Libertarianism and the Nature of Faith

B: Having faith in someone means giving him the benefit of the doubt.  You have to believe in him no matter what.

Me: So if I walk into a room and there are dead bodies strewn all around–blood everywhere–and I see you standing in the middle of it all holding a knife dripping with viscera, my faith in you means I have to believe you couldn’t ever do such a thing?  Despite what my eyes and common sense are telling me?

B:  It means you should believe that I’d never do such a thing…sober.

–Fun date night conversation #3,482, which has nothing to do with anything I’m going to talk about, but I wanted to share because I’m a giver.


Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread from a miserly wealthy person in order to save the life of someone who is starving?  As a rights-based libertarian, this question haunts me.  It haunts me because it is scary.  On it hinges the weight of my moral philosophy, of my political ideology.  This one question goes nearly to the root of my religious conviction, which for an aspiring armchair theologian is more than a bit troubling.  It hits me where my Christianity and libertarianism converge, and for me it doesn’t get more vital than that.

Contrary to popular opinion, libertarianism isn’t primarily about reading Ayn Rand (whose books I’ve never been able to get through for I have no patience with boring things) or about ending the Fed, all affection for Ron Paul aside.  Libertarianism is primarily about answering one single query: When is it morally permissible to use violence against another human being?  Great libertarian minds have considered this and decided that it is never moral to initiate violence against another person, no matter how annoying she is or how ill-considered his choices.  Violence (or threats thereof) should never be wielded against a peaceful human being, whether druggie or prostitute or Fox News viewer.  People are free to do as they like so long as they refrain from either violent action toward others or fraud (fraud=theft=slavery, and you may feel like that’s a stretch, but it makes a sort of sense, really).  You may morally defend yourself against someone else’s use of force, but even then the defense you use must be proportionate.  If someone shoves you, you musn’t stick a fork in his eyeball and cut out his tongue.  Maybe one of those actions would be fine, but not both.  This is the essence of libertarianism, and it is often referred to as the non-aggression principle or NAP.  

I really like NAP’s answer to the question of morally permissible violence.  It’s neat and tidy, and more than that, it strikes me as very Jesus-esque.  I am spiritually attracted to this philosophy of non-violence.  However, it all falls to pieces if stealing bread to feed the hungry is a righteous action.  After all, the rich miser I want to steal from isn’t committing violence against anyone.  His hoarding is wrong, but people do all kinds of wrong things everyday, and I don’t think that gives me the right to correct them (Can’t you just imagine me saving the gluttons from their super-sized colas and slapping chastity belts on horny young people…on second thought, don’t ever imagine that.  That’s gross.)  NAP states that if Mr. Scrooge acquired his wealth by licit means, and let’s say for the sake of argument that he did, then it is his by right to do with as he pleases–even if what he pleases to do is fiddle and eat cake while Rome burns.  (Note: unlike Nero, he didn’t set the fire; he just likes the warmth it provides.)

My intuition tells me to take the stinkin’ bread, and Scrooge can deal.  What’s the harm in depriving a rich man of some food if it means I can save a life?  The great theologian, Thomas Aquinas, pronounced that stealing in such a case would be just dandy because it is more wrong to withhold charity than it is to steal.  I’ll admit, that is interesting and attractive math.  Does a wrong thing become right if you do it to a person who has sinned worse than you have?  Is it okay to commit a small-ish wrong to achieve a great good?  Can we not then make an argument that taking a healthy person’s kidney against her will is a righteous act if it can save the life of a patient who needs it?  A world ruled by a consistent philosophy that legitimizes violence to the few as long as it serves the greater good would be absolutely terrifying.

One might quibble that stealing food is not nearly so extreme as stealing an internal organ, but the point is that the logic used to justify the theft is the same.  A person is withholding what ought to be given freely (in the eyes of the thief) and he needs to be relieved of his treasure so that something awesome can come of it.  As a Christian, this is troubling, not the least because there is no biblical justification for forcibly taking from the rich to give to the poor.  Over and over again, the scriptures urge people to give of their own free will, but they never advocate for theft as a godly option–and let’s not forget, the Bible was written, edited, and compiled at a time when it was very commonplace for people to starve to death, so it wasn’t that the biblical writers just didn’t “get” poverty.  Why should a displaced and dispossessed people so respect the property rights of others?

The answer to that, I think, lies in their view of God’s sovereignty.  As a somewhat educated, twenty-first-century American, I’m used to believing I have the answers, that my ability to reason is unimpeachable.  So when I conduct a thought experiment wherein the world’s wealth is held only by wicked people who would leave everyone else to starve, I tell myself the logical conclusion is that we must take from the “haves” or else all us “have-nots” will perish.  In fact, we’d probably be so feeble and poor that perishing would be too great an aspiration; we’d just plain die.  This is the natural outcome.  It makes perfect sense.  And yet…for all my critical thinking skills, this mode of reasoning overlooks one of the bedrock principles of my faith: God is forever and always the great wild card.

He works according to a different economy.  With Him the foolish are wise, the weak are strong, the proud are made humble.  That’s what I was taught, anyway.  Try this scenario on for size: a small, oppressed fringe group of a minority religion gets targeted by the greatest military power the world has ever seen.  They have to fight back, right?  They have to either rebel or recant because otherwise the empire will make them into an extinct species.  That’s what reason would tell us.  Of course, it didn’t turn out that way at all, and the adherents of that new religion, Christianity, with its prohibition on violence, even in the cause of self-defense, wound up lighting a spark that set the whole Western hemisphere ablaze.  It was not the reasonable outcome.  It was miraculous and nearly inconceivable, and two thousand years later many Christians now live as though we’ve consigned our history to the realm of fairy tale.

All that’s to say, if we’re tempted to do something wrong in order to do something good, maybe we have left the path of wisdom.  Maybe we’re not following in the footsteps of Christ.  I’ve said before that I believe the basic hallmark of sin is treating people as means instead of ends.  It’s using them for whatever reason–for their money, their bread, their kidneys, their labor–instead of respecting them as worthwhile subjects (as opposed to objects) in and of themselves.  My enthusiasm for NAP is an outgrowth of this belief.  It is an ongoing process for me to learn to respect all people and their choices without ever resorting to coercion or threats because this is the way I suppose God to love me.  If dedicating myself to nonviolence in this way, just as my Christian forbears did even in the face of death, is what it means to live the good life, then I must live it and somehow find the courage to leave the rest to God. 

Libertarianism is oft accused of being a naive philosophy, but if so it is one that jives well with a faith that would have me believe seven impossible things before breakfast.  I must learn to resist the temptation to give in to my nightmarish visions of what the world might become were I, and the church in general, willing to truly devote ourselves to peace in the name of Christ–to treat the miser with the same shalom we would show to a hungry child.  I know it’s easier said than done, but whatever wrongs others commit, we must be committed to doing right, and however imperfect society is we must live as though the kingdom of God has come because in us it has.  This is what it means to be Christians.  We walk by faith and not by sight, even when it makes us look really stupid.   (That’s a great selling point, right?  It belongs on a billboard somewhere.  Someone should get on that.)


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