By Edmund Opitz.
Countless generations of men have lived in unfree societies, but many men dreamed of freedom and hoped for the day when their children would be free. Gradually the West developed a philosophy of freedom, a rationale for individual immunity against governmental power. This intellectual movement gathered strength in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Liberalism, as it was called, became the major social force in country after country. As the twentieth century dawned it appeared that the ideals of the free society were safely installed in the thinking of the West and progressively realized in practice in the major countries. But then something hap pened. In country after country, the highway of Liberalism turned into the road to serfdom. We made an about face in this country, but those who led off in a new direction didn’t even bother to change the labels. They still call themselves Liberals, but the program of Liberalism in 1993 is radically opposed to the ideals of a free society. It is merely a pragmatized version of old-line socialism.
We sense that all is not well with our society, nor with our world. Our traditional rights and liberties, once taken for granted, are in jeopardy; they are undermined by dubious theories, and often overridden in practice. Under constant attack are such things as individual liberty, limited government, the private property concept, and the free market way of doing business. Taken together these items are the essential elements of the free society.
This essay is an effort to get to the roots of the present situation, to determine, if possible, some of the causes; and to suggest, in the light of this analysis, the nature of the remedy. The dislocations which meet the eye most immediately appear on the economic and political levels, but they stem if the analysis of this paper is correct from aberrations at the deeper levels of ethics and religion. Believing that no remedy can be successful that does not go at least as deep as the disease, it is suggested that sound economic and political theory, while imperative and good as far as it goes, does not go far enough by itself to make the case for liberty. It is further suggested that the typical added arguments from ethics are in fact substitutes for a genuine ethical theory. The difficulties that confront any effort to construct or revive an ethical consensus are alluded to, leading to an awareness of the need for reconstruction in the area of philosophy or theology. The case for liberty, in short, needs to be watertight. If there is an open seam at any level it may prove to be the gap through which liberty will be lost, for “Nature always seeks out the hidden flaw.”
Given a choice, most people today, will choose liberty—other things being equal. People don’t give up their liberties except under some delusion, such as the delusion that the surrender of a little liberty will strengthen the guarantee of economic security. There never has been a serious anti-liberty philosophy and platform as such, whose principles people have examined, accepted, and then put into practice. Things haven’t happened this way. But although we haven’t chosen statism, statism is what we are getting: Speaking now not of conquered countries where liberty has been suppressed but of nations like our own where the old legal forms have been preserved, we may say that the steady attrition of liberty in the modern world is not the consequence of a direct assault by open and avowed anti-libertarians. No, the steady decline of liberty among people who sincerely prefer liberty if given a choice is the unforeseen and unwanted by-product of something else.
Many people are concerned with the plight of liberty and are working toward its restoration. The tremendous upsurge of interest in the libertarian-conservative philosophy since 1950 is sufficient witness to that fact. The libertarian-conservative camp is unanimous in its opposition to every variety of collectivism and statism, but at this point the unanimity begins to break down. Libertarians and conservatives differ among themselves in their estimate of what it takes to challenge the prevailing ideologies successfully. There are four possible levels or stages of the anti-collectivist, pro-freedom argument: the economic, the political, the ethical, and the religious. Do we need to use all four? Or is one or two sufficient? Opinions differ in the libertarian- conservative camp. Let us examine some of the arguments advanced at each level, beginning with the economic.
It is enough to expound free market economics, say some. Socialism is nothing more than economic heresy and all we have to do is demonstrate the greater productive efficiency of the free market and the socialists will retire in confusion. Freedom works, they say, and as proof point to America’s superiority in computers, telephones, bathtubs, and farm products. The improvement of his material circumstance is man’s chief end, and the only thing that makes a man a Communist or a collectivist is his ignorance of the conditions which must prevail if a society is to be prosperous.
Most of those who stress economic arguments add considerations drawn from political philosophy. Socialism is not only unproductive economically, but the operational imperatives of a socialist society make government the sole employer. Society is run by command, by directives from the top down, the way an army is run. The individual citizen must do as he is told, or starve. There is no independent economic base to sustain political resistance, so the population in a socialized society is necessarily reduced to serfdom. This is an inevitable consequence of a managed economy, a development which is fatal to such political goods as the Rule of Law, respect for the rights and dignity of the individual, and the idea of private ownership protected by law.
