Shaya Cohen -


The Torah: Basic Libertarianism

Jonathan Sacks reminded me on this in his discussion on “Consent of the Governed,” a stunningly libertarian argument from a committed progressive.

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants . . . and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (Samuel 8)

In other words, if you choose to have a government, you are sure to regret it. And this warning was with a 10% tax rate!

Judaism is far more ambivalent about government than is Christianity. We have no “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” We have the Torah, which allows us to have a king, if we want to be like everyone else. And then it warns us of all the downside risk that having a king entails.

The Torah’s approach is profoundly libertarian: ideally each person has their own relationship with G-d. The religious/civil state is required to provide a legal system, and defend the people. There is no necessity that there be a king, or a democratic state. But the text gives us the choice. If, because we are insecure, or just want to keep up with the Hittites next door, we want a king or a parliament or a President, we are free to choose that way. But, the text tells us, government must be limited.

In the Torah, that limit is to restrict the number of horses, wives, or wealth that the king (or government) can acquire, and the king must remind himself every day of the limits of his power, of the fact that every person is equally endowed with the divine spirit (the way Adam was created).

He is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and . . . not consider himself better than his brothers, or turn from the law to the right or to the left. (Det. 17:18-20)

Government must be freely chosen, limited, and faithfully administer justice. And in an ideal world, the foundational text of Western Civilization is telling us, we have no sovereign but G-d, no coercive civil authority besides courts of law and our own consciences.

Comments are welcome!

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