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Freedom & Law
Why we need Both

F. Earle Fox

The piece below is a response to a Christian libertarian who as arguing for a freedom without government. 

 

        I think you are wrong about pure liberty being a good thing -- by pure liberty you mean the "right" to do whatever you wish - with no moral or legal constraints.  Nowhere in Scripture is it indicated that God authorizes pure, unadulterated liberty.  He clearly "orders" our liberty by His commands, does He not?  And the primary order is that of love, as Jesus tells us in Matt. 22.  The command to care about Him and our neighbors, to work for our neighbors' welfare, even at great cost to ourselves.  We do not typically order ourselves that way without strong discipline.
 
        First of all, if there is a "right" to freedom, then others have the obligation to honor that right, or the right is meaningless.  And obligation is an intrusion into "pure" liberty.  Anyone's right presupposes obligations on others to honor that right.  And obligations mean laws. 
 
        A friend and I were discussing yesterday some issues, and the notion came up that unless the First Amendment is there, the rest of the amendments are meaningless and cannot exist.  They all depend on the prior and therefore higher law and law-Giver.  There followed the notion that that is why the First Commandment is the first.  Unless we are first commanded to honor God, our creator and sovereign, there can be no principle of lower laws or obligations (i.e., the other 9 commandments).  In other words, without the law of God, there is no law at all, no obligation, no right to command, no obligation to obey commands.  Life is all a crap shoot, and the devil take the hindmost.  It is all power struggle.  Without some "order", we have chaos -- the ability to choose, with no directive as to what to choose. 
 
        The command of God represents our reason for existence (go to http://www.theroadtoemmaus.org/RdLb/21PbAr/Eth/DefO&L.htm on the definition of the word 'ought' as emerging from our reason for existence)   How can liberty not be dangerous without moral constraint?  And is not moral constraint the foundation of all legitimate government?  Do we not in fact legislate our morality?  How can liberty (which you defend) be distinguished from license (which you reject) if liberty is not ordered by the law of God -- i.e., reason for existence? 
 
        Liberty, the ability to do whatever we want, is a capacity (not a virtue, as you assert) all of its own, that is the meaning of freewill.  But is not that quite different from the right to do whatever we want?  And is not the ability rightly constrained by our obligations to fulfill our reason for existence, which, I think, is the very meaning of the law?  The desire (not the ability) to do right is the virtue.  Having an ability to do what I want is no guarantee at all that we will do the right.   Our reason for existence can come only from the creator of our existence, as a logical fact.  Without that reason given and revealed to us, we are totally at sea in dealing with our totalitarian selves and totalitarian governments.  We have no moral principle by which to call them "wrong". 
 
        You echo one of the founding fathers -- if men were angels, we would need no government.  That is not so.  We would still be needing to know what our reason for existence might be.  We cannot (as a logical fact) invent our own.  We can get it only from our Creator, and that is the basis of all legitimate government.  Government is not an optional extra in a world with freewill creatures. 
 
        We might not need "civil" government (which is all about coercive force) -- if we all knew and obeyed our reason for existence, if we were all obedient angels.  But we would still need the government of God, would we not?  And does not His government over us give the needed order to our freedom?   

        We are not born angels, it is by both the law and grace of God that we become angels. 
        You say: "Libertarians recognize that government should not be used to inculcate virtue. Libertarians also recognize that the government cannot inculcate virtue. This is the Biblical position. The Law condemns. Only Love and Grace inculcate virtue. Grace is the opposite of the coercive sword. " 
 
        I disagree that government should not be "used" to inculcate virtue.  The very existence of just laws is a powerful teaching about virtue.  Virtue cannot be forced on people.  If that is what you mean, I agree.  But, though law condemns, it also directs toward the Kingdom.  And the highest law is all about grace - i.e., love.   Only God is capable of uniting law and grace.  No human being and no Godless civil government is capable of doing so.   Only Godly governments can, run by persons who understand and are committed to the law and grace of God.   That would be my idea of a Christian government. 
 
        And then  you say, "Thus, liberty is its own reward. There is no trade-off between liberty and license. And it’s not merely the ability to do what I ought – because each man is dictated to, by his conscience, to serve Elohim, some other god, or no god at all. In every instance, my liberty is someone else’s license, and vice versa. But so long as my neighbor’s liberty “neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg,” then we agree to permit each other to engage in license. "
 
        But you take away what you were giving.  "..each man is dictated to by his conscience..."  Is not that God ordering our liberty?   And then, "But so  long as my neighbor's liberty....."   That is another qualification on pure freedom -- an order, is it not?  You are agreeing to permit each other to engage in ordered license. 

For an extended commentary, see also, The Law & the Grace of God

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Date Posted -  12/10/2008   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012