The Religious Roots of My Libertarian Leaning

with 9 Comments

RaphaelMy original attraction to libertarian ideals started in political theory and theology rather than in politics. This is not surprising because I did both part of my undergraduate work and three years of my postgraduate work in philosophy and biblical studies.

Over the years, I’ve found that Christians who tend toward personal piety frequently resonate with the Republican Party. Those who gravitate toward outreach and social justice sympathize more with the Democrat Party. It seems that very few ever consider leaning libertarian.

Thomas Jefferson is often considered a forerunner of the Libertarian Party. He said, “A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” This idea is often considered the heart of libertarianism. Government should protect the people from injuring one another while allowing them to self-regulate nearly everything else.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence contains a very clear example of the mixture of Libertarian ideals with religious philosophy. He wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The idea of the pursuit of happiness comes from Locke. In both his philosophy and that of his contemporaries, it meant individuals actualizing the fullest of their calling before their Creator. I think of the line from the movie “Chariots of Fire” where Eric Liddell says, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

Individual callings before God are as unique as the people themselves. In our human experience, it is easy to see how the diversity of gifts, dreams, passions and aspirations are a powerful force and the source of much human achievement. Almost regardless of which religious tradition we are talking about, spiritual values suggest that nothing is more important than determining your unique area of genius. The right to pursue your calling is a self-evident, Creator-endowed right, even a responsibility. No aspect of human government should impede this pursuit. It is sacrosanct and needs to be protected.

Some try to counter libertarian ideals by claiming its adherents are selfish and coldhearted. However, neither their ideals nor their actual practices support this viewpoint. Libertarians want everyone, including themselves, to find their unique area of genius. This calling before God might entail giving your life in service to help the poor or working as a small business owner who provides jobs for your community.

Study after study shows that fiscal conservatives, a category that definitely includes libertarians, give more generously to charities with both their time and their money than big government liberals do.

When given the freedom to be charitable, libertarians are often generous and kindhearted. They desire a small government so they can be allowed to follow their own values into acts and gifts of service. St. Paul writes in the second letter to the Corinthians, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Charity must be freely given. If it is taken, legislated or forced, it is not charity.

Twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides developed an eight-step ladder of “tzedakah” (the willingness to give). At the top of the ladder, he praised giving someone a job so the person could be self-sufficient as the highest form of charity. Loaning someone money to start a business was better than merely giving away money.

At the bottom of the ladder was giving to the poor unwillingly. This category would include taxing people for entitlement programs. The concept runs counter to the goal of helping the disadvantaged become productive and therefore independent. Maimonides would rank small business owners hiring people as an example of the most charitable of acts.

Too often in politics, people support the government being generous with other people’s money. One is not generous when voting to give another’s money away. On a spiritual note, it violates the Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” It also robs other people of the possibility of being generous with their own money.

Following our calling before God requires acts of service, but that service is for individuals to decide. The command is to serve others, not to make others serve.

When service is given as an act of charity, it is not received as an entitlement. Recipients receive the help for a time but only with the expectation that it will help them achieve their productive place in society. It respects the recipient’s personhood with his or her own calling and purpose in life. Each person is uniquely gifted and individually called with both the right and responsibility to fulfill that call. In our callings, we are each called to be givers, serving and giving in the way God has enabled us. However, in some seasons of life, we may find ourselves recipients. We may lean on the gracious gifts of others as we strive to fulfill our responsibility to be productive in our independent calling.

Everyone is called to find their unique contribution in the world. Leaning libertarian respects this freely given contribution and removes many of the impediments that stand in the way. Libertarians desire to protect an individual’s right to gift their time and resources in freedom, the only true method of charity.

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.

9 Responses

  1. Marvin Edwards

    There was a documentary on CNBC last night called, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”.

    A guy named Ken Lay followed what Marotta might call his “gift”, “dream”, “passion”, or “aspiration”, to achieve financial success. Unfortunately, his passion overcame his moral constraints. His early success drew in others, like Jeffrey Skilling, who used the “mark to market” rule to post projected future profits immediately on the books, whether they were eventually realized or not. And when losses started to accumulate, they hired Andrew Fastow, who created dummy corporations to absorb the losses.

