Saturday, June 15, 2019

I Only Have a Hammer

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

-          Abraham Maslow

C. J. Engel has a very interesting and thought provoking piece on the topic of libertarianism and liberty, entitled “Libertarianism’s Place In Society.”   I say thought provoking, because even though the general topic is one that I have worked through often, his approach is quite different and provides fascinating – and troubling – food for thought.

With his opening sentence, Engel points to what he sees as the issue:

The thesis here is that libertarianism as a political theory only carries the veneer of importance and centrality due to the strength and power of the democratic, administrative, state in our time.

Engel is after the “why.”  Why is it that so many libertarians see libertarianism and only libertarianism (sola libertatem?) as the cure for what ails us, so to speak?

Where in the past one might have said, with some truth, that politics is downstream from culture, today we have culture downstream from the state – with the state not only consuming all relationships but even guiding these relationships; with the state not following the cultural lead of the people but taking a leading role in shaping the culture that it wishes the people to adopt.

Since the state is everywhere we look, and libertarianism has a set of particular ethical critiques against the state, it seems to follow that libertarianism plays such an important place in our lives.

The state is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.  “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

This creates the illusion that libertarianism plays a fundamental role in society.

Because the state plays the fundamental role, libertarianism must be fundamental.  In other words, many libertarians see the solution to the issue of the state in the terms that the state presents.

Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

-          Abraham Kaplan

The state makes the rules of the game and many libertarians believe that this is, therefore, the field on which they must play if they are to find liberty:

But it should be made clear that the only reason libertarianism as such seems to play such a fundamental role in the self-identity and life-meaning of so many in libertarian circles is due to the politicalization of society.

Engel has succinctly put into words the role that libertarianism can play in a society that is not totally politicized:

Under a free society that is not created by or bound up in the existence of the state, libertarianism plays much more the role of a legal theory, not a political theory.

This strikes me as not inconsistent with my idea that liberty will be found in a society grounded in natural law and Christian ethics, with libertarianism playing a role of determining when violence (e.g. self-defense, physical punishment, etc.) is appropriate.

Engel notes that men are not connected to each other based on this idea of “libertarianism.”  Libertarianism only binds libertarians together if we “presume the state’s politicized world!” 

He then comes to the point of what can be labeled (for simplicity) the left and right of society and how this relates to libertarians and libertarianism:

In this case, those of us who are beginning to pay particular attention to the rapid and concerning leftist social revolution likely have more in common with each other, outside the bounds of libertarianism as a legal theory. And as the left-libertarians and mainstream libertarians in general either praise these developments as at the culmination of the “libertarian spirit” or at least just watch it all with neutral expressions and ambivalent reaction, they likely have more in common, generally speaking, with the progressive left.

Libertarians are connected to each other in their (varying levels of) anti-statism.  But this only means that libertarians see the problem only one way, through one lens, and with only one tool available to deal with it – and it is the state that has defined the way, the lens, and the tool that many libertarians choose to use.

Men form society not on the basis of a unifying legal theory, but the legal theory is adopted post-society. Libertarianism is a helpful tool in the development of peaceful civilization; it is neither the spring nor the engine from which society comes.

A common culture and tradition must come first, one that offers decentralization from the statism of today.  Good law follows good people, it is incapable of creating good people.


If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land

And I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

-          Peter, Paul, and Mary

So maybe we could try it another way?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Good law follows good people, it is incapable of creating good people."--Bionic Mosquito

    Isn't this exactly the situation the Hebrew nation found itself in at the time of Christ? It had the Law, the people were accustomed to following the Law, everything was determined by the Law, yet, neither the society nor the culture were 'good'.

    At that time, the Jewish people lived in a homogenous, close-knit society in which one size (of the Law) fit all. There was no room for individualism because everyday life was held up to and measured by adherence to the structure and regulations of imposed Law. One difference between society then and now is that we are far more diverse, therefore, the law must be much more extensive in order to meet the same level of expectancy.

