et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis


Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Christianity

by John A. Fielding, III

The one refers not to a number but to unity and oneness; in metaphysics, it has usually meant the absolute, the supreme Idea for Plato, the universe for Parmenides, Being as Such for Plotinus, and so on. The one can be a separate whole, or it can be the sum of things in their analytic or synthetic wholeness; that is, it can be a transcendent one, which is the ground of all being, or it can be an immanent one. The many refers to the particularity or individuality of things; the universe is full of a multitude of beings; is the truth concerning them inherent in their individuality, or is it in their basic oneness? If it is their individuality, then the many are ultimate and the proper source of authority, and we have philosophical Nominalism. If it is their oneness, then the one is ultimate, and we have Realism. -Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many, pp. 2-3.

The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions- -John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II:2:6.

"Thus, for every individual, a right is the normal sanction of a positive--of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice." -Ayn Rand, "Man's Rights," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 94.

If (as most men, since the beginning of human history, have believed) the foundation of human welfare is divine providence, then the limitation of politics and ethics to a puny 'reason' is an act of folly, the refuge of a ridiculous presumption. -Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 30.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man." -Ecclesiastes 12:13

To begin, a few personal observations are in order. In 1968, while in eighth grade, I wore my first "Reagan for President" campaign button. After Reagan lost in the Republican convention that year, I worked as a ninth grader in the Nixon campaign, stuffing envelopes and stapling pole signs. After observing the New York City mayoral campaign in 1969, I discerned the difference between liberal and conservative Republicans (i.e., John Lindsay and John Marchi) and discovered that I was a conservative. I joined Somerset (NJ) Teenage Republicans and the Young Americans for Freedom. Then I started reading Ayn Rand. Whoa.

The Fountainhead. Atlas Shrugged. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The Virtue of Selfishness. For the New Intellectual. Plus a whole bunch more. By the time I got done, I was teetering on the brink of what they used to call "anarcho-capitalism." Despite retaining my Republican Party registration, I joined the New Jersey Libertarian Party in 1972. I enlisted in the Navy, alarming crusty old Navy chiefs with my political views.

Then I became a Christian and put away "childish things." My search for intellectual consistency was over. With this as my background, I ask: What is the difference between libertarianism and conservatism? How should a Christian view both?

Let us begin by examining quotes from some representatives of the Libertarian position. First, Karl Hess:

Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit; that all man's social actions should be voluntary; and that respect for every other man's similar and equal ownership of life and, by extension, the property and fruits of that life, is the ethical basis of a humane and open society. In this view, the only--repeat, only--function of law or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself.1

David Bergland, Libertarian Party candidate for President in 1984:

In capsule form, the libertarian philosophy begins with the idea of self-ownership. Each person owns himself or herself. Therefore, each person has the absolute right to control his or her own life, body, speech, actions, and honestly acquired property. Each person has these rights. Therefore, each person also has the obligation to respect the equal rights of every other person.2

Finally, the Libertarian Party Statement of Principles of 1972:

We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.3

The beginning point for a libertarian is the individual, as may be seen from the common theme of self-ownership or self-dominion. This concept was taken from John Locke:

Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and hereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what is joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.4

Locke's view is based upon an optimistic view of man as creator, building society out of nothing, resting upon an "assumption of a state of nature. This assumption is wholly alien to the Bible."5 Thus,
From the biblical point of view, the important distinction is the distinction, not between the state of nature and the state of civil society, but between the state of innocence and the state after the Fall. If there is any place at all in biblical history for Locke's state of nature, the state of nature would begin after the flood, i.e., a long time after the Fall; for prior to God's grant to Noah and his sons, man did not have the natural right to meat which is a consequence of the natural right to self-preservation, and the state of nature is the state in which every man has "all the rights and privileges of the law of nature." Now, if the state of nature begins a long time after the Fall, the state of nature would seem to partake of all characteristics of "the corrupt state of degenerate men." In fact, however, it is a "poor but virtuous age," an age characterized by innocence and sincerity, not to say the golden age.6

Despite couching man's activity in "rights" language, Locke's theory of property and ownership is based upon Hobbes' view of "power" or "will" of the individual human ego constructing society in obedience to mechanistic scientific principles of politics, instead of man as a political or social animal governed by "law" or "right reason" as held by the ancient and medieval Natural Law thinkers such as Aristotle and Richard Hooker.7 Stanlis remarks:

