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On Being Pagan and Libertarian

What does religion have to do with a particular political party? Not much. Political parties are fluid, and politicians are more interested in power than in a particular moral stance. Reagan gave a nod to fundamentalist Christians, and they leapt to align themselves with the Republican party. But now the GOP is getting pressure from many of its members to change its stance on marriage. What will these Christians do then?

My fellow blogger here at Witches and Pagans, Gus DiZerega, would have us be convinced that being Pagan is quite incompatible with being Libertarian. I’m not convinced. Gus spent many years being a Libertarian and has offered considerable philosophic reading in his links. But ultimately, I didn’t come to my interest in Libetarianism through philosophy and scholarly study, but through politics and economics.* My interest in Libertarianism is that it is all about getting government to be smaller and less intrusive. This means fewer laws, and a trust that the market will be better for humans and Nature than will government. Since Gus brought it up, I started thinking more deeply about what spiritual values might underlie our political choices (if any). From there I considered the connections between compassion and responsibility, and personal happiness.

An argument can be good and valid on one level, without reaching deep enough to touch our core values. A great deal of political discourse falls into this category. A dictionary definition of “politic” says: shrewd or prudent in practical matters; tactful; diplomatic, or contrived in a shrewd and practical way; expedient. Spiritual values should certainly not be "expedient," and certainly not "contrived."

In using a petty dispute over noisy neighbors as an example of the need for more laws, Mr. DiZerega says, “These relationships have to be defined, and can change over time and with respect to what can be owned.” A politic answer would be to make laws defining when and where, and exactly how much noise will be allowed to be produced. A spiritual answer might be to draw on the virtues of patience and compassion. Or one might draw on the virtue of courage and ask the neighbor to turn it down. One might seek the longer term answer, and engage in the virtue of industry to get a new place to live, or find the inner peace to wait it out until offending persons are no longer in residence.

Relying on laws means we are less likely to cultivate these virtues. Why bother when we have someone else to do the work? Laws are shallow, and only regulate behavior if the people involved respect the idea of a civil society. Without that respect, laws are meaningless. Too many laws, or laws that attempt to regulate morality, mean that laws get ignored, and the general respect for the law itself is reduced. The war on drugs is an excellent example.

And who better to define those relationships than the people involved? Isn’t that what adults do?

John Stossel says:

There are only two ways to get people to do things: force or persuasion. Government is brute force. If you doubt that, try ignoring your tax bill or some [government agency] rule. Men with guns will soon appear to force you to into obedience. By contrast, the private sector— whether nonprofit or greedy business— must work through persuasion and consent. No matter how rich Bill Gates gets, he cannot force us to buy his software.

Government control is the ultimate power over.**

Stossel makes the argument that we drift towards more government control because we are not that long out of tribal living. We are hierarchical beings by nature, and respond positively to the idea that the “Tribal chief” will give a fair accounting. And according to David Rock (see book list), our brains are set up to give us a big hit of unpleasant feelings if we think something is not fair. The trick to fairness is what you believe about how the system works. If you think the system is rigged, then getting as much as possible for as little effort as possible is reasonable. But if you believe hard work will get you the results you want, then industry becomes a virtue. While it is challenging to change it, we have a choice about what we believe. So the question becomes, what kind of person do you want to be, because as Pagans, we are adept at changing.

Mr diZerga’s example of the inability to leave a job with a nasty employer removes all responsibility from the employee, and assumes no other jobs are available. (Which, if you are in a government managed economy is probably true.) But the less a government manages an economy, the more jobs are available, and the more choices people have. If the economy is active, then our beleaguered employee could even start her own business. And expecting people to be responsible for themselves is not mutually exclusive with compassion, love, harmony and kindness. In fact, there is considerable overlap. If we really want others to be happy, then holding the expectation that they will be successful and giving them room to do it, is the most loving thing we can do. In The Road to Freedom, Arthur Brooks describes the emotional effect of working hard at job situation they have found or created:

The Founders knew that the role of a moral government is to create the conditions of liberty and opportunity so that each of us can define success as we see fit and then work with all our might to attain it. Their visionary insight was that allowing us to earn our success is precisely what gives each of us the best chance at achieving real happiness. Modern evidence shows that the Founders were absolutely correct. The General Social Survey reveals that people who say they feel “very successful” or “completely successful” in their work lives are twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives than people who feel “somewhat successful.” And it doesn’t matter if they earn more or less income; the differences persist.

Lets return to the idea of government as the ultimate expression of power over. I’ve had more than one conversation with people who seem to think that if only there were a law, then everyone – especially children - would be safe, the land would be cleaner, we would all be healthier, and things would just be better. There is, within this belief, the naive assumption of the wise tribal leader. But government is not a kind older brother. Government is Big Brother. And it is worth considering that the worst environmental disasters in the history of the planet were caused by big government making big plans to make the world “better.” And, unlike privately owned companies, governments don’t make much - or any - effort to clean them up. They don’t have to, because, unlike privately owned companies, they have no one to answer to.

The death of the Aral sea and Chernobyl are the two best examples. In the first case, the Aral Sea was nothing but a resource to exploit, and the destruction, starvation and poisoning of the communities supported by the sea was just a bonus, as it meant fewer mouths to feed. Chernobyl was built by government planning; built so poorly that it had no containment, and a design that was doomed to fail. The government did not even confess to the explosion for two whole days, and didn’t bother to evacuate the local city until well after the Swedes discovered the elevated radiation.

