An Understanding of Libertarianism

No one person can say to have the entire knowledge of an ideology understood and synthesized such that he or she could definitively define what that ideology stands for. In any set of political principles there will always be debate about what those principles actually mean and even what those principles actually are. It is said that William F. Buckley Jr. did that for the Conservative Movement, and yet there are still folks like Irving Kristol, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson who could be considered contributors to the definition of “Conservative.” There are certainly figure heads who seem more worthy of praise and discipleship, but this does not ultimately define anything. It is merely a resemblance of a high school popularity contest. This is true of libertarianism.

I have been told that there are all sorts of libertarian ideals, from the contradictory Left libertarians to the more expected anarcho-capitalists. There is no doubt a wide range of clowns from which to pick in an attempt to hold that clown up as the epitome of libertarian. (“What is Aleppo?” comes to mind in this regard.) And, although I am ill equipped to flush out for you, dear readers, what each strand of libertarian stands for and why one strand is superior to the others, I do feel comfortable explaining to you why the particular group of self described libertarians I respect are deserving of yours as well. I will call this group Misesian Libertarians.

First, what, or rather who, are Misesian Libertarians? Simply put they reside in the anarcho-capitalist wing of the libertarian constellation and are the ideological followers of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. Mises is probably best revered by these folks for introducing what is called praxeology to the discipline of economics. As Murray Rothbard–among whom I place in the Misesian Libertarian wing–said, “Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals. This concept of action contrasts to purely reflexive, or knee-jerk, behavior, which is not directed toward goals.” I think an even simpler way to put this is that humans act out of each individual human’s own self interest, therefore; they are not going to act in ways that they deem against those self defined interests. There is a certain give and take when viewing society through this lens because one person’s self interest is another persons sin. Again Rothbard states, “Let us note that praxeology does not assume that a person’s choice of values or goals is wise or proper or that he has chosen the technologically correct method of reaching them. All that praxeology asserts is that the individual actor adopts goals and believes, whether erroneously or correctly, that he can arrive at them by the employment of certain means.”

The other part of Misesian Libertarianism is something called the non-aggression principle, which is simply that coercive force is not to be engaged in unless it is employed to repel the initial aggressor. If you think back to praxeology for a moment, the achievement of desires through the employment of certain ends would certainly open the door to rampant violence if not for the non-aggression principle. If my goals are to drive a fancy car and my means are to take the one sitting in your driveway, I have certainly acted in accordance with praxeology. However, my achievement will have been at the expense of your own personal desires, i.e., possessing the fancy car I stole. Therefore, my actions must be weighed against your reaction to them and this is what is said to govern society according to Misesian Libertarianism. If I am aware that my stealing your fancy car will be met with a preventive level of force from you, the owner, then I will have to consider other desires that I have against the desire to have a fancy car, mainly my life. You see, you will be free to use coercive force to stop me from stealing your property, and I will be free to decide that a fancy car is simply not worth it compared to my other desires. (I recognize that this is a philosophical depiction here and is subject to the forces of “reality,” and I will attempt to address that later.)

Second, what is the utopian vision of Misesian Libertarianism? You must recognize and be willing to admit that all ideologies are utopian, even you Conservatives are as utopian as the flakiest of flakes on the Left. However, being utopian does not by definition negate the benefits of the ideal society envisioned by adherents to the ideology as long as that utopian society is premised on liberty of the individual. There are no writers on which I can hang this defense of the utopian vision within the list of Misesian Libertarians; it is simply my own thought here. But I will build my case based on those greater minds’ defense of what you will call a utopian vision.

