By Rev. Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This essay was originally published in the July 1973 issue of The Freeman. Read more in the Edmund Opitz Archive.
The colonists had won a war and, desiring to set up a republican form of government, they installed a Constitution designed to limit the public authority and thus maximize personal liberty.
Now that they were free, what did these early Americans do with their newly won liberty? For one thing, they worked. They had to provide their own food, clothing and shelter, so work was a necessity of survival. Moreover, these people remembered the poverty endured by their ancestors in Europe and how life was demeaned thereby. Now that these Americans were free to enjoy the fruits of their toil they became more productive, and with the gradual increase of wealth came a new sense of human dignity which accompanies modest economic success. The Puritan Ethic was sound when it endorsed work, thrift and frugality. This ethic fitted in well with the burgeoning interest in the new science of economics, masterfully set forth in 1776 by Adam Smith. It is significant that more than twenty five hundred copies of Wealth of Nations were sold in this country within five years of its appearance. Obviously, the book addressed itself to a real need.
Economic activity is fundamental to human existence. A Robinson Crusoe could get along without politicking, but if he did not work he would die of hunger and exposure. Emerging from economic activity are the concepts of rights to property and claims to service around which many political battles are fought. Economics, on the surface, deals with prices, production, and the operations of the market as determined by the buying habits of every one of us. In reality, however, economics is concerned with the conservation and stewardship of the earth’s scarce goods; human energy, time, material resources and natural forces.
These goods-in-short-supplies are our birthright as creatures of this planet. Use them wisely, as natural piety dictates and common sense confirms — that is providently and economically — and human well-being is the result. Ignore the realities in this area, as we have done in our time, and a host of evils follow. We might be able to live with economic ills if we didn’t think we could cure them with political nostrums, but our political efforts aimed at mopping up the consequences of economic mistakes head us in the direction of the Total State. Every collectivist ideology —from the welfare state idea to totalitarian communism — is strung on a framework of economic error. People are prisoners of their beliefs, and so long as they cherish a wrong understanding of economics they will be appealed to by one form of collectivism or another. But when they embrace sound economics, collectivism will cease to be a menace.
All creatures take the world pretty much as they find it, save man. Man alone has the gifts which enable him to entertain an idea and then transform his environment in accordance with it. He is equipped with needs which the world as it is cannot satisfy. Thus he is compelled to alter and rearrange the natural order by employing his energy on raw materials so as to put them into consumable form. Before he can do much of anything else, man must manufacture, grow, and transport. His creaturely needs man shares with the animals, but he alone employs economic means to satisfy them. This is an enormous leap upward, for by relying on the economic means man becomes so efficient at satisfying his bodily hungers that he gains a measure of independence from them. And when they are assuaged, he feels the tug of hungers no animal ever feels: for truth, for beauty, for meaning, for God.
Whatever may be man’s capacities in the upper reaches of his nature — to think, dream, pray, or create — it is certain that he will attain to none of these unless he survives. And he cannot survive for long unless he engages in economic activity. At the lowest level, economic action achieves merely economic ends: food, clothing, and shelter. But when these matters are efficiently in hand, economic action is a means to all our ends, not only to more refined economic goods but to the highest goods of the mind and spirit. Add flying buttresses and spires to four walls and a roof, and a mere shelter for the body develops into a cathedral to house the spirit of man. Economics is not one means among many, Hayek has pointed out, it is the means to all our ends.
The freer a nation’s economy the more prosperous are its citizens. The wealth of Uncle Sam became the envy of the world. America’s greatness is not, of course, to be measured by monetary income and material well-being; but it is interesting to note how well Americans have done economically with the resources available to them.
The United States is only one-sixteenth of the land surface of the world, and Americans are only about one-fifteenth of the world’s population. Nevertheless, Americans own three-quarters of all the television sets. Americans consume about two-thirds of all the petroleum products in the world, one-half of all the coffee, two-thirds of all the silk. An American factory worker can buy four suits of clothes with a month’s wages; his counterpart in a totalitarian country can buy half a suit with a month’s wages. An American can buy six pairs of shoes with the results of a week’s work; his totalitarian counterpart can buy one shoe. These figures prove only one thing. They demonstrate with what dramatic success Americans have waged the great war on poverty.
