Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Social Libertarian

During a morning conversation with my wife about copyright law...yes, we do live inside the Beltway, how did you guess...I was expounding on one of the things that I find most irritating in our culture.  It's that strain of copyright enforcement that requires Jesus folk to fret and worry before we drop a snippet of a praise song into a church video, or that requires us to check in with an organization before we sing a sacred song in worship.

I've never bought this.  If I buy a song, and I want to give it to all of my friends so they don't have to buy the song, well, then I get the concern of the musicians who created it.   I'm taking bread from your table.  Fair enough.

But if you write a song about Jesus, and you tell everyone it's to give God the glory and to bring more people to know His love, then honeychild?  That song don't belong to you no mo.

Oh, I'll still buy it.  I'll still go to your concert.  Well actually, I won't, because I have never trusted highly-choreographed big-stadium mass-emoting as a legitimate form of religious expression.  Too Leni Riefenstahl for my tastes, I guess.

But I'm be [gosh-darned] if I'm going to feel guilty about using it to spread the Gospel without your permission.  Worship is fundamentally free.   If there's a song about Jesus, we can sing it and share it, because it belongs to him.

Well, anyway, I was up on that favorite soapbox, and my wife said, "Honey, you sound like a libertarian."

I'm not sure that's entirely true.  I know and like libertarians, perhaps because that ethos reflects the actual reality of our created nature.  We are made free.

But, bless 'em, I'm not totally there.   In large part, that's because the American libertarian movement seems driven by an ethos that is often best described as "Don't touch my [stuff]."  And by [stuff], I mean either my guns or my weed or that 1961 Buick I've been restoring in my front yard since 1986.

What American libertarianism has never grasped is that we do not exist in isolation.  Because of this, there are inevitably tensions between freedoms.  You may wish to let your pack of hunting dogs out into your yard at 11:45 at night so you can stream your favorite episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.  I may want my colicky infant son to not be woken up by their incessant barking.  If I ask you to bring them in, you are perfectly free to tell me to mind my own business.

But your freedom is no longer freedom, because you have taken away mine.

That's the great challenge for the libertarian.  As an ethos, it works great if everyone is both radically compassionate and shares the same worldview and interests.  Once Jesus gets back, I'm sure that's how we'll roll.

Until then, though, the libertarian reality is a messy one, and one that can dangerously favor the interests of the powerful.   Ownership implies power over something, and as the libertarian ethos focuses intently on the right of ownership and property, it struggles conceptually as it encounters the ramifications of that power.

"Don't tell me what I can do" means one thing coming from the lips of a man just looking to cut through your property as he hikes through the woods, and another thing from the CEO of a multinational conglomerate whose private security forces have seized your land.  That is perhaps why those with power are so very interested in furthering and developing an ideology that would place no limits on their power.

The purpose of good government is to defend the liberty of the less-powerful.  The best governance is that which acknowledges and embraces the tension between liberty and life together.   It acknowledges and challenges both individual power and state power, and demands that they exist in balance.

So no, I'm not libertarian.  Social libertarian, perhaps?  Hmmm.


  1. Though I generally disagree with you on most topics that you post, I would say that on this there is a convergence. Recently, I have started what might be termed a 'social justice' campaign at a large local church to address an element of what you describe here. I am absolutely fed up with songs being misattributed. When I say misattributed, let me be clear. They are not 'legally' misattributed. Some music label may have marginally updated the orchestration of 'Holy,Holy,Holy' and copyrighted that in 2002... but if that copyright data is all that appears on the overheads or handouts, that is a functional misattribution. It not only represents a kind of 'taking' from the public domain, but it suppresses the credit due the authors and songwriters who should get legitimate remembrance. This is most egregious (and the case that set me off originally was this...) when the song should be an African-American author unknown, almost 200 years prior to the proposed copyright date.

    I considered advocating civil disobedience in this case, replacing all the copyright information in the church with something else; but my ultimate recommendation has been that we 'augment' the copyright information with information about the real authors and songwriters; let people draw from it what conclusions they will about EMI or other pirates of our musical heritage.

  2. Dear Frater Dave,

    I've had similar arguments about the use of copyrighted material in sermons. I've heard Stanley Hauerwas say that since things said or written in sermons and commentaries are said and written for the proclamation of the Word, one does not need to especially indicate their use or presence in one's own proclamation of the Word.

    My homelitics professor vehemently disagrees. Her thinking is that plagarism is plagarism and that unattributed use of others materials in one's sermons underminds the congregations trust in the veracity of what is proclaimed.

    Never really thought about the music issue in quite this way before. The UCC suggests that its congregations use "The New Century Hymnal" which has both author and composer information, place of original publication (like the "Southern Harmony", and some blurb about the people and circumstances involved in each hymn's creation.

    I have to say that I am getting increasingly lax about copyright attribution in the bulletin for worship materials in general, and for the reasons you all have discussed.

    I vote like a yellow dog Democrat but this question is forcing me to reapraise how accurate a description of my actual political beliefs that is...maybe Christian Socialist is closer to the mark.


    -Frater Dawg

  3. Frater Dawg:

    I'm actually fairly scrupulous about attribution. If a prayer isn't mine, I tell you who prayed it first. If I quote someone, I want you to know where that idea came from. I want people to know this, because it might connect them with a spiritual soul they'd benefit from knowing.

    That seems, to my mind at least, a different thing than licensing requirements.



    BenK: That also bugs me. If, say, Chris Tomlin remakes "Amazing Grace" and then pitches in a few extra lyrics...why should his label hold copyright?