In my estimation, mankind is not programmed to live without some form of governing system over them. Whether the person preaching the wisdom of having a government is a Red Diapered Communist or Jesus Christ, the bottom line is that there is some form of system, some set of rules, instituted for the purposes of demanding society’s fidelity to those rules. For the Communist, the punishment for infidelity is the gulag or even a bullet in the back of the head. For Christ, the wages of sin are death. The same is true is Misesian Libertarianism. In such a society interactions between individuals are voluntary, infractions against an individual are subject to the laws of economics. In other words, the law and the enforcement mechanism for that law is value and cost. Society must have the mechanisms in place to ensure that one person’s desires are not satisfied at the expense of another person’s desires, as such, society must be able to extract a cost out of the individual who pursues his desires at the expense of the other individual. For Miseians, this can be achieved by such instruments as insurance, liability litigation (this would necessitate courts and an instrument to ensure payment if liable), good old fashioned common decency. It should not require a discussion to explain how common decency works. I understand it is wrong to steal and you understand it is wrong to steal, therefore, we do not steal from one another. The other two might need some discussion, but needless to say, Misesians have a ready made argument ready for those who think that, say, only the government can ensure protection or that only the government holds the solutions to those instances where individuals have a dispute about one another’s actions.

Now, moving out of the theoretical and into the practical, Misesian Libertarianism is without a doubt anarcho-capitalist to its core. Those adherents to this form of libertarianism do not think there is any need for any government structure in order for society to function. (Again aside from a type of court system, but even they argue that such a system could exist at the most local levels.) I do not subscribe fully to anarcho-capitalists but I do think there is much to be gained in trying to push current society in that direction. Simply put, I think anarcho-capitalism is the direction in which our system of government as ratified in 1787 was pointing us. That may not have been the explicit goal, but it certainly was the direction in which the arrow was pointing. Very specific, limited powers of the general government, affairs of the people governed at the level closest to them, are both traits that the Constitution possessed. Furthermore, the Articles of Confederation were a step closer to anarcho-capitalism in that there was zero power at the general level and the States could certainly govern themselves. The problem with anarcho-capitalism is that it fails to recognize the inherent desire in man to govern other men, hence there will always be some level of government. Some of the most die hard of “freedom lovers” on this site have no problem attempting to foist on others their own vision of society. Since government will exist, government must press up against the liberty minded and the strongest of those are the Misesian Libertarians. Achieving the goal of abolishing the State is not feasible, but at least the State will face stiff resistance if moved away from the direction in which it was pointed in 1787. So goes the theory anyway. This is the duty given to folks like Prof. Tom Woods, Prof. Robert Murphy, and all the others at the Mises Institute.

This explanation does not touch on specific issues like open borders or war or what have you, but I did not intend it to. I intended to attempt to explain what Libertarianism means to me with respect to probably the largest segment of the libertarian movement. It seems strange to me that the largest segment of the movement is the least understood by those who would seem to have a lot in common with them. We all want smaller government to some extent. We all want liberty. Hopefully this helps to inspire you to explore what is true and great in the liberty tradition.

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36 thoughts on “An Understanding of Libertarianism”

  1. I counted two strains of libertarians, anarcho-capitalist and Misesian libertarian. Who that are famous falls in these camps? (Did I miss a group?)

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  2. I don’t know. I find so many of these philosophies to be ways to avoid believing in God and his laws. I have many sympathies with the Misesian, Rothbardian, anarcho capitalists. Also those guys are some of the few, who you can have an actual interesting conversations with. However, the Moral law is stitched together into every human soul, but for man it is so difficult to submit our will to that of an invisible entity who claims kingship to the entire world. I’m exhausted by politics and focused on history which seems to be littered with people who think they have cracked the code to the best humanity can offer. But even with the best philosophy it’s a fallen world. Utopia is impossible. I don’t know. I’m so done with enlightenment principles and even republicanism. Democracy is a joke and a representative republic is like the lipstick on the democracy pig. With so much corruption and lack of accountability going on in much of the West I wonder, if the overthrow of  the monarchs  was just to plunder the treasure of the west.

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  3. Robert A. McReynolds:
    You must recognize and be willing to admit that all ideologies are utopian, even you Conservatives are as utopian as the flakiest of flakes on the Left.

    Would you explain this? Not all ideologies are utopian. Some have very limited goals and I feel are based in realism.

