Does Libertarianism Work for Christians?
A review of Faith Seeking Freedom
Can Christians be libertarians? How do the principles of libertarianism align with the Christian vision of the kingdom of God? Authors Norman Horn, Doug Stuart, Kerry Baldwin, and Dick Clark, under the auspices of the Libertarian Christian Institute, believe the answer to the first question to be yes. Libertarianism is perhaps the political and economic ideology most opposite to democratic socialism, the political economy espoused by most of us at Evangelical Labor Institute. I was curious to read through their work and to think through alongside them how Christians can address the difficult matter of judgment that is relating our faith to our politics.
I found their overall tone to be congenial rather than condescending and their answers to be genuine rather than jargon-filled. They work to connect their political philosophy to many of the real concerns Christians have when navigating politics: shouldn’t our primary allegiance be to Jesus rather than to country? How do we deal with the substantial evil perpetrated in the name of empires, both in the Bible, in history, and right now? How do we know we’re doing good to our neighbors rather than stealing from them? As a Christian who believes that Christians ought not kill, I found much of this discussion stimulating. Since ELI is primarily focused on the economic rather than the foreign policy questions, however, I will mostly address the economic side of libertarianism.
The authors address loads of questions in brief, conversational style throughout the book. For this review, though, I want to focus on the foundations the authors set in the second chapter, particularly what they say are the two essential principles of libertarianism: the non-aggression principle (NAP) and private property rights. Everything else they argue is built on these two principles. If these principles are sound, the rest of the arguments are worthwhile; if they are not, the rest of the case becomes suspect. Unfortunately, the NAP and private property rights not only fail to entail one another but are in fact fundamentally at odds.
According to the authors, the NAP is the cornerstone of libertarianism. The NAP posits that “no person should initiate violence against a non-aggressor.” Meanwhile, they claim that private property is a self-evident right justified by what’s usually called the labor-mixing argument—when human beings combine their labor with parts of the world that God gave us, it then becomes their private property, a part of the world they have the right to in the same way they have a right to their own body. The problem begins with this justification of private property in terms of labor mixing.
First, it is not clear what it means to combine someone’s labor with the material world. Labor is not a substance, and is thus not commensurable with substances in the world and cannot actually be “mixed” with them. Second, it is not clear how far “labor mixing” extends beyond the literal particles someone contacts as they work. If one tills the soil on a plot of land, but all of the tilled soil was then moved to a different location, can it be said that the soil-tiller owns the plot of land? None of the actual material remaining was labored on by the soil-tiller. This may seem like an abstract example, but it is not. If the same person tilled the soil on a plot of land, is another person free to dig down and extract resources from directly underneath that soil? How does someone establish the right to parts of the land they did not actually work? Or what about the airspace above that soil: can someone build a bridge suspended over that tilled soil as long as it does not touch the soil itself? Sometimes labor mixing argues too little, but other times it argues too much. The classic case, itself developed by libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, is this: if someone poured a can of tomato juice into the ocean, which is owned by no one, have they now come to own the ocean since they’ve mixed their labor with it?
Worse for the libertarian case, however, is how this story about acquisition of private property relates with the NAP. In short, it is inescapable that going from the state where something is unowned and freely accessible to everyone to the state where it is exclusively owned by one person is impossible without initiating violence against a non-aggressor. Imagine two people are walking together across an unowned patch of land. Suddenly, Person One stops and draws a circle 5 feet around himself on the ground and says to Person Two, “You may not cross the line into the circle I’ve just drawn or I will kill you, since you will have violated my private property.” Person Two objects, “That is insane. Why are you threatening violence against me? I was just a moment ago free to walk across that exact patch of land.” Person One replies, “I have now mixed my labor with this patch of land, so it now belongs to me. If you do not respect my property, I will have to kill you.”
In this story, who initiated violence against a non-aggressor? It’s clearly Person One. His claim that his labor-mixing made the circle his private property does not make it less of an act of aggression—it only serves as a justification for that aggression. Unilaterally appropriating what used to be available to everyone is to initiate aggression against everyone. Since libertarianism justifies present-day property ownership in terms of free, mutually beneficial exchange that goes back to the initial just acquisition of property, this proves to be damning. There is no acquisition of exclusive private property consistent with the NAP. Indeed, I'm far from the first to point this out—even multiple libertarian thinkers have discovered the impossibility of using this principle to derive their desired conclusions.
It is very admirable to desire a reduction in violence and an increase in freedom. The problem rests on the fact that libertarians fail to acknowledge the aggressive coercion fundamental to their own political project even as they decry coercion in others. The question cannot be whether or not there is coercion in our political and economic lives. Any system other than grab-what-you-can-world, in which everyone is free to act upon any piece of the world as long as they don’t violate another person’s body, involves coercion against non-aggressors. The question is always whether or not that coercion satisfies justice, which cannot be adjudicated in terms of the non-aggression principle. The threat of coercion stands behind every property claim. There are no arrangements of property that get rid of that threat of coercion. Fundamentally, what Christians need to discuss about just property is the moral question of what ought to belong to whom. Where I fundamentally disagree with libertarians is that I believe that the threat of coercion ought to be used to ensure that everyone has access to the material means to live a flourishing life, not simply whoever happened to get those material goods through a capitalist market. We do not disagree on whether the threat of coercion should be present, but rather in whose service it ought to be used.