Freedom Requires Virtue

You’ve probably heard it said that “Freedom requires virtue.” I’ve heard it in one form or another countless times, attributed to various founding fathers. I doubt very much that any of them said it verbatim, but I think they all expressed some form of the idea in one way or another.

What do I make of it? Usually I hear it from someone who does not like libertarian ideals because they think that it opens the flood gates to immorality. So what is my response? Do I agree with this sentiment, and what does that mean for my views on libertarianism? Surely the two are mutually exclusive, right?

I wholeheartedly agree with this principle. The question, however, is what does freedom require virtue for? There’s an implied goal there that isn’t stated. It is possible to have freedom without virtue. That is not the point of the statement. It is not as though a person lacking in virtue is automatically a slave in the civil sense in which we are speaking.

It is helpful to think of this individually, rather than collectively. I am free to spend my time as I see fit. I can spend it working from 9-5 and being with my family in the evenings. Or, I can drink myself into oblivion. Each has its own set of consequences. To avoid bad consequences, I require virtue to make good choices.

Theonomists use this to argue that the state must therefore promote virtue to ensure that everyone has good consequences so that the nation as a whole has good consequences, which of course can only be done through the use of coercive force. They will say that the onrushing tide of moral decay will bring about the destruction of this nation if we do not turn to the Lord. This may be true, but is government and legislation the answer to this problem?

There are some fundamental problems with this view. First is that it is impossible to do what they intend. The second is that no matter how bad a free society absent of virtue is, the alternative is always worse. The third is that not only is it impossible to achieve the desired goal, it is the essence of bigotry even to try.

An Impossible Goal

The statists believe that by merely setting a law they will dictate virtue to everyone in the nation. This, however, is woefully simplistic.

Let’s go back to my work versus drinking analogy. I require virtue in order to make the right choice, don’t I? But who defines what that right choice is? Do the consequences alone determine what the right choice is? Or is there some higher calling that would behoove me to do what is right regardless of the choices? Where is the seat of virtue? Is it in my external actions? Is it in some written code? No, it is in my heart.

Every choice we make is influenced by the values we possess in our heart. These values dictate to us what is right and wrong and the reasons for that. This does not mean that when I choose to follow those values I am being virtuous in an absolute sense, but it does mean that those values are the only things that determine what I will choose. Many things can influence what those values are, but those values are what determine my actions. The law cannot control my choices, it can only dictate whether my choice is legal or illegal, which is merely up to the government’s fiat.

Legislation cannot alter the values of a person’s heart. Sure, it can coerce outward, begrudging compliance, but that is only because most people already have “not getting arrested” as a component in their value system. This is, however, usually due to pragmatic reasons. They do not want to go to jail, pay a fine, or lose their job. They want to maintain the respect of their peers and family. It is the least compelling component of a person’s value system. People have shown time and again that other values are more important and when conflict arises, the law is the loser. This is partly because people are rebellious by nature, and partly because there are times in which a strict law is inappropriate for the situation.

So as you can see, the law is not capable of keeping people from doing what they really want to do. All it can do is give the government permission to use force against such persons. They are declared outlaws and jailed for their errant behavior. To the betterment of society? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But one thing is certain: that the government cannot ultimately change the moral compass of any one individual and therefore the aggregate a whole of society. It can merely outlaw certain choices and use violence to enforce it. But even still, there is another question which must be answered. Pragmatism must not drive our actions. I do not hope to persuade merely by saying, “That won’t work.” We, more than any other people, should be committed to doing things in a virtuous way, especially if our goal is to promote virtue. So this leaves us with a question: even if this were an effective means of impacting the virtue of a nation, would it be a virtuous means to use?

Unintended Consequences

I’ll get back to that. I have to make another pragmatic point first. No matter how bad a free society without virtue is, the alternative is always worse. Any time you try to accomplish some good by using the force of government, you have unintended consequences. Consider the housing bubble. Consider the impending burst of the school loan bubble. But to be more directly applicable, look to prohibition. I encourage everyone who is interested to watch the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition. It is well worth your time. It started because of the absolute moral degradation that was rampant as a result of alcoholism at the turn of the century. So well meaning and concerned citizens began campaigning to have it banned. When it was banned what was the result?

