John Williams, “Christians, the free society, and the free market: A Christian Libertarian argues for capitalism, and against the welfare state,” Church & Nation, February 10, 1982, pp. 7-10.
The Rev. Dr. John Williams, a minister of the Uniting Church, was for eleven years chaplain at St. Leonard’s College, East Brighton, where he taught three HSC subjects. He resigned from that position in 1981, “risking” a year or two writing a volume arguing that Judaeo-Christian, indeed humanitarian, values lead to support of the free market in the free society. Two publishers have already expressed interest in the book. In this issue, Dr. Williams gives a “drastically reduced” summary of his views.
2. Individual liberty
4. The good life
5. Who is the Libertarian?
6. Economic liberty
7. Individuality and expertise
8. Enter a villain
9. Central planning
10. A case study
11. What about the poor
13. Endangered species
14. The dismal science
15. Good intentions
When St Paul’s Cathedral, London, was completed, the then reigning monarch inspected the building. He asserted that it was “awful, amusing, and artificial”. That remark was a compliment. For “awful” read our term “awe-inspiring”; for “amusing” read “amazing”; for “artificial” read “artistic”.
The words “radical” and “conservative” have undergone a similar change in meaning. In the 18th century political “radicals” were men like Tom Paine and William Godwin. They regarded government as, at best, a necessary evil and, at worst, sheer tyranny. As Professor John Passmore pointed out recently, some “radical” French workers refused the offer of government pensions as a threat to their independence.
And the “conservative”? He was the supporter of powerful government. Existing practices and institutions, he insisted, had to be conserved. How could a nation exist were government not to subsidise industries or the Crown not to award “monopolies” to specific people? Indeed the arch-conservative Bismarck carried through “conservatism” to its logical conclusion and established the first “welfare state”.
The radicals agitated for major reforms. They opposed high taxes. They fought for the abolition of tariffs. They argued that any person should be at liberty to attempt any business he chose. They demanded an extension of property rights, arguing that if the weakest and most vulnerable members of a community could not be certain that the little they did own could not be plundered with impunity by the powerful, they could not even begin to improve their lot. For the radicals there was but one way to achieve their goals: to reduce the power and the sphere of influence of the state.
Oddly enough the “socialist” proffered a compromise. He wanted ordinary men and women to enjoy many of the liberties advocated by the radicals, but suggested these could be realised by strong government, a state which, on behalf of “the people”, controlled all property.
The radicals rejected such a nation. A government which, today, respected the liberty of all could become a state which, tomorrow, conferred privileges upon a few. The radicals’ guiding principle could be summed up thus: Never give to a “friend in government” power you would not entrust to an “enemy in government”.
Given the metamorphosis of the words “radical” and “conservative” it is not surprising that, in recent years, many new words have entered political and economic discussion. One such word is “libertarian”, and many Christians have found themselves espousing what the word signifies.
The mailing list of the “Galatians Fellowship”, a loosely knit organisation of libertarian Christians, includes clergymen and lay people from nearly all major denominations and of differing theological persuasions. Yet this find themselves forced, by their Christian commitment, to adopt a “libertarian” stance.
Before discussing what Libertarianism is, I stress that no libertarian Christian would assert that Libertarianism is the Christian social, economic, and political position. All Christians would agree that believers should care for an act with the poorest and most wretched of the earth; however, whether such caring and action find expression by working for a socialist state, a welfare state, or a completely free market in a radically free society, is an issue over which Christians can and do differ.
What is important is that Christians who disagree should listen to and learn from one another. Let none, however, assert that his position is the Christian position.
2. Individual liberty
In the fifth century BC a great Athenian statesman, Pericles, delivered an oration praising the city-state of Athens. Athens was not, in truth a “free society”. Women could not vote. Like all Greek city-states Athens tolerated slavery.
Yet Pericles insisted that Athens was special. All citizens were equal before the law: what was illegal for one was illegal for all. More significantly, each person in his private life could act as he chose. It was not for the State to proscribe or prescribe any particular vision of the “good life”. Indeed, according to Pericles, each person could live as he chose without even incurring those “black looks which, though they do no harm, still hurt.”
