A strange distortion of libertarian belief

Don’t let it be said that opposing views are not represented on M*.

A guest post right below mine makes several claims about libertarianism, using the tired Korihor example. There are several basic problems with this post that I would like to point out. This does not mean it is not worth printing – it just means it is poorly argued and comes to false conclusions. I am not sure who posted this guest post, but I have no problem with it being published. I simply disagree with it and will point out why.

I hope readers will keep in mind that there are many different kinds of libertarians. For the purpose of my response, I will mention three different kinds.

By far the largest, and most important and influential group, is what we may call “practical libertarians.” These are people who may describe themselves, like I do, as “libertarian-leaning” people. These are people who are generally fiscally conservative to socially liberal and/or moderate. These people may favor Ron Paul but they may also generally vote for fiscal conservatives and may even, like I do, admire Bill Clinton’s presidency because he lowered the national debt and cut spending.

This post has absolutely nothing to say to this largest group of libertarians because it is only concerned with very, very small ideological groups. So, the first strike against this post is that it does not understand what libertarianism is and isn’t. It is only concerned with the most extreme libertarians who have absolutely no real chance of ever seeing their ideas implemented in society.
The other, more extreme groups are what we could call “anarcho-capitalist” and “objectivist” libertarians. The first group are extreme libertarians who accept no government of any kind. The second group includes followers of Ayn Rand, who are generally pro-free market, selfish and atheist.

It should go without saying that Mormon libertarians are not atheists and therefore reject Ayn Rand objectivism, so the post is creating a massive straw man argument (“libertarians are selfish atheists”) that has nothing to do with reality.

I would like to point out that many of the leading libertarians today are religious people in their private lives. Just to name a few examples: Ron Paul, Tom Woods, Judge Andrew Napolitano, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek. Libertarianism is not anti-religion.

The writer’s first point is that communities should have the right to band together and set up community standards. He is correct. Libertarianism is about individual and community standards. The issue becomes: what happens when a community bands together to offend the natural rights of its citizens and visitors to the community?

Forcibly ousting Korihor from the community may make sense for a small 1st century BC town in the Americas. But would it make sense today? I think we should be able to agree that under the Constitution people have the right in the United States to preach atheism even though I may personally disagree with it. So my question for the writer would be: does he reject the First Amendment? Does he think the sheriffs of small towns should arrest atheists who come to town and start preaching from the town square? I would hope not.

We begin to see the absurdities of trying to trying to compare 1st Century BC towns to modern-day America, and these absurdities should have made the author immediately stop and reconsider his post, but unfortunately he went on.

The most important thing to consider about Korihor is that he is a “throw everything onto the wall and see what sticks” kind of atheist. He has no coherent philosophy. He just repeats anti-religious bromides, even if they directly contradict each other. So the only way the author of this post can try to turn Korihor into a libertarian is if he picks out at random small parts of Korihor’s philosophy and declares – aha! – that sounds like Ayn Rand!

We have already established that Rand’s objectivism represents a tiny minority of libertarians. But let’s consider the post’s quotation of Alma 30:17.

This is of course the quotation used by all Mormons haters of libertarianism and has been used multiple times before. But of course the haters only quote the last part of Alma 30:17 and ignore the rest of the discourse. Let’s look at the entire description of what Korihor says:

12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:
13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.
14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.
16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.
17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was cno crime.
18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

As any fair-minded reader can see, Korihor has a lot more to say than just one phrase. He says:
1)There will be no Christ. 2)Don’t follow vain traditions of your fathers. 3)Don’t expect Christ to come. 4)Don’t believe the prophets. 5)People who follow prophecies are crazy. 6)There will be no atonement. THEN Korihor says people should concentrate on things of this world, and he directly contradicts Christian teachings by saying people should be selfish and self-centered.

The reason? Because there is no afterlife and you may as well get whatever you can while you are alive.

So, what do Mormon libertarians preach? The exact opposite of this message.

Mormon libertarians say: There is a Christ. Believe in the traditions and scriptures. Christ will come again. Believe the prophets. Following the prophecies is sane. There has been an atonement and in your personal life and in the Church please, please, please help the poor as much as you can, pay your tithing and pay fast offerings. In the afterlife (which we believe in), you will receive blessings for doing so.

Libertarian Mormons simply believe, as Jesus did, that you cannot and should not force other people to do things. You should do these things yourself.

So, when you take Korihor’s teachings as a whole, Mormon libertarians believe the exact opposite of what Korihor believed.

This post has gone on long enough. I am glad that an opposing view was published, but I believe I have shown it is a violent distortion of what libertarian Mormons truly believe.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

15 thoughts on “A strange distortion of libertarian belief


  1. “To claim, as the libertarians do, that people do not possess the right to establish societal prohibitions and standards which serve as a means of protection in the face of wicked and evil machinations, is the same as saying they have no right to defend their just traditions and heritage and pass on those lessons and freedoms to their posterity.”

    I see Smith’s argument against Boyack’s brand of Libertarianism as more of an argument against the lack of societal prohibitions and standards, more than I do an assault on Boyack’s faith.

