And the Culprit is… Libertarianism!

As a pastor and armchair-theologian, I get to live in two worlds. I hear the ordinary anxieties and complaints of people in the pews, and then I read the complicated books and articles on theory, whether theological, philosophical, or political. What is simply unmistakable is how at odds the two stories are.

The lay-narrative is the most common. It says that things were more or less happy in the 1950s and early 1960s, due to the long legacy of a traditional Christian worldview and culture, but then “liberalism” or “progressivism” hit the scene and we have lost both our morals and liberties ever since. On the other hand, the academic narrative says that we lost our morals at the same time as and precisely because of the new definition of liberty which emerged in the 17th century (though some folks try to pin the tail a bit earlier, on Scotus or Ockham). The current “crisis” we are experiencing is thus not a departure from a “good” America, but instead the logical outworking of the original project.

Both of these narratives are partly right and partly wrong, and they both suffer from the same sort of idealism. They are looking for big culprits or master ideas in the form of ideology. Some “worldview” is to blame here, and if we can just critique the wrong worldview and extol the right worldview we will be well on our way towards a solution. The problem is that worldview, used in this way, is inconsistent with reality. As I never tire of saying, “Ideas don’t have consequences. People with ideas do.” And those people often act upon a variety of more or less consistent motivations and impulses, some rational and some visceral. Pretending that this isn’t the case and that we can solve societal problems with ideas is the surest way to never find a solution to any particular problem. We can’t let worldview, whether religious or political, become a new opium for the people.

The real “culprit” of our modern situation is neither liberal-progressivism (contemporary “liberalism”) nor classical liberalism (Enlightenment-era philosophy) but libertarianism. Mark Lilla explains:

The social liberalization that began in a few Western countries in the 1960s is meeting less resistance among educated urban elites nearly everywhere, and a new cultural outlook, or at least questioning, has emerged. This outlook treats as axiomatic the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties, indifference in matters of religion and sex, and the a priori obligation to tolerate others. Of course there have also been powerful reactions against this outlook, even in the West. But outside the Islamic world, where theological principles still have authority, there are fewer and fewer objections that persuade people who have no such principles. The recent, and astonishingly rapid, acceptance of homosexuality and even gay marriage in so many Western countries—a historically unprecedented transformation of traditional morality and customs—says more about our time than anything else.

It tells us that this is a libertarian age. That is not because democracy is on the march (it is regressing in many places), or because the bounty of the free market has reached everyone (we have a new class of paupers), or because we are now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict). No, ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms.

As counter-intuitive as this might sound at the present, it is supported by the recent trend in Supreme Court rulings. Damon Linker also explains how our libertarian moment has arrived, not so-much economically (As we are told, true libertarianism has only ever existed in Medieval Iceland) but rather morally and socially. Linker writes:

America clearly is becoming more libertarian — it’s just that the transformation is happening in morality and culture, not in economic, tax, and regulatory policy.

The swift and broad-based triumph of the movement for gay marriage and the rapid rise in acceptance of marijuana legalization are the most obvious examples. But the source of these changes is deeper than the policies themselves — and may lead to other changes down the road.

Linker also agrees that the most concrete expression of this libertarianism is in the Supreme Court:

The prophet of the moral and cultural libertarianism that is sweeping the nation may well be Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose words upholding the right to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) expressed an outlook that was just beginning to emerge 22 years ago, but which has since become common sense to many Americans: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.”

Justice Antonin Scalia recognized immediately that such a libertarian principle created serious problems for morals legislation of any kind. In his Casey dissent, he pointed out that the principle would seem to make laws against bigamy unconstitutional.

Twelve years later, in Lawrence v. Texas (2004), Kennedy used similarly libertarian language to declare anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional — and Scalia was back to say that once all consenting adults, gay and straight, were free to do whatever they wished in the bedroom without any government interference, laws against same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity were bound to be thrown out as well.

The feud between Kennedy and Scalia has continued right down to U.S. v. Windsor (2013), which struck down the core of the federal ban on gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act. Kennedy once again based his majority opinion on (among other things) the liberty of homosexuals to make “moral and sexual choices” without government interference — while Scalia angrily argued in his dissent that Kennedy’s libertarian arguments implied that state-level bans on gay marriage were constitutionally unjustifiable. Since then, lower courts have eagerly (and repeatedly) vindicated Scalia’s reasoning by citing his dissent to strike down such bans.

But the logic of Kennedy’s libertarianism not only transformed constitutional law. It also anticipated the direction of public opinion and American popular culture in striking ways.

But now, you might reply, aren’t I doing what I just earlier said that we shouldn’t do? Am I not finding the culprit in an ideology? Not exactly.

As Lilla points out, the Libertarianism which we are dealing with today is not actually an ideology at all, but what he calls a “dogma.” I would suggest a better term, something like disposition or appetite, but Lilla’s explanation is correct despite the nomenclature. He states:

Yet our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus.

Libertarianism’s dogmatic simplicity explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it: small-government fundamentalists on the American right, anarchists on the European and Latin American left, democratization prophets, civil liberties absolutists, human rights crusaders, neoliberal growth evangelists, rogue hackers, gun fanatics, porn manufacturers, and Chicago School economists the world over. The dogma that unites them is implicit and does not require explication; it is a mentality, a mood, a presumption—what used to be called, non-pejoratively, a prejudice. Maintaining an ideology requires work because political developments always threaten its plausibility. Theories must be tweaked, revisions must be revised. Since ideology makes a claim about the way the world actually works, it invites and resists refutation. A dogma, by contrast, does not. That is why our libertarian age is an illegible age.

