We hold these truths to be axiomatic

At the bottom of any argument you will find axioms (norms, inviolable rights, natural or divine laws), assumed or simply asserted as “first principles”. Geometric proofs cannot exist without accepted axioms, likewise reasoned discussion also requires some shared norms. We can’t prove, in any logical sense, the sanctity of human life, self-ownership, freedom of thought and expression, and even the core measurements of human flourishing used in ideological claims to authority, yet they still underpin most of our ideas about life, morality and governance. The question at hand is, do the origins of these axioms render them strong or weak? What sorts of norms can become shared in a way that creates and sustains moral authority? I would argue that norms are more powerful to the extent they are emergent.

Other will claim that the power of shared norms comes from a) divine authority or b) that they are simply empirical and logical.   I don’t think either of those claims is true, or ultimately will be a source of durability in a pluralistic world.  I’m sure believing either of these things makes one hew to them more assiduously, and perhaps “delivers us from temptation”. The assertion that any ideology’s norms might not be durable hardly serves to discredit it, or turn it into something it isn’t.  Nor does a lack of empirical certainty or divine truth does create a slippery slope that makes any belief or atrocious policy possible.  One might just as easily argue that absolute certainty or inflexible divine truth creates such a slippery slope, and it is the emergent norm of humility that contains us.

Without some shared norms, it would be difficult for any system of governance to maintain its authority. Likewise, it is very difficult to extricate norms from the culture, broadly speaking, in which they are developed. Religion, without a doubt, plays a role in justifying and fortifying norms. Billions of people on this planet might simply assert that the norms they share derive from divine mandate. Sadly, leaders have often sought to connect themselves to divinity or nature to justify their authority, like the Japanese imperial line descended from the Sun. Most, but not all, of our contemporary shared norms have religious antecedents.

I think it is an open question as to whether many of our supposed “Divine Laws” existed prior to their enshrinement as divine.  I see them as more of an emergent phenomenon. My own perspective, because I am not a literal believer in any religious canons, is that many of our norms developed as community adaptations and the religion came later. In fact, I see plenty of evidence for this point of view in that a) formalized religion seems to have emerged subsequent to community norms in early humans and b) norms are fairly similar across radically different religious traditions. Because of the powerful emergent properties of these beliefs, I disapprove of atheists who consider religious traditions to be no different than transitory cargo cults. The stories and traditions of religion, along with the requirement of faith, have helped to encode very important and time-tested cultural norms – making them compelling and durable through generations and across societies. They are shared articles of faith that allow us to live together. Religious narratives are so powerful that they actually replace recitation of the underlying principles as the primary force of religious argument and provide endless avenues for differing religious interpretation. This can be highly constructive, as it is in the Jewish Talmudic tradition, or utterly destructive, as it is with Islamic (and Christian) fundamentalists who focus on brutal edicts from a vengeful God and Prophet. However, I do not believe that these ideas and stories were literally handed down by a divine authority. Nor, more importantly, would I defer to someone who claims to speak the incontrovertible truth of divine law. Rejecting literal religious authority, I see religion’s power as an emergent and often adaptive phenomenon that enables us to discover (notice I did not say “invent”) and benefit from shared emergent norms. Sadly, it hasn’t always worked that way.

At this point devout believers might say “but divine law stands apart as truth, it is not a means to some other end”. This is circular reasoning – we know it stands apart because God says so.  Such an argument requires a prior belief in a specific divinity, which many don’t share.

I tend to identify as a libertarian. This is not because I became enraptured with any particular philosopher. It is partly due to the norms I hold highest – self-ownership and self-determination at the core. On the other hand, many of the beliefs I have that are consistent with libertarianism are easily supported with consequentialist arguments. Trade and markets have improved human welfare in a way not previously known in history. Top-down solutions have again and again proved both inefficient and subject to unintended consequences. I share Hayek’s belief in the knowledge problem, the embedded coordination signals built into markets, the superiority of emergent solutions, and the inherent dangers of top-down solutions.  Hayek’s philosophy in turn is quite friendly to the Christian concept of humility.   No divine authority is required to support these views. Nonetheless, markets are consistent with the normative concept of self-ownership, so I have pretty strong priors as I view the voluminous evidence in their favor.

