What is Voluntaryism, and how does Christianity have anything to do with it?
Auberon Herbert coined the term in the 1800’s, and it’s simply stated as “a philosophy which holds that all forms of human association should be voluntary.” That sounds easy enough, but how does it play out?
Herbert wrote that government should never initiate force but be “strictly limited to its legitimate duties in defense of self-ownership and individual rights,” and to be consistent in not initiating force they should maintain themselves only through “voluntary taxation.” He stressed using this force only in defense, and opposed the idea that the initiation of force could become legitimatized by constituting a majority. He said, “neither an individual, nor a majority, nor a government can have rights of ownership in other men.”
This should be inline with any Christian reflecting on how we should be called to act by Christ. The most basic attempt at loving our neighbor and our enemies seems to fit squarely with not taking ownership of others or their property against their will, and I doubt you’ll find many self professed Christians that would argue this point. However, a brief jog through public and political policies, you will immediately find most Christians advocating actions directly contrary to what they just nodded along to within the origins of Voluntaryism.
Was this always the case?
In the short essay, “On The History Of The Word ‘Voluntaryism‘” by Carl Watner, we are introduced to a group predating Herbert, called the Levellers (1600’s), that held fast to the “theory of natural rights as coming from the Law of God expressed in the Bible,’ and would clash “with the Presbyterian puritans, who wanted to preserve a state-church with coercive powers and to deny liberty of worship to the puritan sects.”
“No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans [sic].”
Richard Overton, Leveller
As they went in and out of prison, the Levellers printed pamphlets, that demanded voluntary “tythe” to the State-Church, but as movements tend to come and go, so did the Levellers. Wartner jumps us further into the mid-1800’s England, where we see a large Baptist push back on mandatory education by the state and official church, inwhich we see Edward Baines deliver this description of a voluntary system:
“[I]ts very essence is liberty. It offends no man’s conscience, exacts from no man’s purse, favors no sect or party, neither enforces nor forbids religion in the schools, is open to all improvement, denies to no person the right of teaching, and gives to none the slightest ground for complaint. It is as just and impartial as it is free. In all these important respects it differs from systems which require the support of law and taxation.”
Eventually, Voluntaryism, ignited by these men and coined by Herbert, would spring up again in the late 20th Century. It’s uncanny to see the religious loyalties to the church’s mandatory tythe/tax and crony support with the state, and the zeal in today’s church to have its dogma enforced, rather than voluntary.
Wartner ends with a brief passage from Connecticut minister Lyman Beecher, as he reflects in his biography on the eventual separation of the church and state. “Beecher expected the worst from disestablishment: the floodgates of anarchy would be loosened in Connecticut. “The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable.” This supposition was soon challenged by a new revolutionary idea, that true religion might stand on its own without support from the state. “Our people thought that they should be destroyed” if the law no longer supported the churches. “But the effect, when it did come, was just the reverse of the expectation. We were thrown on God and ourselves,” and this made the church stronger.” As well, “Beecher’s final conclusion was “that the tax law had for more than twenty years really worked to weaken us” and strengthen our opponents.
I strongly recommend reading Wartner’s brief History Of The Word “Voluntaryism”, or listen to the audio reading from Essential Libertarianism (also available as a podcast).