Andrew Sullivan posts this under the apt heading of “Incomprehensible Christianism Watch.”

The tagline: “If you don't matter to God, then you don't matter to anyone.”
As it happens, I matter to my Grandma. So, by modus tollens, I matter to God. Good news. But WTF?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

41 thoughts

  1. Will,
    What state actions do you approve of that go beyond what traditional libertarians would sanction?
    What do you think the state should do to combat emotional or social coercion?

  2. Gil,
    (1) Who are the “traditional libertarians”?
    (2) Mostly, enforcing positive rights to development and education for children. (Most libertarian theory is completely useless in recognizing that the capacity to exercise liberty must be developed, and that this implies things about the rights of children.) Otherwise, It depends a lot on history and the capacity of the state to apply policy effectively. I favor the Civil Rights Act and some labor market “equal opportunity” regulations, which I think have been enormously effective in shifting social norms in a net liberty-enhancing way.

    1. (1) The ones who claim the state should limit its actions to defending against force and fraud (including property rights).
      (2) I assume that this doesn’t require public schools. And, how much education do children have a positive right to? And, does this positive right imply that the state must subsidize education, or just that parents must provide it (like food)?
      I would like to see a lot of norm-shifting towards more children’s rights and respect, but I’m wary of starting down the slope of trying to legislate them.
      How would the Wilkinsonian Constitution describe what coercive norm-shifting tasks the state could/should engage in?
      I’m sure that many coercive projects (e.g. the War on Drugs) have proponents who argue that they would shift social norms in a net liberty-enhancing way. What are the criteria for expected effectiveness? Is it ok with you, institutionally, as long as it’s popular enough to get politicians elected?

  3. fyi, this sort of justification for libertarianism is the right way to bring liberals (in the common usage) over to your side. At least thats what makes you writing for more agreeable for me. In the last few months my thinking has shifted in your direction (though there are other causes too). So as a political (to say nothing of philosophical) strategy you’re definitely on the right track.
    Of course if all these people want to kick you out of libertarianism for writing this I’m not sure a liberal-libertarian entente is very promising.

    1. Jack,
      The left-libertarian project has two components: speaking to the left (that’s you) and speaking to the libertarians who do not already consider themselves left-libertarians (they are the people who want to kick Will out of libertarianism). The first component often seems easier than the second, surprisingly enough.

  4. I’m glad Will finally gave some real-life examples of how Wilitarianism would play out in actual policy. But where do you draw the line? What practices should be outlawed and which should simply be condemned? Unfortunately a lot of laws which “help” me as a female employee would hurt me as a female entrepreneur. I’m guessing Will is OK with laws against sexual harassment in the work place. But I think he’d be horrified at how these laws have slowly oozed into the private sphere; at the last seminar I was subjected to in California, we were told that our sexual behavior outside of the workplace could be considered harassment if a subordinate saw it and was upset by it. Needless to say, myself and every gay guy in the room were dying. So if you’re part of the antisocial coercion crowd, be very careful about how you make good on your beliefs.

  5. Fantastic post. I thought about replying to Seavey’s latest, but finally realized I was too frustrated by how obtuse he was being to come up with anything worth reading.

  6. BTW, Will, did I already ask you what you think of ‘republican’ ‘non-domination’ views of liberty? When I reread Constitution of Liberty last year, I was really quite surprised by how much Hayek seemed to be within that tradition …

  7. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Do you really think that by locking my door I am coercing against anybody? Without any connection to my door I don’t see how that is. If I had locked them inside a room you would have a point. Without such a connection to my door nobody has any libertarian grounds to object to my locking it. Switching the subject to sexism, if I am an employer it is my business who I decide to engage in labor contracts with. I am not obligated to hire anybody. If Alfalfa is president of the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club it is his prerogative to choose to associate with some and not others and there are no libertarian grounds for anyone to complain that he is using invalid means of determining that and demand that he associate with someone he has chosen not to. This is why most libertarians say we have negative but not positive rights. I however write in The Myth of Natural Rights that nobody possesses any moral rights at all.