The Libertarian affirms this form of liberty: the liberty of each person to formulate and strive to realise, his own vision of the “good life”. There is but one limitation. Should a vision of the “good life” involve the imperative to coerce others to adopt, or act in accordance with, that vision, then government can and must intervene. Indeed government enjoys a monopoly of coercive power simply to prevent the arbitrary use of coercion by individuals.
My vision of the “good life” may involve watching television, investing twenty dollars each week on the TAB, and drinking considerable quantities of coffee. Your vision may involve solving cryptic crosswords, listening to the music of Mozart, and reading the novels of Dostoevsky.
Should I, however, coercively extract twenty dollars from you and invest it — for your own good, of course! — on a “sure thing” in the last race at Flemington, then the government’s job is to move in and restrain me. Similarly, should you kidnap me, chain me to a chair, and force me to listen to your latest Mozart recording, then the government appropriately moves in and restrains you. The government, in other words is “value neutral”, neither proscribing nor prescribing, neither punishing nor rewarding, any non-coercive vision of the “good life”. When however, it takes it upon itself to do so, it is no longer a mere government; it is then an all-powerful state.
I choose to practise what is called the “augmented tithe”. If I attempted to use the coercive power of the state to make other people engage in the practice then, in principle, I cannot object when the state of the USSR prescribes a non-Christian vision of the “good life” and punishes men and women practising a “Christian vision”. If I can use the force of law to make, say, charity obligatory, then in principle I cannot object should an opponent of Christian ethics use the force of law to make charity a crime.
The government must be value neutral. The state cannot be so. Each person must be free to attempt to engage in his own eccentricities and by his potty little self!
The principle of individual liberty presupposes that different people value different things. It presupposes, in other words, that in a very significant sense people are not “equal”. “Ah! But Christianity teaches that all people are equal.”
Does it? Just what do the words “equal”, “equally”, and “equality” mean? In the simplest sense two or more objects are “equal” in some respect if they are share some common quality. Two pieces of wood may be of “equal” length. Two one-dollar notes are of equal value to one two-dollar note. In terms of some specific characteristic, “equal” objects are identical and therefore interchangeable.
Now in this sense people clearly are not “equal”. It is almost impossible to identify any characteristic — physical, intellectual, or moral — that all people possess to the same degree. Indeed, the scriptural assertion that “He calleth His sheep by name” hints at the uniqueness of each, not the “equality” of all.
“Ah! All people are equal in that God values them equally.” That statement, however, is about God, not people. If a fire should occur in my apartment there are five objects I would try to save. I value these objects “equally”. That tells you something about me, not about the (very different) objects.
“What we mean when we say ‘All people are equal’ is that we should treat all human being equally. A Christian writer put it will: ‘… the heart of Christian ethics lies in the imperative that Christians treat all people equally’.” Careful! The mafia hit-man who disposes of all his victims with equal efficiency is treating people equally. So is the sadist who treats all people with equal cruelty.
“You’re being pedantic! Clearly, the writer meant to say that we should treat all people with equal respect.” But again, be careful. I treat all people with “equal respect” if I treat with equally minimal respect. The simple rule “Treat all people with respect” is much more demanding than the rule “Treat all people with equal respect.”
Equality of income? I shall discuss this later when I refer to “economic liberty”. But some initial points can be made. The philosopher, David Hume, pointed out that, were all goods redistributed so that all people had exactly the same material assets, one gift, or one voluntary exchange of goods, would jeopardise “equality”. Over a period of time massive inequalities would again emerge. Hence the process of redistribution would constantly have to be repeated.
(And, be it noted, those people supporting and imposing the redistribution clearly enjoy greater political power than those who oppose, but are forced to submit to, the redistribution. So in terms of political power, inequality continues to obtain.)