    In my mind, you have to be able to draw a line in the sand as it relates to prohibitions and standards. There appear to be inconsistencies, or rather perhaps liberty to an unacceptable extreme (my view) (e.g., speeding on any street is your right, regardless of how others feel about it) and seemingly a lack of support for any social moors or standards. For instance, is murder acceptable under his Libertarian doctrine, just like speeding and drugs would be?

    When I read the post, I did not see Smith calling Boyack or any other Libertarian Korihor. I think he used Korihor as an example of how liberty could be perverted.

  2. “Libertarian Mormons simply believe, as Jesus did, that you cannot and should not force other people to do things.”

    Some claim to have been hit by Heavenly Father over the head by a two-by-four, metaphorically I assume but evoking I also assume a feeling of pain inflicted by force. Or in the case of Alma the Younger, “repent or be destroyed” is the offer on the table. Some, including Elder Holland,use the Lord’s arm stretched out still as a symbol of His mercy, but it’s also pretty plain that His bared arm is a symbol of His might, which He will apply as needed. A year ago we did a family reading of Ezekial, and the boys didn’t take long to pick up that prophet’s rhythms: terrors and desolation coming to Israel paused every few to several verses to remind their purpose. “And they shall know . . .” I pause. “That I am the Lord,” my sons complete. Such scripture study will likely not produce people who will ever say, “I don’t think the Lord would ever punish anyone; He might just withhold a blessing sometimes.”

  3. John M, speaking to my own experience, nobody, including Heavenly Father *forced* me to be good. I very easily could have taken a different course. The result would have been more misery for myself. Apparently you seem to think this misery would have been imposed by Heavenly Father, when in fact it was the consequence of my own actions.

    You cannot force people to be good. They will suffer the consequences if they refuse to learn the lessons from their own bad actions, but the key point is that the Gospel plan gives them to freedom to decide on their own and hopefully learn from their experiences. Satan’s plan is to force people to be righteous. I hope we can agree that is not the solution.

  4. I agree with you, Geoff, that God doesn’t force anyone to be good. I think you can also agree that God does establish consequences for choosing NOT to be good.

    I think the morality shades when you start talking about what constitutes “force.” Believe it or not, it is not a clear-cut well-defined concept. Many people who want to do whatever they will without regard to others complain about consequences in terms of “force.” If I steal from someone and get put in jail, I’m being “forced” into jail.

    I have heard an appeal to “natural consequences,” as well, but the reality is that natural consequences are not always suffered by the perpetrator equal to the consequences OTHERS suffer.

    My personal philosophy (and I am, even yet, “libertarian leaning”) is that when others suffer a consequence by the actions of one, they should have a right to impose a consequence on the perpetrator.

    To take an easy example, I have heard many LDS libertarians argue for the legalization of marijuana. But smoking marijuana exposes others who do not choose to smoke to the drug, occasionally with dramatic consequences. So, in essence, arguing that marijuana should be legalized to allow others their right to destroy their bodies also carries the argument that my right to choose NOT to smoke is of lesser importance. Therefore, I believe that a society has every right to forbid marijuana smoking within their community. In this and similar stances, I see parallels between Korihor’s arguments and the arguments of Boyack’s following.

    So while I agree that there is some demonization going on in the other article, I also think there is some merit in considering the author’s point.

  5. SR, you wrote:

    “But smoking marijuana exposes others who do not choose to smoke to the drug, occasionally with dramatic consequences.”

    I am not sure what you mean by this. Do you mean other people have to smell the smoke or do you mean people who are stoned might get in a car and drive it and hurt somebody else? Perhaps you mean both. So, if that is the case presumably you would not have a problem with somebody buying marijuana and smoking it while watching TV and then going to sleep? In this case, it truly does hurt nobody but the poor schmuck who spends his evenings getting stoned, right? I am trying to understand your point.

  6. I agree with Geoff that such is a straw man. It is too often done in politics and religion to scare others away from considering the actual concepts. I am a practical Libertarian, what I call a Jeffersonian Republican. I do believe in community and government. That said, I also believe that the government that governs least, governs best. Statism is as much an enemy to the gospel as Ayn Rand libertarianism. Ayn Rand developed her hatred of religion in the Soviet Union, but saw the excesses of a totalitarian government, as well.
    I believe in God and in charity. However, I also believe that government is often inefficient, costly, and will grow out of control, if not watched closely. James Madison stated that federal government should be no more than 10% of all government, except in times of war. You’ll note that he was not against government (he is the Father of the Constitution), but instead wanted to confine it to only what government does best: protect people from one another, and to preserve our rights.
    Had we a small federal government, the Great Recession would not have occurred. Banks would not have had a promised bail out to protect them, so they would have loaned carefully. Government would not have inflated Fannie and Freddie, or push banks to make sub-prime loans. People would not have felt the government would bail them out, if they over-extended themselves. Government would not be making trillion dollar annual deficits. We would be in good shape.
    So there are evils in the extremes. Geoff Biddulph and I both agree on this. But most Libertarians are not extremists. They see the government as a giant totalitarian state, and we want to regain control of it and reduce it to a manageable level.

