It’s this conundrum that leads libertarians to redefine liberty as it pertains to society. Having read three books by Ron Paul, libertarianism’s most popular figure over the last few decades, I think I can sum up the definition of libertarian liberty: Do whatever you like; just don’t interfere with anyone else’s liberty. In other words, no one (not even the government) has the right to take or damage your life or property, or force you to do what you do not wish with your life or property. You alone have the right to do what you like with your body and your property. The government, therefore, has one duty under libertarianism – to protect your liberty to do what you want with your life and property.
At first listen, this sounds totally reasonable. It makes sense, and it’s a simple-minded approach that can be applied to every situation. And that’s why so many people choose this definition of liberty as their determinant of right and wrong rather than the Bible. Libertarianism, therefore, isn’t just a political party; it’s a religion, because it determines right and wrong and establishes its doctrines as absolute morality. Many libertarians support these doctrines with a religious fervor. For them, liberty is greater than the common good. They, of course, often claim that libertarianism is one and the same as the common good and therefore consistent with the Bible. Here’s why this claim is wrong:
The 3 worst failings of Libertarianism
1) It places a principle (liberty) above people’s needs
Libertarians place liberty on a pedestal. To them, it’s the most important and fundamental of all human rights. Without liberty, life is hardly worth living. Their outlook differs little from that of revolutionary Patrick Henry, who proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
The Bible, however, does not share this libertarian attitude. God’s Law established that some things are more important than liberty, as we see in Deuteronomy 15:16-17 regarding servants whose time had come to be set free (those who owed debts they couldn’t pay had to pay with their labor for up to 6 years), “And it shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household since he fares well with you, then you shall take an awl and pierce it thorough his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever.”
Why would a servant who is free to leave choose to remain under the authority of someone else?
This passage tells us it’s because “he fares well” as a servant, presumably better than he would fare on his own if he were free. If the land-owner treated him with the love and respect that God commanded throughout the Bible, the servant had food, clothing, shelter, relationships, and probably a bit of leisure. He had all that a person needs to live a dignified life fitting for someone created in the image of God. On his own, the servant would have gained liberty, but might have lacked the necessities of life. His life might have gone from one of comfort to one of want and suffering. In this passage, the servant exchanges his liberty for an enjoyable life.
This is similar to what most of us do when we seek employment. We have the liberty to be unemployed and do what we like. However, for most of us, unemployment causes suffering and want. So like the servant in Deuteronomy, we sacrifice our liberty and submit ourselves to the will of our employer. On the job, we give up our freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom to bear arms, and of course, the freedom to do whatever we please. All of this we exchange for a portion of our employers’ money, which provides our bodies and souls with what we really need: food, shelter, clothing, entertainment and relationships (which are easier if we can afford to keep our kids alive). All of these are more important to us than freedom; otherwise, we wouldn’t sacrifice freedom in order to obtain them.
Why do some of us choose unpleasant jobs, some of which have long hours, while others choose fun jobs or none at all?
The answer is money. Those who lack both money and lucrative skills must accept the jobs that wealthier, highly-skilled people don’t want. Poor, unskilled workers may have to sacrifice 80 hours a week of their freedom in order to support their kids, because their jobs pay so little. The only freedom such people have is to decide which employer they want to sacrifice their freedom to. And even that freedom is limited, because they work so many hours that they lack time to look for work elsewhere. Meanwhile, people who possess millions of dollars have far more freedom than poor, unskilled workers do. They have the financial means to be choosy in whom they work for, or they can simply work for themselves. They can even choose not to work and go fishing every day, because their wealth gives them the freedom to do so. In other words, freedom is dependent upon wealth. Those who have enough wealth to meet their needs are free to do as they please. Those who lack money lack freedom.
2) It fails to protect the powerless from the powerful
Since libertarianism protects the rights of people and corporations to do what they want with their property, it gives more protection to those who have property than it does those who lack it. Those who lack property are fully dependent upon property owners for survival, but they cannot depend on the government for protection from the property owners in a libertarian world.
For example, under libertarianism, businesses are free to have their way with their employees. The employees are at their mercy, having to sometimes tolerate unhealthy conditions, long work hours, and even verbal abuse. If they refuse to be abused, they’ll lose their jobs. Libertarians will argue that if the employees don’t like it, they are free to leave. In the naïve simplicity of libertarianism, this sounds good and right. However, in the real world, many workers find it difficult to leave. First, skipping from one employer to another to yet another over a short period of time looks bad on a resume in the eyes of employers and makes it nearly impossible to find new work. Second, most workers have children to support, and they lack enough money to survive unemployment, so they can’t just quit their jobs without finding another one first. Third, if they work too many hours, they have no time to look for work. And fourth, even if they do find time, it’s unlikely that their skill sets will get them jobs much better than what they already have.
Libertarianism also fails to protect those who lack property from racial and religious discrimination. It teaches that property owners have the right to do what they want with their property. So if an impoverished, legal immigrant moves to a small Tennessee town, and he wears clothing indicative of a religion the townspeople hate, the town’s businesses may deny him and his family service, employment, and tenancy. The immigrant, having little or no property of his own, must rely on those who have property; yet the property owners have the right to deny him what he needs. This is yet another example of libertarianism protecting the rights of those with property while suppressing the rights of those who lack it.
