Friday, March 16, 2018

Horrific Doctrines: Being a Cartoon Libertarian and Accepting Jesus as My Savior

Let me first state that I think Markets Without Limits by Jason Brennan and Peter M. Jaworski is a fantastic book. Their argument that anything you can do for free you should also be allowed to do for money offers a useful means of talking about market morality within the general society. The price that they pay for this argument is that this is not a libertarian book. The authors, to their credit, make a point in avoiding the argument that anything consensual should be considered moral or legal. For example, they would morally oppose me posting nude pictures of my children on the internet regardless of whether we were paid for them. This has the virtue of not only being intellectually honest but also avoids allowing their argument to become confused with the non-aggression principle and rejected by the people who do not accept it. 

That being said, I was bothered by a passage that stated: "we did not write that book because neither of us agree with libertarian political morality. We have classical liberal sympathies, but we are not cartoon libertarians." (23) Obviously, Brennan and Jaworski do not have to accept libertarian political morality and, as I will argue later on, there are good reasons to reject it. My problem is that they seem to equate libertarian political morality with being a cartoon libertarian as if that was a bad thing. It is almost as if they are saying that it is ok to be a libertarian as long as you do not take libertarianism too seriously to the extent that it defines your political morality. Anyone who does that is a cartoon and not to be taken seriously. In that spirit, I wish to defend being a "cartoon libertarian;" you know that person who seems to reduce all politics to government is force and taxation is theft.  

I readily acknowledge that there are some serious limitations to running around saying "taxation is theft" a lot. For one thing, that is not enough to be a libertarian. One cannot theorize a full libertarian philosophy, let alone any kind of well-thought-out public policy proposals, merely by trying to proceed logically from that one premise. Furthermore, saying "taxation is theft" is likely to alienate people, including many libertarians. It is a horrific doctrine. Most people in government really mean well and some of them even honestly do good things. It is monstrous to truly believe that a politician standing up and saying that he has a plan to help sick children and the elderly get badly needed medical care is really the moral equivalent of a masked gunman who robs a hospital. Is it morally ok to shoot the politician? (In principle yes, even if it is unlikely to ever be practical.) If you are not bothered by this claim, you have either not properly thought it through or you are a sociopath, not someone who can be accepted as a member of the liberty family in good standing. That being said, I do defend the notion that taxation is theft and that it is important to be very open about it, even if it will forever banish us to the political margins. The reason for this is that, without the belief that taxation is theft, no libertarian movement will survive long in a meaningful sense as libertarians will all too easily be co-opted by other movements.

To understand this, it might be useful to consider the example of Christianity. At the heart of Orthodox Christianity is the belief that Jesus is the savior of the world. As I think even most Christians would agree, this is a horrific doctrine. (In its Calvinist form, it descends to Lovecraftian levels of horror.) I like to think of myself as a good person. I try really hard and I usually do the right thing. I need Jesus, because without him, no matter how hard I try and no matter my good intentions, I will never make myself right with God. No matter how many good deeds I might perform, I am not truly better than Hitler. Both Hitler and I are depraved sinners and deserve to burn in Hell. The only thing that might save me, in the end, is that Christ died on the cross as atonement. Even if no honestly decent person were sent to Hell, this would still be a horrific doctrine as it denies the possibility of personal righteousness so critical to how most people live their lives.   

Now, as a Jew, I might be tempted to look down on Christians for their "unenlightened" views and I think there is something to be said for how Jewish parochialism, in practice, is far more universalistic than Christianity. (The fact that Judaism is about God's relationship with a particular group of people opens the door to recognizing that God has all kinds of relationships with people that have nothing to do with Judaism. The fact that Judaism was never designed as a universalistic religion allows it not to be and for us to respect other people for being the righteous non-Jews, who are still right with God, that they are.) I suspect that even most practicing Christians would agree with me. (Please do not write to me to tell me that you are a Christian, but do not believe that I need to accept Jesus to avoid burning in Hell. You may be right, but that is beside the point.) That being said, Christianity would not be better off if only it took a more "ecumenical" view. On the contrary, such a Christianity would not long survive. It would simply be too easy for such a Christianity to be chopped up for parts. If you are on the political left, "love thy neighbor" is really a Jewish concept and it is likely that Buddhists might fulfill this commandment better than either religion. If you are on the right, you can be a Republican and still be a hypocrite about family values. None of these things require Jesus. It might serve the interests of those on either the left or right to continue to use the label "Christianity," but Christianity would cease as its own ideology, incapable of influencing Christians let alone the world. 