  7. Yes, either/or. I have heard the example used of the hypothetical person who smokes marijuana alone in their house, and it somehow never seeps out, he never entices anyone else, he never lives with non-consenting adults or children, he never makes impaired and harmful decisions, and he never smokes EXCEPT when he is alone. But how realistic is that?

    Debating over the specifics of this particular law is not what I’m trying to get at. I am trying to highlight a principle. Laws are rarely made unless someone has gotten hurt. Are all laws reasonable? Of course not. But rather than villify the principle of lawmaking, I find it laudable to acknowledge that some law is necessary.

    I have no problem discussing the finer details of law. But I take issue when people try to claim that law in general infringes on rights more than not having law.

    I, too, believe that government should be limited, that it should be minimalized. But I’m also smart enough to realize that there are a whole lot of opinions about what that really means. No one exists in a vacuum.

    But I have to admit to a bias; my spine stiffens whenever I hear certain libertarian party lines parroted, even when I largely agree with them, because I have rarely heard them argued with any balance. (Though I will add that you are one of those rare individuals.)

    I think that examining some of those party lines through the parallel of Korihor has value. There ARE some similarities. If those who trumpet the flawless perfection of Libertarian ideals were able to acknowledge and examine their own fallacies, rather than completely dismiss articles like the original out of hand, I think libertarianism would be more compelling. Instead, it comes off as the purview of the hopelessly idealistic at best.

  8. SR, that’s why I am a *practical libertarian.* It really does no good to go around arguing for legalizing heroin, just to use one example that libertarians often use. Heroin will not be legalized anytime soon, so on a practical basis, let’s legalize pot first (it is on the ballot in 3 states in 2012) and see how things go. If it is a complete disaster, then perhaps we should go back to prohibition. I predict it will not be a complete disaster, but let’s see. On a larger level, there are libertarians who argued that the Church should completely open its books because they “favor transparency,” completely forgetting that the Church is a private institution and there is a difference between public and private institutions. So, I would agree with you that we need to concentrate on practical issues. Just to name a few: smaller government, more respect for private property, more respect for personal liberty.

    My problem with the Korihor post is that it is fighting a battle with the Ayn Rand libertarians, when 1)no Mormons are Ayn Rand libertarians (remember she was an atheist) and 2)Ayn Rand libertarians are a very small subset of the actual world of libertarians. So, it is kind of like saying you are against Muslims when what you are really against is Muslim terrorists.

  9. By the way, I grew up in a California beach town, and I am very sad to report that I spent a lot of time around people smoking pot, and I think it is safe to say that the majority of pot-smokers are people who are at home watching TV and hanging out. Pot also makes you very sleepy. Based on my personal experience, I think it is safe to say that the majority of pot-smokers will not be getting in cars to drive when stoned, but if they are they should go to jail or lose their licenses, just like people who drink and drive.

  10. OK, so why was all that “faring according to the management of the creature” stuff stuck into the Korihor account? Just to add some color to an otherwise generic enemy of God? Or was it perhaps included as a warning against attitudes and philosophies that some of us could be susceptible to and need to guard against? Is the Book of Mormon tilting against strawman windmills?

  11. Yes, and we can see how well drink and drive laws are helping….

    I agree that no Mormons are atheists, but it doesn’t follow that no Mormons subscribe to Ayn Rand philosophy. I have heard more than one Boyack follower argue passionately some of the points raised in that post.

  12. John M and SR, as I said in the original post, you have to read the entire account in context. It seems pretty clear to me to me that Korihor is repeating the same thing that all prideful Nephites say during the BoM pride cycle, ie the rich deserve what they get and are better than other people because of their effort. He is also throwing in that time-honored atheist claim that the only thing that matters is what you do on Earth because there is no afterlife, so you might as well enjoy your money now. The Book of Mormon clearly warns against this philosophy and calls on people to personally give to others and to succor the poor and the afflicted.

    I cannot speak for all of Connor Boyack’s many friends, but Connor himself has written a book that is relevant to this issue. It is called “Latter-day Responsibility,” and I reviewed it on M*. In it, Connor calls on all Latter-day Saints to pay tithing and a generous fast offering and to make other contributions to worthy charities. This is also my personal philosophy.

    If some libertarian says he doesn’t believe in charity and the poor deserve what they get and people should be free to enjoy their wealth, then he is repeating Korihor’s philosophy and we should agree such a philosophy is evil. If, however, some libertarian says people *should give generously on their own and should contribute to charities* but that the government should not use the tax system for politicized and ineffective charity where the recipients do not actually get very much of the money, that person is adopting the opposite of Korihor’s philosophy. You may disagree and believe that the government is effective in redistributing wealth and helping the poor, but you cannot accuse a libertarian who encourages people to be generous of promoting selfishness.

  13. I actually don’t agree that the government is effective at redistributing wealth. But that isn’t the point I called out in my comment, either.

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