Fundamental Astuteness

The Essence of Astuteness: Non-Partisan Intellectual Honesty

Liberty is not unlimited…

with 7 comments

Liberty was a word I heard often as I researched the candidacy of Ron Paul this past year. I heard it not only from him, but also from his supporters–on the streets, at rallies, on blogs, and on youtube. “We must defend liberty”; “Liberty…its the most important thing”. Or “The liberty to do whatever we want as long as we don’t infringe on the rights of others”.

It sounded great. And to a substantial extent, I think the cause of liberty is a legitimate one. People should be able to act freely. We should have a free society. But a nagging question kept coming to mind: Is Liberty really the transcendental value that subsumes all else? Should liberty theoretically be defended at all costs? I’m still trying to decide where the proper balance is. As I think on these things, I find one passage written by Rousas D. Rushdooney very captivating. He writes in 1984, in his book titled “Law and Liberty” that:

“When we are told that there can be no laws against _____________[insert any perceived social ill, like pornography, drugs, adultery] without endangering liberty, we must challenge their claim to be interested in liberty. There is no area where freedom is unlimited. Take freedom of speech, for example: no man has the right to slander others, nor do our laws allow him the liberty to do so at will. Neither do we allow any man the liberty to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Freedom of speech does not give any man the right to walk into the floor of Congress and speak his mind. His liberty is limited no only as to where he can say it but also as to what he says. This does not mean that I lack freedom to speak my mind, if it be done decently and in order.

Freedom of press means the liberty to publish, but it does not mean liberty to publish libelous statements, nor does it mean that any man can demand that his freedom of press be subsidized to enable him to publish. A man has the liberty to publish if he provides the cost of publication or interests a publisher in doing so. Moreover, the contents of what is published are also subject to limitations. Libel has already been cited. No man has the right or liberty to publish materials violating the privacy of others. There are all kinds of legitimate and necessary restrictions on every kind of liberty a man has, and these are necessary for the maintenance of liberty.”

As mentioned above, I think the cause for more liberty and less government is for the most part a legitimate one. I am an ardent supporter of almost everyone of Ron Paul’s ideals. The question at issue is: “How far should that liberty be extended and how do we decide at what point it starts and where it ends?”

The usual libertarian response is well placed from a strategic and rhetorical standpoint. Their reply usually goes something like this: “A person should enjoy every liberty he can attain, provided he does not infringe on the liberty of others to act freely in their own right” or something along those lines. Basically, exercise your rights, as long as you don’t violate the rights of others.

I like this explanation, but (aside from the fact that I’m not sure its a biblical perspective, something I’ll articulate another time) I’m not sure it really solves the debate or saves any time. For as soon as these words fall on the dialogue, the debate is not ended with satisfaction to both sides. The argument immediately shifts to issue of what constitutes a violation of another person’s rights?

At this point, someone will try to differentiate the difference between positive and negative rights, saying that people have the right exercise their negative rights, while they are not necessarily entitled to their positive rights. But again, this only starts the process over again: What exactly constitutes “negative” rights? Who says that am entitled to this set of rights but not to another?  A traffic light violates my freedom to move through the intersection when I see fit. Yet, to not have a traffic light would endanger the public safety, thus, as many people as will go through the intersection in the absence of a traffic light, the same number of individual rights will be violated…the right to life and safety of other individual besides myself is negated by the absence of a traffic signal.

But (playing the part of devil’s advocate for a moment) I should have the right to go through the intersection when I want to. So, who’s rights and interests should win the debate? Now the debate simply shifts again: Whether or not, when in conflict, individualism should be valued over collectivism. I have an individual right to traverse the intersection, something that the traffic light delays, and a collection of other members of society who will be traveling through that intersection have a right to public safety and life.

Thus, libertarian rationalism, which adores rationalistic, logical thought process’ to come to its conclusions, seems to falter; for it cannot come up with an enduring, transcendental standard by which to govern society. For any libertarian who asserts that “these are the rights you are entitled to, while these are not” will always be hopelessly challenged to explain how he came to his conclusion about what rights are more important than others (My right to move when I want vs. society’s right to a traffic signal in the interest of public safety), and why when in conflict, this should be valued over that–the traffic light and individualism vs. collectivism being prime examples of this never ending cycle of argumentation.

