In his October 21, 2014 article, Dan Popp asks: “Is libertarianism anti-Christian?” It is to both answer Popp’s question and lay charges against his arguments that I pen the current essay. Before I begin, however, I feel it’s significant to state that I am a socially conservative, Christian libertarian who is taking Popp to task not from a place of malice, but in order to get ever closer to that which we all seek: the Truth. In short, this is an “in-the-family,” Christian debate and though I may regard Popp’s anti-liberty views (not his Christian ones) as incorrect, destructive to society, and a hindrance to human flourishing, I regard the man himself (though I do not personally know him) as a Brother-in-Christ—one whom I pray will be converted to the philosophy of freedom.
Popp begins his article by stating that much depends on how libertarianism is to be defined. He states that “if we accept the broad meaning – a ‘belief in liberty’ – then of course it is more than compatible with Christianity.” But Popp and I are in agreement that this definition will not do—for many may believe in liberty and either (1) have a belief just as vehement that it ought to be denied to others or, as may seem evident, (2) subscribe to a definition of liberty that is wholly inconsonant with what the word might imply. Recognizing the deficiencies of the broad meaning of libertarianism, Popp settles on a more appropriate, though flawed, conception of the political philosophy to attack; namely, the conception that defines libertarianism as the theory under which “everyone has a right to do as he pleases as long as he doesn’t cause harm to others.” This conception is close, but not accurate, and so becomes problematic.
To begin with, let’s get this whole “definition” issue out of the way. Libertarianism “is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all.” It is merely a branch of law. It is not by any means, and does not claim to be, a comprehensive moral or aesthetic framework. Libertarianism populates the realm of the political, and is only concerned with the moral insofar as it posits that the non-aggression principle (NAP) ought not to be violated. The NAP maintains that it is illicit to initiate, or threaten to initiate, physical violence against innocent persons or their legitimately held property. Importantly, libertarians hold that governments, as much as individuals, are subject to the strictures of the NAP. Liberty, then, means freedom from invasion (that is, freedom from threats or initiations of aggression).
The many sallies contained in Popp’s article criticize my preferred political philosophy on the grounds that it is anti-Christian. Why is libertarianism anti-Christian? Because, Popp believes, it (1) implies not liberty, but license; (2) employs a narrow concept of harm; and (3) promotes the supposedly wrongheaded notion of self-ownership. I will tackle all three of these gripes of his in succession and if I am successful in my responses—if Popp’s criticisms of libertarianism can be shown to be misplaced—then his conclusion that libertarianism is anti-Christian has no foundation.
Liberty vs. License
Does stating that what ought to be criminalized are only those things that violate the NAP intimate that all other things are right, good, or appropriate just because they should be legal? Of course not; this does not follow. It just means that those other things do not properly fall under the purview of the law. And does legally permitting folks to engage in certain immoral actions mean that folks must necessarily engage in them? Of course not; this does not follow. Freedom from invasion (liberty) does not equal licentiousness.
Popp seems to believe that persons cannot have a right to engage in actions that are wrong. To the libertarian, this contention is only partially correct. Persons cannot have a right to engage in actions that are wrong which violate the NAP. Popp goes on to give sodomy and drug use as examples of victimless crimes that are immoral and, as such, should properly be criminalized (why he stops short at sodomy and drug use and does not continue on the trail to racism or to the creation and dissemination of evil literature is quite beyond me). Popp, here, is engaged in one of the great confusions. He conflates, absolutely, a citizen’s right and the morality surrounding his exercise of it. Political philosophy, to which libertarianism belongs, is concerned “solely with matters of right, and of the proper or improper exercise of physical violence in human relations.” On the other hand, personal ethics, with which libertarianism is not concerned, deals with questions on the morality or immorality of the exercise of a right.
True liberty, that which is advocated by libertarians, then, does not constitute license. In point of fact, unless liberty prevails, it is difficult to judge as moral or immoral the actions in which individuals engage. As Gerard Casey states, “Human freedom can be used for all sorts of actions directed to all sorts of purposes that are then susceptible to moral evaluation, but unless human action is free from coercion moral evaluation is intrinsically impossible.”
To illustrate, what credit can be given to the husband who forgoes stepping out on his wife to be with a prostitute solely because prostitution is a criminalized market? None. No great moral accomplishment here has been wrested from the talons of vice. Similarly, can the worker whose wages are forcibly withheld and given to others by the state be thought of as charitable? No. Never. Not when coercion is involved. Free the husband and the worker from state invasion and then the morality of their choices can be properly assessed.
If Popp wishes to proceed as if libertarianism endorses the vices or perversions he describes, I would instruct him to peruse the definition I put forth of libertarianism for any indication of such a sentiment. To state that an action ought not to be criminalized is not to state that that action is therefore moral. Libertarianism qua libertarianism has nothing to say about immoral acts that do not fall under the purview of the law, that do not violate the NAP, and to criticize it for this reticence makes as much sense as condemning cosmology for not opining on the art of the impressionists.
Popp’s objection to libertarianism on the grounds of “harm” (as well as his objection from “self-ownership”) is simply a swing-and-miss; the result of building up a straw man and summarily decimating him. There is a reason that libertarianism employs the terms “invasion” or “aggression,” rather than “harm.” Whereas the former terms imply physical violence, the latter one can be said to intimate any number of misfortunes that don’t violate the NAP. For example, Coffee House A is harmed by the entrance into the marketplace of Coffee House B in the sense that its profits take a hit. It is not this indirect harm that should be criminalized (lest we aver that there is no place in society for the free market), but only initiations of physical violence, or threats thereof, on the persons or property of others.

