Jim Wallis, a pretty prominent liberal social-justice Christian thinker, recently made the case that libertarianism and Christianity are incompatible. Since I consider myself something of a libertarian (although not a very good one) and until I read this article, also a Christian (even a worse one), I feel obliged to answer Wallis.
Wallis makes five main points; I’ll answer them in turn, then make a meta-point that I feel applies equally to the Jim Wallises and the Jerry Falwells (may he rest in peace) of the religious political spectrum.
1. Wallis thinks that the libertarian “enshrinement” of choice and individual rights is anti-biblical; instead he thinks we should focus on loving our neighbor.
Wallis just seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of libertarianism here. He thinks somehow that minimizing state coercion means that you can’t love your neighbor. Instead, I’d argue that you are MORE free to love your neighbor if you do it of your own free will rather than the government forcing you to. Yes, some people might not love their neighbors as much as they would do if the state was coercing them to do so-but since when was the Christian walk about the outside appearance rather than the heart? Moreover, if you want to see a strong Biblical defense of individual rights against state coercion, read 1 Samuel 8:11-18.
I suspect that Wallis has run into some selfish libertarians in his day. I see one of those in the mirror every morning; but I also witness enough selfish people of other political beliefs to know that this vice is not restricted to libertarians.
2. Wallace says government has a central role in Biblical society, so we shouldn’t abolish it.
Yup. I agree. We’re libertarians, not anarchists. We think that the state should be around to punish crimes, have courts of law, for national defense, and even for a basic safety net for the poor. Again, it’s a little sad that he could become this prominent in Christian circles and national politics without understanding the basics of the libertarian philosophy. At least try to make an effort to understand libertarianism before you write an article bashing it.
3. Wallis says humans are too sinful to have such a huge faith in the market-that will let our sin nature go unchecked.
Now he’s getting slightly warmer, but still not really landing any blows on libertarianism as a political philosophy. Libertarians don’t think that corporations should go unchecked-they should have to pay for externalities that they inflict on others like the oil spill. Still, Wallis is right to say that libertarians think the market should be more free than it currently is.
Since we both agree that humans have a sin nature, the question is how best to restrain it. Libertarians believe that as a practical matter, capitalism incentivizes human self interest into the service of others-you can’t make money unless others want your product, and so your best-interest lies in creating something that others want-thus serving them. Statists like Wallis think the state is necessary to constrain capitalism. But what makes him think the state is invulnerable to the human sin nature? The US government has far more power than any corporation ever will, and like any other human institution, it’s captured by our sin nature. Why does centralizing the problem in a government that’s only loosely accountable to the voters solve the sin nature problem better than capitalism does? In fact, the government is uniquely vulnerable to capture by corporations-think of how MMS was in bed with BP (insert bad prostitute joke here). Large corporations have the resources to lobby the government and get huge subsidies, as well as ensure that any regulations will only hurt their competitors and benefit them. In theory, the government should be able to restrain the sin nature of corporations; in practice, it only serves to reinforce it.
Also, this is a purely pragmatic question-which system WORKS best? It’s not really a philosophical difference.
4. Finally, Wallis reaches for his strongest objection against libertarianism-it ignores the needs of the poor.
Let me say to start out that for me libertarianism is not incompatible with a basic safety net for the poor-I’d support further expansion of the EITC for example. Libertarianism also would support banning the drug war, which is a huge scourge on the lower classes in America, and would open our borders substantially, which would greatly help the global poor. There are many other libertarian policies that I believe would help the poor.
But leaving aside all those policies, the basic question is whether Christianity demands that charity be done at the state level as opposed to individually. Honestly, reading through the gospels and St. Paul, it seems like the Bible is mainly concerned with our individual mindsets and actions to help the poor. Now, it may be that in some cases the poor can be helped most effectively by a government program rather than by individual charity. But again, that’s a pragmatic question, not a philosophical one, and it would have to be determined case-by-case. The Bible really sets up a set of values-one of which is “you should help the poor”-and then wisely leaves it to each generation to decide how to most effectively achieve those values in their time. Libertarianism argues that the market is the best way to help the poor-that may be wrong, but it’s not necessarily unChristian.
5. In a sign that perhaps even Wallis himself was not convinced by his previous four points against libertarianism, he reverts to ad-hominem arguments by accusing libertarians of being racist because the tea parties are (largely) all white.
Leaving aside the fact that the crowd at a Wallis speech in Atlanta I went to was whiter (and older) than a Carroll family reunion, this is really silly. Let’s suppose he’s right that the tea parties and libertarian movement as a whole is largely white (I disagree, but let’s travel into imaginary-Wallis-world one more time). Why does that mean our arguments are wrong? If we’re racist, prove how our policies cause racist effects. It should be easy then to prove that libertarianism (as opposed to individual libertarians) is racist, right? But Wallis doesn’t even try to do this, instead he’s satisfied to imply that libertarians are racist because he hasn’t seen enough minorities at the tea party events.
Wallis subtly closes by saying that racism is “not a Christian virtue.” No s***. Insights like that clearly justify his prominent position in liberal Christianity today.
Let me close by saying that in no way is this post arguing that libertarianism is a “Christian” philosophy. I believe that it’s not incompatible with Christianity, but Christianity (and the Bible) really shouldn’t be seen as a handbook that lets you pick out your political philosophy.
Instead, Christianity serves as a moral guide, with certain principles laid out that have clear relevance to modern politics-prohibitions against murder, advice to pay taxes, criticism of tyranny, etc. Reasonable Christians can disagree as to which political movement can best achieve these Biblical principles.
Using the Bible as a political handbook is just as wrong when the right-wingers do it. God clearly supports the marriage of man and a woman, but nowhere does the Bible say that allowing GLBTs to marry would harm heterosexual marriage. That’s a political argument that you’d have to win without the Bible. And yet, many like Falwell try to take a shortcut by arguing that God opposes gay marriage. Nope. You oppose gay marriage.
Likewise, assuming the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin (debatable) this does not necessarily imply that government discrimination against GLBTs is acceptable. There are many sins (adultery, coveting your neighbor’s wife/possessions, disobeying your parents) that Christians don’t support state legislation against, because they’ve made the considered judgment that private opprobrium is sufficient.
In short, the political movements on both sides try too hard to claim God’s support for their specific policies. Instead, if God must be brought into the political debate at all, it should be to indicate His support for certain values-such as loving your neighbor-and then it’s your job to prove how your policies best achieve those values. Some things God left up to us.