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Libertarians, Marxists, and Christianity

by William L. Anderson

In an earlier article, I looked at two of Jim Wallis’ criticisms of libertarianism, and also compared his own historical “Christian Marxism” to the libertarian point of view. What I found was something akin to Jesus’ admonition that people with beams in their own eyes should focus first on their own condition rather than to be criticizing others.

This time, I examine the following two attacks that Wallis makes on libertarian thinking:

* “The Libertarians’ supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin”;
* “The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian”;

We read the following from Wallis:

The Libertarians’ supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin. The exclusive focus on government as the central problem ignores the problems of other social sectors, and in particular, the market. When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment ― which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it.

Wallis then adds:

But such theorizing ignores the practical issues that the public sector has to solve. Should big oil companies like BP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean? And is regulating them really un-American? Do we really want nobody to inspect our meat, make sure our kids’ toys are safe, or police the polluters to keep our air clean? Do we really want owners of restaurants and hotels to be able to decide whom they will or won’t serve, or should liquor store owners also be able to sell alcohol to our kids?

Now, I cannot say that I have read anything on any libertarian website or any publication or book espousing a libertarian point of view, and that includes Walter Block’s “plumb line libertarian” book, Defending the Undefendable, in which someone claims that markets are “sinless.” For example, a Christian who believes that adultery is a sin will not endorse prostitution, even if that same person believes that prostitution should not be a crime.

The reason that Christian libertarians might be against criminalization of prostitution is not because they believe market processes are “sinless,” but rather because we believe that crimes should be limited to those acts in which one person intends to harm another, and in which the participants in the action are not acting in a mutually-agreeable fashion. Again, to say that an act in which the participants are engaging in mutually-agreeable behavior does not mean the act is good or even Godly. Rather, our view is based upon recognition of the limitations of where we believe the law should go.

As for the environmental issues, I know of NO libertarian who believes that “BP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean.” That is not even a caricature of the libertarian position; it is a false representation of our point of view, and I would contend that Wallis knows it is false.

Indeed, the “plumb-line libertarian” position on BP and other firms that cause oil spills and the like probably is more environmentally sound than anything Wallis and his fellow Marxists might believe. Wallis forgets that pollution is not a “capitalist” endeavor, given that communist countries have much worse pollution records than any nation where at least some free markets exist.

For example, in recent edition of Sojourners Magazine, blames poverty, pollution, and mine safety problems in West Virginia on capitalism and coal companies. Yet, the death toll and pollution that comes from state-owned coal mining operations in countries like China and the old U.S.S.R. dwarf problems that exist here.

In fact, state-owned firms are more likely to engage in pollution and have bad safety records precisely because they answer only to themselves, and the state is the ultimate “owner” of property. (Wallis falsely contends that private property is the source of pollution and oppression, but has no explanation for socialist pollution, except to ignore it altogether.) Libertarians, on the other hand, believe that private property is at the heart of production and exchange, and that if one violates another’s property, there must either be compensation or the violator of the property must cease and desist.

One of the real problems regarding the BP oil spill is that BP essentially was able to drill in “common property,” as opposed to operating in private property in which the owner could make environmental demands. Instead, we have companies operating according to politically-based government permits which provide a poor substitute for private-property rights.

Wallis then declares:

Do we really want nobody to inspect our meat, make sure our kids’ toys are safe, or police the polluters to keep our air clean? Do we really want owners of restaurants and hotels to be able to decide whom they will or won’t serve, or should liquor store owners also be able to sell alcohol to our kids?

First, he makes some heroic assumptions, the first being that private producers really don’t care about pleasing their customers. (In fact, elsewhere, he decries “consumerism,” although I must admit that I don’t know what “consumerism” really is, given that people don’t go to Wal-Mart to satisfy some ideological itch.) My experience with purchasing services from both people in private markets and from the government has told me that government agents are much less concerned about “pleasing” “customers.” If anything, government agents engage in a master-servant relationship, and regulators are no exception.

Second, he forgets that racial segregation did not begin with private businesses, but rather was enforced by the state. The Jim Crow laws (emphasis on “laws”) came about because politicians forced their views on everyone else. Furthermore, it was that great “Progressive” Woodrow Wilson who made the federal government into a racist institution, not J.P. Morgan.

Here is his next line of attack:

The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian. “Leave me alone to make my own choices and spend my own money” is a political philosophy that puts those who need help at a real disadvantage. And those who need help are central to any Christian evaluation of political philosophy. “As you have done to the least of these,” says Jesus, “You have done to me.” And “Blessed are those who are just left alone” has still not made the list of Beatitudes. To anticipate the Libertarian response, let me just say that private charity is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of either fairness or justice, let alone compassion. When the system is designed to protect the privileges of the already strong and make the weak even more defenseless and vulnerable, something is wrong with the system.

What is Wallis saying? First, he is saying that if someone wishes to be left alone and not be harassed by state authorities, then that person is engaging in a “preference for the strong over the weak….” Say what? Is this guy really telling me that whenever SWAT teams invade private homes or government agents harass people in airports or elsewhere, that the government is “weak” and individuals are “strong”?

This is ludicrous. Second, his view that if the so-called weak can harness the power of the state to take property away from the “strong,” then who is weak and who is strong here? Wallis is claiming that there is a class of “strong” people who always have been strong and a permanent class of the “weak” who need to be able to plunder the “strong.”

At this point, we are not dealing with economics or even a political/religious philosophy. Wallis is claiming that unless the state is free to plunder whomever the Left determines is “too wealthy” or “too strong,” then the state is not strong enough.