A friend raises the question of whether the norms of libertarianism, which he mistakenly views as entirely divorced from religion, can endure and form a basis for protecting individuals from state power. They are too weak, he (and many others) argue to form an enduring limit on the state. He may be right.

But wait a minute! We must always ask “compared to what?”.  He’s holding libertarian principles to a high standard, which he fails to apply to his substitute:

  • Have durable and tradition tested religious principles protected us from the predations of state power? Hardly, religion has been used to justify egregious violations of self-ownership for as long as humans have been around.
  • Are any particular religious principles proving durable in the face of the state today? Not really – the dominant economic powers in the world are not religious, and they do a far better job (albeit flawed) of protecting individual rights than their religious antecedents
  • Is religion protecting trade and markets from state interference? I see no evidence of this, and the current pope seems to be a bit more hostile to markets than I would like.
  • Are the principles of Freedom of Speech and religion, held dear by millions of Americans, based in religious bedrock? Maybe, but I’m not aware of it.
  • Has everything that isn’t protected under religious bedrock fallen under state control? Clearly not. We all engage in millions of behaviors every day that are orthogonal to religion yet aren’t under state control.
  • The US has the most formal adherence to negative rights of any society known to man. The founders looked to religion to justify some of these. But does that have a bearing on our *current* adherence to these principles? The US, while containing many religious individuals, has almost no religious content in the shared culture that supports these rights.

My friend’s point is one worth discussing – how do we embed our shared norm of limiting state power in governments that devolve towards populism and rent-seeking. How do we create the bulwark against tyranny of the majority and illegitimate government actions in the name of ‘the greater good”. I recognize the need for some basic shared axioms, some inalienable rights. I think norms can simply be powerful because they are emergent and time-tested, which is consistent with many so-called “Divine” norms. At present, I view his extremely broad claim that religion can be the only bedrock for inviolable principles interesting, but unproven.

Another claim he might make is that without the inherently limited set of Divine Rights, we will inevitably start to create new rights (most perniciously, collective arguments and positive rights that would seem to trump basic individual rights) . In this argument, the religious foundation is an important limiting principal that holds the expanding gyre of the state at bay.  Progressives are infamous for inventing new positive rights as a kind of rhetorical trump card – “I just believe that everyone has the right to health insurance and free birth control”.  Well perhaps, but I’ve seen many new rights justified with religious precepts as well.  After all, What Would Jesus Do?    Once again, religion doesn’t provide the bulwark that he suggests.

One of the emergent norms of Christianity is humility, and a belief that man is fallen, subject to temptation regardless of intention.  I find this an incredibly valuable norm.  In fact, it provides a basis for the limiting principle that Mark seeks above.  Libertarian thinkers are quite taken with humility and the problems of imposed, top-down solutions, as shown in Hayek’s knowledge problem and Nozick’s description of just processes.  We have arrived at this norm from very different places, but I would hope that it’s common place in religion and libertarianism might buttress its durability.


While I was writing this, he offered the following, which goes to some of the points above:

You also say that religion is a good way to get people to adhere to and enforce rights that (apparently) are good for them to adhere to and enforce, if just not for the reasons they think it is good for them to do so. (Please don’t take this ad hominemly, but that wins a Gruber award).

Disclaimers notwithstanding, the “Gruber” comment misstates my argument and is an empty but clever-sounding ad hominem. Gruber advocated selling a policy deceptively, justifying things that people did not want by averring that they would be “good for them”. I simply observe that religious stories have been a powerful motivator for cooperative behavior even though they cannot be proven literally accurate (and simply cannot all be accurate). Since I don’t believe in any literal religious authority, how could I say otherwise? It might be more accurate to suggest that I accuse religious proselytizers of doing what Gruber did. But I do not – only some religious leaders continue to insist that religious stories are literal truth. Most of them treat religious texts as an invitation to investigate and discover inalienable or divine principles.

Freedom is staying apart and separate from, not allowing or employing for whatever ends.

