Acton Institute Powerblog

Bragging on an Undergrad

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The latest issue of Religion & Liberty contains an essay I wrote for Acton about whether the relationship between social conservatives and libertarians can be saved. A student at my university (Houston Baptist University) read the essay and formulated a number of thoughts on his own. I was so affected by what this undergraduate sent me, I had to pass it along:

I have strong beliefs about limited government, states rights, individual liberty, free-markets, etc. But these beliefs come under fire when I see how one person’s pornography addiction leads to rape after years of unsatisfiable self-gratification, or when innocent children are born fatherless to promiscuous mothers.

There are 2 things I’ve come to realize. First, that every law is a removal of liberty. Second, that every system of law is either based upon the will of man, or based on that which we perceive to be Natural Law. Given this reality, the latter necessitates a belief in higher power, while the former holds no basis for the concept of “inalienable rights” whatsoever.

Without a giver of freedom the only “freedom” is that which is given by he who is stronger to he who is weaker.

Libertarian belief in liberty is founded in the idea that we have a God-given right to such liberty, and in that sense they share commonality with social conservatives.

But Liberty without order is chaos. There’s no doubt, law in our land is based on Natural Law. So the question is not whether we should legislate morality, but to what extent it should be done.

This is a question I still struggle to answer.

The young man’s name is Wesley Gant. I suspect this is the kind of thinking that regularly emerges from students who attend Acton events and/or read Acton publications.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.


  • Roger McKinney

    I left this comment on another thread, but it is more appropriate here:

    I was really disappointed in Hunt Baker’s “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”, especial since he teaches at a Baptist institution. I am a Baptist and know from history that Baptists traditionally opposed the idea of the state trying to reform society. That is a Calvinist and Catholic tradition, not Baptist. Here are my specific disagreements:

    Baker: “America is not about unfettered freedom. America is about a particular type of liberty that has been the glory of the Western heritage, ordered liberty.”

    This is a poor characterization of libertarian thinking. No libertarian has ever called for a society without law and order. Even the most extreme anarchists in the libertarian wing insist on the rule of law that enforces property rights, liberty, and justice and defends life.

    Baker: “Put very simply, the travail of freedom is this: Immoral actors take advantage of moral ones.”

    Not if you have the rule of law protecting life, liberty and property.

    Baker: “Eventually, in an attempt to ease the expense of self-protection, participants petition the government for regulation.”

    In other words, everyone wants someone else to pay for their protection. This is an interesting statement in light of the fact that some have attributed the reduction in crime to the rise in private security use. While anarcho-capitalists advocate only private security firms, most libertarians see the need for the state to provide police and courts.

    Baker: “Social conservatives press for public policies that tend to increase social capital by improving citizens.”

    This is where social conservatives demonstrate their socialist tendencies and their abandonment of real conservative principles. Old conservatives (pre-WWII) understood that the state cannot improve citizens. Only God can do that. Traditional Christianity teaches that mankind is born with a tendency toward evil. The family and the church work toward thwarting that tendency. If they fail, the state cannot fix human nature. Human nature determines the nature of the state; the state cannot change human nature. On the other hand, socialists believe that mankind is born with a blank slate and society (through the state) determines the writing on that slate. It’s very anti-Christian. Social conservatives need some of the humility that Hayek urged for socialists in “Fatal Conceit.”

    Baker: “Just as an example, consider the social conservative push toward policies that encourage marriage rather than cohabitation and discourage divorce.”

    I find it very surprising that Baker brings up the policy of encouraging marriage. We’ve had such policies for generations and the divorce rate is higher than ever. The policy is as great a failure as the wars on poverty and drugs. Neo-conservatives like Huckleberry need a tad bit of humility. The state cannot force people to marry who do not value marriage. Besides, the state does not define marriage. That is a religious institution. The state took over that institution only about a century ago. And Baker as cause and effect confused. Moral people marry and raise moral children. Forcing people to marry who don’t want to marry and have no morals will not change those people. The state cannot make immoral people moral through tax incentives and regulations.

