Logic Problems in Christian Libertarianism

I was inspired by Mike Konczal’s (@rortybomb) appearance on Stossel, wherein he discussed the unlikely possibility of strictly voluntary charity replacing social welfare altogether. At roughly 7 minutes, Mike quotes me on the topic of charity versus welfare, which is something I think about a lot. But this particular conversation got me thinking about what the role of the state is, in the mind of the Christian libertarian.

One of the things a person encounters when they argue against libertarianism is the notion that no two libertarians think exactly alike, and that there are in fact as many versions of libertarianism as there are libertarians. This makes the school of thought virtually impossible to argue against, as you would have to deal with each individually, one at a time. So I will get this out of the way early: this argument deals with libertarians who think in the Rothbard, Hoppe, and Von Mises stream, not libertarians who could also be described as ‘socialists’ or ‘social democrats.’

The logic problem in Christian libertarianism has to do with the role of government and the nature of property. Christian libertarians typically maintain these two things:

I. Property rights are pre-political, that is, human beings are entitled by nature to property ownership prior to the existence of the polity.

II. It is the role of the state to recognize and protect people’s rights, including their right to own property.

Based on these premises Christian libertarians argue they should suffer no interference with their property, either by state or individual. Assume both of these premises are true.

In this case, pre-political property rights are attached to all people, because they arise from human nature, i.e. the way God made people and things. In this case, the question is: how do we know who gets what? Remember, this has to all be pre-political; we can’t say ‘let market exchanges determine who gets what’, because those institutions are post-political and presuppose property. So we look to the telos of material creation to determine how it should be allotted.

Creation was made, so say the church fathers, for the sustenance of all people. It came to all men in common, but to make orderly use of it, we institute regimes of private property. So we know all persons are due ownership of what resources they need to live. So far, so good.

But this means that when people, through post-political institutions of acquisition, manage to extend ownership over more than what they need, and meanwhile others have less than they need, those with excess do not actually own the excess. Consider Basil of Ceasarea:

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

This is very typical of the Patristic view on property, and it springs from the notion that all people have some kind of pre-political relationship with creation (though whether or not this should be called ‘ownership’ is another matter.) Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom certainly agree: excess belongs to the poor. They don’t mean this in the poetic sense of, say, ‘my heart belongs to my paramour.’ They mean this in the most literal sense: by the same decree you’re due what is not excess, they are due what is. You’re both due what you need to sustain you; that is what you are entitled to. If the poor are not entitled by right to the excess, then you are not entitled by right to any of it. God made the rich and poor of one clay, says Augustine, and he’s right.

Now we come to how the state should respond to these circumstances. It seems pretty clear. If the state is here to recognize and protect property rights, then the state must recognize that the excess of the wealthy quite literally is the property of the poor, and act accordingly. Just as the state would work to retrieve a stolen article, it must retrieve the hoarded wealth being stolen from the poor, and deliver it to them. If it’s not obligated to do this, it’s not obligated to protect property rights whatsoever: after all, why yours, and not theirs?

So a state that fits within these parameters of Christian libertarianism would be involved in redistribution for the protection of the vulnerable. Perhaps this is what Pope Francis refers to when he imagines a just redistribution of wealth. Sounds good to me.