Some libertarians and conservatives agree with the urgent need to argue the case on economic and political grounds, but believe that it must be carried a stage further—into ethics. There is not, they would argue, one ethical code for politicians and another for people—there is just one set of ethical norms which is binding on rulers and ruled alike. A socialized society is poor in economic goods, and its citizens are, politically, reduced to serfs. These are social consequences of the moral violations which are built-in features of every variety of collectivism and statism. The moral violations which this argument has in mind are not simply the obvious sins of totalitarian regimes; the lying for political advantage, the murders for convenience, the concentration camps, and so on. These are included, of course, but this argument is mainly directed at the more subtle moral violations inherent in the operations of the welfare state.
The welfare state in America, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, is based on the redistributionist principle: “Votes and taxes for all, subsidies for a few.” In actual practice, the welfare state deprives all citi zens of a percentage of their earnings in order to redistribute this money to its favorites-after taking out a healthy cut to cover its own costs. Such a Robin Hood operation would be both illegal and immoral if private citizens engaged in it; and although any government can, by definition, make its actions legal, it cannot make them moral. Every variety of collectivism, therefore, is charged with ethical violations, in addition to practicing economic and political lunacy.
“Social Utility” Trap
It is at this point that a major rift begins to appear in the freedom camp. Some libertarians challenge the validity of ethical arguments. The universe, they assert, displays no recognizable ethical dimension. Says one of them: “Nature is alien to the idea of right and wrong . . . . It is the social system which determines what should be deemed right and what wrong . . . . The only point that matters is social utility.” Well, all sorts of habit and customs, from primitive ritual cannibalism to using the proper soup spoon, serve the ends of “social utility,” and if social utility is “the only point that matters” I doubt that the case for liberty can be made convincing, however skillful our economic reasoning.
Those who discount ethical and religious arguments get off the bus here. These sturdy fighters for freedom have made their choice of weapons and they are drawn exclusively from the arsenal of economic and political theory. But even among those who would use ethical arguments there is great difference of opinion. “Whose ethics?” they ask, or “What theory of ethics?” One group steers clear of religion, regarding it as a strictly private matter with little or no relevance to the free society. A second group regards religion as hostile to the free society. I propose to deal first with this position.
These anti-religionists employ what they label ethical arguments, as well as arguments drawn from economic and political theory, but when it comes to religion, they draw the line. They want nothing to do with this God stuff! God’s existence is, in their eyes, improbable, but this is not all; religious belief is actually harmful! The title of a lecture in a series sponsored by this group is “The Destructiveness of the God idea.” They proudly proclaim themselves atheists.
There are numerous conceptions of God, and every one of us is a-theist-ic with reference to one or more of them. Most self-styled atheists are a-theist-ic with respect to a childish version of the deity. This is about on a par with not believing in the moon because some people say it is made of green cheese! In history there have been men of incomparable intellectual attainments who have been theists, who would not have been theists if they had had to believe in such a concept of the deity as the typical atheist rejects. And the same is true of contemporary theists. There are popular and degrading notions of God, but the argument is not confined to the limitations imposed by superstition!
Competing Ethical Codes
Now let me return to the first group of ethicists; those who lean heavily on ethical arguments but steer clear of the religious area. These people generally understand that in economics, liberty means reliance on the uncoerced buying habits of consumers as a guide to making economic decisions; “the market,” in short. In politics, liberty implies limited government. This means that governmental action, circumscribed by a written constitution, is designed to protect the lives, the liberties, and the property of all citizens alike. But it also means that both government and constitution must operate within the framework imposed by an ethical code. In terms of this ethical code, political invasions of personal liberty and property are morally wrong. If an act is wrong when done by private citizens, it is just as wrong when done by public officials.
Such a statement as this assumes that private citizens and public officials acknowledge and try to live by the same ethical code. They may, or again, they may not. There is not just one ethical code in 1993; there are several competing and conflicting codes even in this country. Today, however, there is general confusion in the area of our moral values, and some contend that “right” and “wrong” are not meaningful terms. Ethical relativism is widely accepted, and this creed maintains that something which may be right in one time or place may be wrong in another time or place.
