The Politics of Liberty: The Principled Argument


(Copyright Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes)

Kindergarten. That’s where we learned the basics of libertarianism. Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.

It’s a basic ethical principle that most readers will readily nod in agreement. We want our children to live by that basic standard. Treat others as you would want to be treated. That’s the stuff of elementary.

Libertarianism, notwithstanding the agenda of the party’s eccentric activists, is a political philosophy based on that very idea. The distinction is that the libertarian will advocate that the state should not treat anyone in a way that we would not want our neighbor to treat us. Or our child to treat another in school.

If it is wrong for me to take my neighbor’s money, then it is equally wrong for me to utilize—yes, we’re coming back around—a monopoly on force to take their money and give it to me instead, or anyone else, for that matter. The government should not aggress—initiate force—against any otherwise peaceful person. And don’t get this confused The threat of force sufficiently qualifies as aggression. Nobody would consider a 200-lb bully taking the toy truck of the much smaller peer to be okay simply because the smaller boy does not defend himself and therefore avoids a losing battle.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not of the mindset of Irwin Schiff, who died in prison for refusing to pay his taxes. It is much like the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit on the quiet road on the edge of town. I may not always like the speed limit, but I will follow it as a matter first of integrity and respect (both of which I find a fundamental part of what I believe to be a transcendent standard of morality), and second because I do not want to be out the hefty chunk of cash that I will otherwise be if caught going faster.

But maintaining my integrity on matters such as paying taxes and acquiescing to the state’s regulations, I can still advocate for the basic principles of liberty and argue that they ought to apply to the apparatus of the state. What gives officials who have a monopoly on force—and for most of us, merely the threat of force—a right to do what the average person cannot do to his neighbor?

And yes, I am aware of the abundance of arguments that are raised in opposition. “We must all pay our fair share for the protections and benefits they afford us,” is the most common raised. To sort every nuance of that out in this post would require a book (which is one reason I have a blog), so let me introduce a couple of key ideas to keep in mind, the second following from the first.

First, if you agree to the basic principles of liberty that I have stated in the previous few posts, then the burden of proof falls on you to show me why the state has a right to violate it, if indeed you think it does. Many will argue that the state is given exemption due to the legitimacy that it gains by our republican system. Let’s see if that holds up.

John Locke, an Enlightenment thinker and social contract theorist. Also a key theorist of natural rights to "life, liberty and property."

John Locke, an Enlightenment thinker and social contract theorist. Also a key theorist of natural rights to “life, liberty and property.”

Many Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries adhered to a somewhat abstract argument called social contract theory. Their held that everyone is duty bound to the state because, by involving themselves in society, they are submitting to a “social contract.” In this contract, they implicitly agree to do this submission, or at least, to the submission of society as a whole under whatever form of government they considered legitimate.¹ There are significant holes in this theory, most of which I do not have time to debate here, but the most significant is worth noting: why? Because I happened to be born into society, I have implicitly agreed to its terms of governance? Note that the monarchs and parliaments of the era loved this theory: it helped to justify their authoritarianism.

I know that many of my Christian readers will argue that governments are established by God, and that in itself gives the state its right to exemption from the basic principles of liberty. Romans 13:1-7 is a common place to refer to. A more holistic study of Scripture gives a more of a complex view, which again, after the fashion of relatively short posts, will not fit here. For now, I will offer one prime example. When Israel asked Samuel for a king, God’s warning was clear: the king will violate the liberties you have enjoyed by taxing you and forcing your children into labor and military service. The Lord viewed this rejection of His sovereignty with anger (Samuel 8:1-18).

Back to my previous point, social contract theory breaks down because it simply justifies the use of force by nature of people being united in society. Hardly a satisfying argument against the principles of liberty. (Incidentally, the greatest test of this argument is the state’s response to anyone choosing to not adhere to their rules. If social contract is binding by voluntarism, then ought it also allow someone to opt out? It’s almost a silly argument, further exposing the flaws of social contract theory.)

But still,” come the rebuttals, “our system of governmental approval is better. We may not like the laws, but we agree to them because we believe in the legitimacy of our lawmakers. We have elections, after all.”

Certainly, I could get into the myriad of regulations designed and enforced by the un-elected bureaucrats alone. But I don’t even need to do that. We may follow the laws because we believe in the legitimacy of those that pass them; not a poor argument, to be sure. But are elections that appoint the person that 51% of voters choose (or in some cases, even less, when a plurality alone is needed) enough on its face to justify allowing the state the exception to the basic principles of liberty?pillars-of-law-and-order2

And if you argue yes to that question, then we get to our second point that I will leave you with. If legitimacy alone, whether by elections, inheritance, or a belief in the divine right of kings (that kings have a right to rule because they are appointed by God, commonly held during the early Enlightenment period, as well as its modified rendition in dictators like Hitler) is enough to give a state the right to violate the basic principles of liberty, then a state naturally has no limits that it must follow, no measure of authoritarianism it cannot pursue. If given the exception, what ethical principles can bind it?