At this point, having convinced myself that rationally engineered rights can never be rationally clarified (the never ending circle of argumentation referred to in preceding paragraphs), it seems to me that the best way to conclusively address the issue is to adopt an unconventional strategy: Espouse the cause of liberty in theory, and use the Bible and the biblical worldview it provides to clarify what rights should be enjoyed and what rights should be limited. On this basis, issues seem to fall into place: Free speech, yes–but since the 9th commandment says “though shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” we justify laws against slander. How did property rights vs. eminent domain come to be such an issue from the 1600’s on in the western world? Because religious reformers influenced policy makers who applied the principle “thou shalt not steal” as a limitation on government action. Thus was born the notion that government should be limited in taking land for whatever purpose, and that if it must use the land, it should be paid for.

Adopting the biblical worldview as a standard political mindset and policy guideline will no doubt precipitate a storm of criticism and scandal. It would “forcing our will” on others. How bigoted. But in reality, doing so is no worse than what the Marxist, Socialist, Progressive, Liberal, Republican, or Humanist does every time they vote in the legislature. All law and policy necessarily springs forth from some foundational mindset (call it religion, political philosophy, mindset, etc.) held by each person, and thus, every politician–foundational presuppositions about the world and the humanity it contains; about the origin, purpose, and destiny of mankind as a whole. Christian worldview is one of those mindsets…it just happens to be called religion, while every other philosophy enjoys a more agreeable title–Marx called his Marxism “science” and my libertarian friends call their mindset a “Philosophy of Liberty”.

Now some will cringe from this challenge because they assume that because biblical worldview is found to be dismissed in politics as irrelevant because its religious it’s therefore not relevant to politics because most people in politics don’t think it belongs in the political debate.

Yet the majority’s lack of belief in something does not equate to making it irrelevant. Just because people don’t believe you when you cite the biblical worldview as a justification for action doesn’t mean you must leave it behind when you work in politics. Republicans don’t believe in the Democratic Party, yet the democrats are very successful in implementing their agenda step by step. Perhaps an analogy will help bring this into perspective:

You are walking through a city in the Great State of Texas. You, being the great citizen you are, have your concealed carry permit and a Spingfield .40  caliber X3 subcompact pistol in your back pocket. A thug steps in front of you, waves his knife with meaning, and demands your money or your life. But being the sturdy Texan you are, you snatch out your Springfield and say “Sir, I have a Spingfield .40  caliber X3 subcompact pistol that delivers 30,000 kinetic foot pounds of force on impact! Do reconsider your present course of action or proceed at your own risk! A bullet does carry farther than a knife!” But instead of being deterred like you thought he would be, he instead says “Well, I don’t believe in your gun…” And with this astounding revelation, you think “I can’t believe it. He doesn’t believe me” so you throw down your Spingfield .40  caliber X3 subcompact pistol take off running.

So you go home and do some research. You discover, (using, of course, wikipedia) that guns are indeed very effective. You find a study that documents these facts and effects, print it off, place it in your other back pocket, and start back across the city again, carrying your Spingfield .40  caliber X3 subcompact pistol. Lo and behold, the same crook appears in front of you, waving his knife and demanding your money or your life! So you pull out your Springfield .40 caliber subcompact X3 and exclaim: “Sir, I have a Spingfield .40  caliber X3 subcompact pistol that delivers 30,000 foot pounds of force on impact! Do reconsider your present course of action or proceed at your own risk! and look–I have a study right here proving that my gun is more effective than your knife…statistically, my gun will be much more effective and destructive than your knife. I can prove it!

Full of expectation, you eagerly anticipate his response. But your hopes are dashed as he simply straightens up and says: “It doesn’t matter…I don’t believe in your study. It was probably done by biased researchers who had unreasonable faith in guns anyway”.

Your heart sinks with discouragement as you realize that your efforts are rebuffed by your opponent. So, acting under the realization that he really doesn’t believe in your gun, you throw it down and take off running in the opposite direction.

How absurd. But you have one last chance. You’re walking through the city, and hallo there! Before you appears the same thug, waving his knife, demanding your money or your life! Again, you whip out your Spingfield .40  caliber X3 subcompact pistol and inform him, saying: “Sir, I have a Spingfield .40  caliber X3 subcompact pistol that delivers 30,000 foot pounds of force on impact! Do reconsider your present course of action or proceed at your own risk!” Again, he starts giving his usual mantra: “I don’t believe in your gun…” But this time is different. You’ve decided that pulling the trigger will do more to make him a believer in guns than anything else.

