The religious nature of the Libertarian movement
Dec 13, 2011

The religious nature of the Libertarian movement

In many ways, the modern libertarian movement is deeply religious. Not in the sense of believing some mystical metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe, but in its structure and organizational principles, as well as similarities in many of its core ideas. While there are certainly many ways in which the libertarian movement is different from religious institutions, the similarities are nonetheless poignant enough to be noteworthy.

Ron Paul
Institutional Similarities:
Libertarianism isn't just a random collection of ideas. It has a well defined, homogenized, and centralized literary canon that forms the core body of ideas. Hayek, Rothbard, Mises and other prominent Austrian school economists and thinkers form the basis for the canon. It has its contemporary institutions that exist for the dissemination of the ideology such as and the Cato Institute, popular preachers of the ideology such as Peter Schiff, and political champions of the views such as Ron Paul. That is, it has all the basic institutions of religion: a literary canon such as the Bible or Quran, institutions such as Churches and Mosques for propagating and disseminating the ideology, active leaders of the ideology such as priests and imams, and political actors advocating on behalf of the the ideology like the nearly ubiquitous practitioners of religion that dominant all elected positions. In short, most of the structural and social aspects that accompany the actual ideas themselves are very similar to the structures that exist in most modern religions.

The Libertarian community is certainly not unique among ideologies in having a social structure comparable to religious institutions. Take communism which was exactly the same again or perhaps, ironically but much less extremely, new age atheism based off of the Dawkings, Dennet, Harris, and Hitchens literary canon. Varying ideologies have varying degrees of similarities with religious social strictures and Libertarianism bears commenting on simply due to the relative strength of the comparison and due to the prominence it bears in our time (pointing out the religiosity of communism in the American political scene is no longer of relevance).  Indeed, in order for a fairly narrowly defined ideology to propagate itself successfully it is probably quite likely that it will develop, and can only be successful if it does, a set of such social structures. As religion has proven itself to be among the most successful propagators and sustainers of ideology we have ever seen, it should come as no surprise that modeling (either intentionally or, more likely, as a competitive result in the market for ideas) the social structures for an ideology after that of religion is a good idea.

Similarities in ideas:
The ideas themselves also matter and, as we shall see, there is a remarkable similarity between the ideas of Libertarianism and religion, not just their similar social structures. However, the nature of the ideas affect the social structures themselves and the propensity to have associated social structures. I contend that the more narrowly defined the ideology is, the easier it is to have rigid accompanying structures. Religion comes with such a narrowly defined ideology (God exists, in particular the precise nature of which is as described by the canon) and as such is compatible with the kinds of enormously rigid structures such as the Catholic Church. Contrast this with, say, the progressive movement in the US which, while having various political and social champions and some homogeneity in ideas supported by its adherents, has no centralized idea from which one can derive the diverse set of viewpoints it takes and correspondingly no such literary canon to base the set of ideas on (calling it an ideology is an abuse of terminology). Indeed, many in the movement lament the lack of an ability to coalesce a diverse set of ideas and groups who typically take up a single idea as their raison d'être (like gay rights or secularism) into a more centralized social system capable of wielding more political power. Libertarianism does have precisely such a narrowly defined core ideology (in short: government bad, markets good) that it is susceptible to form precisely the kind of similar social structures enjoyed by religion.

Good vs Evil:
Core to both libertarianism and most religions is the establishment of a strong good vs evil dichotomy. Namely, the market is unquestionably good and the state unquestionably bad which mirror the God vs Satan, good vs evil, dichotomy in Christianity. Both come equipped with a choice between two futures: one utopian and one apocalyptic. Do as the religious say and you will spend an eternity in Heaven. Fail to do so and one spends an eternity burning in Hellfire (and people suggest that Abrahamic religious ideology is aesthetically beautiful?). Correspondingly, follow the teachings of the libertarians and we are promised an anarchocapitalist utopia which, while not quite as good as Heaven, promises to be the most efficient social system imaginable and presumably far more morally just with higher quality of living than that of today's. Fail to do so and all sorts of apocalyptic outcomes like the US dollar's collapse through hyperinflation and a seemingly inevitable collapse of government looms just around the corner while we stagnate in an unjust and inefficient society in the meantime. But have no fear, for both Libertarianism and religion have a savior for us. Merely follow the teachings of the canon - and particular saviors like Jesus Christ and Ron Paul - and we can assure ourselves of the utopia and not the purgatory.

Universal Applicability:
Both Libertarianism and religion apply universally and absolutely. They are, as it were, theories of everything (or at least everything socioeconomic in the former case). Want to know the answer to absolutely any economic question of what we should do? Simply eliminate government and then whatever the market does is best. Want to know the answer to absolutely any question of why the universe is the way it is, or what we ought to do in it? God made it that way, and one should do whatever God says as indicated by the canon and prayers. The point, even if am being more than a bit comical, is that they both have an underlying principle of being universally applicable and of having a complete monopoly on the right answer.

