Jesus and Libertarianism

Libertarianism, as a political philosophy, is all over the map. There are social libertarians, communist libertarians, anarchist libertarians, left-libertarians, right-libertarians, and, as we know them mainly today, crazy, right-wing, reality-denying, Trump libertarians. What do these diverse forms of political philosophy, going back to the time of John Locke, have in common? And, as a theological question, what would Jesus think?

John Locke

The word libertarian was first used in the late 1700s, and it arose from the spirit of John Locke because Locke was the quintessential founder of modern democratic societies. Locke believed that in the natural state, all human beings were equal, but since we live in communities, we must enact a social contract. We agree to give up some of our natural liberties to be governed, collectively, for the common good. In return, the role of government is to protect individual rights, and this specifically means property rights. If the government fails to protect individual liberties, it is legitimate for the people to overthrow their government.

We can notice a couple of things that are rooted in Locke. One is that libertarianism can emphasize anarchy because it is resolute about overthrowing monarchs, landlords, monopolies, or any other structure that abuses power. A second thing to note is that the right to own property is tied to individual rights because property represents the labor of the individual. If we lack a right to the fruits of our labor, we lack rights completely because then we are in the status of slaves.

Libertarianism, though, can be “all over the map” due to where the emphasis on rights falls. If the emphasis falls on equality, so that we all have equal rights, then the obligation of the government is to redistribute wealth. Everyone in society, as part of the social contract, should be able to live without the fear of extreme poverty, starvation, homelessness, lack of healthcare, and lack of security in old age. Left-libertarians emphasize the welfare state, that is, a social contract in which taxation enables equality without preventing the flourishing of private enterprise. Most European countries are welfare capitalist states based on this model of libertarianism.

However, the other side of the coin, right-libertarianism predominates in America (Canada being somewhere between Europe and the United States). In right-libertarianism the emphasis does not fall on equality but on property. As part of the social contract, the government’s role is to protect the citizen from property theft. Sometimes right-libertarians will allege that taxation is a form of theft. The charge is that with taxes, the government is wasting our hard earned income. Since no one likes to pay taxes, this mantra is appealing, and it does touch on the legitimate question, How far can the state go in terms of collecting taxes before it betrays the social contract?

There is, though, an extreme form of right-libertarianism (the Trump variety) that questions any form of government and loses sight of the social contract completely. It is at the extremes of libertarianism that private ideologies, religious confessions, and self-righteous attitudes dominate. Liberty here is taken to the height of individualism, and here, too, the cult of the individual is born. The principle of the common good, which, ironically, is the principle of libertarianism, is left out in the cold.

What would Jesus think? At one level, who knows what Jesus would think?! But on another level, there is the parable of the hidden treasure. The parable relies on a hint of libertarianism at work. Remember, libertarianism, whether left or right, upholds that the state must protect property rights. In the parable, an individual stumbles upon a treasure hidden in a field and then hides the treasurer and buys the field. The original owner is none the wiser, and the new owner seems to be lucky. Yet, the parable is not about being lucky but about theft. The owner of the treasure is the original owner of the field. The property rightfully includes what is buried in it, even if the original owner is unaware. The individual in the parable who buys the field is guilty of fraud. The parable does not continue far enough to find out whether this shifty individual gets away with it. Instead, the parable ends abruptly, and we who read or hear the parable have to think about what just happened.

What would Jesus think of libertarianism? Would he be right or left? Jesus appears to think that the system of property ownership creates relationships of greed. The individual who finds the treasure and hides it is driven by the desire to own property that gives more than it takes. Once the property is purchased, the treasure comes with it. The new owner does not need to do anything to significantly increase the value of the purchase. The new owner is really a wealthy and lazy liar. No work is needed to gain considerable wealth but only a conniving scheme of stealth and robbery. 

When we hear the parable, we think that treasure is the point, which is how Jesus fools us, and we think that God or Jesus must be of great value (the traditional church interpretation). We get taken in by the parable; when we think the point is treasure, and when we think the theft is admirable, we have fallen for extreme libertarianism and the cult of the individual. Our guilt is hidden from us, the common good recedes from us, and the value of the treasure outweighs the consideration of community. While it is hard to know what Jesus would think about things that happen today, the parable of the hidden treasure does suggest that he knew a con artist when he saw one.

To the extent that I am libertarian, I am of the left variety, and some of my friends are libertarians of the right variety, but fortunately I rarely meet people who are libertarian of the extreme variety where the cult of the individual rules. I don’t know for certain what Jesus would think about that, but from what the parable of the hidden treasure suggests, Jesus would warn us about the cult of the individual. Do not fall for those whose first concern is their treasure.

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