Now, certainly this story is not meant to imply that we should violence to implement our agenda. Nor does it mean that we will force people to become Christians. But what the above story does do is illustrate the folly and absurdity of waiting for your enemies to agree with you as a precondition for action.

But this same fallacy is, I fear, committed by politicians who “personally” claim to be Christians, yet keep that out of the scope of their political philosophy.

Yet what an opportunity we are missing! Christians grow ashamed of the name of Christ and neglect to bring his name into the debate–be it over abortion, gay “rights”, property rights, religious liberty, Ten Commandment displays, etc, and they lose the battle! Wow! I would never has guessed to that once we forgot about God in public debate that we would just happen to lose some ground as well. Unbelievable!

When we bring Biblical foundations to our positions in the public square, we will of course be criticized. But doing so gives us an excellent opportunity to bring the debate into another field that is far more relevant than any social ill–once the our Christian foundation for our political decisions is attacked, simply turn the debate into one issue: Is the Bible true? Is Christianity true? If they can disprove God or the Bible, go for it. But until they do so, you are perfectly justified in subscribing to a something that you think has good evidence and arguments backing it up. The more research and study I do, the more I am persuaded that with a continuing focus on research, knowledge, and dialogue on Christian theology and apologetics, the Christian message and world view is one that we can defend vigorously, reasonably, and logically.

Here’s the summery creed we need to present to our opponents, and then challenge them to attack it–as Christian Apologist, author, and family man Voddie Baucham once stated:

“Is that your final answer? I hope its not. Let me give you an answer to that question that I believe is better than ‘I was raised that way’ or its better than “Well I’m Southern Baptist and that’s the way we believe’ or its better than “I tried it, and it worked for me” Let me tell you why I choose to believe the Bible. I don’t believe the Bible because I was raised that way—because I wasn’t. I don’t choose to believe the Bible because I tried it and it worked for me. My mother’s Buddhism worked for her—that’s why she was a Buddhist! I need something more than just ‘because it works’. Here’s the answer—I’ll give it to you and unpack it for you:

I choose to believe the Bible because it is a reliable collection of historical documents written down by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. They report [of] supernatural events that took place in fulfillment of specific prophecies and claimed that their writing are divine rather than human in origin.”

Rational Libertarianism doesn’t solve. It uses logic to arrive at its conclusions, but logical and philosophical conundrums seem to make it a never ending rabbit trail of argumentation against what seem to be, at root, arbitrary standards of what constitutes “rights” and how those rights should be arbitrated when they conflict.

To the contrary, invoking a biblical standard in deciding what liberties should be enjoyed and what ones should not promises, I think, to open up a whole new strategy of debate on social issues and open up discussion much more relevant issues than endless cycles of dispute over “natural rights” and other notions precipitated wholly by human thought. Its time to invoke a standard outside of ourselves, and standard, that, I think, is true. Why not.

Maybe I’m idealist; overly optimistic. After all, maybe this new strategy won’t be as simple as I think. After all, even if we did adopt the Bible as our standard for public policy and liberty, would it indeed clarify anything? Are there not many and diverse ways of interpreting the scriptures?

Undoubtedly yes. Place any two churches side by side and you’ll get a taste of what that’s like. But surely there are some basic principles that could be agreed up and forcefully argued and articulated from God’s word that would provide a lens by which to judge public policy and proper restraint of liberty.

So challenge me. Correct me where I may be wrong; where I might be overlooking a key aspect of an issue or oversimplyfying the problem or the solution. In the meantime though, at least, I think the Biblical world view is more relevant and tenable than most Americans, politicians, and pastors think.

 

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Written by Astuteness

June 5, 2008 at 12:06 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Very interesting thoughts, David, but I am wondering, how is the distinction between rights any less vague than a “Biblical Worldview?”

    My single qualm with that as a political philosophy, in and of itself, is exactly what part of the Bible do we enforce?

    Will

    June 5, 2008 at 12:34 pm

  2. Good insights, Will. Thanks
    The goal of adopting a Biblical mindset applied to politics is not in having our rights suddenly less vague and miraculously knowing what rights we should enjoy and to what extent. The idea behind the biblical standard model is that it is an appeal to a higher authority. Your questions deserve more of my thought before I further develop my answer, but a quote by Doug Phillips I found this afternoon after reading your comment should be noted. He says:

    “Of course, believing that the Bible is the only standard, on the one hand, and determining the implications of that standard on specific ethical issues, on the other, are two different things. The first is a non-negotiable presupposition. The second is an exercise in humility, study, and meditation. The simple truth is that we live in a complex world with complex issues. We need clarity from God’s Word (the only true source of clarity), and this requires the humility to go before the Lord and seek answers to the hard questions.”

