Quakers and the language of budget realignment

The inaugural blog post at the newly-launched Quaker Libertarians site recently went live:

National Quaker organizations have the unfortunate tendency to address war spending from the perspective of budget realignment or reallocation. This approach puts forth the false notion that national governments sit atop vast reserves of wealth that should be spent on nonviolent rather than violent ends. The reality, of course, is that no such infinite reserves exist. If the government sits atop anything, it is more likely a mountain of debt than wealth. 

You can read more here, and check out the rest of the site at: http://quakerlibertarians.weebly.com/.

Views: 295

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 18, 2014 at 11:38am

Friend Matt:

It is good to see a libertarian voice added to the mix of Quaker interaction.  It is a point worth considering that one of the strongest voices against war has been antiwar.com, a libertarian site.

Even so, I am hesitant to align with a libertarian view.  My hesitation takes several forms.  First, the hyper- (and rugged) individualism of contemporary libertarian theory would seem to differ from the ideals of Quaker Faith and Practice.  Quakers have traditionally been communitarian.  Although the force of the 'Disciplines' has receded in modern Quaker organizations, the ideal of living under a communal rule is still, I think, operative.  In other words, it seems to me that the community is seen as having value in itself above the individuals, or in some sense beyond an individual's presence.  I think it would be difficult for modern libertarianism to integrate this perspective into their world view, which is based on the individual as the highest locus of value.

I wonder how Christian views regarding charity, loving one's enemies, non-resistance to evil, etc, would fare in a libertarian context?  Again, I have difficulty seeing how they could be woven into a libertarian world view.

I looked at your website and it seems to me that the libertarianism being represented there emphasizes one branch of libertarianism without acknowledging older forms that are, to my mind, more easily integrated into a Quaker context.  The big difficulty with this modern branch, to my way of thinking, is its roots in Austrain economic theory.  The problem with Austrain theory is that it is rooted in scholasticism; it is a highly rationalistic, deductive, procedure which disdains historical/empirical methodology.  This kind of approach, it seems to me, is one that, historically, Quakers have avoided.  I mean that Quakers as a group have not generated works of systematic theology and have, instead, relied on experiential reports found in Journals and Epistles.  Because of this my feeling is that Austrain economic theory is a poor fit for Quaker approaches to issues.

There is an older, and to my mind more profound, libertarian stream of thought.  You can find it in people like Thoreau, Kropotkin, and LeGuin.  It is not primarily based on economic theory.  To my mind it is more rooted in the world, less deductive, and more experiential, and is, therefore, a better fit for Quaker Faith and Practice.

But I look forward to what your posts have to offer.



Comment by Matt on 3rd mo. 18, 2014 at 5:35pm

Hello Jim,

Thank you for your warm welcome to the conversation! I look forward to engaging Friends around these topics. I'll do my best to comment on your observations, but it may require an ongoing dialogue to fully flesh out. 

First, I think there can be confusion between "methodological individualism" (a way of understanding human action) and "rugged individualism." The former is more in line with libertarian thought, which doesn't oppose community and community decision-making (but does question violent force as a means of enforcing decisions). You can read a bit about this here: http://mises.org/humanaction/chap2sec4.asp. I happen to believe that this approach actually places a greater weight on an individual's ethical decisions, and therefore aligns well with Quaker beliefs. Charity, loving one's enemies, non-resistance to evil, etc, can thus fare well in a libertarian context.

As for the Austrian School's incompatibility with Quakers as a group, I'd welcome more comments on this. I acknowledge that its focus is primarily economic analysis, but it contains ethical analysis at its core, and I don't see that in tension with the long stream of libertarian thought. Chuck Fager's recent book review and interview with Laurence Vance in Quaker Theology is at least one example of the potential for stronger connections between libertarians and Quakers on questions of war, the drug war, and more: http://quaker.org/quest/QT-20-Final-for-Web.pdf.

Thanks again,

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 19, 2014 at 9:55am

Good Morning:

Thanks for the link to the Fager article, which was an enjoyable read.  I'm a big fan of Laurence Vance, by the way.  His book on Christianity and War is one that I value.  Fager asks in his article if Vance's biblical research is as controversial as his anti-war writing and I have found that it is; though personally I find it to be well researched and convincing.  It was good to see that some Quakers are taking notice of this point of view.

