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Every Man Did What Was Right In His Own Eyes

February 18, 2010 19 comments

libertarian reader

The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao Tzu to Milton Friedman is a collection of essays from a variety of sources on a variety of topics related to libertarianism. The first chapter in the book is “1 Samuel 8” and it provides a rather striking example of eisegesis, anarcho-capitalist style.

The most important book in the development of Western civilization was the Bible, which of course just means “the Book” in Greek. Until recent times it was the touchstone for almost all debate on morality and government. One of its most resonant passages for the study of government was the story of God’s warning to the people of Israel when they wanted a king to rule them. Until then, as Judges 21:25 reports, “there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” and there were judges to settle disputes. But in I Samuel, the Jews asked for a king, and God told Samuel what it would be like to have a king. This story reminded Europeans for centuries that the state was not divinely inspired. Thomas Paine, Lord Acton, and other liberals cited it frequently.

Anyone who has read Judges and 1 Samuel is immediately struck by David Boaz’ statements. It’s clear he never read that section of the Bible and instead relied on Thomas Paine to tell him what it meant. Judges 21:25 is not a commendation of the situation in Israel, it is a condemnation. The Israelites had a law, a divinely imposed law, and yet they ignored it and did what was right in their own eyes. Contrary to Boaz, that is not a good thing. (Furthermore, the state, the sword, is divinely imposed – Gen 9:5-6; Rom 13:1-7; see Political Philosophy: Biblical Answers)

What John Robbins points out in his lecture on political philosophy is something Boaz misses: both totalitarianism and anarchy are lawlessness. In one a king does whatever is right in his own eyes, in the other everyone else does what is right in their own eyes. What is lost in both is the rule of law. Robbins notes in his essay “Rebuilding American Freedom in the Twenty-First Century” (we’re not off to a good start):

Americans sometimes foolishly overlook crime as a threat to freedom, thinking that the only threat comes from government. It doesn’t. Our neighbors may also be threats to our freedom. In fact, lawless governments and lawless individuals aid each other. The criminal and the dictator are twins distinguished only by the amount of power at the disposal of each. Each becomes the others’ excuse for more and more lawlessness, less and less freedom. The loser in such a contest is the rule of law. Freedom, we must keep in mind, is now lawlessness, but the result of effective application of moral law to both ruled and rulers.

Israel’s problem was one of lawlessness. They turned away from the law God gave them and did what was right in their own eyes. They also turned away from God as their sovereign king and demanded a king of their own. Boaz sees virtue in one of these two things where the Bible sees sin in both. When we abandon the rule of law, what we are left with is lawlessness:

1 Samuel 8:1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”