But the fundamental similarity between Locke and Hobbes is their common empirical theory of knowledge and mechanistic conception of human nature. Locke's empiricism and denial of innate ideas is indistinguishable from Hobbes' basic principle that all knowledge is derived from sensations of external objects. In this, Locke contradicts both his professed faith in Christian revelation and his declared belief in the innate rights to "life, liberty and estate" of traditional Natural Law. This contradiction between Locke's theory of knowledge and his social thought makes his whole political philosophy endlessly equivocal.8

Finally Sabine states:

This theory, in all its social and political implications, was as egoistic as that of Hobbes. It is true that Locke drew a different picture of the state of nature. The war of all against all no doubt seemed to his common sense to be overdrawn, but like Hobbes he was saying in substance that society exists to protect property and other private rights which society does not create. As a result the psychology which in the eighteenth century grew out of Locke's theory of mind was fundamentally egoistic in its explanation of human behavior. It ran in terms of pleasure and pain, and not like Hobbes' in terms of self-preservation--a doubtful improvement--but the calculation of pleasure was exactly as self-centered as the calculation of security. Hobbes' better logic had its way in spite of Locke's better feeling. By a strange and un-designed cooperation the two men fastened on social theory the presumption that individual self-interest is clear and compelling, while a public or a social interest is thin and unsubstantial.9

Thus, Libertarianism is nominalist: any unity is manufactured and artificial, made up of associations of individuals, which individuals provide the only true reality.

As might also be expected from the emphasis on ownership, libertarianism puts a great deal of emphasis on the ideal society being found in free exchanges between rational men according to a free market. Thus, a libertarian stresses man as a rational, economic being who may be counted on to act in his own rational self-interest.

The good in libertarianism for the Christian is that libertarianism uses a highly principled approach to limit the function of the State with respect to the individual. As Bergland remarks, "If people are basically good, you don't need a government; if people are basically evil, you don't dare have one."10 The Bible, as well, strictly circumscribes the sphere of government. Libertarianism and the Bible, however, posit different starting points for the limitation on the state. Because the starting point of the ethics of Libertarianism is man-centered, it views man's rights as supreme and his knowledge with respect to his own needs and interactions with society as ethically able, with the state simply in existence to protect those rights. The Bible is God-centered, with man ruling as his vice-regent. Thus, while man is accorded authority and dignity in the biblical model, the individual, acting simply in accordance with his own uninstructed and unconverted reason, is not supreme. Man is viewed as ethically disabled, exalting himself and misdirecting his reason at the expense of God's standards, unless converted to discipleship by God.

Furthermore, on the libertarian standard, there are only two entities: the individual and any association of individuals. The Bible, however, balances the freedoms and duties of the individual with a recognition that those duties and responsibilities are contextual: man exists within the providential societal spheres of church, family, and state. All are equally "real."

Finally, while libertarians profess to be purely rational, their principle of the universal rationality of man is as much an article of faith as any a Christian would hold. In fact, in light of the impressive historical record of mankind in this area, a principle of universal rationality may require more faith!11 Furthermore, the principle of universal rationality comes into direct conflict with the self-ownership principle if each person is permitted an individual interpretation of ethical rationality for him. Thus, if ethical standards are reduced to individual standards, on what basis is a universal principle such as "noncoercion" or "self-ownership" justified? If ethics are truly individual, I should be able to justify my actions for or against anyone else simply on the basis of my opinion of what the universal law of "reason" dictates. Who is to tell me that I am wrong? Therefore, the libertarian principle of rationality reduces to relationships built on Hobbesian power considerations after all.

Whereas the libertarian stresses the individual as the ultimate reality and society as simply an aggregate of individuals, the conservative stresses society since, as a practical matter, society exists prior to individuals. After all, man is not just born as an individual; he is born into a set of previously existing relationships. Therefore, conservatives are suspicious of utopian attempts to remake the world in the name of a theoretical "state of nature" that never existed in the name of an abstract logical calculus untried in the fires of custom and convention.12 Thus, Russell Kirk states:

As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors (this phrase was Straf-ford's and Hooker's, before Burke illuminated it); they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life by a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine. "What is conservatism?" Abraham Lincoln inquired once, "Is it not adherence to the old and the tried, against the new and untried?"13

[The Conservative Mind] distinctly does not supply its readers with a "conservative ideology": for the conservative abhors all forms of ideology. An abstract rigorous set of political dogmata: that is ideology, a "political religion," promising the Terrestrial Paradise to the faithful; and ordinarily that paradise is to be taken by storm. Such a priori designs for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative, who knows them for the tools and the weapons of coffee-house fanatics.