    1. TGGP,
      I’m not sure I entirely agree with the argument, but if I were to make a libertarian argument that by locking a door you can coerce someone, I would mention the encirclement problem and the common law solution of easements:

      Suppose that the states owns all the land along the border. Then we have the same situation as one in which one person buys all the land surroundig another person’s property, thus keeping them prisoner (if they were on it at the time) or keeping them away from their proeprty (if they were off it). Since you can’t legitimately use your property in a way that interfere’s with the liberty and property of others, you are obligated to provide an easement.

  8. Will writes, “there is no good argument that justifies state coercion in the protection of property, but not state coercion in the pursuit of other aims similarly congenial to the commonweal.”
    I think that’s the crux of the disagreement here, and as far as I can tell the burden is not on Will to justify his position (accept perhaps to show why these other things count as “coercion”), but on those who accept coercion to protect property rights, but reject it in other potentially liberty-maximizing areas. I agree there are other types of coercion beyond physical aggression, but I found myself initially agreeing with Tim and disagreeing with Will.
    I haven’t properly thought this through, but could there be a distinction based on the coercion necessary to protect property, and the coercion necessary to protect the “other aims”? After all, protection of several property seems to fall into the Hayekian category of “rules of just conduct of universal application.” And though property law certainly has its share of disputes, the state apparatus doesn’t need to possess an incredible amount of knowledge to protect property: we just need to know who owns what. Plus, protection of property is a general rule that allows for “all to use their knowledge for their own purposes.”
    On the other hand, to protect against “emotional or social threats,” the state would require vastly more knowledge. Will cites the Civil Rights Act (CRA) as one example of the state protecting against what he rightly perceives as liberty-limiting “emotional or social threats.” The CRA likely has achieved most of its objectives, and by all accounts Will is right: that legislation has contributed to “shifting social norms in a net liberty-enhancing way.”
    But such legislation seems to be the very kind of thing Hayek had in mind when he wrote that:
    “… when we decide each issue solely on what appears to be its individual merits, we always overestimate the advantages of central direction. Our choice will regularly appear to be one between a certain known and tangible gain and the mere probability of the prevention of some unknown beneficial action by unknown persons. If the choice between freedom and coercion is thus treated as a matter of expediency, freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance. As in the particular instance we hardly ever know what would be the consequences of allowing people to make their own choice, to make the decision in each instance depending only on the foreseeable particular results must lead to the progressive destruction of freedom. There are probably few restrictions on freedom which could not be justified on the ground that we do not know the particular loss it will cause.”
    In other words, if we allow the state to tinker around the edges of society to correct every perceived “emotional or social threat,” in the long run the outcome will be net liberty-reducing (even if we can point to some that are net liberty-enhancing). As a result of that observation, Hayek wrote that “freedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages …”
    So the distinction between protection of property and the protection against “emotional or social threats” is that the former is a general principle that allows for freewheeling social evolution, and the latter requires social engineering toward particular ends, which would in the long run be freedom-reducing.
    All in all, then, I think we can recognize that there are “emotional or social threats” that are meaningfully coercive, while still maintaining that the state is ill-equipped to deal with them (or that, if it deals with them we will be worse off).
    I can already think of half a dozen arguments against this position, but I just wanted to keep the conversation going with a potential distinction for the central question.
    Thanks to Will and everyone for this interesting conversation. Surely this merits a “Cato Unbound” or a “Free Will” episode.
    Incidentally, readers may find this article useful:
    And all my Hayek quotes came from this one:

    1. Will, thanks for this–you often explain my views better than I do.
      Greg N: I think you have explained, rather precisely, why I am politically a libertarian even though I’m very open to the idea of positive rights in theory. In theory, if we could promote human flourishing (for some definition of flourishing) through intrusions on people’s liberty, that would be good. In practice, we’re more likely to muck it up than not; we compensate for the “oh, sure, we can fix that” bias by creating an institutional bias in the opposite direction.
      If we allow the state to intervene only when there is clear and overwhelming evidence that the intervention will, in fact, definitely make things better, we should get a pretty decent ratio of successes to failures. But this criterion is far, far more state-limiting than what we’re working with now.

