Could the Amish be libertarians?
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, February 23, 2008

My family and I are moving to a house south of Iowa City, close to an Amish area, so I decided to learn more about these people I see in horse-drawn sleighs.

The Amish are Anabaptists who reject modern technology. The Old Order Amish use horses for farming and transportation, wear plain clothing in a 1700s style, and do not allow electricity or telephones in their houses.

On the surface, my beliefs are obviously different than theirs. However, after reading about the Amish, I know that we both understand that relying on government is a dangerous and spiritually undermining way to live. In fact, I might even call the Amish libertarians.

Amish libertarians? But they’re so very strict about pretty much everything, the polar opposite of most libertarians, who believe that marijuana and prostitution should be legal. The key is the difference between rules followed by voluntary members of small groups, and laws that everyone must obey, under penalty of imprisonment.

The Amish don’t want to make it illegal to wear clothes with buttons instead of hook-and-eye closures, they simply insist that people who wish to be members of their group abide by that rule. And although they believe that many of our practices are wrong, they don’t try to change us. This is the kind of “tolerance” that we need more of in our pluralistic society.

The very definition of Anabaptist faith is libertarian. Anabaptists believe that baptism is a declaration of Christian intent, and only adults have informed intent. This is in contrast to the old-world state religions that mandated baptism for babies, negating God-given free will.

Anabaptists were hardly popular with entrenched European religions, which were assured full churches by law. They came to America seeking religious liberty and fleeing economic discrimination, imprisonment, torture and execution.

And here the Amish have thrived, successfully living close to the land and doubling their population every twenty years. They are law-abiding, hardworking taxpayers who want to be left alone by government, but even in the land of the free they have experienced government abuse.

Their religion forbids them to take oaths or join militias (although they will pay war taxes), so the Amish have been jailed for treason and have faced discrimination as conscientious objectors. Libertarians view conscription as akin to slavery and assert that volunteers make much better defenders of our country.

The Amish believe that the Bible requires them to provide for their elders and those who need aid. They view compulsory government welfare programs as usurping their God-given duties, and believe that paying Social Security tax would be denying their faith. In the 1960s, the faithless IRS seized horses from non-paying Amish farmers and sold them for back taxes. (Widespread negative publicity resulted in exemption for religious groups who provide for their elderly.) Mutual aid instead of government programs is a key tenet of libertarianism.

Education has been a major problem for the Amish. They believe that the most important learning is done at home, learning how to be faithful to God and how to work the land. They objected to sending their children to large consolidated schools, and began starting private schools in acts of civil disobedience.

In 1965, public school officials forcibly entered a private Amish school near Oelwein to coerce the children aboard a consolidated school bus. The press were there to film terrified children running into the cornfields and their sobbing parents being arrested for noncompliance with Iowa’s draconian school laws – worldwide publicity. Libertarians believe that compulsory public schools are probably the biggest blight on our nation.

Amish communities are ideal examples of how societies can function with limited government (for law and order only). They educate their children themselves, take care of their elderly, pay cash for medical services when they can afford to, and voluntarily aid neighbors who can’t, or who suffer property losses. (This mutual aid is essentially what insurance companies offer to those of us who don’t have an Amish community to depend on.)

Those who say libertarian ideas would never work have only to look to the Amish for proof that they do. But the Amish, suspicious of “book learning” and politics, would never call themselves libertarians – they simply live the libertarian way.