The Dark Side of Libertarian Freedom (Part 3)

A Classical Christian Alternative to the Freedom Debate

The heart-wrenching Finale of HBO’s DocuSeries, “The Anarchists,” ends with activist and former conference organizer, Nathan Freeman, drinking himself to death while desperately trying to figure out what went wrong with “Anarchapulco”—an experimental community of freedom-loving expats on the Pacific coast of Mexico. What began six episodes earlier, when a euphoric community emerged around the shared values of Anarcho-capitalism and anti-government activism, ended in death, disillusion, and despair.

The HBO series vividly portrays how the “freedom from” paradigm of libertarianism is only rhetorically separable from the “freedom to,” paradigm of libertinism (and increasingly leftism), for both eventually collapse into bondage.

The thing that makes the HBO series so unsettling is that this utopia-gone-wrong was based on ideas that have been captivating the minds of former conservatives through the influence of libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Lew Rockwell, Robert P. Murphy, Ron Paul, and the thinkers associated with the Mises Institute. In my previous two posts, “The Dark Side of Libertarian Freedom (Part 1)” and “The Dark Side of Libertarian Freedom (Part 2),” I have been exploring the theories of some of these teachers, with particular emphasis on their definition of freedom.

As I have been writing and talking about the deficiencies in libertarian freedom, one of the primary responses I receive goes something like this, “Well, what alternative is there? If libertarianism is not the answer, what do you suggest instead?” In this article, I will finally attempt to answer this question by pointing us to resources from our classical (Greek and Roman) and Christian past.

Freedom in the Thought of the Ancient Greeks and Romans

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, a polis (community, city, political order) could be said to be free when it enjoyed the type of virtuous self-government that forestalled tyranny or anarchy. The qualifier “virtuous” is crucial here, for reasons explained by Patrick Deneen in his book, Why Liberalism Failed.

The Greeks especially regarded self-government as a continuity from the individual to the polity, with the realization of either only possible if the virtues of temperance, wisdom, moderation, and justice were to be mutually sustained and fostered. Self-governance in the city was possible only if the virtue of self-governance governed the souls of citizens; and self-governance of individuals could be realized only in a city that understood that citizenship itself was a kind of ongoing habituation in virtue, through both law and custom…. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government.

This relationship between freedom and virtue meant that classical ideas of liberty were teleological (goal-oriented). This is even reflected in the etymology of the Greek word for freedom, which is connected to the idea of flourishing towards an end. The relationship between freedom and virtue meant that the Greeks gave attention to the ultimate good towards which all virtue is finally directed. Thus, for both Plato and Aristotle, political freedom is not possible without a standard of objective goodness that is both transcendent and antecedent to political freedom. Significantly, goodness is not merely the province of individuals alone; rather, goodness is a shared quality that is pursued communally. By facilitating an ordered society, the institutions of state help us pursue goodness, and can offer a context for cultivating the virtuous habitus necessary for a stable society.

As moderns, we recoil at the idea that government should try to make us good. But for Plato and Aristotle, the alternative is to live in communities that remain stranded at the level of beasts, lacking the civic virtues that forestall the unfreedom of tyranny or anarchy. A polis without virtuous laws fails to raise citizens above their untutored state, leaving us to behave like the Cyclopes, which Homer describes as having “no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs, but living in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is a lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody gives a jot for his neighbors.”

The great Roman political thinkers built on the Greek heritage, arguing that only virtue could save the Republic from collapsing into a corrupt oligarchy, or being swayed by demagogues, revolutionaries, populist uprisings, and would-be dictators. Thus, the freedom of self-government was integrally tied to virtue, with a web of multiple reciprocities linking the rulership of the self to the rulership of the household to the rulership of the polis. Virtuous rulership at all these levels created the conditions for human flourishing.

The idea of a value-neutral government, where statesmen are meant to remain neutral with respect to the goods constitutive of human flourishing, would have been as unthinkable to the Romans as it was to the Greeks.

How Christianity Built on the Greek and Roman Heritage

This relationship between freedom, virtue, and objective goodness received a recapitulation and development within the Christian tradition. Christian thinkers like St. Paul taught that true freedom can only be found in Christ (John 8:36), the ultimate ground of objective goodness and virtue. Consequently, only by being “slaves to righteousness” can we be truly free (Rom 6:18; 6:22; 1 Cor. 7:22).