A century ago in this country the ethical code could pretty much be taken for granted; people’s notion of what things were right and what things were wrong were, for the most part, deductions from a common source. We derived our ethical consensus from the prevailing religion of the West, Christianity. This ethical consensus was recognizably different, even a century ago, from the ethical consensus of Hindu society, which sanctioned the division of society into inferior and superior castes, and put millions of outcastes outside the category of human beings. It differed in important ways from the ethical consensus which had prevailed in Greece and Rome. W.E.H. Lecky’s famous book, History of European Morals (1869), was a dispassionate account of the transformation wrought in the moral ideals of the ancient world by the introduction of Christianity.
But, although there was a nineteenth-century ethical consensus, fateful developments were pending in the realm of religion and ethics. Friedrich Nietzsche told his contemporaries, in effect: You have given up the Christian God and this means that you cannot long retain your ethical code which is bound up with this faith. Let’s get back to the ethical code of the ancient Greeks! Nietzsche urged what he called “a trans-valuation of all values.” Karl Marx was telling us during this period that the productive efforts of a society are the main thing; ethical, intellectual, and spiritual things are mere superstructure. The moral values of the nineteenth century, therefore, were capitalist ethics; get rid of capitalist production and capitalist ethics would follow it down the drain, to be replaced by Communist ethics. And Communist ethics, as spelled out by Lenin, are an inversion of Christian ethics. Whatever advances the Party is right and good. Lying and murder are endorsed as ethical practices if they further the cause of the Communist Party.
The ethical confusion has worsened in our own day, and become more complicated. And so an awareness grows that the kind of an ethical code we would endorse is by no means obvious to a lot of people; therefore, if this code is again to become an active principle in the lives of people it needs some attention.
The Lack of an Ethical Consensus
Our traditional ethical code is the end result of a particular historical development. This code is something people have learned; they have imbibed it from Western culture. It is not, in other words, a biological set of guidelines with which people come equipped at birth, as they have two hands, two feet, one head, and so on. Recognition of this fact turns up in odd places. John Dewey, himself no Christian, spent some time in China after World War I, and in 1922 he made this pertinent observation: “Until I had lived in a country where Christianity is relatively little known and has had relatively very few generations of influence upon the character of people, I had always assumed, as natural reactions which one could expect of any normal human being in a given situation, reactions which I now discover you only find among the people that have been exposed many generations to the influence of the Christian ethic.” In other words, our traditional ethical code is one we have learned over the centuries in a Christian culture. We were educated into it century after century, until the past several generations, during which time we have been slowly educated out of it. The assumption that we can take our ethical code for granted and use it to confound the collectivists presupposes a situation that does not exist; it presupposes an ethical consensus, when it is precisely the absence of such a consensus which has helped create the vacuum into which collectivism has seeped!
As the French philosopher André Mal-raux tells us, we are living in the first agnostic civilization. Until the past two or three generations, men believed that their moral ideals reflected the nature of the universe. But if the universe is a complete moral blank, completely alien to notions of right and wrong, then all moral codes are merely homemade rules for convenience. A rule against murder is on the same level as a rule against driving on the left hand side of the street; there is no intrinsic difference between the two. A libertarian writer defends the integrity of scientific and economic laws as the only constants in the universe. These, he writes, “must not be confused with man-made laws of the country and with man-made moral precepts.” It follows, therefore, that if men do not happen to like the ethical code they are living under they can write themselves a new one, just as easily as they can change from summer to winter clothing.
To sum up the matter: We can no longer take our traditional ethical code for granted. The foundation it was based upon has been neglected, and an ethical code, by its nature, is a set of inferences and deductions from something more fundamental than itself. We may behave decently out of habit, but ethical theory—by its very nature—must be grounded in a theology, or cosmology, if you prefer. A belief in the impossibility of ethics because the universe is a moral blank is an instance of the truism that every code for conduct is a deduction from a judgment based on faith as to the nature of things.
We hear it said frequently that individual man, in the totalitarian countries, is made for the state; but here, the state is made for man. If we say that the state is made for man, the implication is that we have come to some tentative conclusions as to what man is made for. We must have asked, and found some sorts of answers, to questions such as the following: What is the end and goal of human life? What is the purpose and meaning of individual life? What is my nature, and my destiny? Within what framework of meaning does the universe make sense? These are theological and religious questions, and when they are seriously pondered some sorts of answers are bound to come.
