We do not find many libertarians in the history of the Christian religion. In the cases where Christians become social critics, they have held almost every conceivable view – socialism, fascism, communism, capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, etc., but seldom libertarianism.
Among these critical Christian views is Christian pacifism, which holds that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. Many believe that Jesus himself was a pacifist. Perhaps the most famous Christian pacifist in recent memory is Leo Tolstoy, though Martin Luther King, Jr. also partly represents the tradition. Obviously some Christian denominations are pacifistic as well, such as the Amish and the Quakers. Today Stanley Hauerwas is probably the most famous Christian pacifist.
I recently met a Hauerwas student at a conference at Notre Dame, a Catholic theologian with strong pacifist sympathies. I found her absolutely delightful and incredibly smart and kind. However, she expressed hostility to libertarianism. I find that hostility peculiar, and I’d like to explain why.
Pacifism prohibits all or nearly all violence. Libertarianism allows for more, though exclusively in defense of person and justly acquired property. Perhaps libertarianism invariably leads to social systems that are deeply coercive in nature, but at least in principle it is almost as hostile to the use of violence as pacifism. Even defensive violence is risky and dangerous on libertarianism, if entirely justified.
Plenty of Christians reject pacifism. They believe that God legitimizes nation-states to enforce justice, defend the weak, etc. Pacifists are right to insist that these Christians are often blind to the effects of violence. But they still acknowledge that these individuals have an orthodox Christian view. At the least, one can be devout, holy, pious and theologically informed and not be a pacifist.
But many of my sophisticated Christian friends think it is obvious that one cannot be a Christian and a libertarian. The most basic argument is: “AYN RAND, BOOO!!” And the more general thought is that the radical individualism and celebration of profit making in libertarianism is incompatible with Christian tradition. What’s worse, many libertarians have expressed active hostility to Christianity. But neither radical individualism, the celebration of profit or atheism are basic libertarian principles. The only direct incompatibility I can think of is that some Christians of a particularly conservative bent think rights discourse in general is problematic, but that of course does not single out libertarianism. And surely Christians who believe in individual rights aren’t unorthodox.
Christian libertarianism needs merely say this: take whatever rationale for pacifism you like, your social conception of the person, your thick, eudaimonistic notion of the common good, your interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, and then argue that they permit a bit more coercion than pacifism, enough for libertarianism. For example, one could argue that defensive coercion is required to protect the weak and vulnerable. Or you could argue that Jesus only ever used coercion once – to protect his house. A society deeply wary of the use of violence, following Jesus’ example, will invariably require a limited government if not the abolition of government entirely, if pacifism applies to government officials. Social life therefore will take the form of family, mutual aid societies and lots of markets, even on deeply Christian communitarian principles. Again, if your Christian theological apparatus can generate so much hostility to the use of violence that Christian pacifism is theologically viable, then surely Christian libertarianism cannot be beyond the Christian pale.
So it seems to me that my new friend is wrong to see libertarianism as fundamentally in tension with Christianity. If pacifism is compatible with Christianity and the natural law-based forms of statism endorsed by many Catholics is compatible with Christianity, then why not libertarianism, a view approaching pacifism?