For the conservative, custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order. Men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another. Precisely that has come to pass in a great part of the world, during the twentieth century.

To general principles in politics--as distinguished from fanatic ideological dogmata--the conservative subscribes. These are principles arrived at by convention and compromise, for the most part, and tested by long experience. Yet these general principles must be applied variously and with prudence, humankind's circumstances differing much from land to land or age to age. The conservative seems to accept utopian politics as a substitute for religion.14

Rather than looking to abstract scientific, rational, or logical principles, divorced from historical or societal realities, the conservative looks to "the prejudices and traditions which millennia of human experience with divine means and judgments have implanted in the mind of the species. And what is our purpose in this world? Not to indulge our appetites, but to render obedience to divine ordinance."15

Having said all of this, how does a conservative justify the natural rights to property as well as the others that concern the libertarian? The conservative would see their justification not in terms of an abstract appeal to a first principle found in "self-ownership" or "rational self-interest," but in the fact that, over the ages, divine providence has placed such rights within societal development and enabled men to recognize them through the development of legal concepts designed to preserve them,16 Thus,

One arrives at principle through comprehension of nature and history, looked upon as manifestations of divine purpose; one acquires prudence by patient observation and cautious investigation, and it becomes the director, the regulator, the standard of all the virtues. Expedience implements principle, but never supplants principle. For principle is our expression of cognizance of providential purpose.17

Burke...says that natural right is human custom conforming to divine intent.18

The good in conservatism for the Christian is its recognition of divine providence working through the historical process to preserve the deposit of Western Christian civilization, as well as seeing the structures of society as having a reality beyond the present individuals. Burke's concept of society was that which was "joined in perpetuity by a moral bond among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born--the community of souls."19

The problem with conservatism is that it never raises its gaze from the historical to the biblical:

To rely upon divine inspiration certainly will not suffice for the ordinary courses of life: one cannot expect the supernatural universe to manage the routine concepts of the natural universe. Burke answered that Providence had taught humanity, through thousands of years' experience and meditation, a collective wisdom: tradition, tempered by expedience.20

Since divine inspiration is inadequate, how do we tell the difference between good and bad tradition? Frank S. Meyer criticized conservatism because it refused "to acknowledge that, in the immense flow of tradition, there are in fact diverse elements that must be distinguished on a principled basis and considered in their relationship to present realities..."21 He criticized conservatism because in the Christian tradition, the march of God in history through providence always existed in tension with the existence of God as transcendent, a Person wholly other than His creation.

By identifying God's standards with those standards able to be gleaned from history and tradition, conservatism loses any true principle of discernment. Burke shows signs of this problem: Kirk reports that Burke detested British Governor-General Hastings of India for riding "rough-shod over native religious tradition and ceremonial...[because Burke believed] every sincere creed is a recognition of divine purpose in the universe, and all mundane order is dependent upon reverence for the religious creed which a people have inherited from their fathers."22 On this principle, conservatism ratifies whatever values are built into the society inherited by a people. Divine providence becomes compatible with whatever state of affairs exists, and the "is" turns into the "ought." "Status quo," it turns out, really is Latin for "the mess we're in," after all.

Toward a Christian Balance
Libertarianism loses the unity of society in the multiplicity of the individual. Conservatism loses the multiplicity of individuals in the march of the development of the unity of civil society through history.23 Neither really has a principle of transcendence.24

Now, more than ever, Christians need to present the biblical model of ethics and covenantal political structure as that which possesses the only true balance between the one and the many. Biblical ethics recognizes the importance of individual gifts, defines society and its structures as having a reality independent of the individuals participating in it, but also provides a standard external to individuals and societal context that is to be applied in history according to the guidance of Old Testament case law. Thus, biblical ethics is said to be multi-perspectival.25 It recognizes that God's law is absolute, but meant to be applied in a variety of situations, and that individuals apply it according to individual abilities and gifts. Thus, the multi-perspectival approach has been compared to a jewel with multiple facets: the facets are all essential to the balanced view of the whole.

