Is YHWH Incompatible with Libertarian Theory?

By Todd Lewis

The goal of this essay is to not prove the existence of God, but show that the most literal reading and understanding of YHWH in the Old Testament is not contrary to libertarianism. Before I can show this I need to first define terms. Libertarian in this essay is understood as voluntarism and based on the non-aggression axiom. Given that some skeptics for the sake of argument suppose God existed, then claim that if such a God existed he would be immoral based on their specific ethical system, I will attempt to meet them on their own terms. Throughout this essay I will assume YHWH’s existence for the sake of argument. Therefore I will pick the most literal and hence difficult view of YHWH in the Old Testament, because any view of God less objectionable to skeptics will already have been answered, if the most objectionable position can be defended. The skeptics I have in mind are not communistic or socialistic skeptics, but ones who believe in Lockean property rights anarchism (Rothbardians) and statists (Randians) since both agree to some of Locke’s principles of self-ownership. The basic gist of the argument will be that if one takes property rights seriously and then applies them to YHWH, a property rights theorist cannot criticize YHWH from this ethical system without running the risk of manifesting the same objections to property a communist does.

Let us look at the nature of ownership. One may lawfully acquire ownership of a thing by 1) mixing one’s labor with it (i.e. homesteading); 2) purchasing in a mutually agreeable transaction; or 3) receiving it as a gift. It is commonly agreed by libertarian property rights theorists (LPRT for short) that one has exclusive or unlimited ownership over that item. For example, if Tom built a widget he could: use it, let it collect dust in the attic, sell it, give it away or destroy it. All ownership accrued by the three aforementioned lawful means of acquisition fall under this application. Rothbard makes one exception to this rule, children. He claims in Man, Economy, and the State, that: “On the other hand, the property of the parents in this unique case is not exclusive; the parents may not injure the children at will.” This form of limited ownership could be conceived of as a fourth means of ownership yet a limited one. A child cannot be ‘owned’ in the sense that he was the product of his parent’s homesteading otherwise he would be their slave forever. Rothbard believes that this limited ownership is limited because the child is a potential self owner.

LPRT’s also agree that when one owns property one has exclusive right to its use. One can refuse another person’s entry on it, but one can also invite others on. The owner of the property has the right to give any rule he likes on his property as long as it does not violate the non-aggression axiom.[1] One could then require any rules, whose obedience is a prerequisite for use of his property, no matter how strange to the outside observer. Rothbard also has another caveat for children. Rothbard believes that abortion is permissible because the fetus is trespasser on the mother’s property, i.e. womb. She then has the right to expel the fetus by violent means if necessary.

Based on property rights LRPT’s tend to agree that one cannot be forced to give aid to another in need. If one does it is according to Walter Block supererogatory (found in his lecture on Abortion in Radical Libertarianism), but no one can force another to help a drowsing person and would be within the accepted rights of libertarian morality to not do so.

Given that I have laid out the basic principles of libertarian thought based on a Rothbardian model, how does this apply to YHWH? The skeptic often points to three things: 1) the problem of evil, 2) YHWH’s commanded killings in the Old Testament and 3) God’s claims on man.

Before I get into resolving the objections of the skeptic, I must first show that any rights inherit in man are also in YHWH. All rights flow out of the right of self-ownership and YHWH is a self-owner. Rothbard defines a self-owner as (find source) one who makes rational, goal-oriented decisions. If we take Rothbard’s definition then YHWH is a self-owner to whom all the rights of property apply, since he makes rational goal-oriented decisions.

The first problem to be dealt with will be the problem of evil which, as far as  Rothbardian theory is concerned, is no problem at all. For if I as an individual have no necessary duty to help a drowning, man then God also has no obligation to help or protect a person afflicted with a terminal disease or a village about to be demolished by a tsunami. The first horn of this dilemma is YHWH’s omnipotence, i.e. he is not. Yet this does not mean God is not all-powerful –  could save them, but chooses not to; similarly because Block’s bystander, from the aforementioned lecture, does not save the drowning man does not mean that man is powerless to help him; if such an action does not impugn the morality of the bystander then neither does it with YHWH. The other horn of the dilemma is that in not doing so He is immoral, but according to a Rothbardian ethic He is not, for then so would all men who do not save people when they could. Yet this only answers the problem of natural evil and evil by men. What about the perceived evil of say the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Before that question can be answered I need to show YHWH is owner of the universe.

To answer the above question let me restate the lawful means of property acquisition. One may lawfully acquire ownership of a thing by 1) mixing one’s labor with it (i.e. homesteading); 2) purchasing it in a mutually agreeable transaction; or 3) receiving it as a gift.  Since YHWH was all of existence prior to creation, points 2 and 3 are irrelevant; thereby leaving only option 1. Even option 1 has to be qualified. Given the orthodox view of YHWH He did not create the universe from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing by his own power. We could say He just used his labor mixing it with nothing, since nothing other than Himself existed. In praxeological terms of Aristotle’s four causes: Material, Efficient, Formal and Final. YHWH essentially used the Efficient, Formal and Final. He created a previously non-existent material cause. Given that YHWH made the universe and all that is in it, what power does he lawfully have over it?

Given that Rothbard claimed an owner has exclusive power over his product then YHWH has exclusive ownership over the universe. This means He owns the earth and all that is in it, outerspace and all that is in it. If this is the case, then He can create, use or destroy anything he likes, including man. Man is to YHWH as the widget, in the aforementioned example, is to the man.

The skeptic might also object and say that this might hold for all non-rational life, i.e. rocks, plants and animals, but man is a self-owner or at least a potential self-owner. Therefore, according to Rothbard YWHW does not have exclusive ownership over man. Even if I were to grant this it would entail that YWHW had some ownership over the universe, a concession the skeptic might not want to make and which weakens his overall position.

