Friday, May 11, 2007

judaism and libertarianism

In his book “Libertarianism: A Primer”, David Boaz writes (p.27) that the first libertarian may have been the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (6th century BCE), author of Tao Te Ching, who advised, “ Without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony”. When I read that line I immediately thought of the contrast to Pirkei Avot, where we are advised to pray for the welfare of the government because without its protection men would eat each other alive, i.e. anarchy would prevail. Of course, one line in Pirkei Avot is not necessarily the full picture of Judaism's outlook on libertarianism, but interesting nonetheless.


  1. On the other hand, al tisvada la-rashus. May God bless and keep the Czar, true, but may He keep him far away from us where his laws don't impinge on our freedom to live as Jews.

    I've recently heard different opinions on our outlook towards the promulgation of laws in our secular country - for example, the debate on abortion. On the one hand, one can say that we should support significant restrictions against abortion as would follow according to the sheva mitzvos. On the other, if we strengthen the anti-abortion camp too much, American law may end up more machmir than halacha, thereby creating difficulty in situations of piku'ach nefesh.

    Hence, the ambivalence: Would we rather have strong and enforced laws, or would we rather have the flexibility to make our own laws?

    (The same could probably be said about a religious government in premessianic Israel that may not recognize kulos that some authorities consider to be acceptable.)

  2. kishnevi4:07 PM

    There are at least, strong tensions between libertarianism and Torah. The premise of libertarianism is that government can only do two things legitimately: protect from aggression by criminals and foreign entities, and provide a legal framework in which private disputes can be worked out. A libertarian bet din, even if it were correctly constituted to try criminal matters, would therefore not enforce any halacha relating to private conduct. Adultery and breaking Shabbat and similar transgressions, since they don't directly injure other people, would be "left to the hands of Heaven". A libertarian would also challenge such things as tithing and the sabbatical year as unwarrantable intrusion on the free market. (Libertarians of the modern era idolize the free market, to the point of approving obviously unethical conduct and disapproving of most charitable work.) They also tend to deny the truth of Pirkei Avot's observation. Taken to its logical conclusion, the emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom would also challenge the role of the rav as posek and bearer of daat Torah. A Conservative or Reform Jew, of course, might not see this as a problem :)

    I've flirted with libertarianism for a number of years--it fits my secular political views very well--but I see too many gray areas to say that it fits comfortable with the Torah. There are various versions, including those who think that government is unnecessary. The version most compataible with the Torah is usually referred as minarchism.
    Of the more extreme versions, the best that can be said of them is they would need a complete change in human nature--the abolition of the yetzer hara--to actually work. Therefore, the libertarian vision could only be put into practice when the Messiah, may he come soon, is here: and of course, in the Messianic era, we won't need a government.

  3. But I do believe there is a difference is assumption of human behavior between libertarinism and anarchism. Those of the latter believe that ungoverned humans are good, and that all evil is to be blamed on the government. I guess your next book should be on Anarchy. ;-)

    1. 1. Anarchism (at least Free Market Anarchism) is a form of libertarianism. 2. Libertarians (minarchists and Anarchists alike) disagree on the topic of human nature. 3. As an anarchist, we don't say that all evil is to be blamed on the government, we recognize that there are murders, rapists, ect outside of government. What we do say is that by establishing a monopoly on violence, one creates something new for evil men to fight over and the force of government mostly attracts evil men who lusts for power. We also note that it is through this monopoly, that allows evil people to commit the most evil the world over.

      To put it another way: ALL the evils of anrchy conjured up by the Statists are purely conjectural. ALL the evils of Statism OCCURRED int he 20th century at least 5 times.

      To sum up, Jefferson wrote, "If men were angels, there would be no need for government>" I respond with "If men are devils, you dare not have one."

  4. Interesting, so those who see a contradiction between libertarianism and Judaism must, I guess, believe that:

    "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves."

    No,wait, that was some other religion, wasn't it?

  5. note the ambiguity in the 'midah' of 'sheli sheli ve-shelcha shelcha'