The economy suffered. People lost jobs. Restaurants could no longer profit. The projected increases in clothing and other sales did not come to pass. Those who truly wished to drink went underground or found loopholes in the Volstead Act. This resulted in an entire underground subculture of drinking in which the quality could not be controlled, leading to wood alcohol poisoning, and most importantly, the control of the supply of alcohol was now in the hands of criminals like Al Capone, men who were empowered by the legislation that was supposed to make the world better! How many Al Capones are running around these days because of the Drug War. We don’t even know. By legalizing drugs, we would pull their source of power right out from underneath them.

This again is a pragmatic argument. Point one is to say, this won’t work. Point two is to say, not only will this not work, it will make matters worse. However, virtue is not always measured by consequences. Pragmatism is not always virtuous. So is it virtuous to use force to promote virtue?

Bigotry, Plain and Simple

Not only is it impossible to use the government to change the virtues of people, and not only will attempting to do so make matters worse, it is the essence of bigotry even to try. The first two points are practical. This point is moral. It won’t work. It will make matters worse, and it’s offense, even immoral to try. Why is it immoral? Is there something wrong with the goal? Certainly not. There is nothing wrong with the goal, and I think this is the cord that keeps people tied to the theonomist ideal. They are drawn by the worthy goal of raising the level of virtue of our nation. But they fail to see that the problem lies not in the end, but in the means. And ends do not justify means. What’s wrong with the means? It’s manipulative, coercive, forceful and violent. None of these are characteristics that should be true of Christians or the church!

This point is the very reason why Christians are accused of bigotry. I do not deny that there is an element in the LGBT movement that indeed wants to make it immoral to even believe that homosexuality is wrong, but I believe that they are the minority. By and large, most of the movement simply says, “You can believe what you want to believe. Just leave me alone and stop trying to force your views on me.”

Most of the time when we hear this, we’re trying to be very non-confrontational in the way we speak. We think, “Man, these people are so sensitive and closed-minded. When have I ever tried to force my views on them?” When indeed? How about at the ballot box last November? Was your vote at least in part determined by who you thought would “defend the traditional family?” Then you were using your vote to support someone who wants to use the coercive power of the state to force value change on people who do not want it. That. Is. Bigotry.

Think of it in terms of the golden rule. Do you want someone to force their views on you? If we can try to wield this power for the sake of promoting Biblical values, certainly the progressives can try to wield it to promote humanist or environmentalist values. They can use it to force the ideas of tolerance upon us. So the answer must be to try to grab that power first so that we can use it and they can’t, right? Do unto others what you would have them do unto you! The answer is to dismantle that power structure altogether by placing common sense limits on what the government can and cannot use its power to do, so that it cannot be used to try to force values on other people. Yes, this means that we have to be more personal about our witness. Shouldn’t we be anyway?

You may respond to the question of whether you would want someone to force their values on you by saying that if they were a Christian and trying to edify you in Christ. This is missing the point. The key word here is force. Government is by definition an institute of force. Its activities are inherently violent. Would you want a brother to come and show you your fault with a revolver? Would you want him to bring a club? What about a police officer? Is this the method of edification the Bible prescribes? No, we are given the pattern of church discipline. You would expect that your brother would first have taken the log out of his own eye and then that he would come to you humbly and in love. You would expect him to reason with you and to show you Scripture and exhort you to do what is right. Force was never commanded by Christ.

When we legislate and relegate the duty of renouncing sin to the government we put it into the hands of an impersonal, cold, and harsh master whose only tool is coercive force. Thus it is categorically not an act of love to legislate morality. It is an act of hatred. It is bigotry.

Conclusion

If freedom requires virtue, what is the proper response when virtue is lacking? Is it to dismantle freedom and enslave people? No, the answer is to promote virtue in the Biblically prescribed ways. If this nation is to be judged it will be for hard hearts, not for external behavior, though the hard hearts will have plenty of fruit which will take the form of external behavior.

We must therefore commit ourselves to being virtuous people and being salt and light to those around us. We must be those ten righteous people who will stay God’s hand. We must be Jonahs, giving the gospel to our neighbors and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work.

We must renounce the disgraceful underhanded means of coercive force, which can only produce begrudging, outward compliance to a written standard, in favor of the open statement of the truth which is God’s ordained method of speaking to the heart.

Further Reading:

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