I’m wrapping up 2016 by offering a list of the people whose ideas and actions have captured my attention and made a difference in my life this year. You can see the full list here, and each week I’m taking one of the persons from the list and giving a quick rundown of what I appreciate about them and why they belong on your list of influential persons as well. This week, I look at Tom Woods.
Unless you’re an economics geek or libertarian thinker, you probably don’t know Tom Woods. So let me give you a snapshot:
- He’s a trained historian who did his undergrad work at Harvard and earned a PhD from Columbia
- He’s a NY Times bestselling author whose written twelve books dealing with history and economics
- He produces a daily podcast (The Tom Woods Show) as well as a weekly podcast (Contra Krugman)
- He’s a libertarian thinker and promoter who also happens to be a very devout Catholic
I came across Woods while searching for the connection between libertarian thought and Christian faith and I find his discussions of these matters thoughtful, challenging and usually entertaining. Woods made my 2016 list because he’s helped me gain a better understanding of libertarian thought and practice, so let’s talk about libertarianism and its connection to Christianity.
First, please understand that I am not about to claim that all good Christians should hold libertarian positions. I’d be delighted if you did, but I can totally get how a strong case can be made for Christian progressivism, conservatism, or even socialism. Well, maybe not a strong case for Christian socialism, but that’s another post.
Now, what is the libertarian approach? Woods has helped me define it in simple terms. You start with the premise that every person has two rights (I’m going to go so far as to say these are God-given rights): the right to their person and the right to their property. In other words, you can’t enslave or force people to do things against their will (right of person), nor can you take their stuff or force them to do with their stuff that which they don’t want to do (right of property). The right of person flows obviously from the belief that all people are created by God in the image of God and have inherent worth. The right of property flows from the notion of stewardship, the commandment to not steal, and maybe the golden rule.
Upon these two basic rights, you can place certain moral practices, including:
- Non-coercion. It’s morally wrong to use force to get someone to do something or give something. At first you might think, “of course it’s wrong to use force.” But as you play this out, you’ll see just how coercive our modern society is, especially the government. Governments coerce you to pay taxes, to give up your property for highway right of ways, to wear a seat belt, to send your children to school, and the list could go on. You might think all these things are good for you and good for society, but a libertarian approach is far less willing to give a thumbs up to immoral coercion even when it’s “for your own good.”
- Autonomy and Responsibility. If other individuals or groups cannot force you to believe and behave in certain ways, that means you are free to believe and behave in whatever way you wish, so long as it does not infringe upon another’s right to person and/or property. So you are not free to steal, kill, destroy, etc. You are free to smoke pot, ride a motorcycle sans helmet, read the Bible, or drink massive amounts of sugary soda – and you are responsible to live with the consequences of your own actions. You’re the captain of your own ship, and captains have a lot of freedom and responsibility.
Libertarians don’t just clamor “Leave me alone!” they advocate, “Leave everyone alone.” Let people live the way they want to live and let them live with the consequences of those choices. To protect people from themselves is a morally bankrupt approach. To let them live, learn, and learn to live more wisely is morally good.
Some Christians shrink from libertarianism because they assume that advocating for the freedom to do something is the same thing as advocating for the behavior, but it’s not. You are free to smoke pot if you want, but I’m not going to do it and I’m not going to encourage others to do it. But my discouragement cannot take on the form or force or coercion, otherwise I have infringed upon your right to person and property.
- Natural Consequence. Libertarians are okay with bad things happening as a result of free choice. For example, if you ride a motorcycle without a helmet, you might crash and suffer a serious or even deadly head injury. Those are the natural consequences of riding motorcycles and not wearing a helmet. Do libertarians want bad things to happen? Of course not. But the only thing worse than killing yourself on a motorcycle is living in a world where someone else limits your freedom (including the freedom to do dumb things like riding a motorcycle without a helmet). The good desire to limit bad things from happening is one of the main sources of tyranny.
- Community. You are free to associate (or not associate) with whomever you wish. Some Christians shrink at libertarianism because they think it advocates for a radical individuality that devalues relationships, covenants, and commitments. In other words, they think it encourages us all to be selfish, self-centered narcissists. But I think libertarianism frees each of us to be Christian by affording us the freedom to limit our own freedom. You can make up your own mind about entering into contracts, covenants and communities. You can submit to the tenets, beliefs, and character-forming conditions of a specific community instead of drifting around as an isolated individual. Of course, you can also drift. Nobody is forcing you to be a Christian, but if you sense the Spirit of God drawing you toward God and you long for a life of meaning and purpose, you will find what you are looking for in the body of Christ, which you can choose to join (or not).
By the way, the alternatives to freely chosen communities of formation are two: coercive community (you must be formed and shaped by the state, or the church, or the school, or whatever) and default community (the culture is forming you while pretending nothing is happening).
So let me summarize: you have the right to your own person and property and so does everyone else. You are responsible to live as you wish and one legit way to live as you wish is to live in a community that helps form you according that community’s beliefs and standards.
Living out these core beliefs, we get some surprising (and maybe disturbing) practices/stances that I believe jibe well with Christian approaches to life:
- Limited Government. Libertarianism seeks to limit the government because government is a group of people who use force to infringe upon the rights of others (remember, “It’s for your own good” is not a legit reason to limit liberty). The doctrine of original sin implies that no person or group of persons is just, wise, or pure enough to rule over the rest of us. BTW, no Christian libertarian I know advocates for total anarchy. Most allow that a legit role for government is to protect citizen’s rights to life, liberty and property.
- Anti-war. War is aggression. It is legit to defend your right to person and property, but it is not legit to use violence to extend influence, control, etc. At the state level, libertarians contend that a strong defense is moral while offensive war is not. In other words, leave people and countries alone. Our government (USA) has jurisdiction that stops at our national borders.
- Separation of church and state. Libertarians are not cool with forcing religious convictions upon those who do not share those convictions. So you cannot pass laws against same sex marriage just because the Bible says it’s wrong. Doing so just causes more problems than it solves. This is NOT a challenge for Christians, because separating church and state allows the church to be the church and makes it clear that the state is not our source for morality or ethics.
- Anti-abortion. Some libertarians advocate for pro-choice since laws against abortion infringe upon the mother’s right to person. However, as a Christian, we can more strongly advocate that laws against abortion are a legitimate role of government since the human baby has rights, including the right to life.
- Charity. Libertarians are all about charity: give freely to help others. But taking my property through taxation in order to fund government programs aimed at helping the poor is not charity. “But if we don’t take people’s money through taxation… [fill in the blank here with whatever calamity will befall us].” Yes, bad things happen in life and the way to reduce those bad things is through charity and choice: people can willingly redistribute their wealth to help others, but they cannot steal someone else’s wealth and be generous with it.
Okay, so this post got waaaaaay longer than I intended and ended up saying less about Tom Woods specifically than I intended and focused more about libertarianism in general. But since this is my blog and I can do with it what I want, I’m okay with that. One final thing: appreciating Tom Woods and the libertarian approach isn’t the same thing as thinking the Libertarian Party is the end-all-be-all.
That’s it for this week. Next week we’ll look at one of my other favorite people for 2016: musician Leon Bridges. I promise, that will be a much shorter post!