    Christianity upended this system (and others, and will again) because it is inherently individualistic, not collective. It is based on love, not law, and fits perfectly with the concept of non-aggression. If I love my neighbor in the way that Jesus commanded, I will do nothing to harm him. Neither will I do anything to try to control or regulate his behavior to my liking, so long as he behaves himself. I am becoming more and more consistent with this attitude as I grow older. Salvation, you see, is not simply a one-shot deal at conversion, but a life-long process toward the perfection of God, as exemplified by Jesus.

    Christians, in general, still labor under the delusion that society and culture can be made 'good' by creating laws which will force people to be good. This will not work any better than it has in the past. All that happens in using this method, is that Christians become just one more group dedicated to seizing the reins of power and ushering in a state of "righteous law". The prevailing mindset, whether Christian or not, is that everyone will behave the way they are told, according to the current Law.

    One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. IF I control myself AND I love my neighbor, I do not need any laws to tell me how to live. The qualifying factor here is that I must control myself and I must love my neighbor in a manner consistent with the pattern set by Jesus, i.e., perfect love. I have to admit I'm not there yet.

    Coming to grips with this has brought me closer to understanding what Rushdoony meant with this statement.

    "In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had."--R. J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), p. 63.

    This is something which society and culture is going to adopt individually in the spirit and over time. It will not happen quickly, but it will happen. God's timing is not the same as ours, neither are His ways and means. We have to do our part and allow Him to do His.

  3. As a follow up to my earlier comment, I found this in the Chalcedon blog. It expresses my sentiments quite well.

    "[P]olitics cannot produce character: Christianity must. The decline of faith is a decline of character and a decline of character is the forerunner of political decay and collapse. Christianity has an obligation to train a people in the fundamentals of God’s grace and law, and to make them active and able champions of true political liberty and order.[6]"--

  4. "I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters"

    God that's chilling. I remember singing this as a kid, in unison with all the kids around me. It's a perfect metaphor for the mentality of those (my dad liked to call them 'do-gooders') who wish to shape culture through the violence of the state. It's a wonder we're not all commies.

    "This strikes me as not inconsistent with my idea that liberty will be found in a society grounded in natural law and Christian ethics, with libertarianism playing a role of determining when violence (e.g. self-defense, physical punishment, etc.) is appropriate." - BM

    Rothbard properly understood the role of libertarianism at least as far back as the early 1980s.

    "It is not the intention of this book to expound or defend at length the philosophy of natural law, or to elaborate a natural-law ethic for the personal morality of man. The intention is to set forth a social ethic of liberty, i.e., to elaborate that subset of the natural law that develops the concept of natural rights, and that deals with the proper sphere of "politics," i.e., with violence and non-violence as modes of interpersonal relations. In short, to set forth a political philosophy of liberty." - Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 1982

    In the quote above, he explains that there is more to the natural law than that which defines the role of violence in society. He then explains that it is not his purpose (in defining libertarianism) to address the moral realm of the natural law, but only the political one. It is not a philosophy of life but a political philosophy only.

    If only Dr. Block had learned a bit more at Murray's knee. (Speaking of Walter, I noticed that his book "Water Capitalism" is available at the Mises Bookstore for only $32. Being a fisherman and the son of a professional fisherman, I'm interested to see what Walter has to say about the ownership of water and the dynamic resources within it.)

    "The thesis here is that libertarianism as a political theory only carries the veneer of importance and centrality due to the strength and power of the democratic, administrative, state in our time."

    The NAP is the low bar of ethics. If you can't get over it, you deserve to be hit with it. It's only the skeleton of liberty. Without flesh and blood (culture and custom) it's just a pile of bones - a relic of a life of liberty. Theoretically, we who are searching for the full ethic of a life of liberty are like archaeologists who've discovered the ancient bones, and now we're trying to piece together what this creature looked like when it was alive. Thankfully, in reality, we have a lot more than just the bones to go on (thank you Jesus, and all those who tried to follow in Your footsteps through the ages), and we have a much better chance of bringing the 'creature' back to life! Looking forward to more of "The Search for Liberty"! It's great so far. =)