4. The good life
More significantly, however, inequalities of income frequently relate to different visions of the “good life”. Suppose you prefer to work in an office and thereby gain a substantial salary and I prefer a more leisurely, but frugal, way of life. You offer to exchange some of your earnings if I agree to keep a caring eye on your children whilst you are working. You will end up with more money than I will, but both of us gain.
I surrender what I value less (total privacy and no responsibility) for what I value more (sufficient money to buy food). You surrender what you value less (goods and services which the money you give me could have obtained for you) for what you value more (the opportunity to work and enjoy a substantial income). The “inequality of income” simply reflects our different visions of the “good life”.
“But not always! People earn different incomes because some people enjoy capabilities which others lack. And that’s not fair.” To explore this argument fully would involve a somewhat tedious discussion of “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome”. But maybe a simple point will suffice. This objection, pushed to its logical conclusion, demands that all differences which give some people advantages over others should be removed. We end up with the nightmare world painted by L.P. Hartley in his novel Facial Justice, a world in which beautiful women and handsome men are forced to undergo surgery to correct their envy-provoking excesses of appeal. Kurt Vonnegut, in a short story entitled Harrison Bergeron, depicts an equally frightening prospect: in his world people with talents about the norm are “cut down” to average size by having anti-pacesetters implanted!
“Equality of opportunity through schooling” has much more to recommend it. But even this admirable principle is not beyond suspicion. In his book Educating the Worker-Citizen Professor Joel Spring argues that in fact the principle operates to benefit the massive education empire, not children.
For the Libertarian the key principle is equality of rights (and remember, a “right” to do X or own Y simply means that a person is not obligated to refrain from doing X or not obligated to surrender Y). The philosopher, John Rawls, suggests that we imagine ourselves being “thrown into” a society. We are, however, behind a “veil of ignorance”. We do not know what we might “be” in that society; male or female, black or white, wise or simple.
What would we want that society to be like? The Libertarian would not want a society based on “caste”, a society within which some people were obligated to refrain from activities others had a “right” to enjoy. One could imagine a person finding the notion of a “caste” which could do whatsoever it wished with impunity attractive — but remember, we are behind that “veil of ignorance”. We do not know whether we shall be members of that caste or its victims.
The Libertarian, valuing the liberty of people to formulate and strive to realise their own visions of the “good life”, knows that such is only possible if all enjoy equal rights and if no person or group of people can coercively impose some particular vision of the “good life” upon others.
5. Who is the Libertarian?
Who, then, is the Libertarian? He is a person who cherishes individuality and diversity. He defends the liberty of each person to create in his mind, and strive to actualise, his own dreams of the “good life”. He defends that liberty knowing full well that, from his point of view, many of the dreams which other people create will be “silly”, “quaint”, and even “ugly”.
But why should the Christian defend such liberty? Ultimately, because he worships God who allowed Judas to betray Jesus. Because he let Pilate choose to value political security more than his conviction that there was “no fault” in That Man.
6. Economic liberty
When discussing “equality of income” no mention was made of the argument that, when the production of goods and services is separated from their distribution, productivity is decreased. In other words, when the goods and services other people exchange for an individual’s skills are reallocated by some third party, productivity falls below what it might be. To develop this point fully involves two lines of thought:
- When we check out the facts, this is precisely what happens. In these circumstances the poorest suffer the most.
- When we really work out what such terms as “income level” and “profit and loss” mean, this must happen.
I do, however, stress that given a free society (a value-neutral government) and a free market economy, there will be, in the community, what one economist called “the tyranny of the bell-shaped curve of income distribution”. Substantial inequalities of income will obtain. Defenders of the free market in a free society who deny this are either liars or fools.
But — and this is the “crunch” — action to abolish or reduce these inequalities will reduce productivity, and that, ultimately, hurts the poorest and most vulnerable members of a community the most. On the other hand let the process that, admittedly, generates inequalities of income continue unfettered, and the standard of living of the poorest will be raised.