It has been something of a frustration for me to observe many liberal Quakers being very wimpy regarding the Peace Testimony of the Quaker tradition.  I recall, for example, that when Obama decided to militarily intervene in Libya, a Quaker placed a prominent post on the liberal site 'daily kos' supporting the intervention and stating that 'even though' he was a Quaker, he backed Obama's intervention.  I have since met a number of Quakers who had a similar stance, and now regret it.  From my perspective, only someone with an extremely weak grasp of the Quaker Peace Testimony could have supported it in the first place.

I'm not sure if this forum is a good place to discuss contemporary libertarian theory.  Nevertheless, a few responses to your observations.  First, I think 'rugged individualism' is an apt description of modern libertarian thought, particularly that branch which is rooted in Ayn Rand.  Rand explicitly rejects Christian ethics and the value of of charity, forgiveness, and loving one's enemies.  Non-resistance to evil would be scornfully rejected by her.  (See 'The Virtue of Selfishness' and 'Atlas Shrugged')  I know that not all libertarians are Randians; but a significant percentage are, so I think it is legitimate to assign the 'rugged individualism' trope.

My quarrel with Austrain economic theory is, partly, methodological.  Von Mises was a Kantian and attempted to place his economic theory in the category of analytic apriori truths.  Mises' hope, I think, was that his economic theory would be as 'apodictically certain' as something like geometry.  Unfortunately, the world is messier than that.  Austrian theory as practiced by von Mises and Rothbard (less so by Hayek) is methodologically ahistorical.  This often undermines the efficacy of Austrian economics when historical evidence conflicts with their theory.  To pick just one minor example, according to Austrian theory, the welfare state should have resulted in disaster long ago.  Yet it is precisely those countries (like Denmark, Finland, Japan, etc.) that have the most extensive welfare states that are economically most successful and most stable at the sociological level.  Yet this kind of information cannot be used by Austrian theory to modify their system because of their rigidly axiomatic approach.

Best wishes,


Comment by Matt on 3rd mo. 19, 2014 at 11:29am

Hello again Jim,

You're probably right, this may not be the best forum for an extended discussion of libertarian theory and Austrian economics. I will just make the observation that saying "Libertarians believe X" is akin to saying "Quakers believe X." There is quite a bit of diversity in both groups. I'll hold off on making any claims that a Quaker Libertarian does or should hold the same set of beliefs as a Randian, for example. You might appreciate this commentary by Jeffrey Tucker - http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/against-libertarian-brutalism

One question I have for you is whether one needs to fully align with whatever strain of libertarian thought we might identify, though, or is it possible to work together on those issues on which we find ourselves in agreement (opposition to war being a prime example)? If that is a possibility, how do we go about fostering that kind of cooperation?

Perhaps more pertinent to the original post, though, do you find the "budget realignment" approach problematic and why or why not? 



Comment by Keith Saylor on 3rd mo. 19, 2014 at 12:02pm

Hello Matt,

Here is my testimony concerning libertarianism.

I was attracted to libertarianism about a decade ago compelled by the ideological foundation of self-governance (freedom of conscience), economic liberty (markets free from institutional intervention), low taxation (freedom of property and labor) and non-military intervention into the workings of other states, unless attacked militarily by those states.

These ideals interested me because they, in a seeing through a dark glass kind of way, reflected my experience of freedom in Presence. In essence, I was compelled by these ideals because they spoke to a seeking after a way of existence in this world that placed faith in individuals and gathered individuals working together to craft an existence relatively free from statist or governmental (institutional) rule over the lives of individuals and/or gathered individuals.

I held these ideals in the Quiet for years. Slowly, as the Presence within me more and more filled consciousness and conscience, I experience and visioned this libertarian faith was a consciousness anchored in and a conscience informed by outward ideological constructs. That is, faith and trust in these ideals needed affirmation and actualization by and through outward institutional forms. This was a misplaced faith as is the statist faith in outward forms.

Presence shone brightly within consciousness and informed my conscience that the presence of Christ is true freedom and faith in these outward ideological forms was misplaced. Presence is Governance and Rule and Principle; not outward forms. In Presence there is a way of being within individuals and gathered individuals (communities are gathered individuals) that is no longer of the worldly or external polity; putting faith in outward ideologies and institutions to actualize them; whether libertarian, conservative, liberal, socialist or capitalist. 

Today, Presence anchors and informs rather than outward forms.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 19, 2014 at 12:44pm

Thanks, Matt, for bringing the focus back to the original post.

