instead characterize myself, from a political-theoretical perspective, as a common law conservative. You can go here for a post in which I trumpet the virtues of common law conservatism. You can go to the blog of my friend Ruben Alvarado or buy his book, not coincidentally named Common-Law Conservatism, if you want to know more.

A shy reader of my recent post sent me the following comment:
It seems to me that you are right insofar as an unbelieving libertarianism needing a firm ethical base to provide ought-ness. I don't see any reason why libertarianism's procedural framework of non-aggression cannot both find that base in biblical revelation, as well as providing a guiding principle for Christian political action in an unbelieving world.
A brief reply would be, yes but ... In other words, a naturalistic libertarian political theory (like any naturalism) runs aground when it comes to the "sez who?" objection. Natural rights amount to little more than dogmatic assertions when decoupled from a world of theistic or at least metaphysical substance. Nor can a pure natural rights philosophy deal effectively with the "so what?" objection. Even if there are "things" such as natural rights, who says why anyone should care about them except out of personal prudence? There would be no moral obligation to rectify violations of them.

But what if we undergird libertarianism with Christianity? Will that solve its metaphysical and moral problems? Again, the brief reply would be, yes but ... The challenge to libertarianism is its implicit individualism. It's the unadulterated -ism that, on the one hand, may render libertarianism, even when espoused by Christians, functionally inconsistent with long-standing Christian teaching. Consider the following observation by Robert Louis Wilken in The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity:
The Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople ensured that Christianity's distinctive understanding of God would become a permanent and enduring part of Christian tradition. Although Christians were unreservedly and unequivocally monotheistic and believed, along with Jews, and later with Muslims, that there is one God, they understood that God was not a "solitary God," as one church father put it. This affirmation, that God inner life was triune, was a great impetus to Christian thinking and to spiritual life, for it affirmed that the deepest reality is communal. (Emphasis added.)
In their defense, many Christian libertarians would express agreement with Wilken's assertion and argue that their anti-collectivistic  rhetoric is directed against the modern Leviathan State and not against other forms of social community. Their defense of a particular understanding of marriage--between a man and a woman--valorization of the family, and efforts to preserve the life of the unborn would be a prime examples of communitarian virtues.

Yet on the other hand one might be forgiven for believing that even Christian libertarian affirmations of the communal structure of society has more bark than bite. Or, at least it sounds that way. By way of example, what has become of early Tea Party denunciations of the corporate and banking bailouts of the late-Bush and early-Obama administrations? Attacks may yet be heard about the distorted federal refinancing of General Motors and Chrysler but one listens in vain to the Fox News talking heads for criticism of the federal subsidies of their corporate paymasters. (For a rant on an example of this topic go here.)

If, as I've heard some Christians assert, the State functions only to preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, then it's not difficult to understand why for most Americans a Christian flavor of libertarianism sounds like a baptized but unrepentant Gordon Gecko of "greed is good" fame. (Not so long ago--if my childhood falls outside the ambit of the ancient past--most conservative Protestants would have called this "worldliness.") This might explain why a naturalized libertarianism that includes gay marriage is gaining traction. Of course, Ron Paul's average 5% vote in Republican primaries might suggest that neither version of libertarianism is likely to gain control in American politics.

In any event, without a more "Front Porch Republic[an]" sensibility, it seems unlikely that Christian libertarianism will come off as anything more than shrill and self-serving to the ear of most Americans. Accompanied by a thorough critique of contemporary corporatism and consumer capitalism, Christian libertarianism might get a hearing beyond the already converted. Coupled with a meaningful localism, joyful acknowledgment of human dependence, as well as commitment to an international "framework of non-aggression," and maybe, just maybe, it could have an impact in society. Until then, regardless of its practice, libertarianism's rhetoric of individualism will limit its appeal.

1 comment:

  1. That makes two of us, Scott. Well, at least *declared*.