Yet, this objection can be answered in one of two ways: 1) appeal to abortion and 2) appeal to contract breach.

Firstly, as stated above Rothbard believes that a fetus’ life can be terminated, since it is a trespasser, but does not permit this to action to be taken toward a child. One sees that fetus is totally dependent on his mother. The only space it can live in is his mother’s womb and outside of it will die, if unaided. Man in the universe is similar to a fetus in the womb[2]. YWHW through lawful homesteading owns all the space that exists and therefore by His good pleasure allows people to live on it. Man cannot live anywhere that YHWH has not created since such a place does not exist, and man can lawfully be terminated since he is a trespasser in relation to YHWH. One cannot deny YHWH the right of terminating life on his own property without also denying the woman her right to terminate a fetus, or for that matter any adult killing another adult from trespass, if the trespasser refuses to leave.

The skeptic might appeal to Rothbard’s view that one’s will is inalienable. A self-owner, according to Rothbard has an inalienable will[3]. This means a man cannot be compelled to do something. If I sign a contract or enter into marriage I cannot be forced to submit to the contract if I choose to voluntary leave it. Thus the contract with YHWH can be broken and YHWH cannot force me to keep it. This objection cannot hold, for if we suppose YHWH exists then man’s will cannot be inalienable, but only YHWH’s.

The problem is that man stands in relation to God as a widget to its crafter. Even if, for the sake of argument I concede the point it still proves nothing for even if I choose to break the law of God, i.e. leave the contractual relation, I am still a trespasser on His land regardless, since there is no non-YHWH created land to live on. The real problem with Rothbard’s ethics is that he assumes implicitly that God does not exist for he renders to man the absolute rights of ownership that would, if YHWH existed, only adhere in him. Man’s absolute self-ownership cannot stand vis-a-vie YHWH. Man cannot own himself because he is owned by YHWH in virtue of YHWH creating him (remember the widget), but vis-a-vie his fellow man such claims could be applicable. So in assuming the hypothetical existence of YHWH one has to radically rethink Rothbard’s ethics, but these self-same ethics must be applied to YHWH as a rational goal-oriented mind.

Secondly, as we have seen someone can demand any sort of commitment, as long as one does not violate the non-aggression axiom, upon the property user. If we take YHWH’s covenant with Adam and Eve he told them that if they disobeyed his laws they would die, and they agreed.

When man broke those laws he became a rebel, i.e. a trespasser on YHWH’s property. Therefore all persons who inhabit the universe and do not obey YHWH’s laws are trespassers and can be terminated if they refuse to obey.[4]

A skeptic might say that the contract between YHWH and Adam and Eve is not binding on me. From a Rothbardian perspective it is true[5], but a distinction without a difference; the skeptic is still a non-compliant trespasser on YHWH’s property. So for example YHWH in destroying Sodom and Gomorrah or commanding Joshua to kill every beast, man, woman, and child in Canaan are perfectly ethical acts. The animals as YHWH’s creation can be destroyed under His exclusive rights over them; the men and women and children based on their status as non-compliant trespassers[6]. Also the fact that God did not save this or that city from an avalanche, or this or that woman from a rapist, or this or that child from an abusive family no more impugn his ethical statues than does Block’s bystander not doing these things either. Yet given that in scripture YHWH does, at times, save those in need, when under a Rothbardian ethic is not obligated to do so, He is thus a supererogatory actor.

With regards to the moral law a skeptic might say that man cannot keep the law of YHWH by himself, if we assume the Christian view of sin. Yet the inability to do a thing does not remove guilt from the aggrieving actor. A fetus cannot ‘choose’ to stop trespassing, just as man cannot be perfect without God.

Also as one can see in the Old Testament YHWH gives Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaanites, even Israel and Judah many centuries to repent and cease to be trespassers, something He is not required to do by Rothbardian ethics. In fact by Rothbardian ethics YHWH could lawfully kill all non-christians since they are non-compliant trespassers. The fact that He does not makes Him, under a Rothbardian ethic, a supererogatory moral actor.

Any and all of these rights I have shown YHWH to possess are only the same a Rothbardian claims mere men have. Therefore any attempt at denying these rights to YHWH and impugning his right to do so is merely a form of communism. In fact if one attacks YHWH’s actions from a property rights perspective, then one must allow the Marxist a right to do so against mere human property. Thus I have shown that according to Rothbardian ethics even the most literal interpretation of the Old Testament and the actions of YHWH declaimed therein are in accord with Rothbardian ethics.


[1] For example one cannot allow a person on his own property under the pretext that he will not kill the man and then suddenly re-negotiate the contract and kill him.

[2] The key point here is that Rothbard views trespassing as not merely the relation that one is unlawfully on another’s property and can leave, but even if one is unlawfully on one’s property and cannot leave, i.e. a fetus cannot chose by his own power to leave the womb.

[3] Found in Man, Economy and the State pg 164.

[4] The option to leave does not exist since all space that exists was created by YHWH.

[5] For according to Spooner in his No Treason: the Constitution of No Authority Pt I, he claims: “It is plain, in the first place, that this language, AS AN AGREEMENT, purports to be only what it at most really was, viz., a contract between the people then existing; and, of necessity, binding, as a contract, only upon those then existing. In the second place, the language neither expresses nor implies that they had any right or power, to bind their “posterity” to live under it.”

[6] I could also argue that YWHW has exclusive rights over men due to his creation of them, but for the sake of brevity I will take this less sever stance on mans subjection to God as concession in the argument.

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