Freedom is important, but I thought we were arguing about how people come to share norms that support freedom. He seems to be conflating the practice of Freedom with the cultural antecedents that support its value.  Is his point that Divine law equals freedom?  That a lack of divine law means freedom can be sacrificed because…it isn’t protected by divine law?  I can’t find a non-circular argument in this.

My argument is more broadly that Libertarianism, like all humanist philosophies, is based in natural law, which by definition we all share as human beings. While Americans do not all agree on natural law’s mandates, most of us agree on its political consensual mandate, which justifies government and allows redress through abolition, or at least in theory. Most of us also believe in a limited government of checks and balances, although conservatives and libertarians believe in a more limited government than most others do. Conservatives and libertarians differ in that the former hold moral and/or religious views whereas the latter largely do not, at least in the political domain. American conservatives see those moral and/or religious views embedded in their government architecture through John Locke and the Declaration of Independence. American libertarians do not see those views as embedded in their government architecture, pointing to John Locke as a proponent of natural law or else to the argument that no religious basis for natural law now exists even if Locke asserted one in 1689. Both sides agree that religion is based in divine law. Conservatives believe divine law must be respected and in some areas incorporated by government, even by one made wholly under natural law. Libertarians do not, or certainly do not where there is a conflict between them.

I’m with him right up to this point (with minor quibbles – many libertarians are perfectly content with the religious antecedents of norms embedded in our government’s architecture) . But now,

Divine law, then, is a counterforce to government action, to which conservatives point as one guarantor of limited government reach. “These areas are off limits.” Libertarianism, by not recognizing divine law, sacrifices divine law’s role as a counterweight to government reach. Libertarianism has no area that “off limits.”

His”then” up there arrives as a shock.  There is no causal logic presented. If we don’t seek to “incorporate divine law in government” that means divine law “is a counterforce to government action”? I agree that only laws can define limits on government, but I don’t see the idea that those laws must be divine in nature.  More to the point, I see little evidence that what he asserts about the limiting capacity of divine-sourced limiting laws is true in the world. As I say above, divine law has more often been used to violate rights than to limit government, American exceptionalism notwithstanding. I understand that some leaders have drawn a distinction between Caesar and God, as it were, but the preponderance of the evidence suggest that this has NOT functioned as a protection against state power, let alone the *exclusive* bulwark against government power. Neither, as a couple of us in his comments stated, would James Madison, author of the famous limiting Ninth Amendment.  The statement at the end that libertarianism “has no limits” has not been supported and is patently untrue.  The entire philosophy is built on limits to state power.

That leaves libertarianism relying only on checks and balances and “small government” arguments to secure its goal of limited government. But the very attraction that libertarianism finds in natural law, that is its ready appeal and apparent depth of resolve, is shared equally by competing government petitioners. Why, for example, must one’s natural rights start and end with self-ownership, liberty and property (or happiness)? Why do they not extend more narrowly (only that no one may harm me) or more broadly (that I have a per capita claim to natural resources or even GDP)? There is no answer for those questions beyond government arbitration; the government will expand to act as guarantor for a broadened application of natural law (theoretically the government could contract, but I discount that as unrealistic barring new information). Divine law alone will stand outside the reach of a state based in natural law.

Unfortunately, NOTHING he has said above cannot be said of divine law, and it has been famously flexible in interpretation.  For instance, many who support positive rights (the bete noir of libertarians) such as those espoused by the U.N., find justification for positive rights in religion, as I note above.

Mark’s argument simply begs the question. He states that natural law’s scope and authority are flexible, therefore they are weak. He claims Divine Law is not subject to such mutations (against such a mountain of evidence to the contrary) and will hold the state at bay. Why? Because it is handed down by God.

Nobody can characterize libertarianism as a complete and comprehensive justification for a fully-defined system of government. There are weaknesses in many strains of libertarian thought, as there are in any other belief system used to justify authority and its limits. Religious arguments attempt to place their axioms above debate by invoking divine law, which is just as hilarious as “proving” the libertarian case from first principles. Using these weaknesses to dismiss the entire libertarian endeavor is pointless, generally serving as an inward apologetic more than an attempt to persuade.


