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Calhoun vs. Heinlein for the Soul of American Libertarianism

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calhoun-heinleinJohn C. Calhoun was a 19th century American vice president who supported slavery and championed state’s rights. Robert A. Heinlein was a 20th century American science-fiction writer who opposed racism and championed space policy. The pair aren’t often mentioned together, but Breitbart’s pseudonymous “Hamilton” claims they represent two kinds of libertarianism.

Today in America, we see two kinds of libertarianism, which we might call “Calhounian” and “Heinleinian.” Both kinds believe in freedom, but they are very different in their emphasis—and in their politics.

I have a soft spot for brash, big-picture claims (like this one) even when they are probably mostly wrong (like this one). One aspect of the essay that is spot on, however, is the assessment of the “elite libertarian synthesis” in mainstream political culture:

Today, probably 90 percent of the Republican intelligentsia in Washington DC and New York City counts itself as libertarian on economic and social issues—and that matters. Why? Because it’s these libertarian experts/nerds/wonks who who write the articles, talking points, TV scripts, speeches, and books that shape Republican policy and politics. If there’s a wonk in every office putting policy material in front of his or her boss, then it’s the wonkocracy, overall, that not only sets the agenda, but also enforces the orthodoxy of the agenda.

Indeed, the libertarian influence is so large today that quite a few Democratic intellectuals are also substantially libertarian. Really? Yeah, really.
On social issues, of course, it’s a slam dunk favor of the libertarians—in both parities. It’s hard, for example, to find a Democratic wonk who is not in favor of gay marriage, unrestricted abortion, and legalized marijuana. In other words, on the social-issue side of libertarianism, the libertarian ascendancy in both parties is complete, save for a few conservative Republican holdouts.

And even on economic issues, many Democrats accept the basic idea of market forces, from free trade to spectrum auctions to the ill-fated Obamacare exchanges.
Indeed, it’s possible to see a great deal of overlap between Republican and Democratic intellectuals: They tend to have gone to the same schools, read much of the same policy literature, and share typically the same secular outlook. So yes, the respective parties, and bitter partisanship, still divide the wonk class, but there’s plenty still that unites them. If you’ve ever wondered why abortion, for example, is always legal, or why gay marriage and free trade are always advancing, the answer is the quiet bipartisan libertarian consensus among the elites.

Be sure to read the rest of the essay. The identification of “Calhounian” libertarians seems to miss the mark, though I think the “Heinleinian” classification is mostly accurate. Is this break-down really the future of libertarianism in America, though? And where do Christian libertarians fit into the picture?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Misthiocracy

    “If there’s a wonk in every office putting policy material in front of his or her boss, then it’s the wonkocracy, overall, that not only sets the agenda, but also enforces the orthodoxy of the agenda.”

    This idea is why I coined the term “misthiocracy” for my online username.

    Misthios is an ancient Greek word for “salaried employee” or “hired servant”, so “misthiocracy” means “rule by the staffers”.

  • dhuff

    Well, I’ve thought about it quite a bit and “Christian” + “Libertarian” seem to be pretty much non-overlapping sets as far as I can tell…

    • NeilBJ

      The fundamental tenet of libertarianism is non-aggression. In other words in all our dealings with our fellow man a libertarian does not use force (in the broad sense of the term) or the threat of force to achieve his goal. All activities are based on mutually agreed upon terms.
      This non-aggression principle is perfectly compatible with Christianity is it not?
      I would be interested to know why you think that “Christian” and “Libertarian” are non-overlapping.

      • dhuff

        Well, if you intend to actually *do* the stuff the founder of your religion asked of you (see various parts of the Gospels about taking care of the poor, the hungry, the sick, etc…), then that flies right in the face of the main tenet of Libertarianism: “I got mine, screw you.”

        • Johnw

          Libertarianism and Christianity don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, but they aren’t opposed to each other, and being a libertarian doesn’t preclude someone from being Christian or performing charitable acts. I would say that a more correct summation of the main tenet of libertarianism is “I got mine, don’t steal it from me” (or hire someone to steal it from me). What someone then does with the assets that they worked hard to acquire is entirely up to them at that point, and they can (and often do) choose to take care of the poor, the hungry, the sick, etc…

        • NeilBJ

          The question is how you actually do the stuff Christ expects you to do. Being a Libertarian does not entail the selfish mentality that you think it does. A true Christian
          gives out of love for his fellow man regardless of his political persuasion. There is nothing about being a Libertarian that prevents that person from caring for his fellow man. What prevents a person from caring about his fellow man is his own selfishness and greed – yes, his own sinfulness (and regardless of his political persuasion.)

          What I have a problem with is abdicating our personal responsibility to care for our fellow man and turning that responsibility over to the coercive power of government.
          To use an extreme metaphor, does Christian charity flow from the barrel of a gun?

          I would further argue that with a freer economy unburdened by government regulations, there would be fewer poor people. The more difficult transition would require a massive sociological shift. We have become so accustomed to government
          welfare programs that we don’t even question their efficacy, nor do we question the abdication of our personal responsibility for caring for our fellow man.

          There was a time when neighbors banded together to help neighbors because there were no government programs. Yes, that still does occur today. We see it most often following devastating storms.

          Here is a quote from Walter E. Williams that addresses what I am trying to say:

          “Suppose I saw an elderly woman painfully huddled on a heating grate in the dead of winter. She’s hungry and in need of shelter and medical attention. To help the woman, I walk up to you using intimidation and threats and demand that you give me $200. Having taken your money, I then purchase food, shelter and medical assistance for the woman. Would I be guilty of a crime? A moral person would answer in the affirmative. I’ve committed theft by taking the property of one person to give to another.

          “Most Americans would agree that it would be theft regardless of what I did with the
          money. Now comes the hard part. Would it still be theft if I were able to get three people to agree that I should take your money? What if I got 100 people to agree – 100,000 or 200 million people? What if instead of personally taking your money to assist the woman, I got together with other Americans and asked Congress to use Internal Revenue Service agents to take your money? In other words, does an act that’s clearly immoral and illegal when done privately become moral when it is done legally and collectively? Put another way, does legality establish morality? Before you answer, keep in mind that slavery was legal; apartheid was legal; the Nazi’s Nuremberg Laws were legal; and the Stalinist and Maoist purges were legal. Legality alone cannot be the guide for moral people. The moral question is whether it’s right to take what belongs to one person to give to another to whom it does not belong.”

    • Bazza

      But Christianity supports divinely appointed kings/government and tells us to give to the government what belongs to them (taxation).

      Jesus even says that Pontius Pilate’s authority as Roman Governor ultimately comes from God.

      Sooo… yeah Libertarianism would seem to go directly against the word of Christ.

      Though personally that’s not why I think it’s a fatally flawed ideology and economic system.