We don’t have to imagine made-up scenarios like these to see the failings of libertarianism, because our nation’s history provides many examples. As the Social Gospel movement of the 1890s took hold, voters elected officials to protect them from the horrors of the industrial world. These efforts were defeated, however, by the Supreme Court which, at the time, had been stocked with libertarian-minded justices appointed by Republican and libertarian presidents (Grover Cleveland was a Democrat, but he held libertarian beliefs). These libertarian courts made some of the most horrendous and oppressive rulings in Supreme Court history. Here are two of them:
Lochner v. New York (1905) – In 1895, the state of New York passed a law limiting bakery work hours to 60 per week. At that time, bakers had often worked 100 hours per week. The problem was industry wide. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, because it was an "unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract." In other words, the government had no business protecting workers from employers, because doing so was tyranny, not liberty.
This liberty-of-contract ideology was naïve and simplistic. Its proponents imagined a fairy tale world in which workers and employers had a nice little talk and settled on terms agreeable to both at the time of hiring. The truth was that impoverished people desperate for work, especially during the 1890s depression, were at the mercy of employers, so the employers dictated the terms of employment. The workers had to choose between accepting them or watching their families suffer hunger and homelessness.
Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) – From the 1870s through the 1930s, children as young as 8 years-old worked in coal mines and other genres of manufacturing. The U.S. Congress sought to solve this problem by passing the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which prohibited the interstate sale of goods produced by child labor. The Supreme Court shot it down, not only due to liberty-of-contract, but also in the name of states’ rights, which libertarians also regard as gospel. States were reluctant to limit child labor, because employers would respond by choosing to manufacture in other states that allowed it in order to save on labor costs. Only a national solution would work. But to the libertarian mind, states’ rights and so-called liberty were of greater importance than the well-being of children.
Libertarians promote a naïve and simplistic understanding of how a person or corporation can harm others. To them, direct stealing and injury are the only ways in which liberty and quality of life can be destroyed. Their religion turns a blind eye to the clever schemes of the wealthy and powerful, especially in the corporate world. It also turns a blind eye to the well-being of those who lack property. All it affords them is protection from being beaten or murdered. Otherwise, all other suffering is of no concern to a libertarian government.
3) It places property rights ahead of people’s needs
In ancient Israel, people owned private property, and they generally had the right to do with it as they pleased. There were, however, a couple exceptions to this: First, they had no right to prohibit others from trespassing on their property. God commanded in Deuteronomy 23:24, “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container [NRSV].” Not only did this law allow trespassing, but it even allowed neighbors to enjoy some fruits from one another’s harvests. Second, God required that property owners left food on their property for the poor, as we see in these passages: Leviticus 19:9, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God [NRSV].”
Why was God so lax on property rights?
Perhaps it had something to do with what He said in Leviticus 25:23 regarding the Year of Jubilee, “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me.” To God, it was preposterous that one human could claim total ownership of the land God created and do so to the extent that other humans were denied all access to it. Property ownership never gave God’s people the right to be 100% selfish with their property; rather, it assigned them a responsibility to share its benefits with others – especially those who lacked property. We who have property have no God-given right to deny those who lack property. Property ownership is a responsibility, not a right.
In any society, those who lack property are fully dependent upon those who possess property. In an agrarian society, like ancient Israel or early America, those who lack property have no land on which to grow food, so they must depend on others for it. They have no land on which to build a home, so they must rent from others. They have no land on which they can run a business, so they must be hired by others. In other words, they have no MEANS of providing for themselves. If those who own the MEANS of providing for oneself won’t hire them, they have no hope. In America today, land is less of a factor, but for those who go out into the world with little or no money, they too are fully DEPENDENT upon owners of money and property for food, shelter, and employment (this is where “dependency” comes from, not from welfare; it’s only when this system of dependency on the rich fails that people need welfare). If those who possess money and property have the right to deny food, shelter, and employment to those who lack money and property, even to the extent that they need not share their wealth with the poor through taxation, then those who lack property have no hope. They are left to suffer hunger, exposure, and even death, as if they were never created in the image of God.
Republicans have created a system in which the corporate wealthy hoard the means of self-support, so that most of society lacks such means; and then the wealthy have the right to deny the means of self-support to those who lack it, leaving them helpless and unable to support themselves; and then, as if that’s not bad enough, Republicans blame the poor for being unable to support themselves. Only a sadist would support such a system. Satan is a sadist, not God. God is gracious and cares for all people equally, not just those who have an abundance of property.
The libertarian view of property rights is the opposite of God’s. Contrary to what libertarians might tell you, God’s way is gracious and the libertarian way is tyranny. Libertarians, as well as most Republicans, call tyranny imposed by government “evil”, but they call tyranny imposed by the corporate wealthy “freedom.”
Libertarianism places individual liberty and hoarding of property ahead of the well-being of God’s children. It’s selfish. It’s merciless. It’s rebellious. Its most admired figurehead is Ayn Rand, a devout atheist who hated religion. Her beliefs were consistent with her rejection of God and all things godly. Libertarianism is Social Darwinism (the idea that the poor are biologically-inferior) in a new package. It’s the enemy of Christianity. It’s a false religion presenting itself as righteousness in an attempt to “lead astray, if possible, the elect [Matthew 24:24].” No Christian should succumb to the man-made precepts of this false religion. As I like to say, Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but Satan is a Libertarian.
- K. Scott Schaeffer
[K. Scott Schaeffer is the author of the books, “Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason” and “Where the Bible Contradicts Creationists.” He also runs www.politicallymoderatechristian.com and the “Rescuing Religion from Republicans” Facebook page.]