So when Popp offers his understanding of the libertarian position—“that if you punch your neighbor, the government should use force against you, but if you punch everyone in the community, that’s no problem”—he seems to be equivocating. Namely, he takes “punch” literally in the first instance (as an initiation of physical violence), but only figuratively in the second (as an inability of libertarianism to speak or extend to prostitution, drug use, depravity, pornography, or same sex marriage—things quite outside of its purview).
To say that this or that non-NAP violating immoral or harmful act ought to be lawfully prohibited is not only tyrannical and absurd, but it is to open the flood gates of the state; to effectively sic it on society. Is pornography destructive? Yes. But to invite the government to lawfully prohibit this enterprise is to give the state apparatus an inch so that it may take a mile. From here, what other realms of non-NAP violating human interaction will the state proceed to inhabit? To those who doubt that the “gradual and silent encroachments” of which Madison spoke would not permeate the process of a citizenry seeking legal solutions to those non-violent concerns incidental to our very humanity, I would point to any one of thousands of instances in which the state capitalized where it could—using whatever means and arguing however pitifully in order to arrest the rights of the people in an effort to secure more power for itself (the growth or devolution of the Commerce Clause comes to mind). The more rope the people give the government, the more heavily armed it becomes with instruments to hang them.
Much of Popp’s argument against libertarianism derives from a simple ignorance or misunderstanding of its tenets, but this is nowhere more evident than in his denunciation of libertarianism on the grounds of self-ownership. “A Christian is only a steward of himself” states Popp, and I am of the mind, as a Christian, to agree with this position of his. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the Christ-like lion Aslan states, “Creatures, I give you yourselves,” and this, I think, implies the very stewardship to which Popp refers. But practically speaking, and as far as libertarianism is concerned, there makes little difference if one is the owner or steward of himself. In fact, taking the libertarian definition of self-ownership into account, ownership and stewardship might as well be synonymous. Self-ownership simply means that an individual capable of human action (e.g., not young children, the mentally handicapped, etc.) has more right than any other individual (including the government, which is merely a group of individuals) to exercise control over his own body. This tenet of libertarianism still holds true under Christian stewardship—which is to say that there is nothing about the Christian view that “chafes libertarians harshly,” there is nothing about libertarian self-ownership that is antithetical to Christianity.
The wind here is taken out of Popp’s sails, again, by a simple clarification of definition. Popp now confronts a problem. “I do not own me,” he states, “Neither does the government.” Taking the correct (e.g., libertarian) definition of self-ownership, either Popp has a better claim than any other person or group to exercise control over his body, or some other person or group has a better claim than Popp. He is either a self-owner or a slave. There is no middle ground. “A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free.”
I believe I have been successful in turning on its head each of Popp’s relevant criticisms of libertarianism as anti-Christian. Stating that the government, like everyone else, should not employ violence to prevent a non-NAP violating immoral act is not an endorsement of the immoral act; it is simply a condemnation of initiatory violence as both immoral and (because it is initiatory) criminal. Libertarianism is concerned not with “harm,” but with “invasion” and, though our bodies may be on loan from God, any attempt to exercise control over an innocent self-owner’s body without his consent is to initiate aggression. Which is to say, to prevent a self-owner from using drugs is to violate the NAP; it is criminal where drug use may or may not be immoral. C.S. Lewis commented on the realities of such invasions:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

I would recommend that Popp, and all my fellow conservative Christians, consider that the law is force. It is “the use and threat of the bayonet and the jailhouse”). To employ violence against those who have not employed violence against anyone else, whether it is done by the state with its laws or by the gang member with his lead pipe, is not the most Christian behavior imaginable. And though in many places gambling, prostitution, drug use, and sodomy are outlawed, this has done little to diminish the prevalence of these intractable nuisances. Perhaps a tack other than criminalization should be considered? The words of nineteenth century French commentator Frederic Bastiat offer just one possible solution:

Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, and their chains, and their hooks, and their pincers! Away with their artificial methods! Away with their social laboratories, their governmental whims, their centralization, their tariffs, their universities, their State religions, their inflationary or monopolizing banks, their limitations, their restrictions, their moralizations, and their equalization by taxation! And now, after having vainly inflicted upon the social body so many systems, let them end where they ought to have begun—reject all systems, and try liberty—liberty, which is an act of faith in God and in His work.