In 1979, a Mexican government-owned oil well blew up, and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. The total spill was 3 million barrels of oil. The Mexican government shelled out 10 million for clean up, and declined to supply further compensation because they claimed sovereign immunity. By comparison, Deepwater Horizon spilled 4.9 million barrels and BP has paid out 7 billion, with more in reserve. You do the math. It is also worth noting that the latter spill would have been easier and quicker to clean up if it had not been required by our government officials to be in such deep water. ***

And after looking at how the government of Japan dictated how and where nuclear plants were to be built, I will also lay Fukashima at the feet of big government.

I call myself a Libertarian because I cannot condone what governments do to either human self-determination and happiness, or to the environment. In this moment, no other party has any interest in shrinking government, or government control of our lives. Governments like to grow, and ours has done so almost continuously since Herbert Hoover. No, this does not conflict with my Pagan values.

*Economics in One Lesson by Harry Hazlitt
The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal by Robert P. Muphy
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism by Kevin D. Williamson
Why We Hate the Oil Companies by John Hofmeister
Power Hungry by Robert Bryce
Your Brain at Work by David Rock
The Road to Freedom by Arthur C. Brooks

**Which hypothetically means that anarchy is the ultimate power from within. I won’t argue that because this type of self rule hasn’t happened (yet) because it goes against our biology.

***The USA is the only country in the world that has privately owned oil companies, although there is still extensive government control over the industry

Last modified on
Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.


  • Editor B
    Editor B Tuesday, 16 April 2013

    Have you explored the distinction between anarchism and libertarianism? My primary problem with libertarianism is that it seems like "anarchy for the rich." Libertarians I've encountered seem to be critical of the State while giving Capital a free pass. I agree Big Government is a Big Problem, but so is Big Business.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Tuesday, 16 April 2013

    I don't have a fundamental objection to people being rich. I live in one of the richest states in the country, and my family is a great example of "a rising tide lifts all boats." My husband works for rich people and brings home all sorts of things we can use. We redid our entire kitchen for $5000 because we used cabinets and counters that were recycled. We buy used cars, and if people hung on to them and didn't buy new ones, we would not have them. (as it is, the used car market prices have gone up in this unimpressive economy)

    I agree that Big Business is a problem. But it is mostly a problem because it is wrapped up in government, and this is why we don't have a free market. I write a great deal about food, and favor small, local producers, which aligns with my values. These poor folks have to jump through some pretty absurd hoops in order to get their products to the consumer. I recommend Joel Salatin's Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, and Folks, This Ain't Normal for an overview of these problems. Big business colludes with government to create laws that are easy for BIG business and ridiculous for small business. I disagree with John Stossel in that I don't see how corporations are people. The "collective" argument is weak. But we are a LONG way from changing that. Right now I'd just like to see the government shrink a bit.

  • D. R. Bartlette
    D. R. Bartlette Friday, 03 May 2013

    I'm sorry, but I don't see how Big Business being a problem is caused by them being "wrapped up in government." I understand that your perspective is different than mine, living in a place where the rich and their enterprises have helped you. My perspective is quite different - I live in a "right to work" state, Arkansas, which is dominated by Big Business (ever heard of the Waltons or the Tysons?). The government we have is entirely beholden to the wealthy, so that the rights of the people - including the right to clean water - are routinely trampled upon by Big Business' right to make a profit.
    Big Government can indeed be one very clear expression of Power Over, that is true. However, that is why our government was designed to be democratic, so that the power (over) could be controlled, checked, and directed by the people it serves. If we don't like what the government does, we are supposedly able to exercise our rights to change it. Unfortunately, with all branches of the government bought and paid for by Big Business (which is just as much a source of Power Over), our voice in government has been shut out.
    The answer to too much government intrusion in our lives (which is something I think we both agree on) isn't to shrink government into something small enough to be "drowned in a bathtub." That leaves a power vacuum that Big Business - an extremely un-democratic power structure - would happily step into. The answer is to limit the power of Big Business so that our power can once again be exercised.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Sunday, 05 May 2013

    I would support a constitutional amendment that stated that corporation are not people. That would be all corporations, including non profits and unions. Mr Stossel and I part ways on that one.

  • Holli Emore
    Holli Emore Wednesday, 17 April 2013

    Bravo, Selina! As you know, I do not agree with many of the opinions you express here. But I very much support both your right to express your ideas, and the value of them to our shared public discourse. No one party or any kind of group has every answer. Not only that, but your views challenge me to reflect on my own with fresh eyes. Thank you for having the courage to speak your truth.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 17 April 2013

    Agreed 100%. Getting the government off our backs and out of our pockets should be a goal of every freedom loving human being. Government is not the answer to the problem. Government is the problem.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Wednesday, 17 April 2013

    I maintain that the only political issue that truly applies across the multitude of Pagan faiths is religious freedom. One can find Pagans on both sides of just about every other issue from abortion to gun control to foreign policy, but the freedom to actually be a Pagan is one that all Pagans can support. As such, libertarianism, which proposes a maximum of freedom, including religious freedom, is certainly a valid choice for any Pagan or Heathen.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Friday, 03 May 2013

    It is not "BIG" that makes government and business bad. In a nation of over 300 million people and almost 4 million square miles the few government employees of President Washington could not even make a known presence in most of the nation. Nor could a "mom and pop" store produce enough food or other products for the people. It is the level of intrusion into the lives of people who's ancestors were free men that is what's wrong with government. When that intrusive over controlling government makes a mess out of businesses they get messed up too. The government has a million miles of roads and highways to maintain. The government has thousands of miles of coastline and borders to defend. They have to be "BIG" to do even the limited functions of government. They do not have to and should not legislate away our FREEDOM or Liberty.

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