    As long as Enron appeared to be making profits, their stock kept climbing, and they could draw in more investments.

    Like Marotta, Ken Lay evangelised for deregulation, especially in the energy market. Enron used this later when it acquired energy production companies in California. According to the report, some of the rolling blackouts were deliberate, and used to raise utility rates to continue showing Enron making profits.

    The “success” of Enron drew several banks and the Arthur Andersen accountants into the web of deception, until the pyramid eventually collapsed.

    One of the results of the Enron scandal was the Sarbanes-Oxley law. True to his libertarian “leaning”, David Marotta complains about this law in his article, “You Can’t Regulate Crooks”. But there were $2 billion of pensions funds lost by Enron.

    We better be able to regulate crooks. If we can’t then we will continue to be their victims. Those who presume government regulations are unnecessary are ignoring a whole lot of history.

    Jesus did not advocate class warfare. But he did point out that the love of money may endanger the soul. And everyone knows what he said about taxes, “whose face is on the coin?” The Constitution is a contract between each citizen and every other, just like your lease is a contract between you and the landlord. Ethically, taxes are no different from the rent. And yes, if you’re an adult, you are here by your own choice.

    • David John Marotta

      My first column (coauthored with my father, George Marotta) for the Charlottesville Business Journal was written in 2002 in the wake of the Enron scandal, entitles “Will the US Go the Way of Japan?“. One of the reasons we gave for why American enterprise would not be mired in an economic malaise like Japan or Europe was this:

      “In the US we allow companies to go bankrupt when they cannot succeed in business. In Japan, both banks and corporations that are bankrupt are allowed to continue and drag down the economy. The ruthless culture that allows large companies to go bankrupt in the US hurts less in the long run than the Japanese style of business subsidies. In the US, the government keeps hands off business; in Japan the government interferes with the operations of business and commerce.”

      There will always be crooks you can point to as a rational for additional regulation and certification on those who are honest. If that is your only argument will will continue to multiply laws until no business can function.

      Enron lost $2 billion in pension funds. From its high water mark it lost $11 billion for investors. But Sarbanes-Oxley costs U.S. businesses $33 billion every year.

      Enron was already illegal and not caused by government. Solyndra is equally immoral and part of the government.

      I talk about the vices to avoid with money in “A Christmas Sermon“. I highly recommend it.

      • Luis

        Your reply to Marvin Edwards misses his point. He was talking about keeping sound regulations to prevent practices that harm the economy. You quote a phrase that talks about harms to the economy when natural bankruptcy is avoided. Regulation and bailout practices are not the same. If proper regulations were kept in place we would not have had banks that were “too big to fail”. We didn’t need additional regulations so that no business could function, we just needed to keep lobbyists from repealing the sound regulations that were in place before the crises occured. (Jesus shuns overindulgence and who were the ones who benefited in the crisis?….the lobbyists with the power to influence deregulation did). Deregulation in the 80’s caused the S&L crisis and the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 caused the recession of 2008….both are great examples. Where are your examples? $33 billion per year cost for ALL businesses compared to a corrupt Enron losing a mere $2billion is everything to laugh at considering the trillions we are losing now since 2008.

        I’m sorry but you will have to bring to the table better examples to counter these glaring mistakes in history. Having a sound regulated system yields a robust and stable economy. As such, it will keep jobs plentiful, less unemployment and less people dependent on others for their charity. In all honesty Jesus would have preferred good old hard work and work there is to be had over charity. He chided society for treating the poor like slaves and he taught the importance of charity to the meek and jobless but know that he would have preferred a society stable with jobs for most enjoy and benefit over the unemployment we have now.

  2. Marvin Edwards

    Charity is a personal gift, either to someone in need or to a helping organization, like the Salvation Army, that helps individuals. And I would agree that charity has nothing to do with any government program.

