Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Libertarians and Religion

Kevin Vallier has an essay posted at Cato Unbound, entitled “A Genuinely Liberal Approach to Religion in Politics.”  The topic is of interest to me only to the extent that religion is often used as a tool for promoting nationalism (which is a religion unto itself in any case) and war-mongering (which writers such as Laurence Vance have covered quite well).

Vallier begins his assessment:

…I begin by contrasting my approach with three more familiar alternatives: I term these the libertarian, religious conservative and secular progressive views about religion in politics.

The topic as introduced by Vallier interests me little, except for his statements regarding libertarian views on the topic and his introduction of Murray Rothbard’s views (or as Vallier complains, lack of views) on the topic.

Given the venue, I begin by assessing the libertarian approach, or more accurately, what I see as libertarians’ lack of an approach to religion in politics.

In terms of a lack of libertarian views on this topic, this should be of no surprise. Libertarian theory is concerned with one question – when is the use of force justified?  Many concepts around the security of property and life fall out naturally from a thoughtful consideration of this question, but this question is the root.

Therefore, libertarians as libertarians will have little to say on this topic.  Vallier demonstrates, at least partially, one reason for why this is so:

…the more general attitude is that religion in politics is uninteresting because democratic politics should be dramatically weakened or abolished…

It is one reason, but a very secondary reason.  It is true that libertarians as libertarians consider that “democratic politics [more accurately, monopoly government] should be dramatically weakened or abolished….”  However, the primary reason that libertarians are uninterested in this question is because libertarian theory is only concerned with the question of the proper use of force – from this, the position on “democratic politics” is a natural result.

Vallier, starting down the wrong path, cannot help but compound his mistakes. The general attitude of libertarians, he claims, is that…

…private property alone will then answer these questions.  This attitude is based on a principled form of property-rights reductionism, where all that matters is whether property rights are being respected or violated.

Vallier emphasizes “all,” as if to emphasize even further his lack of understanding of libertarian theory.  A well-grounded view of private property will answer many questions (or, in some of the more difficult issues, at least provide a roadmap).  But libertarian theory will not answer “all” questions – and those well-grounded in this theory are the first to say so.  Rothbard answers why this is so:

Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that "liberty is the highest political end" — not necessarily the highest end on everyone's personal scale of values.

Vallier, in an attempt to pre-empt Rothbard, recognizes:

This view is a manifestation of thin libertarianism, which is probably still the dominant position in the liberty movement. The father of this approach was Murray Rothbard, who across his massive corpus of theory and commentary never penned a single piece developing a systematic libertarian approach to religion in public life. He may not have thought it necessary.

I have no idea if Rothbard ever did or didn’t address this issue.  However, for a libertarian as a libertarian, this isn’t necessary.  Vallier recognizes the thin libertarian view as being at the root of why this is not addressed. 

What is thin libertarianism?  “Thin” is a redundant qualifier: thin libertarianism is limited to nothing more than libertarianism – recognition of the non-aggression principle, with the inherent respect for private property rights.

This in contrast to thick libertarianism – a term which is undefinable, and therefore an attempt, whether willful or not, to render the term “libertarian” meaningless.  Suffice it to say: thin libertarians do not recognize thick libertarian positions as libertarian, no matter the possible personal agreement on certain of these positions.

Returning to Vallier:

The weakness of the libertarian approach is that it confuses politics and the state. Libertarians frequently forget that any free society is going to have both political disputes and deeply religious citizens.

A free society is also going to have devoted adherents to fantasy football.  Must libertarians comment on this for libertarian theory to be considered valid or whole?

In any case, I have not seen evidence of this confusion.  Libertarians don’t forget such things as the possibility of religious citizens; the reality is that such things are not relevant to libertarian theory.

Politics and religion are not going away even if the state is abolished.

It would be helpful to see some evidence of libertarians – specifically Rothbard, as Vallier introduced him into the discussion – claiming that this would be so; I will guess that none will be found.  Libertarian theory is concerned directly with the issue of politics: when is force justified?  As to religion, there are a few loud-mouths who blame the problems of the world on religion; but are wacky comments on libertarian-oriented message boards now to become the standard of libertarian scholarship?

Vallier eventually approaches a necessary reality – the issue of something more being necessary for a society to survive (or at least an issue for the possibility of a society to thrive):

And the role of religion in politics directly affects how any political process respects or violates liberty. If we are to ever have a libertarian society, we must find a way to speak to these conflicts.

Vallier approaches this reality, but misses the mark; he criticizes libertarians for not holding or expanding upon views that have nothing to do with libertarian theory.  One might as well criticize libertarians for not holding a view on the Real Madrid – Barcelona rivalry.

Rothbard states (paraphrasing): libertarianism does not answer every question.  Libertarianism does not provide every answer for the development of a thriving – and perhaps not even surviving – society.  Something more is necessary – call it culture, call it world-view, call it religion.  As Gary North often writes, people want to know what it is that other people around here (wherever your chosen “here” is) believe.

I have written often on this necessary idea of “more,” for example here and here.  But these are questions outside of libertarian theory.  The non-aggression principle, libertarians believe, is the foundation. It is nothing more.

For Vallier to take libertarians (and specifically Rothbard) to task for avoiding a subject that is outside of libertarian theory is illogical.  It presupposes that “thick” is the only acceptable position for a libertarian to hold, and that thick positions must be included within the sphere of libertarian theory.

This is nonsense; it is also dangerous.  It serves to ensure that there will be less room in the tent for those interested in the libertarian position.


1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to see the struggle we have in changing from focusing on the specifics to focusing on the foundational. I'm new to libertarianism, but for me it seems that it presents a foundational principle, namely the NAP, and then draws conclusions from how that principle applies to a specific situation. It becomes an exercise in connect-the-dots. It's obvious that a single principle isn't going to cover every situation, but the vast implications of such a principle are less obvious. I'm amazed at the number of people that get caught up in arguing the specifics without connecting it back to a foundational principle. I think this is why we allow the government so much power, or even why we have "government" at all. It seems that Vallier is focusing on specifics that the NAP doesn't cover in order to discredit the wide reaching implications.