That things are senseless and individual life without meaning is one sort of an answer. Once this answer is given, it will start to generate an appropriate ethical code. This is a sort of salvage effort to which the works of the late Albert Camus were devoted. “I proclaim that I believe in nothing,” he writes, “and that everything is absurd.” The only appropriate response to this act of faith is rebellion, arising “from the spectacle of the irrational coupled with an unjust and incomprehensible condition.” This is one reading of the universe and the human condition, together with an appropriate recommended code of conduct. It is, therefore, a religion, although the number of its adherents do not appear in any census. In passing, one might remark that it is a curious kind of “incomprehensible condition” from which a man can apprehend enough to write several books about it! Communism is another contemporary religion. Its universe is a materialistic one, but the universe contains a dynamic force—the mode of production—which is working toward the fulfillment of history in a classless society. And there is an appropriate code of conduct enjoined upon all good Communists.
There is a third option which makes considerable sense to me, and that is Christianity. Such a statement comes as no surprise, and you are probably telling yourself that I, as a professional religionist, have a vested interest in offering just such a conclusion. Permit me, therefore, to digress and sound an autobiographical note. If anyone had told me during my high school years, or up to my senior year in college that I’d wind up as a minister, I’d have taken it as a personal affront! As things turned out, however, I did find myself in theological school after college, but before the first year had gone by I had decided that the ministry was not for me. I was skeptical about theological matters and decided to go into the field of psychology. In theological controversy it seemed to me there were good arguments in favor of all the basic doctrines, and good arguments against. How, then, does one tip the balance in one direction or another? On the level of doctrinal theory it was difficult for me to say. To make a long story short, I finally returned to theological studies, got my degree, and—full of misgivings—was foisted upon an innocent and unsuspecting congregation.
During these years I held to a parallel set of interests in economics and political science. I was a libertarian before I ever heard the word, based on an acquaintance with the thinking of the Classic Liberals and a prejudice in favor of freedom. But my social thinking was in one compartment and my religion was in another. Unbeknownst to me, however, these two things were on a collision course, and it was fated that one day they should bump into each other. They did, and lots of things began to fall into place. I became aware of what Christianity had meant to Western civilization and to the framing of America’s institutions, and before long I had the ingredients to tip my theological balance in the direction of firmer religious convictions. I also knew why Classic Liberalism failed, although it had played its own game with its own deck—it lacked the religious dimension which alone makes life meaningful to individuals and provides a foundation for ethics.
People were freer in the nineteenth century than men had ever been before. This period was the heyday of Liberalism, but it also happened to be the twilight of religion. Large numbers of people became uncertain about the ends for which life should be lived. Lacking a sense of purpose and destiny they were afflicted by the feeling that life has little or no meaning, that the individual doesn’t matter nor his life count. Just when people had the most freedom they lost touch with the things which make freedom really worth having. Freedom had once been affirmed as a necessary condition for man if he were to achieve his true end, but when the religious dimension dropped out of life the advocates of freedom got themselves into a “promising contest” with the collectivists as to which could outpromise the other when it came to delivering the maximum quantity of material things. As was to be expected, the collectivists outpromised their opponents, although their actual performance must forever fall short. Liberty, in other words, is recognized for the precious thing it really is when significant numbers of people know that they must have it in order to work out their eternal destiny.
There are two things I am not saying. I am not saying that we have to cook up or feign an interest in religion merely to accomplish political or economic ends. Such efforts would be fruitless, but even if they were effective I’d oppose them. Secondly, I am not saying that men who, for reasons of their own, cannot embrace religion and ethics, cannot therefore be effective champions of free market economics and limited government. There are technical areas in political theory, and especially in economics, where a lot more enlightenment is needed, and where there is no impingement on the domains of ethics and religion. Nonreligious libertarians may be invaluable here. Even so, they cannot touch all bases. The man who is a socialist for religious or ethical reasons won’t be shaken in his convictions by economic and political arguments alone; his religious and ethical misconceptions must be met on their own ground.