  9. Will, thank you so much for saving me the trouble of finishing the post I started the other day. Expanding what you said in somewhat fewer words:
    Coercion is not only physical. (Friedman–with his single/narrow-minded focus on physical coercion–had me repeatedly banging the spoon on the highchair recently as I re-read Capitalism and Freedom.)
    Coercion occurs even absent an (identifiable) individual or institutional coercer.
    There is situational coercion. A worker in a town where the jobs have disappeared is coerced into moving away from loved ones.
    (It’s true that the ultimate coercion may be physical–the laid-off worker faces physical eviction–but most situational coercion is some steps removed from the physical. The sheriff’s deputy is not the significant coercer–the economic situation is.)
    Every economic/social/political system–including economic libertarianism–creates situational coercion. (When that coercion is positive, we call it incentive.)
    Every tax and spending policy–including one with a libertarian bent–is social engineering.
    “If people do better in a system that…[blah de blah blah]…that is justified coercion.”
    If people do better…
    We’re reduced to utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number.
    “that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man,”
    If that liberty includes the realistic situational opportunity to rise above one’s parents’ station, it’s quite clear from available post-war data that progressive economic policies are far more effective than libertarian in securing those blessings of liberty:
    (This without even citing Bartels–who, I should say, you and Manzi only manage to snipe at, not seriously refute.)

  10. I’ve never read such unclear writing. Perhaps because libertarianism is so clear in comparison.
    “These libertarians are also notoriously guilty of pretending that their favorite kinds of coercion aren’t. “

  11. If he’d repeated the word “coercion” at the end would it have really made that much difference in clarity?
    I don’t think it’s unclear. But, it has a style and a character that makes you do a little more work than usual, sometimes. There’s usually enough of a payoff to make it worth it, though.

  12. Will, when you say you favor the Civil Rights Act, do you mean you also support the parts of the Act that outlaw discrimination by private companies?
    Since then, anti-discrimination laws have been interpreted to cover even many private clubs. Do you think that is justified?
    Continuing on the theme of anti-discrimination laws, how do you feel about cases like this or this where there seems to be a conflict between a right to choose who to live with (presumably a more fundamental liberty than the right to employ anyone of your choice) and anti-discrimination laws?
    What do you think about hate-speech laws (the kind that exists in Canada and much of Europe)? For instance, would you agree with this decision?
    (Sorry for asking so many questions: I am trying to get a more concrete feel about where exactly you differ with standard libertarian views as far as policy prescriptions are concerned)

  13. Will,
    Aren’t there some ways in which social coercion is desirable and necessary?
    How about ostracizing racists, or social exclusion as a punishment for bullying ?
    There are many ways in which societal pressure may feel coercive. But that shouldn’t mean all taboos and social stigmas are wrong and should be eliminated (particularly through legislation). There’s a role for shaming people into good behavior, and it’s much nicer to do it that way than legislating them into good behavior.
    At some point, people can decide to resist social pressure and do what they want anyway. Which is what legitimizes social pressure as a non-coercive means of affecting social policy; that you CAN choose to resist it, but that other members of society have a right to impose that pressure when it is in their interest. People can choose not to associate with you if they believe something you are doing is wrong, and you have to be willing to make the sacrifice to accept that other members of society maybe aren’t going to accept you.
    This is a bit like the political correctness debate. There’s a lot of social pressure on college campuses to conform to a particular code of conduct, in order to relieve others of social pressures (I.e. gays, racial minorities). But at some point, conformity becomes coercion. So we end up arbitrating between which social group is pressuring which other group and what the right degress and kinds of social coercion are acceptable.
    Isn’t it better to stay out of it altogether, and accept that part of life, and part of attaining freedom, for onself, is going to be resisting the pressures imposed upon you by peers, family, and society at large? I’ve always felt that one must “overcome” those kinds of things (at the very lest) in order to be truly free.
    That allows us the possibility of affecting social change through non-statist mechanisms (peer pressure), while also permitting all members of society the freedom to choose to resist that pressure. Which makes social evolution ever more truly a matter of persuasion rather than force. We can’t forsee what is the “correct” social norm, but we can allow various norms to do combat in a field of battle unregulated by state intervention.