In a similar vein, C. S. Lewis argued that Christianity was the one religion that needed its miracle no matter how much that might trouble the modern scientific mind. If the life of Jesus was not some earth-shattering miracle of God becoming flesh, there would be no point to the religion. Jesus as a wise rabbinic teacher is useless for Christianity (hence Lewis' famous trilemma). You might as well be a Jew or practice some other ethical monotheistic religion, perhaps be a stoic philosopher. Just as Christianity needs its miracle as embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity needs its horrific doctrine that this miracle was necessary in the first place.   

Over the past few decades, it has been a strength precisely of Evangelical Christians that they have been willing to insist on the necessity of accepting Jesus as your savior despite the fact that it turns so many people off. Perhaps it has been their tragedy that they have not insisted hard enough and allowed themselves to be co-opted by the Republican Party to the extent of Evangelical leaders being willing to endorse Trump despite him being the most blatantly non-Christian major candidate in our country's history. They will pay a steep price for this as millions of Evangelical kids will turn around and ask their parents how they could endorse Trump for president and not endorse them for their lapses in Christian living such as pursuing an openly gay lifestyle. (One thinks of Shelby Steele's argument that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was fueled, in part, by white parents lacking the moral authority to denounce their children's sexual behavior on account that they had, at least passively, been complacent in the much greater evils of segregation and racism.)

Insisting that Jesus is the savior may sound simplistic, but there is an advantage to simplicity. Consider the example of the slave Tom from Uncle Tom's Cabin. First, it is important to recognize that, contrary to what the name has come to imply, there is nothing weak about Tom. A person who allows himself to be beaten to death rather than give up information is anything but weak. The key to understanding Tom is that he is simple. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's hand, what sounds like a negative stereotype is turned on its head as Tom is fashioned into a model Christian. Tom knows one truth that his soul was bought and paid for on Calvary with the blood of Jesus. There are two corollaries to this claim. First, it is Christ's will that Tom is sent into slavery in order that he preach this Gospel truth to everyone, black and white. Second, while Tom might be obligated to obey orders, the white man is not his real owner. This is Tom's truth and he never allows himself to become distracted by other issues. If Tom were a more gifted theologian, read Augustine and learned to separate the political from the spiritual realm, he likely would have fallen either into despair at his circumstance or into flattering his masters. If Jesus did not send me to save the soul of even a wicked man like Simon Legree, I should probably do the world a favor and kill him while he lies drunk at my feet. Alternatively, maybe, if I speak nicely to the white man and tone down the plain truth that to own slaves is to deny Jesus, he will be good to me and might even set me free. Tom's last breath is to reject young George Shelby's attempt to buy his freedom. Shelby might want, in today's language, to be a "good white ally" of slaves, but if he were a better Christian, he would have realized that just as he never really had the power to enslave anyone, it is not within his power to make anyone free, Jesus already accomplished that. 

To bring this back to libertarianism, the claim "taxation is theft," like "Jesus is the savior," maybe a horrific doctrine that alienates most people, including libertarians, but it protects the movement from being captured by outside interests. In a sense, the very alienation created by saying that taxation is theft is valuable as a signaling device. Anyone with an outside agenda would be kept away precisely by a doctrine so abhorrent to anyone who is not a libertarian today. 

All libertarians have other allegiances, whether we come from the left or the right. A thick libertarianism that allowed itself to become distracted from "taxation is theft" would quickly lose its relevance. Left-libertarians can support civil liberties and right-libertarians can support property rights, while each side ignores the other part. Furthermore, one can always defend distinctly unlibertarian policies on libertarian grounds. Forcing Christians to bake gay wedding cakes or banning Muslim immigrants might, in the long run, serve to create a society more open to libertarian ideals. Thus, libertarianism can easily be infiltrated and used to support other ends. By insisting that "taxation is theft" be placed front and center of the movement we force everyone, left and right, to surrender any claim of using the government to advance even explicitly libertarian causes. Left or right-libertarian, I will find a way to work with you. You are allowed to accept the reality that we have government and, certainly for the near future, there may not be a better option. That being said, if you are not deeply troubled by the very concept of government action, you need to leave the movement.   

All ideologies have their horrific elements in that one is going to have to accept the equivalent of a pile of dead children. This is simply a matter of consistency. If you have not figured out how your beliefs lead to dead children or worse, you have not thought them out properly. There is a practical value to being open and honest about one's horrific doctrines. It allows you to keep out those who are merely trying to use you for their own ends. If they reject your horrific doctrines, you can assume that they have rejected other parts as well. So here is to the cartoon libertarians with their simple faith that taxation is theft. Your doctrine is horrific and you will never be more than a despised minority. You are also the reason why the libertarian movement will survive another generation and you are the reason why it is worth having a libertarian, movement, even one that is a despised minority, to begin with.