A Note on Reformed Libertarianism

I had hoped to develop this further but I simply have not had time. But I do want to say something.

Libertarianism is the legal theory (with political ramifications) that the initiation of aggression (or the threat to initiate aggression) against the property of another human being, is a crime. This is commonly known as the “Non-Aggression Principle.” Notably, this applies to all men, including the government. Thus no government may initiate aggression against a citizen. The logical result of this is that taxation is theft and a monopolization of the enforcement of justice (i.e. “the state”) is immoral. Instead, a moral governing order consists of multiple, competing private justice enforcement companies who insure private individuals. (For more on this, please read Stephen Kinsella’s What Libertarianism Is.) For the libertarian, that which is illegal is determined by private property ownership and therefore not all things that may be categorized as immoral, unethical, or sinful are necessarily criminal.

I was exposed somewhat to libertarianism by my high school economics teacher. I learned more about it in college. I also learned reformed theology in college. I spent time trying to develop a biblical political philosophy but found myself reaching dead-ends. I focused instead on developing my overall theology, and covenant theology in particular, setting aside political philosophy. I considered myself a libertarian and owned Mises’ Human Action and Rothboard’s Man, Economy, and State. But I never got around to reading through them.

A few years later, C.Jay Engel stumbled upon my blog and reached out, seeing that we were of very like mind on many things. He invited me to blog at his site ReformedLibertarian.com. Around the same time I had other friends ask me to respond to a new, growing group of Facebook Theonomists. So I once again ventured into the realm of biblical political philosophy (but this time with a more robust biblical & covenant theology). The study was fruitful (at least to me) and I focused on exegetical and historical theology. My libertarianism was under-developed and I leaned heavily on C.Jay for working out the specifics and the applications (I managed to read a couple chapters from Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State but I never got around to reading any Hoppe).

The primary, underlying question for me has always been the justification of the use of violence. Put another way: the just origin of civil government. The more I studied the issue, the more convinced I became of libertarianism because all of the other justifications failed, in my opinion. Obviously might does not make right, so conquest is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Neither can rulers claim special, divine anointing from God, so divine right is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Some early reformed, such as Calvin, argued that the just origin of civil government/rulers is simply God’s providence. But this is a confusion of God’s two wills and merely side-steps the question.

After Calvin, most reformed argued that the only possible just origin of civil government is the consent of the governed. They argued that the office of ruler is established by God and given a monopoly on violence. The people cannot exercise that use of force so they must choose someone to do so. The problem with this view is that Gen 9:6 grants all image bearers the authority (and duty) to wield the sword in the administration of justice. Thus in the nation of Israel we see that the next of kin has the authority and duty to avenge the death of a relative (a practice found throughout tribal societies ancient and modern).

Furthermore, the “social contract” variation on the consent theory would require ongoing consent of every individual in order to remain valid (a point made by Kuyper, and Filmer before him), not to mention the fact that a majority cannot exercise authority over a non-consenting minority just because they are the majority.

And thus by processes of elimination I came to find the Non-Aggression Principle (libertarianism) to be biblical. Civil government does not possess any divine authority above and beyond divine authority given to all image bearers. Thus any claim by a ruler to have special authority over individuals must be fraudulent. Therefore “the state” (a monopoly on violence in any given region) is fraudulent. Furthermore it must therefore be immoral for any individual or institution to use force for anything other than self-defense and retributive justice according to lex talionis.

However, there remained an undeveloped aspect in my mind. I did not believe the concept of a king or prince was inherently unjust and immoral. I did not believe there was anything unjust about Abraham amassing a great deal of wealth and servants. Someone could likewise become wealthy enough to own extensive property and have people living under his authority without injustice. Such a king could place any number of requirements upon those living on his land. It’s private property after all.

Now what happens when that king/prince/landowner dies? Does all his property simply revert back to being unowned property that can be claimed by anyone? No. His property is passed on to someone of his choosing. This is often his son, but it could be anyone. If the king had an agreement/contract with his tenants, then his son would have to honor that contract. Thus various rules governing living in a particular land could be passed down through generations without losing their legal force (and without violating the 6th or 8th commandments).

In like manner, any group of landowners could come together to pool their resources for self-defense and also establish some common rules for living in any of their lands (this coming together would have to be 100% consensual – not simply a majority). This too could retain its legal force after any or all of these original owners died or even sold their land. This is more or less what a Homeowner’s Association or CC&R is. When I purchased land to build a home, it came attached with certain conditions put in place by the original owner of the land. If I violate those conditions, I am legally liable to the other homeowners under the same CC&R for violating that agreement.

Thus it begins to appear that there is a just, biblical basis for a civil government monopoly to exist and to enforce laws beyond the Non-Aggression Principle. Taxation could be one such law. This is a conclusion that C.Jay arrived at, leading him to question whether he could rightly be called a libertarian any longer. He has written about it here, here, and here.

Of course, this is all theoretical and abstract. It does not itself tell us anything about any particular, existing civil government. Any particular government could have a just basis for their authority, but they might just as well have no legitimate basis. The history of the world does not present us with a nice, tidy chain of custody (Sir Robert Filmer, who wrote against Rutherford in defense of royal absolutism, argued that 17th century kings had absolute property rights to their land that originally derived from Noah dividing the world between his sons). Rather, history is full of war, conquest, murder, and theft of people and property (i.e. lots of broken, disregarded, and illegally imposed CC&Rs). So assessing whether any particular government’s authority is de jure or merely de facto requires a great deal of wisdom (which is why, in my opinion, our command to be subject to rulers is not contingent upon their claim to authority being just).

There remain many further avenues for me to explore. Is a property owner’s authority absolute (as James Ussher argued a king’s was)? Can they prohibit an image bearer from exercising retributive justice on their property? If so, would they simply be banished, or can they justly be killed for violating the king’s law? The latter would be contingent upon a tenant making a self-maledictory oath, promising to obey the law of the land upon pain of death. Would such an oath be binding upon his children? Would they have opportunity to depart from the land if they don’t agree? What if there is nowhere else to go on earth? Are they bound by their father’s oath? Are there any restrictions on what a property owner may justly require or impose upon such tenants as an agreed condition for living in his land? Can natural law (the moral law written on the heart of all men) restrict property rights in the sense that it limits said conditions? Or would it only affect the landowner’s standing before God, but not men? In the event of conquest, is it possible to re-establish just property rights? What do we do if a chain of custody for any given land (along with any attached conditions or covenant/constitution) cannot be determined?

So much more noodling remains, but I wanted to share where I am at because I don’t anticipate having very much time to develop these thoughts further, and these thoughts do affect how we view current events around us. I don’t think there is much from my writings at ReformedLibertarian.com that I would drastically change or disagree with (for example, I still disagree with 2LBCF 24.1). As I migrate them over to this blog, I’ll note at the beginning of any post if I have changed any part of it.

2 thoughts on “A Note on Reformed Libertarianism

  1. Pingback: On Social Justice (3): Justice for the Poor & Needy – Contrast

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