    I have been influenced by Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times” in which some of the most evil regimes were utopian. They killed people to bring about “paradise” .

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  4. 10 Cents:

    Robert A. McReynolds:
    You must recognize and be willing to admit that all ideologies are utopian, even you Conservatives are as utopian as the flakiest of flakes on the Left.

    Would you explain this? Not all ideologies are utopian. Some have very limited goals and I feel are based in realism.

    I have been influenced by Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times” in which some of the most evil regimes were utopian. They killed people to bring about “paradise” .

    I agree with this. Could be we are using the word differently. Fundamentally, I see conservatives in American as believing you cannot have utopia on this earth. Indeed, the idea there is a system that is best is unconsrvative. Actually, Godel proved it is impossible,  but that does not get in the way of utopian fantasies.

    I find the anarchist libertarians to be as fanciful as the true believers of communism. There is as unrealistic a belief in human beings in both utopian ideologies.

    My wife works in the permit office. What people in our high trust society are willing to do so each other if the government was not stopping them is amazing to me. We see what places without building codes have for buildings and yet you libertarians,  like college communists think this time it will be different.

    You Robert, personally advocate revolution.  That is what a sesession is. Almost never, in the history of the world, does revolution work out.

    Mate De is right. If our rights are not from God, there is no other grounding for them. Libertarians like to ignore the profound impact that the Christian values bring.

    I have found it ironic that the more I hear from libertarians hear and at Ricochet,  the less I like the ideology.

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  5. Okay, if you don’t think you ideology has a utopian vision then why do you advocate for a certain lifestyle? That is really all I am saying. It is that striving toward utopia that compels us to action in society because we think that our utopia is worth striving for and That it will benefit all. What separates me (at the least) from Leftists is the recognition that my utopian dream will never happen. But if society can be pushed toward that utopia—one where government is minimal and individual liberty is maximized—everyone is benefited.
    Lastly if Conservatives are not utopian, then what are you trying to conserve?

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  6. 10 Cents:
    Robert, are there any abbreviations for these group like Neo-Con and Soc-Con?

    How big are these groups?

    I am not sure. I only follow the Misesians. I understand that people like Noam Chomsky are considered Left Libertarian but I have no idea how big that group is. I also fail to see how one can be a Left Libertarian.

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  7. Mate De:
    I don’t know. I find so many of these philosophies to be ways to avoid believing in God and his laws. I have many sympathies with the Misesian, Rothbardian, anarcho capitalists. Also those guys are some of the few, who you can have an actual interesting conversations with. However, the Moral law is stitched together into every human soul, but for man it is so difficult to submit our will to that of an invisible entity who claims kingship to the entire world. I’m exhausted by politics and focused on history which seems to be littered with people who think they have cracked the code to the best humanity can offer. But even with the best philosophy it’s a fallen world. Utopia is impossible. I don’t know. I’m so done with enlightenment principles and even republicanism. Democracy is a joke and a representative republic is like the lipstick on the democracy pig. With so much corruption and lack of accountability going on in much of the West I wonder, if the overthrow of  the monarchs  was just to plunder the treasure of the west.

    Mate De I think this is a great comment. Interestingly even God knows that not all humans will make it into His kingdom. In a sense He recognizes that even Heaven is an unattainable utopia for many people. And you are absolutely correct about democracy, it really is no better than other systems. The problem is that we will live under some system in this world so we are better off in a system that points toward anarcho-capitalism than one that is much more dictatorial.

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  8. Robert A. McReynolds:
    Okay, if you don’t think you ideology has a utopian vision then why do you advocate for a certain lifestyle? That is really all I am saying. It is that striving toward utopia that compels us to action in society because we think that our utopia is worth striving for and That it will benefit all. What separates me (at the least) from Leftists is the recognition that my utopian dream will never happen. But if society can be pushed toward that utopia—one where government is minimal and individual liberty is maximized—everyone is benefited.
    Lastly if Conservatives are not utopian, then what are you trying to conserve?