7. Individuality and expertise
If people are different (and they are) and if people value different things (and they do), then two people on a desert island gain if the different skills of each are developed. Robinson Crusoe, let us say, is extremely able in the growing of corn. Man Friday is skilled at catching fish. Assuming the absence of coercion, an exchange of goods benefits both. Each surrenders what he values less (excess corn in the case of Robinson Crusoe, excess fish in the case of Man Friday) for what he values more. Each enjoys a more varied diet.
In a complex society this mutually benefiting, voluntary direct exchange becomes difficult. Yet if some commodity should be found which all value and each accepts in an exchange, the Robinson Crusoe/Man Friday situation can be paralleled. This universally valued and accepted commodity is, of course, what we call money.
The process of mutually benefiting, voluntary exchange does much more than enrich the life of each participant. Without conscious planning, a system is created whereby each can exchange a limited skill for countless skills.
Before typing this paper I exchanged part of what I earn for instructing students in Greek Philosophy for a new typewriter ribbon. I could no more locate, mine, and refine the metals making up the spool, manufacture the ribbon, synthesise the ink impregnating the ribbon, put together the completed product, package it is a container upon which is printed accurate information as to the specific type of ribbon in that container, and ensure that the local North Melbourne stationery story had on its shelves what I wanted, than fly!
Yet I ambled into the store, made by request, handed over a five-dollar note, and received the ribbon plus some change. I had exchanged my limited skills for literally hundreds of thousands of skills which no single person could even list let alone co-ordinate. I was able to draw upon and benefit from a totality of information which no expert, or group of experts, could ever synthesise. And that incredible system, born of voluntary exchange, is the free market. Or — gasp! — capitalism.
8. Enter a villain
Let us complicate the picture. Enter a villain backed by thugs. This person “takes” from me what my fellow-citizens believe my skills are worth. He uses what he has taken, firstly, to fund his own somewhat lavish style of life and secondly, to “help” those who he believes “deserve” his assistance. A new situation has been created. Some people gain but at someone else’s loss. We are into what some call a “zero-sum” situation, the situation obtaining in a game such as Poker where the “winnings” of one are at the expense of another.
I have also, in principle, said “Farewell” to individual liberty. If some person possesses the coercive power to “correct” the value which other people place upon my skills my imposing his views as to what my skills are worth, then, at least in theory, that person could take everything I possess. He can, in that way, make my vision of the “good life” a path to suicide.
But more. What men and women freely indicates what these people value, how rare some commodity is, and how efficiently producers make available the finished goods people want. The price system of a free market embodies invaluable information. When coercion enters the picture that information is distorted.
And that matters. It is the price system of the free market that enables a consumer-controlled economy to work. It is the absence of this price system that dooms a centrally planned economy to failure. For the planners, in the absence of the information the price system of the free market provides, cannot carry out their tasks. That is why there are queues in centrally planned economies. That is why the one third of the workforce in the USSR involved in agriculture cannot meet the food needs of a nation which once exported food, whereas the four per cent of the workforce in the USA involved in agriculture feed an entire nation and a great deal of the rest of the world as well.
9. Central planning
Were it not for the “market” that invariably emerges in centrally planned economies — the “black market” — socialist nations would be in an intolerable situation. If “equality” in such societies were to be achieved (and this is highly unlikely, in that the “planners” necessarily enjoy greater political power than the “planned”, and hence are in a position to implement a pattern of distribution enriching themselves) it would be “equality in destitution”.
A perusal of the sad history of some Third World countries which, guided by Western “experts”, introduced collectivist “agrarian reforms”, illustrates the appalling costs, in human terms, of “central planning”. Countries which once enjoyed thriving agricultural bases have been reduced to dependence upon foreign aid for the most basic food stuffs. Tanzania is a tragic case in point.
Allegedly “socialist” states virtually concede this. In the USSR three per cent of cultivated land has been left to the control of individuals. This tiny fraction of privately owned land produces thirty per cent of the meat, milk, and vegetables, thirty-three per cent of the eggs, and sixty-one person of the potatoes that are available in that nation. What the great free market economist Ludwig von Mises said must happen in the absence of the price system of the free market has happened. The planners simply do not possess, and cannot possess, the information necessary to determine what is produced, where it is to be produced, how it is to be produced, where it is to be produced, and in what quantities it is to be produced. Hence the movement, in many allegedly “socialist” countries, towards limited though growing freer markets. Perhaps the most startling manifestation of this movement is the modest return to private ownership and profits for individual farmers in China.
