Give me Liberty?

Posted on August 29, 2011 at 11:20 am,

This is the latest in my series critiquing the arguments in Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today, we’re looking at his assertion that one of the main purposes of government should be to safeguard human liberty and freedom. This topic is the largest one in his section on the purposes of government, and is treated as if it is the primary purpose of government in many of the later chapters. This makes it key to an understanding of his political views (which are textbook Religious Right).

What are freedom and liberty?

Grudem uses the terms freedom and liberty fairly interchangeably, but doesn’t define them. Which is unfortunate, because this is a concept that means radically different things to different people. Fidel Castro and George W Bush both see themselves as men who have fought for freedom, but both men would consider the other man’s government to be tyrannical. So what does Grudem mean by the concept, and is his view coherent?

The first thing to notice is that Grudem appears to view liberty and freedom as an absolute concept, rather than a situational one. Or, to put it more simply, he thinks of freedom as a thing in itself. It isn’t just a collection of things you can do (freedom of speech) and/or a collection of things that can’t be done to you (freedom from persecution). It is, instead, the ability to choose for yourself what you do with every second of your time, every cent of your money, and every possession that you own (and that he implies that the proceeds of taxation rightfully belong to the taxpayer, rather than to the government).

The main problem I have with this approach to the idea of freedom is that individual freedoms are, in practice, often incompatible with each other. If my next-door neighbour exercises his freedom to have a wild party, then I may not be able to exercise my freedom to have a quiet night in. These freedoms cannot both be exercised at the same time, and Grudem’s treatment of the subject shows no awareness of that.

The Biblical Case

Grudem’s Biblical case begins with pointing out some Bible passages that oppose the idea of slavery, and celebrate freedom from oppression. He also cites Leviticus 25:10, which contains a proclamation of liberty for the year of jubilee. However, he omits to mention that the following verse (Leviticus 25:11) bans the Israelites from agricultural work during that year. In context, the verse is not talking about absolute liberty to do anything you like.

And that’s a real problem with the whole argument. Grudem interprets any verse that talks about a specific freedom to be supporting liberty in general. But freedom from (or for) one thing does not necessarily imply freedom from (or for) something else. If I endorse the freedom to hold whatever religious beliefs you like, that doesn’t necessarily imply that I also endorse the freedom to put all of those beliefs into practice, let alone the freedom to do something that is unrelated to those beliefs. And yet that’s exactly the kind of implication that Grudem draws from these passages.

Grudem’s other Biblical argument is to cite a number of verses that encourage individual choice. However, all of the verses he cites are encouraging people to choose to follow God, and therefore of very limited relevance to the question of the purpose of government. And one of them (Joshua 24:15) goes on to talk about the choices made by a household, suggesting that it is about a corporate choice, rather than an individual one (and there’s a case to be made that Deuteronomy 30:19, which he also cites is also talking about corporate choices).

Furthermore, Grudem ignores the Biblical arguments for restricting choice. A dozen pages earlier, he was arguing (as we covered on Monday) that anarchy was bad because a lack of government meant that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (i.e. choosing for themselves). He also doesn’t mention something else that we covered on Monday, that every human being being is a sinner. From a Christian/Biblical worldview, human nature is naturally inclined to make morally wrong choices. This doesn’t mean that every choice we make is morally wrong, merely that there is a human tendency towards doing the wrong thing.

In Grudem’s favour, yes, there are plenty Bible passages that speak positively of human beings having freedom to choose things for ourselves. But it certainly isn’t the big emphasis that he makes it out to be in this section and elsewhere in the book.

The Practical Case

Grudem does point out that there are a whole range of things that are good for a society that come from giving people freedom to make their own choices about a range of issues although, again, he doesn’t point out the other side of the coin. Whilst freedom allows some people to donate their time and resources to noble and charitable causes, it allows others to donate them to ignoble and destructive pursuits.

The other thing that Grudem ignores in his practical case is that – in a democratic society – the actions of government are (at least in theory) a result of the people exercising their freedom. Often a restriction on one particular freedom or liberty is done because the people value another more highly (for example, restrictions on car manufacturers may increase the freedom to breathe clean air). At other times, a democratic decision to restrict a freedom may not bring another freedom, but may instead be a collective decision to abstain from using the freedom in question.

Is regulation anti-liberty?

Grudem finishes this section by acknowledging that some restriction of human liberty is necessary, but claims that it should be restricted to the minimum amount necessary, and that it should not be used to restrict things that are morally neutral or morally good. He also argues that government regulation necessarily removes human liberty. Let’s look at that claim through using Grudem’s first example of this, a ban on shops providing customers with plastic bags:

it would force me to use paper bags. This deprives me of my liberty to choose which kind of bag I want. But I cannot carry nearly as many paper bags as plastic bags from the car to the house, because the paper bags break and tear more easily. Therefore, every trip to the grocery store will now require some additional trips between the car and the house, an incremental loss of human liberty for every citizen. The paper bags also take more storage room and don’t work as well for certain other tasks, so there is another small loss of liberty. Perhaps some people think this insignificant, and perhaps others think that there is an environmental benefit that comes from avoiding plastic bags, and that is worth the price of depriving the citizens a small amount of liberty in this way. I do not. But my point is simply to notice that my freedom to use my time as I wish has been eroded a bit, and no one seems to notice that this has happened.

The first thing to note is that this law would not, in fact, force you to use paper bags for your shopping. You would still be free to use bags made of plastic, cotton, hemp, or any other material, just as you were before. The specific example that Grudem refers to (the ban in San Francisco ) allows shops to offer recyclable paper bags, compostable plastic bags and reusable bags, and you would still have the option of using any other bags that you happen to own. The direct impact of this law would actually be to remove the freedom to let the shop (rather than you) make a particular decision about what bags you use.

The second thing to note is that such a law would gain you additional freedoms from its indirect effects. You would, for example, gain freedom from having plastic bags littering the local streets, If you lived near a wast incinerator, you would also gain freedom from breathing in the harmful particles that are emitted when plastic bags are burned. And that’s in addition to the environmental benefits that might come from reducing the number of disposable plastic bags being made.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Grudem seems unaware that some regulations can actually have the sole effect of increasing the amount of absolute freedom that individuals enjoy. For example, a regulation could increase the number of holiday/vacation days that employers have to give their employees. As an employee is under no obligation to use up all of their holiday, employees lose no freedoms, and would have an increased amount of time where they can make their own choices. Unless the increase in holiday days is very large, its impact on businesses would not cause a noticeable impact on the business’s customers, or a large one to its bottom line. In fact, an extra day’s rest might make employees work better, harder, and more productively, thus benefiting everybody.

So, to sum up, I’m not convinced of Grudem’s claim that protecting absolute freedom and liberty to choose everything we can for ourselves should be a main purpose of government (it certainly wasn’t a main purpose of the Roman Empire in which the New Testament was written). But that’s not to say that I don’t think government should promote individual freedoms and liberties wherever possible. One of the purposes of government that we’ve already covered is to promote the common good. And there’s plenty of reason to think that the vast majority of freedoms are good for society.

I also agree with Grudem that you need a good reason in order to justify restricting peoples’ liberties. The difference between us is that I don’t place such a high value on the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want, that a small personal inconvenience can override the common good.

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