At this point I shall be reminded that economists, after Adam Smith to the present day, do tend typically to hold some variety of the ethical theory known as Utilitarianism, which dates back to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the early and middle part of the nineteenth century. But as Mill himself pointed out, the creed has a long history, dating from Epicurus in the third century B.C.
Utilitarianism states its principles in various ways, but invariably it emphasizes two cardinal points—maximum satisfaction and minimum effort. Man, in terms of this theory, acts only to maximize his happiness, pleasures, satisfactions or comfort, and he seeks to do this with a minimum expenditure of energy. Utilitarianism has little or nothing to say about the spiritual, ethical or cultural framework within which its “maximum economy—maximum satisfaction” principle operates. It minimizes or denies life’s spiritual dimension, it uses the word “good” in a non-ethical sense, i.e., equivalent to “happiness producing,” and it asserts that men are bound together in societies solely on the basis of a rational calculation of the private advantage to be gained by social cooperation under the division of labor.
The Utilitarian proposition that each man invariably tends to achieve his ends with a minimum of effort says nothing about the means he may or will use. The “maximum economy” principle, when it first took over as a conscious maxim of human behavior—in nineteenth-century England—operated within the value system or ethical code persons happened to have at the time. The ethical code in the West during the period of the appearance and gradual acceptance of the “maximum economy” principle—during the past century—was largely a product of the religious heritage of Europe. This ethical legacy assured that although men would tend to take the line of least effort in the attaining of their ends, they would at the same time use only those means which are compatible with the moral norms enjoined by their religion. Moral norms are restraints on certain actions, and if the “maximum economy” principle is fervently accepted it must go to work on the restraints embodied in the ethical code whenever they interfere with the line of least resistance between a man’s aims and their realization. The” maximum economy” principle, by its very nature, necessarily sacrifices means to ends, and in the circumstances of the modern world Utilitarianism begins to undermine the old ethical norms wherever these impede an individual’s attainment of his economic ends.
Robbery, it has been observed, is the first labor saving device. If a man accepts, without qualification, the precept “Get more for less” as his categorical imperative, what will he do when a combination of circum stances presents him with a relatively safe opportunity to steal? His ethical compunctions against theft have already been dulled, and the use of theft as a means of acquiring economic goods is one of the possible logical conclusions that may be drawn from the “greatest economy” principle. Theft is, of course, forbidden in many of the world’s ethical codes, and conformity to these codes over the millennia has bred a reluctance to steal in most men. Thievery there has been aplenty despite the bans, but it has been accompanied by a guilty conscience. The “maximum economy” principle, when first accepted, is applied to productive labor within the framework of the code. But if the idea of “Get more for less” is a principle, why not apply it across the board?
There are two impediments to a man’s acquisition of economic goods: First, there is the effort required to produce them, and second, there is the prohibition against stealing them. The former is in the nature of things, but the latter comes to be regarded as merely a man-made rule. The “greatest economy” principle goes to work on the first impediment—productive effort—by inventing labor saving devices; it goes to work on the second impediment—the moral code—by collectivizing it. It reduces the commandment against theft to a matter of social expediency.
Society is admonished against theft on the grounds that a society in which property is not secure is a poor society. But this truism offers no guidance to the individual who finds himself in a situation where he can steal with relative impunity. To the extent that he is emancipated from “outmoded” taboos and follows the line of least resistance, he will steal whenever he thinks he can get away with it, and to make theft easier and safer he will start writing a form of theft into his statutes: “Votes and taxes for all, subsidies for us.” Utilitarianism, in short, has no logical stopping place short of collectivism. Utilitarian collectivism is not a contradiction in terms, although particular Utilitarians, restrained by other principles, may stop short of collectivism.