    The goal is to have an outside standard by which to understand our duties and responsibilities, rights and liberties. I think having a standard like this is better than subjective human reasoning applied to naturalism, etc.

    I don’t know exactly what parts of the bible to enforce. But I think that discussion take place. My inclination right now is to say that the Government today cannot take any more power than the civil government of the Old Testament. Church issues should then be left to the church, and family issues to the family.

    Thoughts?

    Astuteness

    June 5, 2008 at 2:51 pm

  3. I don’t disagree with the appeal to a transcendent order, a higher authority, I just don’t see any way yo translate that to government in what you are specifically saying. The Old Testament government was extremely powerful (stoning girls for fornication, etc) and I don’t think we would want to take our New Testament model of liberty that far, so I would encourage you to re-think that standard.

    Will

    June 5, 2008 at 3:36 pm

  4. I would agree that capital punishment, if it is practiced at all, should be limited to only murder. There are some specific mandates that don’t apply today.

    You have a good point regarding the Old Testament government…as I said, I’m still thinking these things through, and I have considered that problem. I don’t think we should go back to a strict theocracy, especially one that used capital punishment frequently.

    What I had in mind was that we take basic principles from scripture and use them as our justification for action–not necessarily take every civil statute from the Old Testament and apply today. I think people can agree that we should have a free press yet no libel allowed, but how we come to that conclusion can differ widely. I propose that we come to that conclusion based off the biblical principle that we shouldn’t bear false witness against our neighbor.

    Again, feel free to continue to throw in questions and insights…. 🙂

    David P

    June 5, 2008 at 5:45 pm

  5. […] some point during our exchange in commentary over my previous post, I proposed that “I don’t know exactly what parts of the bible to enforce. But I think that […]

  6. Hey David!

    Check this out: http://www.revolutionmarch.com.

    Spread the word (I’m going to try to as well)!

    Alan

    June 7, 2008 at 12:07 pm

  7. Disclaimer: I, unfortunately, did not get through this whole post. Yes, I skim. Sorry. With that said, I have read a bit of Rushdoony, and I’ve also read Bastiat. (The Law – listen to it here: http://www.freehomeschoolaudiobooks.com/index.php/International/3-The-Law/View-details.html) They’re really opposite sides of the spectrum, so let me try to organize some worth while observation.

    There are two opposite Christian perspectives on government: (at least as far as moral laws are concerned)

    1) Libertarianism: this is Bastiat’s idea. He does an exceptional job of explaining it. Basically, the government is instituted by men. It can do no more and no less than a man could morally do. This means the government’s only role is protecting one person/group from other persons/groups.

    My major problem with straight libertarian philosophy is that Israeli theocracy would be completely immoral. Being a Christian, I know this is not the case, so there must be something special that made legislative morality OK in this instance.

    2) Christian Reconstructionism: This is Rushdoony’s idea as presented in The Institutes of Biblical Law. Basically, save everyone on the planet and then we’ll all make a global theocracy that is governed exactly like Israel’s was.

    My major problem with this ideology is that there are many Biblical civil statutes that do not apply to America. BUT, Rushdoony points out, saying “well, SOME of these laws ought to be adopted by the US, but some shouldn’t” leaves no concrete standard for judging which ones. In short: extreme application of Biblical law does not seem to apply to America, but partial application is nothing short of hypocrisy.

    Now Here’s what I’ve come to believe after thinking, studying, and praying about it:

    3) You may surrender your own liberty, but you may not surrender anyone else’s liberty!

    This is really more libertarian than Reconstructionist, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? In Israel, the whole congregation agreed to live under God’s laws in order to receive His blessing. They had a mandate, therefore, to create a theocracy.

    Now, for America, I see absolutely NO mandate from God to create a theocracy in the US. As long as Americans do not consent to surrendering their liberty in order to receive blessing from God, then government should not make them. They are accountable to God and not to humans for their terrible behavior. What we ARE to do is make sure that no one surrenders other’s rights through theft, murder, etc.

    To rap it all up: Liberty is (by nature) limited because you do not have the liberty to surrender other’s liberty. (is that clear?)

    I hope this contributes to the discussion.

    > Brian

    Brian

    June 8, 2008 at 3:32 pm


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