    I find this a strange use of the word utopian. One can favor certain things without being an utopian.

     

    Robert, I don’t want to get into a debate about conservative positions. This post is to understand libertarian thought.

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  9. Dime the definition of utopian is benign in and of itself just as the definition of any word. Utopian is simply a desired world or reality, nothing more. Now the means by which one strives to bring such a reality into fruition can either be brutal or cooperative. You can coerce or you can negotiate.

    As far as libertarianism goes it simply seeks to achieve their utopian goal through volunteerism. Free exchanges and cooperation between individuals without interference from government.

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  10. Robert A. McReynolds:
    Dime the definition of utopian is benign in and of itself just as the definition of any word. Utopian is simply a desired world or reality, nothing more. Now the means by which one strives to bring such a reality into fruition can either be brutal or cooperative. You can coerce or you can negotiate.

    As far as libertarianism goes it simply seeks to achieve their utopian goal through volunteerism. Free exchanges and cooperation between individuals without interference from government.

    Robert, my dictionary has utopian defined more as an ideal, impractical, or impossible world/society.

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  11. Robert A. McReynolds:
    Utopian is simply a desired world or reality, nothing more.

    “Utopian” is used as a pejorative by those who don’t like an idea or the policies it implies.  Almost all theories of governance are aspirational: they describe a set of goals or principles toward which the society hopes to move, for example, economic prosperity, individual liberty, looting the workers to benefit the rulers, or enforcing complete obedience to authority.  All of these can be taken to impractical extremes, and authors of utopian and dystopian fiction illustrate them by sketching these extremes.

    Some of the worst horrors in history have been perpetrated by people who took utopian concepts too literally and tried to put them into practice “whatever the cost”.  The Soviets, for example, were going to make communism work despite its incompatibility with human nature by evolving a “New Soviet Man” regardless of how tall the pile of skulls grew in the process.

    Similarly, exercises in libertarian theory such as David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom (free PDF from the author’s Web site) are attempts to demonstrate that many of the functions for which people assume a powerful state is essential can, and in fact have, in history, been performed by consensual arrangements among free individuals.  That does not mean that everybody who calls themselves a libertarian believes in completely abolishing the state: most would be happy living in the governance model which existed in the United States between 1789 and 1912, guided by the Ten Commandments (equivalents of which exist in the overwhelming majority of religious and moral traditions over millennia) and the Bill of Rights, with the additional language and the end of each of the ten saying “and we really mean it!”

    It is not “utopian” to observe that almost everything the government does, apart from killing people, violating their human rights, and confiscating and squandering the fruits of their labour, it does incompetently.  In just about every case where an existing private service was taken over by government, it has degraded in quality and skyrocketed in cost.  And whenever private companies are allowed to compete with the monopoly government, despite barriers enforced by authority, they outperform it handily: consider UPS, DHL, and Federal Express.

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  12. 10 Cents:

    Robert A. McReynolds:
    Dime the definition of utopian is benign in and of itself just as the definition of any word. Utopian is simply a desired world or reality, nothing more. Now the means by which one strives to bring such a reality into fruition can either be brutal or cooperative. You can coerce or you can negotiate.

    As far as libertarianism goes it simply seeks to achieve their utopian goal through volunteerism. Free exchanges and cooperation between individuals without interference from government.

    Robert, my dictionary has utopian defined more as an ideal, impractical, or impossible world/society.

    Here is the dictionary.com definition:

    an imaginary island described in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) as enjoying perfection in law, politics, etc.
    (usually lowercasean ideal place or state.
    (usually lowercaseany visionary system of political or social perfection.

    I suppose one could see “impracticable” and “impossible” in the word “imaginary.” Which is fine. I am not saying anything different. However, I am taking the thought one step further and saying that it is not inherently bad to have “an ideal place or state.” We all have such a vision in our own mind’s eye. There is nothing wrong with having a theoretical ideal toward which we strive.

