My friend Jordan Ballor takes the occasion of this conversation at the American Enterprise Institute to revisit a question he (and we) have canvassed before. His answer, which I find attractive, if not altogether satisfying, is that libertarian political philosophy can be regarded as conservative, but a libertarian Weltanschauung (worldview, for you trendy evangelicals out there) cannot. The former, he says, treats liberty as the highest political goal, while the latter apotheosizes liberty altogether.
Permit me two quibbles with this formulation. First, I’m not so sure that the distinction between political philosophy and worldview is as self-evident as Ballor believes. It presupposes a limit on the claims of politics, which (John Rawls to the contrary notwithstanding) can only be accomplished on the basis of a comprehensive reflection on the human good. Such reflection has typically been undertaken by people I’d call political philosophers.
Now, Ballor (I suspect) would offer a biblical response to this claim, attempting to vindicate his distinction between a merely political (and rational) understanding of human communal life and a religious understanding that subordinates those natural considerations to supernatural ends. (Am I right? I’ll look for a response on Facebook or over at PowerBlog. But not on Twitter.)
I’ll anticipate his response by posing the following question: would the first adjective that comes to mind when describing St. Augustine’s political philosophy be “libertarian”?
My second quibble has to do with the place of liberty as our highest political good. Would not justice, to the extent that it can be promoted by finite, fallen, and fallible beings, come closer to the highest political good (as described by almost every political philosopher)? Liberty might be one of the answers to the question 0f what we deserve in this world, but focusing on justice has the advantage of situating us in a community as bearers of rights and responsibilities and of compelling us to reflect substantively on what the human good is. With these considerations in mind, it would be much easier to draw a line between liberty as a limited political good and the wilfulness too often associated with the “libertarian worldview.”