Absolute Morality:
Libertarianism on occasion appears like it doesn't make too many moral claims; indeed, it often stays clear of many of the major social/moral questions of the day. It is perfectly fine with the idea of people disagreeing with what is morally right or wrong, for instance, and as such may appear to adopt relativism but the trick is that this is only true precisely up to the point when private property and liberty gets violated and then this moral rule which is sacrosanct and universal trumps all other moral considerations. It is an absolute deontology, as is religion.  While this is a fringe position, some Libertarians have even endorsed a form of slavery as morally acceptable whereby one sells oneself into slavery (up to and including the possibility of being murdered by ones owner) as long as the sale is voluntary (hypothesized to be, say, to get money to give for a son's healthcare or something of this nature). Such a position, and all the somewhat less extreme ones like it, demonstrate the extent to which this particular moral position trumps all others. There are no shades of gray; god doesn't partially exist and the government isn't only somewhat bad. It is black and white, absolute, universal, and any other consideration simply doesn't matter. 

This real world angelic conflict that Libertarianism poses suffers much of the problems of black and white thinking that plagues religions. Far too often the argument boils down to this: such and such a thing is bad not because it has been adequately shown to be bad but because the government is involved and the government is always categorically bad, Q.E.D. In comparison, many moral issues such as marriage equality are claimed to be bad simply because the Bible says so and the Bible is categorically the source of moral truth, Q.E.D. One cannot derive any claim in this manner, to do so would be circular whereby one derives the starting assumption (markets, God, good; government, counter-religious claims, bad). Instead, one can merely reassert the ideology in a specific case of a particular government program or moral claim.

Resistant to Change:
Because the ideology is so universal and absolute it is also incredibly rigid to change. There is no way for new ideas and new thinking to infiltrate because any new idea must go through the filter of "does there have anything at all vaguely related to governments in it?" and if so - no matter what the idea is - it must be rejected. Of course, there can be all sorts of new analysis on new issues (the 2008 credit crisis can get all sorts of libertarian analysis) but it has no hope of changing or modulating in any way the central tenant and pillar of Libertarianism. Unsurprisingly, the libertarian community interpreted that event as entirely the fault of the government and not at all the fault of the market. Likewise, the central tenants of religion are simply beyond reasonable consideration to question in religious circles, things like the existence of Jesus Christ. Contrast this absolutism with modern political parties. Conservatives, say, have a general distrust and dislike for government but because it is not absolute the way Libertarians believe it to be it can and has modulated significantly with the times and different aspects of government are or are not supported correspondingly in average with the changes in history.

The rigidity and black and white thinking extends to a problem quite a bit beyond that of the central tenants, however. I don't really expect any fixed ideology to ever change its central tenant.  The problem is that all kinds of thinking get parsed through the filter of whether it seems to be leading towards or away from the central thesis. It makes for dogmatic thinking resistant to change. The church got stuck on very minor aspects of its ideology when it infamously refused to accept the Galilean model of the universe. This certainly didn't challenge the central tenant of the existence of a deity and today the two have been easily incorporated by essentially all Christians, yet the rigidity of the social structures prevents the incorporation of new ideas. In Libertarianism the key new ideas are largely of an economic nature and while it purports to be highly economic discipline after the Austrian tradition, many major economic ideas are largely suppressed. Take the concept of externalities or even the emphasis on microeconomic opposed to macroeconomic principles. The hesitancy to take a broader view of modern economics and to instead stick with the dogma has narrowed the perspectives and as a result decreased the veracity of many Libertarian economic claims.

Before concluding, I must mention some caveats. Firstly, the above is clearly very rough generalizations. It is not meant to condemn every person who subscribes to Libertarian ideology, nor is it meant to ignore the plurality and diversity of opinions within that loose group. There is truth, I think, to some of these patterns but they ought not to define or encompass too much. Secondly, I will note that Libertarianism certainly has a distinct value in their sometimes appropriate criticisms of government that bring insight and originality into an issue that is very important - I have personally found working through some of their literature to be quite rewarding even if I have some disagreements. Thirdly, I have discussed largely similarities while ignoring differences; this is mainly due to the fact that the major differences are obvious (a socioeconomic theory compared to a metaphysical claim about deities, for example) but more importantly because they are assumed to be different the added value comes from showing the ways in which they are not. Fourthly, I do not mean "religious" to be entirely a pejorative; my argument is not that religion is bad, Libertarianism is like religion, and therefore Libertarianism is bad. My hope would be that the comparison would be somewhat illuminating about the nature of both movements and allow followers of one, both or neither to see slightly more clearly the nature of these movements. Let's keep the good, get rid of the bad, and move on to a state of greater understanding for both religion and Libertarianism have aspects that are valuable to society.

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