I do agree that the 'budget realignment' approach is not efficacious.  My experience, and observation, of social movements is that they are effective when they are single-pointed, single-issue driven.  Reducing the military budget, closing numerous overseas bases, and non-interventionism as a foreign policy are branches of a single view.  When you add the budget realignment component it fractures the focus because the discussion will then become 'what do we do with these funds?', and, naturally, there will be a lot of disagreement about how to best use them. 

The anti-Vietnam war movement is a good example of what I'm referring to.  It was successful because it had a single focus; to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.  There were a wide range of participants in that movement; everyone from Marxists to libertarians.  But they shared that common focus which was strong enough to unite them.  The movement did not get distracted and depleted by secondary considerations (well, not too much, anyway). 

The approach of AFSC and FCNL generates a fracturing of focus and, in my opinion, weakens what should be the primary focus, which is to reduce the dominance of the warfare state.  So, from that perspective we are in agreement.

I honestly don't know how to foster cooperation on this issue.  It seems to me that taking a political approach is, at root, part of the problem.  From my perspective, the Quaker community at this point in time is far too immersed and enmeshed in what Keith refers to as 'outward forms'.  In a sense I don't think that a genuine transformation can be brought about by political means.  (As an aside, I don't think Quakers are at all unique in their over-involvement with various causes and movements of the hour.  It appears that American religion in general is deeply enmeshed in worldly concerns at this time and Quakers are simply going with the tides of the time.)


Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 19, 2014 at 3:45pm

The notions of "Libertarianism" work simply and conveniently to distract people into attacking those relatively democratic institutions that are at least supposed to serve the public good -- while ignoring the most potent and tyrannical de facto powers of those authoritarian, kleptocratic and sometimes even overtly-violent creatures of government, the corporations.

For each person to govern itself is a fine ideal; meanwhile we actual human beings end up sharing obligations and limited resources with a great many other people, most of us bemused, brutalized and mentally crippled by the present evil system -- and in any case needing to survive in the precarious and stingy economic niches it leaves open for the bulk of humanity.

And it provides some lovely rationales for ignoring, neglecting, positively injuring all those public services which the financially well-endowed don't need and can even profitably destroy via 'privatization' schemes.

The ideology of economicism behind all this seems superficially compatible with Quaker ideals of non-coercion but only because it ignores the hidden violence embodied in our customary inequities and power relations. As an idolatrous alternate to the economic ethics of the Torah, it has no right to claim kinship with Judaism or Christianity (but that never stops people from trying, does it?)

Comment by Matt on 3rd mo. 19, 2014 at 6:12pm

Ah, the warm embrace of multiple viewpoints and loving effort to strive together toward unity with each person that might carry something of God within that can only be found on Quaker forums! ;)

I can't say that these neat distinctions between secular and sacred  reflect my lived experience. I can certainly respect a variety of approaches to political engagement and would hope that for Friends this engagement flows from their faith and discernment. Because we are enmeshed in economic and political systems I don't think we can act with integrity without consideration of how the various "worlds" interact. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 19, 2014 at 7:58pm

There are 'viewpoints' and then there are activities analogous to selling tobacco-grower 'science' to a cancer patient. I could be here to have a nice debate while the world goes on dying of neoliberal fantasies; but I don't think that's it.

I don't know why I didn't just let you go on going on... Look, some of us here have read our Galbraith and our Chomsky and our michael-hudson.com and our http://neweconomicperspectives.org/ and it didn't seem like I should leave people thinking that everyone here finds your notions more credible than flat-Earth geology. I don't think I can put things any better than these others; if you want to know how things actually work with real governments and economies you can read them. If you don't, you can try to start a debate with someone else.

Truth in religious matters... is likewise open to anyone who seriously looks for it. But the only politics it supports are those of mutual care, the use of property to nourish everyone including particularly the poorest and most marginal, the recognition that everything we have and are is a gift for sharing.

Comment by Matt on 3rd mo. 20, 2014 at 6:49am

Oh my. I suppose I could respond to this, but instead I think I'll simply yield and let your comments stand as sufficient evidence of your greater understanding of Quaker faith and practice. 

Again, I'm happy to talk with folks about their thoughts on libertarianism, but perhaps that's a conversation best left to another forum topic (or even another site). The original post raised the question of the appropriateness of a budget realignment approach to addressing war funding. Please do weigh in - I look forward to the conversation!


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