    Government is about obligation. Government only exists by a contract between us, a contract that constitutes a state or nation. We, the people, are all parties to that contract. We all believe that there are somethings that we need to do together, like creating and enforcing the laws that secure the set of rights we agree to protect and respect for each other, and addressing common needs, like providing public roads and schools, or old age insurance and unemployment insurance.

    And these are two separate things, as Jesus recognized when he said “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.

    It is not a question of whether to give gifts through personal charity or whether to pay your taxes. You are supposed to do both. What you do through charity benefits you and the recipient. What we do through government benefits all of us.

    Casting the government as a Robin Hood character, forcing the rich to provide charity for the poor, is way off the mark. But it is a popular right-wing myth. It simply does not happen.

    The benefit of having a safety net, like unemployment insurance, is there for everyone. The same applies to Social Security and Medicare. These are not charities, that rely upon the spotty coincidence of someone’s generosity with someone else’s need. They are put in place for everyone, because a free and highly competitive market, while normally providing a bounty and variety of goods and services, also comes with significant risks.

    We are experiencing some of that downside right now. Cheap labor in developing countries has decimated American manufacturing over the past dozen or so years. It is not the regulations or the taxes that are to blame, but simply the cheap foreign labor. And then the collapse of the housing bubble slammed the construction industry. The result is a 9% unemployment rate, a higher burden on the safety net, and decreased tax revenues.

    Those who don’t depend upon a job to earn a living have made out fairly well. The “job creators” continued to create jobs. But not here. And with cheaper foreign labor, profits are even higher.

    But no one is forcing them to give charitable gifts to anyone. They are only obligated to pay their fair share of the costs of maintaining the Nation. After all, that’s what we all agreed to do in the contract.

    I believe it was the Mayflower settlers that adopted a practical attitude toward charity. If you want to eat, you must be willing to work. And I’m fine with that. But there are a lot of people out there who are very willing to work right now. Sometimes hundreds are applying for the same job. As long as they are willing to work, they are entitled to eat, and the rest of us are obligated to see that they do.

    • Dale Seng

      If the safety net was just that, it would be good. But it keeps people from being personally accountable. It’s always something external that’s the problem. That’s the culture the do-gooders created and continue to lobby for after decades of failure. All the good intentions resulted in creating a culture where personal accountability is lost. And then there’s my grandmother. Worked a few years in a flower shop until she got married. Worth millions after my grandfather died and sold the business. She still got a fat social security check every month.

      • Luis

        I agree safety nets cause more harm than good, but safety nets are made for corporations and not for people. Your point of personal accountability gets lost there to me.

        Are you saying that the lobbyists are the do-gooders? What news do you read where that is indicated?

        Corporations have no morals, it is a business and they are run within its borders (or breaks laws) to benefit the bottom line. It is the laws that need people’s attention to uphold them and for us to defraud those who cheat. This is government by the people, people! It is the people’s watch where we are needed to catch the revolving door lawmakers/lobbyists to stop them from taking down the laws so they can “legally cheat the people”.

        Awww, how precious you look untoward your grandmother by the millions she is “worth” to you.

        • Luis

          p.s. The social security check is hers note that, but unless we do not cut off our deserved checks at some time, then we will NEVER be able to get rid of social security! I see so many republicans refusing to cut off their “entitlements” due to the fact they paid into it through payroll taxes. I hope libertarians have more balls to just LET IT GO!!

  3. Richard Steven Gregg

    Excellent article and responses, the only thing missing are the elavated, enlightened human beings to go with it.
    Reminds me of when my step-grandfather Elmer Murphy Harrington was trying to explain the wonders of “Technocracy” to me some 48 years ago, when I was about 15. He was a disabled WWI veteran who almost died in the battle of Belleau Wood. He had seen the horrors of war and then the great depression, and did not believe in our form of capitalism at all. He was trying to explain to me the wonders of Technocracy, and I sort of grasped at what he was getting at. But afterwards I told him: “Grandpa, that sounds great, but how are you going to convince enough people to live like that ? Most are too divided and selfish and greedy to do it !”
    He lamented that I was probably right for now, but there was always hope for the future
    Might have more later….thank you all…!!