Even the seemingly harmless compromise of a “mixed economy” presents problems. In such a state, ownership of resources and control of production largely lie in the hands of individuals, but the state “guides” and “assists” these people. The Libertarian, in principle, resents the element of coercion this introduces, but he also noted that even minor, and well intentioned, intervention within the market reduces efficiency and, in the long-term, hurts consumers, particularly the poorest.
10. A case study
Take rent control, and take, as our first example, a country much admired by those advocating a “mixed economy”: Sweden. Rent control was introduced in Sweden in 1942 purely for the duration of the war. After the war it was decided that housing for the people was “too important” to be left to the free market. Consequently, shortages developed, and after 1953 a process of decontrol was accelerated. The last remnants of rent control were abolished in 1975.
Assar Lindbeck, head of the Swedish Institute for International Economic Studies, put it bluntly: “Rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city — except for bombing.” Gunnar Myrdal, one of the architects of the Swedish welfare state, a Nobel Laureate in economics and an adviser to numerous Third World countries, was slightly more restrained in his judgment: “Rent control has constituted, maybe the worst example of poor planning by governments lacking courage and vision.”
Yet his recommended solution for this mysterious lack of “courage” and “vision” is interesting: agriculture and housing should be entrusted to the free market! Indeed, speaking from his new home in California (he emigrated from Sweden) Myrdal, one of the most admired of collectivist economists, has advocated the total abolition of income tax and the imposition, instead, of a tax upon commodities! He remains, however, a socialist “in principle”. His only reservation would seem to be that since interference in the free market has proved so damaging, socialism must remain a “principle”. Not a “practised principle”!
Touring the USA with a delegation of Soviet officials in 1975, Moscow Deputy Mayor Vasily Isaev remarked that he liked the city of Houston. It featured, he thought, an “impressive plan” whereas planning in other US urban areas was conspicuous by its absence. In those areas, he thought, it was for “private firms”, not “the people”, to develop and plan cities. In fact Deputy Mayor Isaev chose a singularly unfortunate example.
Houston enjoys less governmental involvement with land use than does any comparable US city. There is no “comprehensive plan”. There are no zoning laws. Rents are some ten to fifteen per cent lower than in any parallel American city. The orderly, people-serving reality of the free market had been confused with the chaos created by planners.
The mayor was in good if unusual company. A New York newspaper featured recently photographs of the more common state of affairs, notably crumbling tenements lacking heat and water. “Slumlords Still On Top In Harlem Areas” screamed the headline. Patient investigation by some Libertarians, checked and conformed by supporters of rent control, revealed that the “Slumlord” was the City Department of Real Estate! New York City, where housing for the poorest is truly appalling, has “enjoyed” rent control from Novemeber, 1943. The state is more involved in housing in that great city than in any other city in the USA.
11. What about the poor
This, in part, explains why the black, ghetto-born economists Professors Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams are agitating, in the name of the poorest, for the free market. They argue that the beneficiaries of the “welfare state” are, in truth, the “concerned” planners, bureaucrats, social workers, et al, who preside over the system. Payments to the poorest created simultaneously a “poverty trap” for them from which escape is almost impossible and a sop to the consciences of those who, in Sowell’s words, have found n the poor a “gold mine”.
I find it sad that those who staff our church’s division of Social Justice have not brought to the attention of church members the carefully argued and scrupulously researched case Professors Sowell, Williams, and countless Libertarians have mounted. If these people have proved their case — and I believe they have — then, unwittingly, the division of Social Justice is urging church members to support policies which hurt the poorest.
Indeed one of the most exciting features of Libertarianism is the multitude of creative, practical, and humane alternatives to state welfare which Libertarians have formulated to assist the weakest and most vulnerable members of a community. To discuss these adequately, and to note the interim proposals Libertarians are striving to implement which direct a welfare state towards a libertarian society, would, alas, double the length of this article.