Mark links all sorts of critiques of libertarian thought, which is useful. I embed them here:


Justice Scalia on Natural Law
The Self-Ownership Axiom (I love the way the narrator says ‘whether they say it is or not’. (in my view, this criticism tries to reason without axioms, which is…difficult. Interestingly, they touch on existence as axiomatic, which is how Rand begins her Objectivist Epistemology, and is both difficult to prove in and of itself and causes great amusement to her detractors)
Begging the question with Nozick
This land is my land
Bleeding Heart History of libertarianism

Incidentally, here’s another view of what’s durable

It’s in this context that we should remember one of Marx’s insights. Ideals, he thought, triumph not because of their intellectual strength but because of their political power: capitalism, he thought, would be overthrown not by sweet reason but by the power of the working class. The problem that we supporters of freedom have is that whilst we have right on our side, we don’t have might.

Here’s Mark’s last response.

Andrew, to give your separate posts direct attention: the first one (“How Clever”) in which you set out to show that my assertions are not constructive, in fact distorts my assertions to support your own conclusions which are irrelevant to my argument. You say for example that freedom of speech is a sort of pan-right, valued across the spectrum of religious and non-religious persons alike. Your implication would seem to be that therefore there is nothing special about religious laws and therefore libertarianism (and lots of other things) can protect freedom without religion, so my contention is
silly and willfully bothersome. Yet I make quite clear in a number of places that particular rights are a red herring. I am not arguing whether the Pound is more valuable than the Euro nor whether pecuniary measures should be made in sheep instead of gold. I am saying that money’s value lies wholly in the belief it instills in the market. Likewise, rights only have the value to which they are agreed and by which they can be guaranteed. Few if any rights will be entirely supported or entirely guaranteed, but a preponderance of rights with very weak support and equally weak guarantee (possibly two different sets of rights) will erode the value of all rights. If we all have the right to everything, we all have the right to nothing. The check on value erosion is the check on proliferation. While there surely is no fail-safe exercise for that, religion acts a counter-weight to rights proliferation by generally insisting on relatively close adherence to traditional (divine) laws. It also serves to rope off ground from government infringement. This point is normative and not substantive (i.e., the extent to which one may support or not support a right notwithstanding, I am addressing the role of rights in aggregate).

I think this re-states the ‘religion as limiting factor’ point above. In all fairness, my points are not irrelevant, we are still arguing about whether a divine basis will make norms durable, whether by restricting their number and strength or simply by their divine provenance. No red Herrings.

Your immediately following point says that I seem to “think that if [libertarian] principles aren’t authoritative enough to society, they will change shape into something beyond Peter Singer’s version of utilitarianism.” I do not know the implications of what you have in mind, and nor am I at all familiar with Peter Singer; but I suspect whatever you do have in mind is possible. One thing we know is that things do not stand still and most political goods increase over time, or at least our time, and indeed in a way that appears to be increasingly utilitarian. In a society uniquely made up of Andrew Hofers or or Heyak Libertarians, the change might be rather slow; in one populated by a large number of diverse, highly unequal and competing self-interests, the change might be relatively rapid. You go on to say, “Not only has this not happened, but [Mark] fails (in his 50 subsequent comments and links) to show that it might.” Why you say that is beyond me. I say clearly that freedom lives in the middle ground between the state and the individual and should that middle ground be claimed by the state or otherwise disappear, freedom goes with it. That “has not happened” because we still have a relatively robust if weakened middle ground, although it has been ceding ground in a one-way losing trade with the state since the Jazz Age. And within “the state” I might further break down “federal vs. state,” the federalism of which has been increasingly perverted by federal dominance over the same period. But you are welcome to say that because libertarian views have not materially changed over that time (while in fact they have, as your Wiki link shows) libertarians are in good stead.

I didn’t say libertarianism hadn’t changed, I said this does not distinguish it from religion, which has also changed dramatically over the years. I did suggest that libertarian principles morphing into extreme utilitarianism (proto-statism or progressivism being the other labels he used) was unlikely and not in evidence. And it isn’t.

I re-state: Mark’s argument simply begs the question. He states that natural law’s scope and authority are flexible, therefore they are weak. He claims Divine Law is not subject to such mutations (against such a mountain of evidence to the contrary) and will hold the state at bay.

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