Likewise, biblical law provides a needed corrective to libertarianism and conservatism for any nation. Only God has a true view of individuals and society based upon His exhaustive knowledge of both, an exhaustive knowledge that man cannot duplicate. Furthermore, whatever knowledge man has is distorted by sin. Thus, without God's perspective, a nation will lurch from anarchy to authoritarianism. Libertarians cannot bring themselves to legislate against what they term "victimless" crimes because their limited perspective does not enable them to see those crimes the way God does in His law. Conservatives tend to legislate against sins God has not ordained to be punished by the civil authorities. Because fundamentalist Christians tend to be dispensationalists that have "dispensed" with biblical law, they tend to side with the natural law conservatives.

May God help us to shuck Thomas Jefferson for King Jesus.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot.

John Fielding practices law in Berks County, Pennsylvania


1. Karl Hess, "The Death of Politics," American Radical Thought: The Libertarian Tradition, Henry J. Silvemian, ed.; (Lexington, 1970), p. 275.

2. David Bergland, Libertarianism In One Lesson, 6th ed. (Costa Mesa, CA, 1993), p. 29.

3. "Statement of Principles" (Libertarian Party, 1972); quoted in Bergland, p. 25.

4. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, in Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Peter Laslett, ed., Student edition. (New York, 1988), II: 27, 287-88.

5. Strauss, p. 215.

6. Strauss, pp. 215-16; citing and quoting from Locke, Two Treatises, 1: 16, 27, 39, 44-45; II: 6, 11, 25, 36, 38, 56-57, 87, 107-108, 110-111, 116, 128, and A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity, p. 112.

7. Peter J. Stanlis, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (University of Michigan, 1965), pp. 3-28; Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, 3rd. ed. (Chicago, 1965), ch. IV-V; George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 3rd. ed. (London, 1963), ch. XXIII, and pp. 523-41.

8. Stanlis, pp. 21-22.

9. Sabine, pp. 528-29.

10. Bergland, p. 15.

11. For example, man's "rationality" would seem to predict that youth in public school should stop engaging in premarital sex once educated in the adverse consequences. That they do not do so would indicate that "irrationality" or, dare I say it, sin is a component of human decision-making. Thus, the problem would not seem to be a lack of knowledge, but the ethical trajectory of the knowledge acquired.

12. Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Popular Government (1885; Indianapolis 1976), pp. 21, 23; Edmund Burke, "Reflections On The Revolution In France" in The Works of Edmund Burke (London, 1901),11:335; John C. Calhoun, "A Disquisition on Government" in Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun (Indianapolis, 1992), pp. 44-45; Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot, 7th rev. ed. (Washington, D.C., 1986), p. 810.

13. Kirk, p. 8.

14. Kirk, iii-iv; Burke, "An Appeal From The New To The Old Whigs," in Works , III: 111-112.

15. Kirk, p. 29; see generally Peter J. Stanlis, "Edmund Burke and the Scientific Rationalism of the Enlightenment," in Edmund Burke: The Enlightenment and the Modern World, Peter J. Stanlis, ed.; (Detroit, 1967), ch. IV.

16. George W. Carey, "Introduction" in Maine, pp. 16-20; Kirk, pp. 34-45.

17. Kirk, p. 40.

18. Kirk, p. 50; Burke, "Reflections," in Works, II:332-33.

19. Kirk, p. 10.

20. Kirk, p. 37.

21. Frank S. Meyer, In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo (Chicago, 1962), p. 44-45.

22. Kirk, p. 33.

23. Obviously, each position has a spectrum and a variety of individual variations scattered along each spectrum. This article is a general critique of the positions as I have found them.

24. As a practical matter, the concept of "civil society" provides no basis for judging the truth or falsity of any particular society without importing a standard from elsewhere. Likewise, needless to say, the libertarian principle of the universal rationality of mankind founders on the rock of individual interpretations of rationality.

25. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1987), pp. 62-75; Vern Sheridan Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids, 1987), pp.32-37.

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