In the last twenty years, American life has seen the rise of libertarianism as a force to be reckoned with in American politics, especially within the Republican Party. Libertarianism is a view that places an extraordinary emphasis on liberty—as it defines liberty—and orders society in a particular manner in order to achieve that liberty.
Libertarianism’s View of Liberty
Libertarianism elevates liberty to preeminent status in politics and public life. Those who hold this view tend to consider state power as a necessary evil, and one that should be confined to the functions of protecting people against harm. In The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia, Karl Hess defines libertarianism thus:
Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit; that all social actions should be voluntary; and respect for every other man’s similar and equal ownership of life and, by extension, property and fruits of that life, is the ethical basis of a humane and open society. In this view, the only function of law or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself.
Indeed, libertarians argue that government power is justified only to protect certain negative rights of its citizens, rights such as private property, privacy, and personal security. Such a limitation of government’s powers, they argue, enables society to achieve liberty and justice for all. In fact, justice is simply the outcome in which free agents voluntarily act within their rights to create the life they want—to the extent that they are able to do so. Many libertarians also argue that this view of government and liberty is the only one that ensures citizens to live meaningfully.
The rhetoric and values underpinning libertarianism should sound familiar. With the extreme emphasis on liberty, one could be forgiven for confusing it with its estranged cousin, liberalism. Both ideologies place paramount value on personal liberty. Both see the government’s role primarily as one of protecting that liberty. But liberals and libertarians part ways quite early on in the discussion, because they define liberty so differently.
American liberals, in their emphasis on liberty, focus on the way traditional social normsrestrict a person’s freedoms. Thus they elevate their preferred values (most prominently, sexual freedom) and seek to enact laws that give pride of place to those values. Libertarians, on the other hand, focus primarily on the way that the state restricts a person’s freedoms. Consistent libertarians will articulate that they care little about elevating their pet values; they simply wish for the state to be as small and unobtrusive as possible.
Libertarianism as False Religion
From one perspective, libertarianism may be seen as the foil to socialism. Socialism takes a good and virtuous goal (equality) and stretches it too far by making it the standard for all of social life. Libertarianism is guilty of the same stretching, but instead of equality, the idol of choice is liberty. The fruit of these ideologies may look different, but the root problem remains the same—making a good aspect of God’s creation into a functional god.
Libertarianism is right to emphasize the importance of liberty and its connection with a non-intrusive government. As Christians, one of the reasons we appreciate liberty is that it allows us to worship and act according to our religious convictions. Abraham Kuyper expresses this well when he writes, “Can it be denied that the centralizing State grows more and more into a gigantic monster over against which every citizen is finally powerless?” The more expansive government becomes, the more liberties are taken from individuals.
And yet, as John Bolt has shown, libertarianism manifests itself as a false religion in the instances when it deifies freedom, giving it a sort of autonomy that God alone should have. Ideological libertarianism seeks to free us from nearly every conceivable restriction. The error of liberalism creeps in here, though in a different guise. Libertarianism, like liberalism, rests on the faulty foundation of the human autonomous will. It is a manifestation of our first parents’ tragic sin, a way of saying, “What I want must reign supreme.”
In the place of this sort of autonomous freedom, we as Christians should seek a different type of liberty. True freedom, according to Scripture, does not entail removing every possible restriction, but removing those restrictions that violate our nature as beings made in God’s image. For example, it is perfectly good for Americans to achieve a legislative and judicial consensus that taking the life of unborn babies is wrong (a position that cannot be justified, according to some libertarians). Our personal freedoms conflict more often than we realize, and the government must arbitrate those conflicts to prevent anarchy.
Libertarianism is also right to make a connection between liberty and justice. They rightly emphasize that modern nation-states should foster an environment in which people are free to acquire property, sell property, have privacy, and be protected from violence that would undermine those rights and freedoms. However, most libertarians seek to restrict government’s role so dramatically that it would prevent the government from achieving other good and legitimate ends.
One such legitimate end is a modest leveling of the social playing field. Libertarians define justice in terms of “just acquisition of wealth.” As they see it, if a person has acquired property, possessions, and financial resources in a way that is legal and moral, justice has been achieved. In other words, true justice depends upon autonomous agents being able to keep all the fruits of their labors. However, the Christian notion of justice does not exist without a Christian notion of compassion for the poor, which sometimes means extending aid to those who cannot care for themselves. After all, when it comes to wealth, we are always liable to exaggerate our role in acquiring it, and to ignore those who assisted us in getting there. Not a one of us can truly pull himself up by his own bootstraps.
One final criticism of libertarianism concerns its belief that the free market will somehow always act as a benevolent force. Most libertarians believe that if the government would simply get out of the way, the free market economy would naturally fix society’s problems. This is naïve, both historically and theologically. Historically, all that is needed is a quick glance at those moments in our nation’s past when innovation outstripped regulation, such as the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. When the free market has no checks or balances, the strong tend to prey on the weak.
Theologically, it is naïve to assume that individuals acting out of self-interest will naturally create a society in which freedom increases. Sinful greed and envy, which in practice play a major role in the free market, cannot lead to sinless utopia. In other words, the free market, for all of its benefits, is a medium of exchange for fallen humanity. It excels other economic systems and often minimizes the harm that our sin would otherwise cause. But as long as human beings are the ones doing the exchanging, the free market will be to some extent twisted and corrupted. As J. Budziszewski writes, “In the marketplace our desires are aroused so insidiously and scratched so efficiently that we spend our lives and fortunes just finding new places where we might itch.”
Ideological libertarianism latches on to the real value of individual freedom. And as our government increases in scope and strength, appealing to a less intrusive government will continue to find growing support. But liberty is not God, and we tread on shaky ground when we treat it as such. Liberty can only be true liberty when it is not our reigning god. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth [about me], and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 ESV). We need not only freedom from restrictions, but freedom for a life ordered toward Christ.
[Editor’s note: this is the fourth installment of a seven-part series exposing the idolatrous nature of modern political ideologies. For a constructive alternative to modern political ideologies, see the author’s recently released One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (co-authored with Chris Pappalardo).]
 Karl Hess, in The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia, ed. Brad Miner (New York: Free Press, 1996), s.v. “libertarianism.”
 See, for example, Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 50.
 Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism: Source and Stronghold of Our Constitutional Liberties,” in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 281.
 John Bolt, A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 259-302.
 J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 11.
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.