Don’t ever forget that this man endorsed some of the most murderous and bloody regimes in history because the leaders of those regimes claimed they were engaging in their acts in the name of “helping the poor.” As Lew Rockwell wrote a few years ago about the death camp that was Mao’s China, the “poor” were encouraged to murder landowners and anyone else deemed to be a “capitalist” or worse. Thus, if the “poor” were able to plunder and murder the “rich,” then just who was weak and who was strong?

Wallis, you see, believes that “justice” is served only when those who are “weak” are able to access the violent power of the state to become “strong,” and when that occurs, then and only then can real “justice” exist. This is a curious philosophy, for Wallis seems to believe that when the “poor” are in charge, then they cannot be oppressive – by definition.

Libertarians believe that private property gives people the right of exclusion. Indeed, at some level, we exclude people, and that includes Wallis and his friends. For that matter, I have found libertarians and people who own private property to be much more generous with their possessions than anyone representing the state.

Is the White House the “People’s House”? Fine. Try walking into the “People’s House” without an invitation and permission from the authorities. Try dealing with the Internal Revenue Service on your own terms. You will find out quickly who is “weak” and who is “strong.”

June 7, 2010

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.

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Young people figuring it out…

(via lewrockwell.com).

Saying the unsayable on PBS

Tom Woods and Doug Casey tell it like it is. Very worthy viewing.

(Thanks to lewrockwell.com blog.)

The state as superman

A very strong bit of cynicism runs through our world. A primary source is the state and its pretensions.

Presenting itself as necessary, impartial, essential arbiter of justice, protector of the peace, and faithful and unfailing defender of freedom—as superman robed in white—the image clashes sharply with the reality as experienced by many who are watching and thinking. In a world that does not come short of severe challenges, the state and pretension perpetuated in its name are precisely this distraction. As the ancient had recourse to idols made of wood, the modern makes statist ideas his bank of last resort. And does this surprise? After all, he was shaped in state schools from kindergarten upwards.

Could it be that the actual source of much of the sourness and anger seen in the daily news is the state itself? A state means power exercised over one’s fellow man, and, given time, this power inevitably corrupts. This is a phenomenon which cannot be fixed. So long as human nature remains as it is, the state will remain as it is.

But if the state is superman, reality is its kryptonite. At this stage of its inevitable totalitarian development, providence has given us also the cell phone and the internet and youtube. We will in a window of opportunity, when reality is exposing the state for what it is.

Whether o not we come to the place where the modern nation-state is peeled away, molted off, and left in the dust, and where men find their future as true men seeking a gracious God, and the way is opened for the realization of the potential inwoven in man, none can at present say. But this I know. There are at least some situations in which kryptonite comes in very handy. Thus, we may welcome the economic problems that are making the state tremble. At the end of the day, the state is the most inefficient means of accomplishing anything of substance for the world. Superman and his fiction must go their way, turn the corner, and fade into history side-by-side with Cinderella. I’ll take the kryptonite. And on the other side of the collapse, we will live as true men.

Time preference, deontology, and teleology

In the field of ethics, two primary approaches have the field. A deontological act is an act that springs from the motivation of duty. A teleological act is one which especially has in view a final goal. Time preference is a term used in Austrian economics in order to indicate that human behavior has to do with long term or short term thinking.

In the Bible, the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) is presented without particular reference to any time issues. It is simply commanded. We would say that it is presented from a deontological standpoint. We should not steal because it is not the right way to act.

Again, from the Ten Commandments, we have the fifth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). Honoring father and mother is linked here with a teleological reason. The command to honor them is linked with a promise of longevity. Doubtless honoring one’s father and mother is also right deontologically, but that is not expanded upon in the commandment itself.

People who hold that the end justifies the means are operating out of a teleological ethic. People who say that one should do right simply because it is right are deontological in their outlook. As we can see, there appears to be validity in both perspectives. The teleological outlook contains a substantial pitfall, in that it may follow a chain of reasoning to a future that may not be attained.

Time preference says that all things being equal, economic factors such as scarcity can lead one to consume sooner rather than later. A high time preference is what one has who is focused more on his present well-being; a low time preference is the attitude one has who chooses his path based on longer look. A scrap of food is thrown to or found by pigeon at the beach or a duck in a pond. If he is hungry, he will immediately seek to consume it, because if he does not, it may be wrested from him by another bird.

A man who plants a garden knows that it will take time and careful tending for the vegetables to reach maturity for harvest. He takes this into account and still he invests his energies in maintaining the garden until harvest. At harvest tome he reaps the benefits of his labor. He reaps what he sows.

A thief usually also operates by the principles of time preference. He chooses to take from another rather than to exercise self-control and labor. Put simply, a thief steals an apple, a farmer harvests an apple.

In the Christian walk, one keeps his eye on the gift of eternal life and the rewards that come. He should serve God because it is right, and yet he takes note of the mighty incentive held out to him in the promises of God. He is building not for the moment but for eternity.

We may not all be cultivating gardens, but every one of us is cultivating a character. Our choices are shaping it, our motives are persistent and also are ever being more intentionally shaped. We look to the Second Coming of Jesus aware that when He returns he will give to every person according to their behavior. We are saved by grace and not by our deeds, and yet our deeds shape our heart and refine our character so that it is less Christlike or moreso.

There is a meeting of Christianity and Austrian economics in these points. We should live our lives with reference to the precious things that God will give us in the future, yes, but we should also do right because it is right. God has never suspended His law, and He will not; it offers a thumbnail sketch of His character. A future is coming in which yes, the Ten Commandments will still be there. It will still be right not to steal. Therefore, I am thankful for the lessons taught in Austrian economics, for it echoes the truth that we reap what we sow. To do right because it is right has the lowest time preference of all, for it is not owned by the short term. Persons living according only to the present may sidestep ethical behavior, but their long-term thinking opposites can be good neighbors for eternity. Austrian economics cannot help but make for better Christians.

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