    Baker: “As a group, they would far prefer to see mediating institutions take on the great social reforms of the day, just as they would prefer to see the church return to a much more prominent role in addressing both the needs and root causes of poverty.”

    Paleo-conservatives understood that poverty is the natural state of mankind. The cause needs no further analysis. Neo-conservatives need to analyze the root causes of prosperity, not poverty, the essence of which is freedom from the state. The role of the church is to help through charity those who lack the ability to prosper or those who suffer from unusual circumstances. But neo-conservatives don’t want to limit themselves to this role. They lust for the power of the state. They have deluded themselves into thinking they cause harness that power to remake human nature in their own image. But like the power of the ring in Lord of the Rings, that power corrupts and ruins those who try to wield it.

  • I’ll just take one example here to make my point. Roger McKinney suggests that we have had policies encouraging marriage for generations and that the divorce rate is higher than ever. That simply is not true. The policies have swung the other way. Divorce was once strongly discouraged by law (and difficult) and the divorce rate reflected that. With no-fault divorce in the 70’s and 80’s, the divorce rate skyrocketed. One might also note that for some time there has been a marriage penalty in the income tax whereby a spouse’s income is stacked onto the other income to reach a higher marginal rate.

    But the biggest thing is that I think McKinney has missed the broad thrust of my article. I simply argued for why libertarians and so-cons should stick together. I didn’t make a case that libertarians are bad or entirely wrong.

  • Roger McKinney

    I understand that the divorce rate skyrocketed after the change in divorce laws, but I think that is a spurious correlation, similar to the sun rising when the rooster crows. Illegitimate births also skyrocketed during the same time period, as did crime, and they weren’t the result of a change in divorce laws. People simply quit marrying before giving birth. The 70’s and 80’s witnessed a huge cultural change as the majority of Americans abandoned traditional Christianity and I think that is the main cause of the higher divorce rate.

    The French make it difficult to get divorced, as do the Italians. As a result, extra-marital affairs are common. In India, divorce is rare because men marry to have children but use prostitutes for pleasure. I don’t see that forcing people to live together who don’t like each other is beneficial to the child since the parents will resort to extra-marital affairs.

    I oppose drug use, abortion, homosexual marriage and divorce, but I don’t want to use the state to force people to follow my ideas. The state has made a mess of drug enforcement and actually made the problem worse. As Europe and India demonstrate, laws forbidding divorce won’t improve the morals of people at all. Either people respond to the Gospel preached by the Church or they don’t, but the state can’t help the Church do its job.

    Can social conservatives a libertarians live together? I don’t see how. I am socially very conservative, but I’m also a capitalist. Most social conservatives I know are very socialist on economic issues. Social conservatives offer nothing to libertarians, except distortion of their views, and they don’t want the economic freedom that libertarians desire.

  • Roger McKinney

    After reading the article on the common good, it seems to me that social conservatives are violating the principle of subsidiarity mentioned in it. Subsidiarity is an excellent principle. The state should stay out of the Church’s business. The Church teaches the Gospel and God’s morality. People should be free to accept or reject it. If the state steps in and tries to enforce morality, it violates the principle of subsidiarity.

    The state has a role as outlined in the Bible–protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens from evil men. The Church has its role–teach God’s Word. Christians should not use the state to force people to obey God’s word.

  • Governments make laws that reflect a particular view of the human person and teach a form of “morality.”

    The question isn’t whether or not the State legislates morality, but rather to what extent it ought to punish and reward moral conduct in a particular context.

    A good place to start in answering this question might well be [url=]Aquinas’ principle of prudence[/url], which I think has some serious potential for social conservative/libertarian dialogue, because it places the question in realm of debate over reality…

  • Roger McKinney

    Jordan, the “principle of prudence” is excellent. Each unit of government, family, church and state, has a proper role. At least with Locke, and possibly sooner, Protestants decided that government should be limited to the protection of life, liberty and property. That idea held fairly well until the late 19th century when many Christians decided to estabish the kingdom of God on earth by outlawing all sin. That opened the door for state control over all parts of our lives and has been disastrous in almost all cases. It also introduced socialist economics.