In an op-ed entitled “The Libertarian Jesus” by Michael Gerson in today’s Washington Post, Gerson provides an excellent example of the moral blind spot that afflicts the conservative movement.
Gerson, who served as a speech writer for President Bush and who was a senior policy advisor for the conservative Heritage Foundation, uses his op-ed to sing the praises of government welfare programs, especially those that are endorsed by conservatives under the rubric of “compassionate conservatism.”
Implicitly denouncing libertarianism for calling for the end, not reform, of all government welfare programs, Gerson feels that while tremendous deference should be given to private charity, the role of the federal government in helping others is necessary and imperative.
Amazingly, Gerson fails to address the central moral issue in both Christianity and libertarianism: coercion vs. voluntarism.
With government welfare programs, government force is used to take money from one person in order to given it to another person. In the United States, the money is taken by the IRS and redistributed by some federal welfare agency. The central point is that if a person doesn’t pay his taxes, he is taken into custody, prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail. Additionally, on the civil side his assets, including even his home, are forcibly seized and sold at auction to satisfy taxes owed.
If a person forcibly resists any of this, federal officials will meet force with force. If the resister uses deadly force to resist, federal officials will use deadly force in response. In other words, if you fail to pay your taxes and then forcibly resist criminal or civil proceedings against you, they will kill you.
How in the world can forcing someone to care for others be reconciled with the principles set forth by Jesus? Alas, Gerson doesn’t tell us. Instead, he simply points to examples in Jewish and Christian history of where people have purportedly used government to help others.
In his piece Gerson cites the story of Jesus’ encounter with the young rich man, claiming that it’s “a stretch” to use it as a biblical foundation for libertarianism. Unfortunately, however, Gerson doesn’t address a central point in that story—that after the young man rejected Jesus’ suggestion to sell all his assets and give them to the poor, Jesus did not employ force, either personally or through Caesar’s agents, to take the man’s money and give it to the poor. Gerson doesn’t tell us whether, in his opinion, Jesus should have done so.
Jesus told us that God’s two greatest commandments are, first, to love God and, second, to love your neighbor as yourself. But nowhere does God suggest that people should be forced to obey these commandments. That’s where God’s great gift of free will comes in. By its very nature, free will entails the right to reject God and reject one’s neighbor.
In the political arena, conservatives, liberals, and libertarians all agree that government should punish people who initiate violence against others, for example rape, murder, stealing, etc. But where libertarians differ from conservatives and liberals is in the area of wrongful or sinful conduct that is non-violent. For libertarian Christians, that’s the arena for the operation of God’s gift of free will.
Thus, conservatives use the force of Caesar to punish people for committing such acts as adultery, covetousness, homosexuality, and drug abuse and to force people to care for others, thereby denigrating God’s great gift of free will. Libertarians, on the other hand, honor God’s great gift of free will by using the state to ensure that no one interferes with people’s peaceful choices, even when they are considered by others to be bad or irresponsible choices.
Finally, Gerson’s mindset reflects the loss of faith that has unfortunately captured the mindsets of both conservatives and liberals. He argues, for example, that private compassion “cannot replace Medicaid or provide AIDS drugs to millions of people in Africa for the rest of their lives.”
Oh, and why not? After all, Mr. Gerson, correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Americans operate without Medicaid and government-provided welfare for most of our nation’s history? And didn’t doctors and hospitals and others, together with the free market, provide for the healthcare and other needs of the poor during that time?
Gerson’s lack of faith in freedom reflects the conservative mindset toward free will and charity: When people cannot be relied upon to make the “right” choices, they should be forced to do so, for their own good and the good of society. That’s what goes for conservatism today, but what’s compassionate about it?