William R. Bowden Jr. is not a libertarian. He tells us so in his recent article “Why I Am Not a Libertarian.” Bowden “has advanced degrees in education and political science” and “has been a political science teacher for over 25 years.”
He begins by saying in his introduction:
The United States government spends more money than any organization on the planet. Like many, I find myself opposing the growth of this behemoth with its bloated debt and intrusive regulations into many areas of life.
Turns out that Bowden has no problem with intrusive regulations into some areas of life, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Those ideologues that tend to focus on the over-regulated and indulgent state are sometimes referred to as libertarians. Libertarianism finds its roots in the Enlightenment and emphasizes a smaller state that should be limited in its intrusion into the economy and civil liberties.
How, then, does Bowden define libertarianism?
Libertarianism is an ideology that teaches that people are basically rational and that government is contractual. Because people are rational, they do not need an intrusive, regulatory state to dictate their economic, political, and other social choices.
Regarding the first part of his definition of libertarianism, Bowden doesn’t mention the core tenet of libertarianism—the non-aggression principle, and he doesn’t state what libertarians really believe about government. One quote from Murray Rothbard would have sufficed:
Libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.
Bowden should have ended his definition of libertarianism with something like: Because people have the natural right to not be aggressed against by government as long as their actions are peaceful and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others, they do not need an intrusive, regulatory state to dictate their economic, political, and other social choices.
Surely it would be better if Bowden defined libertarianism correctly before he told us why he is not a libertarian. Just like it would be better if some of the famous people he mentions that are libertarians were actually libertarians. Just because Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and actors Drew Carey, Gary Oldman, and Clint Eastwood have said some libertarian things doesn’t mean that they are libertarians.
Bowden should also know that Randianism and Objectivism are not libertarianism just because some Randians and Objectivists are libertarians.
Although Bowden acknowledges that “libertarianism is a reasonable and understandable reaction to the leviathan that we call the American government” and shares “the libertarian’s opposition to the statists that want to load onto our government even more spending and even more regulation—in effect, grow the government beyond its already grotesque size and habits,” he “cannot embrace libertarianism in its evaluation of the role of human reason, or its view of liberty and law.” “For these reasons, and others,” Bowden is “not a libertarian,” and wrote his essay to explain why.
Bowden mentions and explains four common themes of libertarianism: 1. Individualism, 2. Natural rights, 3. Minimal, contractual government, 4. Freedom. Most of what he says here is accurate, although his third item is very convoluted.
But then Bowden gives four reasons why he, “as a Christian,” rejects libertarianism: 1. Human nature. 2. Freedom. 3. Law. 4. Atheism. His explanations are full of misconceptions, caricatures, and errors regarding libertarianism.
Among other things, libertarians don’t necessarily believe that “the primary means to judge human behavior is rationality” or that “people are basically good” or that “you can do whatever you want to do so long as you don’t hurt anyone else while doing it.” Libertarians don’t “promote legalized abortion, prostitution, and gay marriage,” even those who don’t think the government should criminalize these things. And libertarianism is not “a haunt for atheists and skeptics.”
Bowden has a problem with the idea that people “should be free from all constraints, except those constraints imposed by the state to protect all of us from the oppressive acts of others.” He is particularly upset with libertarians for viewing “laws regulating drug use or prostitution as the dictates of tyrants and ‘big government.’”
Bowden mentions “laws that speak to man’s obligations to keep God’s laws.” He specifically names “laws such as do not kill, steal, commit adultery or blaspheme” that “become our moral obligations.”
The problem with Bowden and most other conservatives is their obfuscation, whether unintended or deliberate. Does Bowden believe that the government should enforce man’s obligations to keep God’s laws? I don’t know. Does Bowden believe that the government should criminalize adultery and blasphemy? There is no telling. Bowden maintains that “libertarians pave the road to tyranny by asserting that we can have freedom without moral obligation to God or others.” But freedom is the opposite of tyranny. You don’t end up with more tyranny by having more freedom.
Another problem with conservatives like Bowden is their inconsistency. I pointed out earlier that Bowden claims to oppose “intrusive government regulations into many areas of life.” Okay fine. Would laws that criminalize adultery and blasphemy be intrusive government regulations? We have no way of knowing.
Bowden implies that no one can be truly free unless he is a Christian:
A national reformation of freedom and prosperity will not come as we lead revolutions to restore our natural rights; it will come as people are transformed by the life-changing power of the Gospel. Once converted men and women begin to love God’s law as the Psalmist did (“Oh how I love thy law; it is my meditation all the day”), and as their lives come into conformity to God’s standards of righteousness, they will be free.
As a theologically conservative Christian, I agree with what Bowden says about freedom in a theological sense. But that is not what he is talking about. And I don’t think that he knows exactly what he is talking about. If the lives of converted men and women come into conformity to God’s standards of righteousness, it doesn’t follow that the powers that be will increase freedom and restore anyone’s natural rights.
Why am I a theological conservative but not a political conservative? Because I don’t believe the government has any business trying to make people virtuous or selectively criminalizing certain acts that are not virtuous. And, as I have explained here, libertarianism is perfectly compatible with religion.