    The difference between us–meaning most people on this site–and folks like Marx or Hitler, etc., is that we understand that we can only strive toward our ideal. They meant to actually create their ideal. This creates a problem because one person’s ideal is another person’s Hell, so we each push and pull against one another.

    Picture it a different way. Suppose there are 20 people in the pilot house of a ship and they all want to go to some far away island for their own particular reasons. They all fight for control of the ship’s wheel so they can steer that ship toward where they wish to go. At some point, each one of the 20 will find that it is futile to attempt to be the sole driver of the ship, so they seek to convince at least 11 of the 20 to go their way or to agree that there is one place they can all agree. And whoever can make this arrangement with the other 10 (bringing our total to 11) will mostly achieve their goal of steering the ship toward the island they originally had in mind.

    That is what humanity is doing now. In the U.S. we on this site have a particular island in mind. We aren’t all going to want to go to the exact same island, but we know there is an island out there that would make us all happy. AND that agreed to island is close to the other islands that we individually have in mind. We each have our utopia, we each recognize that no one individual is going to steer the ship to that utopia, so we decide to band together to reach a compromise utopia if you will.

    The key to what I am saying is that each of us must recognize that we all have our own utopian vision. The utopia is the target on which we aim. The closer to bull’s eye we get, the happier we end up being. When you refuse to admit to having a utopian desire, you prevent yourself from cooperating with those who you are more closely aligned and end up doing the other side’s bidding. I don’t think Misesians can achieve any metric of their goals without having the cooperation of Conservatives and I know damned well that Conservatives will not achieve any of their goals without Misesians.

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  13. Also, while I am thinking about it, here is a list of secessions that have actually been pretty beneficial to humanity:

    1) The Jews leaving Egypt

    2) England leaving the authority of the Pope

    3) Greece leaving the despotic Ottoman Empire

    4) India leaving the British Empire (oh you anglo-philes might not like the break up of the Kingdom, but the Indians were pleased.)

    5) Uh, how about the 13 colonies leaving the British Empire (Yes, hate to break it to you, but this was an act of secession.)

    6) The former Soviet Republics (I want to see you Reaganites twist your way out of that example.)

    Georgia is following the lead of the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in making a unilateral claim to restoration of a state of independence that was forcibly ended by Soviet military power, rather than pursue the formal, drawn-out secession process theoretically permitted under the Soviet Constitution.

    7) Here is another one that I am sure the Lincolnites will love, West Virginia leaving greater Virginia in 1863.

    8) How about Texas leaving the Mexican Empire?

    Oh I can hear the bemoaning now, “that’s not secession!!!” Well whip out your dictionaries and behold:

    secede

    verb (used without object), se·ced·ed, se·ced·ing.

    to withdraw formally from an alliance, federation, or association, as from a political union, a religious organization, etc.

    Now let’s look at some political consolidation that has been a detriment to vast swaths of humanity. The Ottoman Empire, The U.S. post-Civil War, Germany, the Soviet Union. In just those last two, some 40 million people were killed at the hands of the state and I am not estimating the numbers as a result of WWII. That is just the people killed by the state for “crimes against the state.”

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  14. 10 Cents:
    I used this dictionary. 

    Yeah, like I said there really is no difference in what you and I are using as a definition. It’s ideal, nothing more. It’s like when I was a kid playing high school football and I had in my locker a poster of Charles Haley (he played defensive end as did I). Now, I knew I was never going to be Charles Haley–he’s a Hall of Famer–but it was a goal to strive for.

    Here’s another one: Jesus Christ is the example toward which all Christians are charged with striving. We are never going to be perfect as He was, but it is important to strive for that perfection. So is it wrong to strive toward an end that you know you will never achieve if that striving proves to be a benefit to you and those around you?

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  15. Ideology:  desire ignoring fact.  Join the Daily Struggle! versus independent personal accomplishment.  IQs within committees add like ohms in parallel resistors.

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  16. I encountered a fellow who said “if you know what you are doing, you can explain it with a swizzle stick and a cocktail napkin.  He studied how electrons  transferred  between metal ions.  See?  Simple.  No dialectic.