Utilitarianism purports to be a theory of ethics; man ought to act, it declares, so as to augment the quantity of satisfactions. It is usually linked to a theory of motivation which sweepingly declares that every human action aims at improving the well-being of the acting agent: “acting is necessarily always selfish.” Capitalism, it is asserted, is based on this deterministic psychology. The militant atheist group mentioned earlier adopts what it calls a morality of self-interest. “Morality is a rational science,” we read in their literature, “with man’s life as its standard, [and] self-interest as its motor.” “Capitalism,” the author continues, “expects, and by its nature demands that every man act in the name of his rational self-interest.” Let us examine this unqualified assertion. Capitalism, or the market economy, begins to work automatically in a society where there is a preponderance of fair play and an evenhanded justice in operation. Lacking these essential conditions capitalism cannot be made to work. Here’s a person with more shrewdness than ability; he has little energy and fewer scruples. On the market, the verdict of his peers is that his services aren’t worth very much; so he consults his rational self-interest—unimpeded by old-fashioned ethics—and learns that his shrewdness and lack of scruples admirably equip him to operate a racket. He starts one, and becomes wealthy and famous. Would anyone care to try to convince an Ivan Boesky, for instance, that it is really to his own self-interest to play the game fairly even though this would put him behind the wheel of a bakery truck at $160.00 per week? How can the anti-capitalistic mentality, if it is true to itself, and acts in its own self-interest, project a capitalist society? The answer is, it can’t.
Some accidents of history shattered our society’s ethical and religious framework just at the time when free market economists came forth armed with insights into human behavior in the areas of production and trade. But because men respond one way in one sector of life it cannot be inferred that they respond the same way everywhere, nor that they should. Oddly enough, it is precisely free market economists themselves who best embody this truism. Free market economists in these days find a poor market for their services. There is, on the other hand, a great public demand for the tripe palmed off as the new economics by the “social scientists.”
Resisting all such market demands the free market economists stand by their principles even though this means that, with motives impunged, they are lonely voices, victims of academic and professional dis crimination. Why do they not yield to pressure of popular demand, as they themselves advocate should be done in the realms of production, trade, and entertainment? Does the market demand ridiculous spike-heeled shoes and mismatched clothes? Then give the public what it wants, say the free market economists; in the realm of material things, the majority is always right. Are there complaints about the high salaries of rock wailers and Hollywood sex symbols, coupled with laments about the low estate of the legitimate theater? Yes, but not from free market economists who conceal any disgust they may feel and merely say, “Let the public be served.” But when it comes to the realm of ideas the economists, to their enormous credit, ignore the market—public and majority pressures—and do not trim or hedge or yield an inch on their convictions. In other words, they operate with one set of principles in the realm of material things-“Give the public what it wants”—but they invoke another set of principles when they enter the realm of economic ideas—“Resist public pressure on behalf of intellect and conscience.” Oddly enough, however, there is nothing in their philosophy to legitimize the second set of principles. They know by a kind of instinct or intuition that ideas or opinions which have a price tag attached—as if they were marketable commodities like any other—aren’t worth much, and neither is the person who hawks them. But instincts and intuitions, however civilized and humane, are largely uncommunicable.
Conduct, however exemplary, cannot make its point when it is tied to a philosophy which alleges that the game of life has no rules; therefore, seek private advantage, maximize personal satisfactions. No matter how such ingredients as these are combined they won’t result in a philosophy of liberty. This needs something else, namely, a framework of values which makes possible a different approach. The restoration of our ethical consensus and the repair of our value system brings us to arguments on the religious level. The traditional arguments in this area won’t be given a fair shake by our contemporaries unless there is a contemporary approach to them which really confronts us with them. Perhaps there is such an approach.
The City of God and The City of Man
Christianity introduced a concept into the thought of the West which is alien to the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, the two major thinkers of the ancient world. This new concept has been called, after Augustine, the idea of the two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. Man, it is asserted, holds his citizenship papers in two realms, the earthly and the heavenly. He is to negotiate this life as best he can, seeking as much justice and such happiness as this world permits, but in full awareness that his ultimate felicity may be attained only in another order of existence.
This concept would have been largely incomprehensible to the Greeks. Man, for Aristotle, was a political animal who might find complete fulfillment in the closed society of the Greek city-state. A standard work on this aspect of Grecian life is Ernest Barker’s Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle (1906, 1959), and a few sentences from this book convey the flavor of the Greek outlook. Summarizing Aristotle, Barker writes: “The good of the individual is the same as the good of the society . . . . The notion of the individual is not prominent, and the conception of rights seems hardly to have been attained.” Speaking of Socrates, Barker writes, “For him there was no rule of natural justice outside the law; law is justice, he held, and what is just is simply what is commanded in the laws.” Ethics and politics are one, and there is no distinction between Church and State. The city-state, “being itself both Church and State . .. had both to repress original sin—the function to which medieval theory restricted the State, and to show the way to righteousness—a duty which medieval theory vindicated for the Church.”