Facts cannot be ignored. Historically, the free market in a free society maximises productivity, lifts the standard of living of all including the poorest, and ultimately makes ordinary men and women, through their decisions to buy or abstain from buying particular goods, the “rulers”.
Only in a free market economy are the possessors of capital (the resources needed to produce goods) forced, by the profit and loss system, to serve the interests of others. The masses, in their capacity as consumers, ultimately control everybody’s revenues and wealth, and steer control of capital goods to those who, wishing to improve their own situation, have succeeded in finding ways whereby a maximum of people can improve their situation at minimum costs.
That is why, incidentally, many businessmen oppose a radically free market where a “successful business” can remain successful only if it keeps satisfying consumers. It is much easier to agitate for controls, tariffs, protection, licences, and subsidies and thereby close entry to the market than to compete.
“Ah! You have made an assumption. In a world of finite resources we must work to reduce productivity. Christian believers should embrace a simple, communal lifestyle.”
Take the second claim first. I regard the family, not the commune, as the most helpful “grouping” of people. But in a free society, where private ownership is possible, Christians wishing to embrace a communal lifestyle can pool their resources, buy some land, and attempt to realise their ideal. Communal living would not, as it happens, suit me. I cherish privacy and am paying off a small “Own Your Own” apartment in one of the multi-storeyed North Melbourne building many of my (wealthy) socialist friends so despise.
Again, I tend to write marginal notes in books — and I can do this precisely because, owning those books, I can determine how they are used. As stated already, I enjoy practising the “augmented tithe”, and since I own my after-tax income I can do with it as I please. The enthusiast for the commune can, in a free society, strive to live out his vision of the “good life”. So can I. And it is the institution of private property — a necessary element in “economic liberty” — that makes this happy situation possible.
The point of “private property” is not, in C.B. MacPherson’s phrase, “possessive individualism”. It is rather that no state is able to control all rights and all goods. Only through ownership is the individual free to strive to realise his own vision of the “good life”.
The problem of finite resources is a real problem, although not, perhaps, as disturbing as the “prophets of doom” would have us believe. When Professor Julian L. Simon, once an organiser of the socialist Students for a Democratic Society, began to write his recently published The Ultimate Resource he held to the fashionable notions of his milieu: we were greedily gobbling up valuable resources, destroying arable land, and poisoning God’s good earth.
However, communing with the facts rather than mere fashionable intuitions (and exorcising a mistaken respect for the mysteries of the computer and remedying an ignorance of the simple distinction between an average, a mean and a median) he ended up writing a very different book from what he originally planned. Every year more, not less, arable land became available. Every year more, not less, food was produced in spite of the demonstrable inefficiencies of socialist states in producing food and the tragic lessening of agricultural output in Third World countries.
He found himself agreeing with a judgment of Professor Wilfred Beckerman, head of the Department of Political Economy at University College, London, that the finite resources problem was “the least of the problems that the human race needs to worry about in the foreseeable future”.
Similarly, Lester Thurow, whose left-wing credentials are impeccable, also subjected the premises of the “zero-economic growth” lobby to close examination in his book The Zero-Sum Society and demolished these Disneyland delusions with considerable skill. Yet I note, with regret, that the division of Social Justice has, in its publications, tended to advocate a “zero economic growth” stance without even noting, let alone discussing, the case being made against this position.
A free market economy tends to conserve rare resources. Suppose I own a mine and am secure in my ownership. Tripling this year’s production would increase this year’s profit, but it would simultaneously decrease the value of my resource. The market “values” my asset in terms of the future income that can be derived from it, and the price of shares, with remarkable precision, registers the decreased value of my property.
It is the politician and state official who, to secure re-election and continued employment, are tempted to sacrifice long-term benefits for short-term gains. They, not the private owner, are the ones under pressure to plunder and run whilst still in control.