  14. I’m surprised that the name “Mill” has only come up once here. It should be unsurprising that political libertarians, who’d like to forcefully abolish systems of political control, are frequently (what could be called) social libertarians, who’d like to apply strong counterpressure to systems of social control.
    To be sure, in political discussions, political libertarians often set aside social matters. But that’s because they think political means are inappropriate for the achievement of social goals. Maybe right-wing libertarians in 20th century America have tended to see social matters as unimportant, but the main historical streams of libertarianism are not like that.

  15. You could still matter to someone but not matter to God.
    The statement doesn’t admit any valid inferences about the class of people who DO matter to someone. It’s conceivable that no one matters to God, for just one possibility.
    Also, (I think) this video seems comprehensible, although I believe it says something I don’t agree with: If we were all atheists, then you’d be shot by random kids, because There Is No Morality Without God.

  16. What sense is that?
    To me, it’s saying:
    If you’re stupid enough to think this is a compelling argument, then we want you on our mailing list.

  17. So there’s a couple billion Christians or something. One of them makes a silly youtube video and this is suppose to say what about Christianity? If we make judgments about groups using the actions of their craziest member, none of them would look very sane.
    Ron Paul anyone?
    If your point was to find crazy videos on youtube, then you could do a much better job.
    BTW, from the GSS, those that have strong beliefs about God (believers or atheists) are less likely to have self reported mental illness. Those that take the bible literally report about a quarter less mental illness than those that think the bible is “a book of fables”.

    1. Note the difference between the word “Christianity” and “Christianism” (or for that matter “Christian” and “Christianist”). If we switch religions, we’re looking at “Islam” vs. “Islamism” and “Muslim” vs. “Islamist”.
      Also, given the AiG logo, I would say that this video was produced by a prominent group of Christianists, not a lone Christianist.

  18. So there’s a couple billion Christians or something. One of them makes a silly youtube video and this is suppose to say what about Christianity?
    In my experience, the formulation “there is no real morality without God” (or something very close to it) is a pretty widely-held conviction among Christians, especially those of the evangelical variety. No?

  19. No one has mentioned the gun yet. What? “If you don’t matter to God, you should just die, and we’ll get a rugged 14-year-old blonde boy to shoot you with a pistol?”

    1. It’s not murder if it’s in the name of God.
      (Need I add sarcasm quotes here?)

  20. Two assumptions based on that video:
    1) Humans do not matter by themselves, and that it is God who gives us our inherent value. Therefore atheists or people outside the Christian faith have no value.
    2) There is no morality outside of God.
    As for number 1, if people outside of the faith do not matter to God, then the coming of Jesus Christ as described in the Bible was unnecessary. Had sinners and outsiders not mattered, God would not have felt the need to save them. Second, if a Chrisitian does not care about the outsiders in some form of fashion, he/she is simply ignoring one of the most important teachings of JC.
    As for number two, there are no statistics out there that I am aware of (credible ones, of course) that prove a higher rate of crimes in the atheist population than in the religious population.

      1. I’m still learning, friend. Give me some room or either respond with your own better arguments.

      2. Also, it wasn’t an argument against the Christian worldview. It was an argument against the argument that “If you don’t matter to God, you don’t matter to anyone.” Not mattering to anyone isn’t a fault on the godless, it’s the fault of Christians for not caring for that person.

  21. Will, Will, don’t be silly. You can’t use logic in arguing about god.
    Try this one on:
    If god exists, then the rules of logic and nature do not apply to god’s actions.
    Now apply modus tollens.

Comments are closed.