I believe that the reason why libertarianism isn’t getting anywhere is that it has nothing to counter the power of utopia. It quite rightly doesn’t have a utopia of its own, but without anything of at least equal leverage, libertarianism will always fail.
In his great essay “Individualism: True and False”, Friedrich A. von Hayek points out that Adam Smith’s chief concern was “not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm.”
Striving for a “system under which bad men can do least harm” is of course the right and proper thing to do. It’s the libertarian thing to do. It’s a good basic idea, the best possible, actually, about how to run a society. But it is my contention that it is not sufficient if libertarians ever want to have a chance to push back the bad people who, just by being in power, think they are doing good. Or who, because they think they’re good, think they have the absolute right to be in power.
The strategic problem of libertarianism is that it lacks, not a utopia, but something equivalent. Call it a vision. My definition of a vision is something worth striving for despite knowing that it will not be achieved in perfection in the real world. Whereas a utopia is, for its adherents, something perfect worth striving for in the belief that it is actually achievable.
I won’t go into the specifics of the libertarian vision, apart from the premise of ownership and that it will result in a dynamic, “open” society that is growing quantitatively and qualitatively. But a vision as defined above is, on its own, never going to be equal to a utopia, due to its lack of perfection or its admitted elusiveness. It lacks a “finishing line”. A measurable point at which we can all say: We’ve finally made it. It thus won’t have the same psychic power, or, to call a spade a spade, spiritual power.
Now, in previous posts I have tried to show how Christianity – or, more precisely, a specific form of Christianity – is the natural ally of libertarians. Or possibly more than an ally: a part of a symbiotic whole. Western (“true”) individualism grew out of Christianity, and not despite of it. The enemies of true individualism, the adherents of “false individualism”, grew out of opposition to Christianity. Which, by the way, is why they need a utopia: a secularised heaven.
Thankfully it is slowly becoming more accepted that Christianity is the most important factor for the emergence of the idea of individual liberty. It is maybe not fully understood yet. It is however cheap to claim that “one can read anything one wants into the Bible”. Yes, if one is lazy. But the facts speak for Christianity being the most important factor for individual liberty: The recognition of man as purposefully created in the image of God (as something “good”). The belief that God became man. The idea of private property as stewardship delegated by the Original Owner. The idea that property is protected by boundaries, and that these boundaries are no less than God’s commandments. The idea that when boundaries are overstepped, consequences must follow or they are worth nothing. The equality before God as a precondition of equality before the law.
It is in Europe where Christianity and true individualism “grew up”. It is in Europe and in its extension, North America, where the escape from the Malthusian trap succeeded first. Yes, Greek and Germanic beliefs and ideals may also have played a part, in that they seem to have been particularly receptive to Christianity. But they had a cyclical world view, which encourages long term apathy, whereas Christianity crucially provided a linear world view and thus a reason for striving on even when the going got tough. (Which is where the essentially heretical utopians also get their impetus from.)
Back to the libertarian vision. A vision is not as powerful, spiritually, as a utopia. A movement that strives for a vision and not a utopia therefore needs spiritual backing of some other kind in order to be, historically, temporally, at least on par with utopians. Otherwise they will, in the long term, always lose. That is why I have come to the conclusion that libertarianism needs God.
I have come to this conclusion however only after learning about Christian Reconstructionism (CR) via the writings of Gary North, especially after reading parts of his economic exegesis of the Bible. Particularly convincing for me was his doctrine of the three basic religions, one of which every one of us is an adherent of no matter what: power religion, dominion religion and escapist religion.
CR is something rather different from what passes as Christianity nowadays in most churches, certainly in the western world, where submission (and in some cases adherence) to the currently ruling power religion of state and human idolatry (the current form of “false individualism”) is the norm. Crucially, CR insists that not only individuals need to adhere to God’s commandments, but corporate institutions (courts, governments, laws) as well. Also, CR follows the “postmillennial” creed that a prolonged phase of blessing will be the result of individual and corporate adherence to God’s laws, prior to the End of the World, which CR does NOT see coming anytime soon. On the contrary: CR is very optimistic with regard to the future of mankind – in the long term. It explicitly does not exclude the possibility of (massive) setbacks in between.
The escape from the Malthusian trap may have been a first tangible result of a prolonged corporate adherence to God’s commandments – not in their totality, but a closer approximation to them than ever before: e.g. obeying and protecting the law “thou shalt not steal” more than ever before, in a more comprehensive way. By implication this means of course that insofar as we are currently corporately breaking away from God’s commandments the Malthusian trapdoor may open again once more.
However, that is a “negative” vision. In order to overcome utopias and utopians we need a positive vision. And it is here where CR, with its postmillennial promise of a prolonged era of blessings as a reward for adhering to God’s commandments offers the crucial tool in what is, at bottom, a spiritual war. And this of course works only with God and the ultimate reward of heaven (not on earth).
I realise of course that for some libertarians the notion of submitting to the (Christian) God (even individually, let alone corporately) is alien or even anathema. After all, it was Paul who had said that we are either slaves to sin or to obedience to God (or “righteousness”), but slaves in any case (Romans 6). And libertarianism is all about liberating oneself from all sorts of slavery, right? I think this interpretation overlooks the fact that at some point we die, certainly our bodies do. So during life we have the choice to either succumb to death totally, or to defy it in some other than bodily way. Both these “slaveries” have a spiritual aspect: Death is the ultimate weapon of power religion – and life, properly understood, righteous life, is the ultimate weapon of dominion religion.