Many early Christians were not fans of big government—after all, the Roman Empire had a habit of putting them to death. But even after Roman persecution ended, one of the most important intellectual figures in the history of Christianity—Saint Augustine—wrote a surprisingly strong, and surprisingly libertarian, critique of unjust government.
“Justice being taken away, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?” asks Augustine. He compares a government to a gang of thieves, in multiple ways: “the band is made up of men, it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by confederacy, and the booty is divided by the law agreed upon.” According to this ancient Christian thinker, there could be little difference between the IRS’ records and a pirate’s account book.
Augustine goes on to write that it is “the addition of impunity” that separates governments from such gangs. When a band of robbers “increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes more plainly the name of a kingdom,” the old scholar writes. This is echoed by Frederic Bastiat’s concept of “legalized plunder.”
While Augustine—writing in the AD 300s—uses the example of a great conqueror, Alexander the Great, to prove his point, modern thinkers need only point to the terrorist group ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Although few governments grant this group legitimacy, it grew from a small group of dedicated fanatics into an arguably functional government.
While ISIS is extreme, and does not in the least resemble any legitimate government, it still acts like a gang and like a government—confiscating and redistributing wealth in a manner calculated to maintain and expand its power, as Augustine explained.
The ancient Christian writer claimed that when Alexander the Great asked a pirate what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, the pirate spat in his face. What he means by conquering the sea is exactly “what you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who do it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”
Augustine’s critique is not necessarily against kingdoms at war for conquest, but against governments that are unjust. He uses Alexander not because he is a conqueror but because he is a tyrant—one who misuses his authority to lord it over his subjects.
This passage comes in a chapter of “The City of God,” where Augustine is explaining the reason for Rome’s conquest of the world. He claims that virtue—living according to the moral law by working hard and serving others—enabled Rome to rise, and makes men happy, while injustice—seizing power or money for one’s own selfish ends—perverts the nations and ultimately led to Rome’s collapse.
Like America’s founders, Augustine put little trust in government. “The City of God” takes its title from the idea that Christians owe their loyalty to a heavenly city, while the earthly city—the City of Man—only exists to promote peace and enable the City of God to flourish.
Something quite akin to “the separation of church and state” is involved here. Like many a classical liberal, Augustine would say that it is government’s job to maintain the peace, but not to tell its citizens what to think or how to carry out their private affairs. He did not believe that pagan or even explicitly Christian moral codes should be enforced by the state. Indeed, the formal idea that government exists to keep the peace rather than to improve people’s moral character might have come from Augustine.
While Augustine does not fall into the libertarian camp, his articulation of Christian ideas helped Western Europeans along the path to developing freedom of conscience and limited government. His mistrust of the state bears its fruit today, in countries blessed enough to have free markets and the associated prosperity, well-being, and flourishing that accompanies them.