Thursday, May 1, 2014

“Watch My Baby Starve to Death”

One objection to anarchist libertarianism runs like this: Suppose someone puts his baby in a window with a sign on it: “Watch my baby starve to death.” It’s plain that he intends to leave the baby there in plain view until it dies. Because the killer is the baby’s father and libertarianism’s core principle, the non-aggression principle, forbids me to violate others’ property, if he refuses to allow me on his property or to change his mind about killing the baby, I cannot use force to save the baby. Therefore libertarianism is morally bankrupt and needs to cede legitimacy to the state.
This objection fits in with God’s command that we intervene when we see injustice being done: “Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to death; don't stand back and let them die. Don't try to avoid responsibility by saying you didn't know about it. For God knows all hearts, and he sees you. He keeps watch over your soul, and he knows you knew! And he will judge all people according to what they have done.” (Prov 24:11).
I would like to argue here that the objection to libertarianism is validly made only by Christians and that it is only through biblical morality that it can be overcome, however imperfectly.
To begin with, I don’t see how an atheist can object to the killing of that baby on grounds other than empathy: “I wouldn’t want that to happen to me.” (For the same reason, I don’t see how an atheist libertarian can speak of the non-aggression principle as anything other than a survival strategy.) I see no difference between a man leaving his child to die in a window and a herd of animals leaving the weak among them to the elements and predators. We see malice in such a person that we don’t see in the animals, but as malice is unique to humans, it has no more moral component does than the venom that is the key to the rattlesnake’s survival. If we are no more than cousins to the rattlesnake, just as it has to do what it has to do to survive, so do humans. Someone who would starve his baby might be stupid—harming himself by harming another, squandering the precious resource of human life—but again, an atheist can truly object to that only on a pragmatic basis: it is wrong the same way a mouse being killed taking the cheese in a mousetrap is wrong.
(This is not to say that no atheist cares about morality or meaning—it is a sign of the sickness of today’s US evangelicalism that so many atheists object to “collateral damage” and the War on Drugs, both of which kill innocents as surely as the father in our example, while evangelicals defend those atrocities in the name of Jesus—only that I see no way for them to derive their concern from their worldview; they need to borrow ours to make their case.)
Only the existence of a good god (lowercase will be intentional whenever it appears) who can call things either good or evil enables moral judgment to have any weight. A god who is not good can back up his decrees with power, and if he calls something good it is good even if it is evil, but that does not make what is evil good. Only and always when a good god calls something good is it necessarily good.
Here the question arises, How do we know that the God of the Bible is good? The answer is that if he is not good, there is no way of determining good and evil; we end up where we are if there is no god at all. To believe in good and evil is eventually to presuppose the existence of a god who is good, of whose nature good is an integral part. As the smorgasbord of gods included only one good, self-existent god —the God of the Bible and those like Allah derived from him—before people began to doubt the existence of any gods at all, I find it reasonable to say that either there is no god at all or the god who exists is the God of the Bible.
I see no way of avoiding circular reasoning here: We infer the existence of God because life has no meaning unless good and evil are real. We then use that inference as the presupposition to all the rest: we presuppose God and therefore infer that life has meaning. Circular reasoning is unsatisfactory, but the alternative is that life–including the unsatisfactory nature of circular reasoning–is meaningless. At best, God exists and life has meaning. At worst, circular reasoning is sometimes emotionally or intellectually unsatisfying.
So now we return to the baby in the window. We can infer from God’s command that parents raise their children to know God (Prov 22:6) that they are to provide to their children the sustenance needed for that child’s physical life. Not to do so is a sin against God; because God exists, our objection can move beyond pragmatics to morals: we can state that the father’s actions are evil.
Now the question becomes this: Do we have here a case of “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay,” in which case we shrug and walk away, or does he authorize us to intervene forcefully to save the life of the baby? Can we violate the father’s property and patriarchy to prevent sin the way the Hebrew midwives violated truth and disobeyed Pharaoh’s decree to prevent him from murdering babies?
If Romans 13 is the linchpin of social organization, the Christian answer is to convince the powers that be, ordained of God, to intervene by taking custody of the baby by using whatever force is necessary. If the powers that be refuse to intervene, the Christian has no further recourse: “Those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow” (Rom 13:2). If Christian soldiers are guiltless when, “just following orders,” they stuff naked Jews into gas chambers, then all Christians are similarly guiltless when, “just following orders,” they obey the decree of the powers that be and allow a father to starve his baby to death.
If instead “do for others what you would like them to do for you” is indeed “a summary of all that is taught in the law and the prophets,” then it would seem that that and “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do not follow the crowd in doing evil” trump Romans 13 and not the other way around. If that is the case, given that “the powers that be” cannot “be” without first violating others and their property, there should be no “powers that be” to convince to violate the father’s property by force. So then what do we do?
Contrary to popular belief, free-market anarchism does not do away with civil government; it merely removes the element of coercive participation from it. Instead of being taxed to pay hefty salaries to policemen who extract even more wealth by writing tickets and caging people for activities that have harmed no one, people pay for protection the same way they pay for potato chips: to agencies who offer the proper balance of benefits and costs. Further, such agencies, unlike coercion-based governments, which exist and operate on the principle that might makes right, would be subject to market forces: those who don’t like how they’re treated would be able to stop paying less-satisfactory agencies and start paying agencies more to their liking: (“Fifteen minutes can save you fifteen percent on car insurance!”). There are still “powers that be,” ordained of God; they “be” by the godly means of providing better service, not by the ungodly means of winning wars of conquest or elections.
One of the first things I and most other Christians would look for in such a protection agency would be assurance that fellow clients would not be permitted to kill their babies. So if a fellow client of my security agency were to attempt to kill his baby publicly, he would be subject to a clause in the contract that allowed the agency either to use whatever force was necessary to rescue the baby or to terminate the contract, treat him as an outlaw, and then, at least by implication, allow those who chose to rescue the baby at their own risk to do so.
If the father were the member of no agency at all, he would be an outlaw, and again, those who were willing to take upon themselves the risks and responsibilities of their actions—assuming that the would-be saviors’ agency would take no responsibility upon itself—would be free to do what they could to rescue the baby.
If he were a member of another agency, chances are there would be in place a memorandum of understanding that would enable the saviors’ agency to negotiate with the father’s agency and get it to intervene. It is true that if the other agency refused to intervene, the baby would die, but the would-be saviors would then be no worse off than they would be under a Romans 13 system if the “powers that be” refused to intervene.
“Any government powerful enough to give you everything you want is also powerful enough to take away everything you love.” If the government can step in to rescue a baby from being starved to death, what stops it from stepping in to keep that baby from consuming unpasteurized milk or potato chips or the Bible? Only a system of voluntary protective agencies allows clients to choose the level of interference that that agency will exercise on their own lives.
Free-market anarchism will not bring in the Millennium: only Jesus can do that. A corrupt people will live in a hellish society, whether under a might-makes-right government or in a love-your-neighbor anarchy. But to the degree that the process is good—and respecting others and their property is good, certainly better than might makes right—the product will be good.
So while libertarianism per se has no principled way of preventing the baby in the window from being starved to death—and atheist libertarians have no principled reason for doing so—Christian morality, whether as such or borrowed by unbelievers, provides not only the rationale but the mechanism. Further, trumping “might makes right” with “let’s make a deal” increases the likelihood that the baby’s life will be saved without the monster of all-powerful, intrusive government being unleashed.

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