After the decay of ancient society and the polarization of Church and State, the distinction between spiritual and secular power in Europe and America for the past nineteen centuries guaranteed that there would always be some separation and dispersal of power within the nation. But with the dropping of the religious dimension from modern life we return to the unitary state in both theory and practice. This was obvious to Barker early this century as he foresaw the rise of the welfare state: “It seems to be expected of the State that it shall clothe and feed, as well as teach its citizens, and that it shall not only punish drunkenness, but also create temperance. We seem to be returning to the old Greek conception of the State as a positive maker of goodness; and in our collectivism, as elsewhere, we appear to be harking ‘back to Aristotle.’”
Christianity introduced another concept into Western thought which has had an effect upon our thinking about government, the concept of the Fall. Christian thought distinguishes between the created world as it came from the hand of God, and the fallen world known to history; between the world of primal innocence we posit, and the world marred by evil, which we know. It follows from this original premise that Christian thought is non-behaviorist; it is based on the idea that the true inwardness of a thing—its real nature—cannot be fully known by merely observing its outward behavior. Things are distorted in the historical and natural order, unable to manifest their true being. Man especially is askew. He is created in the image of God, but now he is flawed by Sin.
Some political implications may be drawn from these premises: It has been a characteristic note in Christian sociology, from the earliest centuries, to regard government not as an original element of the created world but as a reflection of man’s corrupted nature in our fallen world. Government, in other words, is a consequence of sin; it appears only after the fall. Government is an effect of which human error and evil are the causes. Government, at best, is competent to punish injustice, but it cannot promote virtue. In other words, the Christian rationale for government is incompatible with the total state required by collectivism. When the Christian rationale for government is understood and spelled out, the only political role compatible with it is the modest function of defending the peace of society by curbing peace breakers. When government is limited to repressing criminal and destructive actions, men are free to act constructively and creatively up to the full limit of their individual capacities.
We arrive at a similar conclusion by contemplating the second half of the Great Commandment, where we are enjoined to love our neighbor as ourselves. The bonds that should unite people, it is here implied, are those of unyielding good will, understanding, and compassion. But in collectivist theory, on the other hand, people are to be put through their paces by command and coercion. This is the nature of the means which must be, and are being, employed in even the most well-intentioned welfare state. In practice, every collectivized order careens toward a police state whose own citizens are its first victims. The love commandment of the Gospels, brought down to the political level, implies justice and parity and freedom. There is no way to twist these basic premises into a sanctioning of the operational imperatives of a collectivist society.
The argument from liberty to Christianity has now been sketched in outline. Those who would limit the defense of liberty to a discussion of free market economics, with an assist from political theory, have a genuine role to perform, as far as they go. And if they cannot bring themselves to accept the truth of ethics and religion, integrity demands that they refuse to pretend otherwise. Their economic arguments are much needed, and thus they are invaluable allies in this sector. But liberty has not been lost on this level alone, and it cannot be won back on this level alone.
We are confronted, not only by highly developed and sophisticated arguments for socialism and communism, but by fully collectivized nations.
Before there was ever a collectivist nation, there was a collectivist program. Before there was ever a collectivist program, there was a collectivist philosophy. Before there was ever a collectivist philosophy, there were collectivist axioms and premises, with appropriate attitudes toward life, and an appropriate mood.
The roots of collectivism go this deep, right down to our basic attitude toward the universe and our primordial demands on life. This is the level of a man’s fundamental orientation of his life, the level at which religion begins to do its work. We must get squared away here, otherwise our thinking on the other levels will be distorted. But with a proper religious orientation—at this fundamental level of basic attitudes and mood we can work out a philosophy of freedom.
When we have worked out the philosophy of freedom, we can advance a program based upon it.
And when we have a freedom philosophy and program we will eventually get a free society. This sounds like a laborious route to take, and it is. But life doesn’t serve up many short cuts.
Originally published in The Freeman, January 1993, Volume 43, Issue 1.
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