This is exactly right. “Libertarianism” has become a sort of universal treatment for whatever ailment is appearing at the moment. It is the philosophical equivalent of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Most people don’t make a genealogical connection to Bentham or Mill. Most don’t ask about the unity of virtue in the commonwealth. They just see a problem, see a sort of solution in libertarian prescriptions, and, most of all, enjoy the outlet provided by libertarianism. It has a cash-value pragmatism about it, and so it can unite lots of people without ever reconciling their conflicting beliefs. It helps them to feel better. But this is also its downside.

Lilla’s conclusion is frightening. You see, as individuals are preoccupied with a libertarianism that is really no threat to the global world order, that world order keeps going on about its business just fine. He writes:

The libertarian age is an illegible age. It has given birth to a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. Having witnessed unpleasant scenes of intellectual drunkenness, we have become self-satisfied abstainers removed from history and unprepared for the challenges it is already bringing. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in ideology still remained in the West. But it also seems to have destroyed our will to understand. We have abdicated. The libertarian dogma of our time is turning our polities, economies, and cultures upside down—and blinding us to this by making us even more self-absorbed and incurious than we naturally are. The world we are making with our hands is as remote from our minds as the farthest black hole. Once we had a nostalgia for the future. Today we have an amnesia for the present.

We don’t actually ask questions about local cause and effect or how to incrementally improve a situation. Instead, we go for the foundation every time, and if we can’t deconstruct it, we often prefer to leave. Pure Libertarianism is a way of dropping out. It is an abdication of public virtue, but it doesn’t carry much cost because we don’t believe that it will ever happen, not really. Our current leaders don’t, at least.

Let’s consider what things would look like if Libertarianism was a realistic option. How about the Islamic State? We send our missionaries to Iraq, proclaim the good news of deregulation, and then what? The people beat their 1990s Toyota pick-ups loaded with rocket-launchers into plowshares?

How about Mexico and Central America? Do the cartels and kingpins voluntarily consent to the Non-aggression Principle by force of market persuasion? Or do they themselves persuade the market as they always have?

Such scenarios are preposterous because the conditions which make Libertarianism intelligible are themselves dependent on a legal, philosophical, and constitutional legacy which is provided by something else, namely more ancient thoughts of statecraft. A pre-modern Libertarianism is a threat to exactly no one because it cannot even get off the ground.

But as we get even more local, we see the more realistic scenario. What are the most immediate practical effects of libertarian policy in America today? I would suggest that they would be increased abortions, increased gay marriage, and an increased drug presence in the public culture which would exacerbate rather than improve the current crisis of male abdication and ever-delayed personal maturity. The existing corporate billionaires and perennial politicians would not be terribly worried by this, however, as they have more leverage than they could ever need to protect themselves and their assets. Indeed, they have more or less decided to go along with this trajectory. Libertarianism in America will get us more of the late 90s and 2000s-2010s.

And so, having shown that, far from being a savior, Libertarianism has itself had a significant role to play in the current status quo of American society, what does this mean for it as an option for conscientious Christians? I wouldn’t want to ban Libertarianism outright, though I think preachers ought to be attentive to its basic desires and motivations and critique them in light of Biblical principles. Remember, I don’t think a pure ideology is the solution for politics. We have to be practical, even while principled. I would say that you can use certain libertarian strategies insofar as they truly advance a common good. I am especially thinking of Rand Paul and the platforms he has chosen to make central. We should be willing to critique a rising police state, an out of control foreign policy, and the loss of civil liberties. But let’s not get rid of the notion of public virtue and embodied religion in all areas of life. Not for a minute.

Think of it not so much as an alliance but as cobelligerency. Use parts of Libertarianism and discard others, but don’t fall for its preaching. I like Dr. Bronner’s too, after all. I just don’t believe everything that’s on the label.


3 thoughts on “And the Culprit is… Libertarianism!

  1. Paraphrasing Mark Lilla’s article: The religious liberalization that began in a few Western countries in the 1540’s is meeting less resistance among educated noble elites nearly everywhere, and a new cultural outlook, or at least questioning, has emerged. This outlook treats as axiomatic the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties, indifference in matters of authoritative religion and sex and the a priori obligation to tolerate others. Of course there have also been powerful reactions against this outlook, even in the West, particularly Italy.

    And the culprit is……The Protestant Reformation……..

    Anyone for the Catholic Church?

  2. Hi Julann,

    You make an important point, and it is the thesis of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation:

    If the Protestant Reformation did indeed seek to upset the traditional socio-economic-political structure of Christendom, then it would have to answer for itself. I think, however, that it can and has been demonstrated that this was not the case. Luther was fiercely critical against the “peasants” and then the Anabaptists who took his teaching in that direction.

    I find the work of Allan Carlson to be most helpful here. You can see his free online writings here:

    He is a Lutheran Agrarian and labors to show how modern Protestants have totally forgotten the traditional Protestant position on family, sex, economics, and politics. I think you would like a lot of what he has to say and also disagree with a fair amount as well. My friend Dr. Eric Hutchinson of Hillsdale College interviewed Carslon here:

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