I think a lot about politics these days. Call it a hazard of the times. 24/7 cable news, twitter feeds, blog posts. And it is November of a mid-term year. While I have my own biases, I am nothing if not open to learn, so, I keep asking, always interested in the conversation. At the latest installment of “Views and Brews,” a small group of church members and friends that meet at a local bar, the dialogue was genuine and one of the voices was new at the table.
While we always have a topic, we don’t always strictly adhere to it. The topic of a recent sermon was “income inequality,” so I opened the table to “solutions” to this problem – and opened the flood gates. The new voice identified as a Libertarian, and from that point the subject was “maximum freedom, minimum government.” The premise is simple, and persuasively enticing: an unregulated market frees individuals, energies flow, and everything is better for everyone. The least government is the best government.
So… what happens when someone is making a zillion dollars and someone else is starving? Well, my friend explained, the zillionaire will take care of him too.
This isn’t “redistribution of income” (an unpardonable sin for Libertarians), it’s just that out of the unregulated, unprompted, un-coerced goodness of his heart, zillionaires will always reach out to help a brother in need. We don’t need churches or governments, just individuals, free from their oppressive constraints.
Individuals, if they are truly free, will take care of themselves and, can always be counted on to take care of those in need. Basic human goodness will always trump greed and apathy and neglect.
I realized during this conversation why I’m not a Libertarian. I know I am over-generalizing the Libertarian position, but I’m not too concerned about that because my only interest, ever, is making theological distinctions, not political or economic ones.
So here’s my point… Libertarians believe in the power of the individual – as do I. I can’t imagine a more powerful endorsement of free, individual human beings than the biblical affirmation that we are created in God’s image. But the individual (along with our individual freedoms) is not the supreme value, topping all others. Individuals won’t provide the solutions to all our problems.
This may be the only theological position I hold that is completely orthodox! Karl Barth once noted that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine is sin – so, while I believe in the power of the individual, and the inherent worth of all people, intrinsically, I also believe, left to our own devices, we will think about the individual – good old “number one!”
That inherent selfishness is why we need one another. In some form or shape or size (issues worth arguing about), we need a community – neighborhood, church, government – some collective voice which can be counted on to call me out of the idolatry of individualism.
For the sake of argument, I try to envision a utopia of this Libertarian individualism: every individual, looking out for himself, has succeeded, and the few, unlucky, starving individuals have been taken care of, too. But even in that world, everyone happy and well-fed, everyone is still going it alone – which means something intrinsically human is missing. (So, could that actually be a utopia?)
Human beings need each other, which means community in its many, varying forms will always be necessary to us. We are a very long way from utopia, and we will need the Libertarian voice, among many others, to help us get there, but when we arrive, to be sure, we will only find it paradise if we have created it collectively.