13. Endangered species
“But consider endangered species! Look at the track-record of the free market here!” The evidence suggests, however, that this problem reduces to a simple fact: property rights do not obtain here. No farmer, secure in his ownership of a herd of vows and bulls, would mindlessly slaughter all. Indeed, “property rights” evolved in order to solve the problems created by “unowned” resources. Alternatively, when the problem of endangered species is addressed by the state — say through some “endangered species act” — it is frequently compounded, not solved. A “black market” is quickly created. Consequently, the value of the protected species is increased. For example, the price of elephant ivory has soared, since “protection”, from $2.30 (U.S.) in 1970 to in excess of $70 a pound in 1980.
Even if one overlooks the obvious point that entrepreneurs have perceived a “market” for some endangered species and have implement schemes whereby such animals are bred in captivity, many “capitalists” happen to care about the environment and endangered species. A group of libertarian environmentalists pooled their resources and purchased 1,584 acres in Leguna Madre on the south Texas coast. The reserve protects the largest rookery of reddish egrets in the USA.
Tanglewood, a private development on the north coast of New South Wales, guarantees the safety of a rain forest, simply because it is privately owned. A private reserve for the Parma wallaby exists in the Blue Mountains: there, and there alone, does that beautiful animal live in the wild. And it does so because a wealthy capitalist contributes $30,000 a year. Another capitalist Mr R. Sprigg, has spent in excess of $2 million to create a park named “Arkaroo”. The free market and private ownership can address and has successfully addressed some aspects of the problems disturbing conservationists.
The contrasting position of the state should be obvious. Conservationists and people anxious to preserve certain species might, today, convince it to support their cause. Tomorrow, however, another group might succeed in pressuring politicians to reverse a pro-conservationist decision. The most powerful way of advancing the conservationist cause is to take advantage of “property rights” and to oppose any measure taken by government to weaken such rights.
14. The dismal science
The Libertarian, advocating a free market, has to take seriously the “dismal science” of economics. Here, Libertarians reflect disagreements obtaining between economists. Many Libertarians, following “neo-classical” or “monetarist” economics, do not separate “economy and state” in the way they separate “church and state”. Milton Friedman, for example, grants government monopolistic control over a nation’s money supply and sees government addressing various economic problems by manipulating the money supply.
The radical Libertarian, however, goes further. In arguing for as free a market as possible in a free society, he is drawn to economists who, in the tradition of the “Austrian school”, adhere to the tenets of subjectivism and individualism in their approach to economic problems. One thinks, among others, of such names as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, Stephen Littlechild, and Melbourne’s own Naomi Maldofsky.
(“Subjectivism” and “individualism” mean, crudely, that all economic concepts are earthed in the thinking, valuing, fallible, and acting individual. This means, for example, that the “value” of a good is perceived not as some property inherent in the good, but as a relationship between an appraising mind and the object appraised. Hence the “value” of a good varies from person to person and, for one person, from time to time. It also means that the “price” of some commodity is known only to the valuing consumer or producer, being the alternative commodity not chosen. The “price”, say, of my purchasing a book is my not being able to purchase a ticket to see some film. This, in part, is why “Austrians” look with distaste at high marginal tax levels. It seems, at first, sensible to assume that high tax levels will result in high tax revenues. The moment, however, one earths economic concepts in the valuing, thinking, and acting individual, a high tax level equals a decrease in the “price” of leisure. At some point, which will vary from person to person, what is foregone by not working, i.e. choosing leisure, is so insignificant that “not working” becomes a rational choice. Hence decreased productivity, decreased opportunities for employment, decreased tax revenues, and greater suffering for the poorest.)
Such economists are in a minority. Yet their numbers are growing. Economists within the “mainstream” are talking of a “crisis” in economics. Disputes between Keynesians, “neo-Keynesians”, “neo-classical Keynesian synthesisers” and monetarists are on the increase. All such “mainstream” economists work with a concept called “equilibrium”. They create a purely imaginary world where realities associated with change are somehow “frozen” so that they will fit into a mathematically attractive but necessarily static schema. The real world of unpredictable change vanishes. So does the thinking, purposive, acting individual person.
