Sunday, September 7, 2008

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is another important strand of libertarian thought. But what does that really mean? For a start, lets admit that freedom often has something to do with alternatives or options: the more options that are "open," the more freedom. Under monopolistic conditions freedom consists in either accepting that one option or not. (Sometimes you can't even decline that offer!) When you reject a monopolistic offer, there is usually another option or substitute. If monopolies limit freedom, then libertarians must do everything they can to expand options and limit monopolies. But some monopolies are inevitable and necessary. When one offerer earns a monopoly by offering a superior product or service, and (fairly) drives out all other competitiors then, that's natural and OK. Natural monopolies, however, are shortlived as long as entry and exit to that competition remains open. When other potential offerers see the profits rolling in to a monopoly, they will invariably seek a piece of the action. Problems arise when monopolies are sustained by the coercive power of government and not by competitive acumen. Artificial monopolies are created, when government limits competitive entry (or exit). Free from the yoke of competition, these monopolies tend to offer inferior products and services. In the United States we are flooded with artificial monopolies: public utilities, U.S. Mail, police and fire departments, etc. My view is that in a free society, freedom of religion requires governmental neutrality; that is, allow alternative religions to enter and exit the religion market unimpeded by government. That way, if you are not satisfied with your current religion you can find one that more closely suits your spiritual needs. In a society that offers a variety of religions, including atheism, we all have more religious freedom. However, if any one religion repels enough of its followers, it will eventually go out of business. Under monopolistic (or oligapolistic) conditions, governments use the coercive power of government to prop up one religion (or its beliefs) at the expense of its competitors. This is exactly what happens in theocracies where governments allow one single religion (Saudi Arabia); and in atheocracies where governmenents disallow all or most religions (China). The United States Government interferes with the religion market in two main ways: legal moralism (passing laws that regulate harmless immoralities favored by one particular religion); and tax policy (by offering some religions non-profit tax status). Of the two methods, legal moralism is the most subtle and the most pernicious. In direct democracies, lobbyists are responsible for most instances of legal moralism. For example, say a powerful group of church leaders get together to pass a local ordinance against Sunday liquor sales (Blue Laws). Next year, a coalition of groups that oppose that ordinance pay a lobbying firm to get it overturned. But this only inspires the tea totalers to lobby more effectively next time around. So the problem with legal moralism in a direct democracy is that the time, effort and resources expended on forcing the entire community to comply with it's own moral views, could have been expended more efficiently monitoring and enforcing compliance within their own flock: "If we catch you purchasing liquor on Sunday we will kick you out of our church!" And of course, if you do not want to abide by this particular moral rule, you can always become a Roman Catholic. We have no religious prohibitions against drinking, or gambling (another future blog?). Have you ever attended one of our festivals?

Freedom's Philosopher

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