Arnold Kling continued last week’s conversation about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism over at EconLog.

Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”

I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.

But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.

The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).

As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.

On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.

Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.

And as I’ve noted previously, we have to take into account a standard of justice or equity, which whether communicated through the natural law or the Ten Commandments restricts legitimate civil authority (see the claim regarding OT Israel as a constitutional monarchy).

Augustine himself writes,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.


  • Roger McKinney

    I think we have to keep in mind that God opposed a monarchy in Israel. The fact that he blessed Israel in spite of her rebellion against him doesn’t negate that fact. Israel under the judges is the only form of government espoused by God. It’s futile to try to “find” the best form of government without considering God’s government. The nation under the judges was very close to what anarchists promote. I had the rule of law with judges to administer it, but almost no other evidence of modern government in it.

  • http://paradosis.blogspot.com jamesofthenorthwest

    Great discussion!

    As an Eastern Orthodox Christian I thought I might offer a couple of quotes (since you quoted St. Augustine) from St. John Chrysostom. It is worth noting that St. John eventually found himself persecuted and exiled by a Christian Byzantine emperor.

    “For Christians above all men are forbidden to correct the stumblings of sinners by force…it is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion. We neither have authority granted us by law to restrain sinners, nor, if it were, should we know how to use it, since God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice.”

    “Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first–and then they will joyfully share their wealth.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Great passage from Chrysostom! Thanks!

    We have to be careful with that last sentence, though: “The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first–and then they will joyfully share their wealth.” Chrysostom meant that only God can change hearts when people come to him through Christ. Modern socialists will latch onto that and repeat Marx’s claim that all we have to do is get rid of private property and man’s natural goodness will appear.

  • Neal Lang

    “I think we have to keep in mind that God opposed a monarchy in Israel. The fact that he blessed Israel in spite of her rebellion against him doesn’t negate that fact. Israel under the judges is the only form of government espoused by God.”

    Hardly, God would seem to have espoused tribal rule, as well, considering His relationship with Abraham. The the “tribes” of Israel that wandered through the desert for 40 years were ruled by a leader with the powers of a king, Moses, who, as I recall, was chosen by God, Himself, the same basis of authority assumed by kings.

    “It’s futile to try to ‘find’ the best form of government without considering God’s government. The nation under the judges was very close to what anarchists promote. I had the rule of law with judges to administer it, but almost no other evidence of modern government in it.”

    This concept of ruling “judges” appears in Book VII of Plato’s “Republic” as the “philosopher kings” or Guardians, of the Utopian Kallipolis. Note that the “judges” of Israel ruled based solely on the “Law,” both civil and theological handed down from God through Moses to the Children of Israel.

    I am afraid the problem with “ruling judges” is the “law” upon which their “Rule of Law” must be based. Arguably it must be “God’s Law,” and the only Nation whose ruling principle are based on “God’s Law” is the United States – which was founded solely on God’s “Natural Law.” Unfortunately, very few of our “judges” base their “rulings” today on “Natural Law” – in fact, the only consistent “Natural Law” champion on the US Supreme Court is Clarence Thomas.

  • Neal Lang

    “Kling’s claim that ‘the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,’ even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin.”

    Unfortunately for Kling, his concept of the origins of government completely misses the initial step, which is man coming “out of nature” to first form a society of mutual interest (protection from wild animals or hunting, for example) as an extended family or clan. This “socializing” for mutual protection and benefit lead naturally to choosing leaders, based on skills such as hunting prowest, strength, and the ability to think logically and strategically. This lead to tribal organization and from there to multiple tribes sharing comon interests such as enemies. The earliest societies and human governmental structure were decidedly nomadic until the development of agricultural, when man first conceived the idea of holding and protecting land.

    The idea that government formation didn’t occure until man had already developed permanent settlements is factually challenged.

  • Neal Lang

    “The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are.”

    According to the Founders, liberty was impossible without a moral and ethical people, and that ethics and morals comes from religious education. The sole purpose of religion is to “truth.” The lack of religion leaves one deciding “what is truth” based solely on their own motivations, whether good and moral, or bad and unethical. Government is solely a reflection of the people. If the people are “truly” moral and ethical, so will the government. Liberty without morals and ethics is merely license. There has never been a truly “free” people absent morality and ethics. Because the American people are losing their morals and ethics, they are are also losing their freedoms.

  • http://www.rossputin.com Rossputin

    I think you’re somewhat misstating Kling. Is it really fair to say that he’s arguing that liberty and religion are incompatible? Or is it, as I believe to be the case, that liberty and a religion-based state are incompatible?