“But we have a Constitution!”

Yes, yes, indeed we do. So the Constitution is supposed to allow the government to violate these principles only minimally, and then bind them, as Jefferson hoped it would, beyond that? If the Constitution validates the legitimacy of the government by limiting our exposure to abuses, then it must still be judged on the merits of that canon. How well has it worked?

Is the Constitution our standard of liberty? Now, once again, don’t get me wrong; in context, the Constitution was one of the greatest protectors of liberties the world had yet seen to that point. I would happily argue that we return to a strict adherence to the Constitution from an originalist standpoint; it would be far better than what we have now. But was it a paradigm of upholding these principles? Not entirely, and while many of the Framers were fundamentally dedicated to the preservation of liberty, there were a great many other questions surrounding the creation of the document. The Constitution was a creation of men and politics as much as it was of principle (or, probably, even more so). (In the coming months, I will begin a series on the creation of the Constitution and understanding it from an originalist perspective.)

I apologize for a somewhat longer post. Still, I find it important to understand that if you agree with the principles of liberty for the average person—that you don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff–or do not aggress against an otherwise peaceful person—and then also disagree that the state is bound by the same principles, then the burden of proof falls on you to justify the exception. And if justify you think you can, then an even more challenging burden of proof falls to justify why it is exempt in some cases and not in others.

I say, let’s return to elementary.

“But enough of principle,” you might say. “What you implicate is a total void of any government. Surely, if we went that far, chaos would erupt.” Certainly, theory is a rather useless argument on its own, and needs to go hand-in-hand with its cousin, pragmatism, right? I’ll tackle that one next time.

¹Yes, I am aware of my oversimplification of this theory. Still, I think the essence and implications of it are not lost in my explanation.


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3 Responses to The Politics of Liberty: The Principled Argument

  1. Jessica Brewer says:

    Eager to learn more…

  2. I would like to hear you expound on the case of the early church and their responses to the removal of their liberties (and lives) by the Romans. Obviously, they held to a different view as they did not throw off the government that was “hurting them” and “taking their stuff.” They were operating under the same scriptures you say are more complex than Romans 13:1-7. So, I’m interested why Peter, Paul, John and those that followed them over the next hundred or more years, did not find in scripture the justification for rebellion or that these concepts of liberty aren’t more readily found in the Word. As far as the Samuel example – an earthly king would do that, yes, but God did the same just in different ways (His priests required livelihood given by the people – a form of taxation, and He commanded the Israelites to be His instrument of judgment by sending them to war against peoples – a form of pressed military service) – but He had the benefit of omniscience and omnipotence, so as Aristotle said, monarchy is the best form of government, when there’s a good king – so God was not really against kings – He was against his particular people rejecting HIM as king. In fact, David, a king of Israel, was a man after God’s own heart…hardly a slam on kings, more a realization that potential for abuse exists, as even David did. However, it is worth noting God, who knew about the concepts of liberty, morality, democracy – never gave His people a vote and punished them when they did not do as He commanded. People crave someone to rule them, it’s built into their souls by God himself, so it’s only natural that people will abandon liberty – it’s too hard and we’re just not designed for it.

    Biblically or even logically, Do you think liberty is a concept meant for life on this earth? Is anyone really free? I would argue freedom is a myth except for in a spiritual reality. Those in Christ are the only ones who can be spiritually free, and we, all to often, willingly return to shackles and rules.

    Just wanted to throw out some thoughts and get a response to some of these ideas. Really enjoying these blog posts 🙂 It’s good stuff!

  3. L.C.Keagy says:

    Yeah, I will certainly get into that to some extent. I am not, in fact, arguing for or against rebellion or arguing in defense of the American Revolution; I am not addressing that here, at all. Certainly, even if you take a hard-lined approach that rebellion is justified where government does not operate under a particular set of criteria, the American Revolution can have arguments on either side. As I said in my first post “On What Basis Liberty?”, there is nothing inherent that gives a king the right to rule over others. Just like you would argue that no one has inherent rights, so no one has a right to rule. It follows in the same line of logic. This does not in any way undermine a belief in God’s sovereignty in establishing kings or governments, or in arguing that we have any right to rebel. I see it as two somewhat separate issues. First, the issue of whether or not anyone has an inherent right to aggress against anyone else. The second issue, which you raise, is if we have a right to resist that aggression. I think that they can be discussed separately, though the second is no less important (I would argue that for those in a different context (ie, those living somewhere like Saudi Arabia), the second is far more important than the first. My context (aka, the United States, with its relatively open political system) allows me, I think to advocate for liberty. It is the means of attaining this that might be a different conversation. What I see important in Paul and Peter’s writing is, precisely as you state, our response to government. The only justification I see to that end is Peter’s to the Pharisees in the book of Acts, where they are instructed to disobey God in order to follow the instructions of their local “state”. But in our context in which the political process is open to some measure of change, albeit small, I do not think a vibrant argument for liberty with a strong adherence to integrity violates your point about not finding stronger evidence of liberty principles in the Bible.

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