by Nathan Warf
It’s election season again, and I’m hearing a lot about the Libertarian Party. Some is coming from individuals who have long considered themselves libertarians, and some is coming from long-time Republicans disillusioned by President Trump’s takeover of their party. There are parts of the Libertarian platform that I find agreeable. Taken as a whole, however, I believe the platform is highly problematic, both in its underlying philosophy and the specific language used. My purpose here is to highlight issues for would-be libertarians to consider, especially those who are Christians.
As a philosophy, libertarianism is individualistic in character. It contends that individuals are ontologically and even normatively prior to other groups such as the family, community, or state. Individual liberty, then, is paramount. John Stuart Mill, one of the most important intellectual forebears, articulates the principle clearly in On Liberty. Mill suggests that self-protection is the only reason one individual can interfere with the liberty of another. Neither individuals nor collectives may interfere with someone’s liberty even if to promote that person’s physical or moral good. Mill concludes, “The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
This position is echoed throughout the Libertarian platform: “As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty: a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives” and again “[w]e hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose” (Preamble; Statement of Principles).
What does it mean to “exercise sole dominion over [our] own lives”? Is this philosophy likely to produce a healthy society that works for most people? Let’s examine the platform.
The Libertarian platform is to legalize “‘crimes’ without victims, such as gambling, the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes, and consensual transactions involving sexual services” (1.7).
We could certainly have a conversation about overcriminalization. We could talk, for instance, about how the war on drugs has done little to curb drug use, has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and has been extravagantly expensive. Reform makes sense. Similarly, we could talk about the exploitation and trafficking often involved in pornography and prostitution. Some have argued that decriminalization would allow the government to regulate participants in the industry, prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and generate tax revenue. Yet libertarians don’t want regulation; they object to occupational licensing as an infringement on personal liberty (2.9).
As is frequently the case, libertarians push too far. They wish to forego debate and prevent communities from making an effort to establish standards through law. Libertarians upset the balance by overvaluing the role of individual consent and undervaluing our interconnectedness, how individual choices extend well past themselves.
Libertarians “oppose all laws at any level of government restricting, registering, or monitoring the ownership, manufacture, or transfer of firearms or ammunition” (1.9). In the fear that government might overreach in restricting their access to personal arsenals, libertarians wish to oppose all laws restricting the ownership of firearms. Libertarians forget the maxim abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not take away use). Possession by convicted felons, children, or the mentally ill? Sure. Open carry into schools, churches, and government buildings by anyone? Why not? Perhaps these examples seem absurd to you. The absolutism of the platform is absurd as well.
Some Christians take the position that they cannot support any party that approves of abortion. As a result, they tend to support the Republican Party, which asserts in its 2016 platform that “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed.” President Trump has said that he would like to change the platform to permit abortions in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother. Nonetheless, ostensibly because of the pandemic, the RNC “unanimously voted to forego the Convention Committee on Platform,” thus retaining 2016 platform in its entirety.
Other Christians have determined that the effort to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973) has proven futile and that the language surrounding abortion tends to be unsympathetic to the difficult situations pregnant women sometimes find themselves in. Rather than continuing to fight to prohibit abortions altogether, they have focused their energies on reducing abortion by expanding access to sex education, contraceptives, health care, and parental leave.
Libertarians choose the worst of both worlds. Government should neither forbid abortions nor provide the safety net that would reduce them. Government should just “keep out of the matter.”
Libertarians prioritize individual property and contract rights. Their myopic focus leads to many impractical policy positions. For instance, they oppose the use of eminent domain, “governmental limits on profits, governmental production mandates, [and] governmental controls on prices of goods and services” (2.1).
Can the government abuse its power or use it in inefficient ways? Of course. Removing the power altogether, though, is excessive. The government can and should sometimes act in the public’s interest. Without government intervention, individuals and businesses may discriminate against minorities in housing, education, and service. Libertarians desire “free market solutions” like boycotts and ostracism (3.5). How well has this worked historically? Free markets are not guaranteed to settle all issues in an optimal manner. Even with regulation, the profit motive incentivizes unethical behavior, large companies seek to dominate markets by driving out competitors, and wealth inequality grows. Libertarian economics depends on things that don’t exist—symmetric information, rational actors, and self-regulating producers.
Furthermore, the party “call[s] for the repeal of the income tax” and “support[s] any initiative to reduce or abolish any tax, and oppose any increase on any tax for any reason” (2.4). They want a Balanced Budget Amendment, which sounds fiscally responsible in theory, but hamstrings the government’s ability to address exigencies in practice, especially given the platform’s insistence “that the budget is balanced exclusively by cutting expenditures, and not by raising taxes” (2.5).
Just imagine a situation where the United States is at war. Libertarians oppose both production mandates and compulsory service. Thus, if demand for goods or troops exceeds supply, the government would need to agree to pay higher prices. Taxes could not be increased, so expenditures would need to be cut. Where would such cuts come from in a libertarian system that is already minimalist?
Libertarians wish to live in a world where “[t]o the extent possible … all public services be funded in a voluntary manner” (2.4). The party seeks to end government support of education, health care, and retirement, favoring individual responsibility and voluntary charity instead (see 2.12-2.14). If you want something, then work and buy it. What if you can’t work? What if you work yet still can’t afford basic necessities? Then beg or go without.
All of this seems sophomoric and calloused. Are there no public goods? Do we want to fully privatize schools, roads, airwaves, water, etc.? What about prisons or police forces?
Libertarianism is among the most noxious schools of thought around. It is survival of the fittest, a celebration of self-interest. I think many Christians who call themselves “libertarians” are really just in favor of a smaller government. I don’t know many who are familiar with the philosophy and accept it consistently. For that, I am grateful.
Libertarianism’s idol is individual liberty at the expense of community and mutual responsibility. Its inherent voluntarism is fine for people with privilege. It is no surprise that libertarianism is attractive to some young adults who are still largely dependent on their parents. Nor is it a surprise that white males are over-represented among those who self-identify as libertarians.
Libertarians chafe at what they consider coercion, limitations on their personal autonomy. Coercion may come from government, but it might also come from family, church, or public opinion. For libertarians, authority is suspect and submission is foreign. The libertarian crusade against taxation and regulation allows powerful individuals and corporations to distort their beloved free markets. In this way, libertarians tend to underestimate the extent to which the atomism they promote produces the statism they disdain.
Can groups be oppressive to individuals? Certainly. Can some government programs intended to assist people establish dependencies or create perverse incentives? Sure. Might the government occasionally be inefficient or too restrictive? Of course. But I would argue that libertarianism is not the answer. It’s a philosophy that depends on virtues instilled by the very institutions it undermines.