    1983 Nobel Prize/Chemistry all to himself, Henry Taube, in part because grad student Creutz accidentally left a machine running when she went to lunch, returning to a puddle of graph paper and the Creutz-Taube ion.   See?  Simple.

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  17. Uncle Al:
    I encountered a fellow who said “if you know what you are doing, you can explain it with a swizzle stick and a cocktail napkin.  He studied how electrons  transferred  between metal ions.  See?  Simple.  No dialectic.

    1983 Nobel Prize/Chemistry all to himself, Henry Taube, in part because grad student Creutz accidentally left a machine running when she went to lunch, returning to a puddle of graph paper and the Creutz-Taube ion.   See?  Simple.

    Sorry but I think some things require a thorough explanation. Unless one is speaking to fellow travelers or sycophants, there will always be a need to wade into the details of a complex topic. Cliches don’t really do it for me.

    Brevity is the soul of wit, If you are explaining, you are losing, blah blah blah.

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  18. I have always viewed Utopia or Utopian as perfection. Something impossible on this earth. This is why I have never seen myself as Utopian. I see my destination as good but flawed.

    The left believes in the perfectibility of man. Thus , Utopian.

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  19. Robert A. McReynolds:

    10 Cents:
    I used this dictionary. 

    Yeah, like I said there really is no difference in what you and I are using as a definition. It’s ideal, nothing more. It’s like when I was a kid playing high school football and I had in my locker a poster of Charles Haley (he played defensive end as did I). Now, I knew I was never going to be Charles Haley–he’s a Hall of Famer–but it was a goal to strive for.

    Here’s another one: Jesus Christ is the example toward which all Christians are charged with striving. We are never going to be perfect as He was, but it is important to strive for that perfection. So is it wrong to strive toward an end that you know you will never achieve if that striving proves to be a benefit to you and those around you?

    I spent some time writing a reply about utopian and set it aside only to find this and John’s post covered my points… better than I could have communicated.

    I hope the Conservative ideology has a state of perfection it is targeting.  Not having a perfect state may seem realistic, but you will lack the direction to develop plans, sell ideas, and be proactive.  These sound familiar with regard to Conservative ideology?

    Robert A. McReynolds:
    The difference between us–meaning most people on this site–and folks like Marx or Hitler, etc., is that we understand that we can only strive toward our ideal.

    I agree, but there is another aspect not exclusive too Marxists.  The desire to force others to do as you want.  It applies to interpersonal relationships, your local community, large societies and governments at every level.  Libertarian ideology acknowledges that this is not only wrong, but does not work.

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  20. I see things on a continuum. On the far end there is informing. On the other end there is coercion. In the middle there are various levels of persuasion.

    I think people long for structure and I have seen that the must successful people have structure in their lives. I think throughout history that structure was not from government except in the extreme cases. Recently Big Brother/Sister wants to mandate almost everything. And make innocuous things illegal. I think this is what libertarians are fighting against.

    They say the road is paved to hell with good intentions. I say it isn’t paved it is one big under construction project.

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  21. Mate De:
    I don’t know. I find so many of these philosophies to be ways to avoid believing in God and his laws.

    Here’s a gentle introduction to Christian Libertarianism.

    Mark 12: 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

    But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

    “Caesar’s,” they replied.

    17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

    And they were amazed at him.

    We don’t have to agree with theological conclusions some people come to in order to find common ground in pushing against the overreach of tyranny.

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  22. Robert A. McReynolds:
    As far as libertarianism goes it simply seeks to achieve their utopian goal through volunteerism. Free exchanges and cooperation between individuals without interference from government.

    Indeed.

    And in Christian Libertarianism sometimes that free exchange and cooperation comes about because we have become bondslaves of Christ.

    Thankfully even my most militantly atheistic libertarian friends accept our common positions even if they think I’m weird when I, for example, gather with other friends and we ceremonially drink the blood and eat the flesh of our God who died and came back to life.

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