The libertarian Christian finds the “Austrian” approach to economics exciting. For he works within the Bible writers’ doctrine of creation. He sees the world God creates and sustains as dynamic, as marked by flux and change. Man has to be thought of, to use Aristotle’s terminology, in terms of final causes — that is, in terms of goals, of objectives, of purposes. He is a fallible creature yet is capable of learning.
With the Bible writers, the libertarian Christian rejects the Babylonian notion that the physical world is “divine”, the “firmament” being made from the body of a god and the sun, moon, and stars being deities. The world, therefore, is not “taboo”. Man, endowed with creativity (made in “the image of God”) is at liberty to utilise and transform the “raw stuff” of creation.
(This “liberty” is qualified: the Torah begins with the admonition that man should “subdue” and “have dominion” over the earth but ends, in Deuteronomy, with a statement: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live”. But albeit qualified, it is real. Man can even make the seemingly “useless” useful: oil, for example, was known in biblical times and had very little “value”, being used only to make products like perfume and ink. Human creativity, however, discovered new uses for and thus conferred new “value” upon, this substance.)
Rejecting the Babylonian view of creation means, simultaneously, rejecting the views of the contemporary “deep environmentalists” who perceives the world as the source of all value and hence not to be “tampered” with.
Similarly, the Bible writers reject the Greek notion that the world we see, touch, and manipulate is somehow “unreal” or “evil”. For such Greek philosophers as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Plato, the “real” was the “unchanging” and the “timeless”. It followed that, since the physical world is marked by change, it could not be “real”. Rejecting this view, the libertarian Christian also rejects its contemporary advocates: the pure technicians who juggle their numbers and build their bridges without sparing a thought as to what they are doing to a world God declared and declares is “good”.
And the radical libertarian Christian simultaneously questions the “mainstream” economist who filters out of his models of “the economy” the valuing, thinking, fallible, learning, purposive and creative human person. It is the “Austrian” whose approach to economics is closest to the Bible writers’ view of creation and of man. And the “Austrian” approach, thought through, ends up with a radically free market.
I repeat, however, that many Libertarians do adopt a “mainstream” approach to economics, advocating a basically, albeit not radically, free market.
15. Good intentions
There is one final challenge the libertarian Christian faces. “Those who use the coercive power of the state to intervene within the market and establish their visions of ‘social justice’ mean well. Even if it is true that, in the long-term, their actions hurt the poorest, their intention is to help them. They can show, on television, pictures of men and women they have assisted. You cannot show pictures of individuals whom, on the long-term, their actions will hurt. They mean well.”
They do. So, perhaps, did a young Roman teenager who believed that the Roman Empire brought order to a disordered world and ruled primitive peoples incapable of ruling themselves. He “meant well” when he joined the Roman army. He “meant well” when he dutifully obeyed orders. He “meant well” when he officiated at the crucifixion of Jesus.
I conclude with a plea. I have attempted to lay bare my reasons, as Christian, for embracing a libertarian political, social, and economic stance. I know many of my brothers and sisters in Christ will disagree with my position. I hope that those who hold that the welfare state or a completely socialist state does most for the poorest, will write articles defending their views. In this way we can listen to one another, learn from one another, be “corrected” by one another, and grow in our thinking through an honest interchange of ideas and argumentation.
One final word. The God of the Bible is a “zany” God. He made himself known not in a spectacular military Messiah but in a reality as obvious yet as easily overlooked as a baby hidden in a stable. It makes sense to me that such a God has created a world within which “economic redemption” begins; not with a moral superman who, altruistically, acts to do to and for other people what he judges is “good” for them, but with something as simple, and seemingly ugly, as “rational self-interest”.
He lures men and women to define “self interest” in terms of a vision of the “good life” involving compassion, generosity, and gentleness. Yet he leaves them free to formulate their own visions and act in ways which maximise their chances of those visions becoming reality.
Laissez faire, laissez passer (let things alone) is not a popular slogan. Yet, thought through, it is not far removed from another cry: “Let my people go!”