The biblical teaching entailed the idea that liberty exists when a person or a community is regulated by those virtues (reconceived in Christian thought around the fruits of the spirit) that enable a person or community to enjoy well-ordered freedom, of which salvation is the epitome. Such freedom is necessary to forestall the tyranny of the passions and the bondage of disordered desire. Thus, the biblical conception of freedom, like that of the Greeks and Romans, is outcome-oriented, and it is also grounded in the concept of human flourishing. And, as in classical thought, it continued to affirm that freedom for the sake of freedom (disconnected from the proper ends of human life and society) is bondage.

Throughout the history of Christendom, Christian thinkers have teased out the political implications of this biblical view of freedom. Many of these thinkers, which we now label as “conservative,” argued that it is impossible to have a truly free society without a foundation in transcendent goodness. These thinkers argued that while the law cannot and should not directly force us to be virtuous (after all, even in the Old Testament theocracy, not every vice was a crime), lawmakers can still promote virtue by organizing public relations in a way that disincentivizes evil and normalizes well-regulated behavior. Moreover, lawmakers can strive to create sufficient stability for Christian institutions (churches, families, schools, etc.) to flourish. 

These themes were a particular focus of Anglo-American conservatism, as articulated by Sir John Fortescue and his successors. Russell Kirk summarized much of this tradition in his six canons of conservatism, one of which is “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience,” and the consequent notion that “political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”

Is Liberty Possible Without Goodness?

While libertarians make up a small population in America’s political landscape, the libertarian definition of freedom has been gaining traction since the Enlightenment. It now forms part of the taken-for-granted background for both the political right and the left. Moreover, many of our country’s most contentious debates—ranging from how to respond to pandemics to how to deal with abortions—emerge when libertarian notions of freedom come in clash with competing values. One of the reasons these debates become interminable is because we rarely back up to question words like “freedom” or to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

When we do begin questioning the libertarian view of freedom, it becomes clear that it is incompatible with Christian notions. Indeed, we have seen that because the libertarian definition of freedom is not outcome-oriented, it is necessarily aligned with a view of the state that is value-neutral and must remain agnostic with respect to what is good. Consequently, the common good merely collapses into the aggregate of private goods, while substantive appeals to the good cannot openly announce themselves but must camouflage themselves in a range of proxy issues.

By contrast, the classical Christian vision of freedom is teleological, and aimed at horizons beyond the mere pursuit of freedom for its own sake. The horizon of the Christian vision of freedom is the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of objective goodness, both of which are found ultimately in Jesus Christ. Consequently, to be truly free to pursue goodness, one must engage in the arts of self-limitation and restriction, both at the level of the individual and society.

This does not mean those holding to the classical Christian view of freedom need to reject all libertarian proposals. I will be the first to admit that the policies of moderate libertarians like Ron Paul, Ayn Rand (1905 –1982) and Robert Nozick (1938-2002) would be a welcome alternative to the vast administrative state under which we now suffer. But crucially, in order to make this argument effectively, I must have some notion of the good and some notion of the virtuous ends appropriate to human society. But as we have seen in the earlier articles in this series (see here and here), libertarianism not only fails to provide such a notion, but it actively undermines our ability even to inquire about the ends of human society. Indeed, the libertarian commitment to a value-neutral and outcome-neutral freedom eclipses the basic question of what is the good we are to be free to pursue as individuals and as a society.

In closing, I will leave you with the wise words of G.K. Chesterton.

We are fond of talking about “liberty”; but the way we end up actually talking of it is an attempt to avoid discussing what is “good.” … The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace unadulterated liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

Further Reading

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James, and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. His work has featured in a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, Sky News, and the Mars Hill Audio Journal, in addition to his having worked as a ghost-writer for celebrities. Phillips is the author of Saints and Scoundrels: From King Herod to Solzhenitsyn (Canon Press, 2012), Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manuel for Recovering Gnostics (Ancient Faith, forthcoming 2023). He is a contributor to Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives (Sebastian Press, 2018), and Finding the Golden Key: Essays Towards a Recovery of the Sacramental Imagination (Eighth Day Press, forthcoming 2023). He has been featured as a guest on radio and television and has offered presentations and seminars at universities and conferences throughout the world. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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