There was general progress during the nineteenth century; the American Dream appeared to be in the process of realization. The War Between the States shed brothers’ blood and dealt the nation a staggering blow, but the country’s spiritual and political leadership had enough vitality to begin the long job of putting the pieces together again. There were several periods of economic dislocation during the nineteenth century, but the masses of Americans tightened their belts and took the hardships in stride. The prevailing mood, as the nation entered the twentieth century was optimistic, but this mood was badly shaken by World War I. There was a lot of cynicism in the literature of the twenties and a few voices began to propagandize for the Planned State. Then came the shattering experience of the Great Depression and large numbers of Americans lost faith in themselves and in their institutions. They felt powerless before the forces leading them toward the war they entered in 1941.
Given their “druthers,” most people choose freedom; they would have settled — anytime during the 1929-1941 period — for a resumption of the old ways and the prospect of a steady job. But there was almost no one to tell them that economic stagnation and war are not market place phenomena; these are consequences of political interference with the free market. The economy which collapsed in 1929 and continued stricken during the thirties was a politically rigged economy; it bore little resemblance to the classical model of the free market!
The Voice of Socialism
This message was drowned out in the thirties by the confident, strident voices of Socialists, Communists and Social Planners. The prescriptions of these folk were heeded, in large measure, and their remedies applied. The walfare state was given carte blanche in the nineteen-thirties and has had the field virtually to itself for the past forty years. What are the consequences? Examine any sector of the nation you choose and the survey turns up a shambles. Dissension tears apart our churches; influential church bodies support revolution; churchmen embrace one weird theology after another. On the campuses there is not only a breakdown of educational theory, there are student riots, burnings and bombings. Never have Americans been so divided against each other; never has America stood so low in the eyes of the world.
It is an ominous portent for a nation when significant numbers of its people carry the political dialogue out into the street, forsaking the painstaking, two-way process of argumentation and discussion for the more spectacular device of demonstration. Thus the marches, the sit-ins, kneel-ins, pray-ins, wade-ins, and the like. Public order exists only because the overwhelming majority of people voluntarily obey the rules of the game. The law does not create public order; law is the creature of that order. Order creates an instrument, the law, to punish those occasional breaches of propriety which occur because men are not angels. No society comes into existence, nor can a society endure, unless most of the people can be trusted most of the time to play fair and deal justly with their fellows.
Every free society develops its customary style of political life as a reflection of its peculiar ethos and, according to its own lights, gives to every faction in the society a voice to match its merits. A free society devises political machinery for the orderly succession in office, and cannot long endure chaos in this sphere.
Not a Tyrant’s Rule
Our situation in 1973 is not like that of a conquered country, pinned down by a tyrant’s heel. A suppressed people is denied access to the political levers by which orderly changes in society are effected. They cannot plead their case across the abyss which separates them from their conquerors, and thus they are impelled to protest by actions which smack of guerrilla warfare. How different here! The channels of political communication in the United States were never more open than today, but never has the country witnessed more protest marches, demonstrations, and riots. The ends the demonstrators hope to accomplish by taking to the streets—recognition, economic improvement — were not being thwarted by the strongest political currents flowing during the past generation; to the contrary, new ground was being gained with each passing year, and the trend was continuing. There was undeniable progress, but it was not being accomplished fast enough by regular political means, seconded by moral and educational movements; so they took to the streets to speed up the action.
Then there are the cop-outs, the denizens of the counter-culture, the drug people, the vagabonds, the experimenters with new life styles.
What went wrong? What will bring us back into the mainstream of the American tradition?
The Decline of Religion
The past two centuries — the period during which the American experiment got started, rose to heights of prosperity, then lost its sense of direction — coincides with the general decline of religious belief. The decline I refer to is not something to be gleaned from statistics. There are millions of people who attend church every Sunday; there are a great many devout Christians and pious Jews in Europe and America; there are philosophers who can demonstrate by close reasoning that God is; and there is in the average man a sense that he is taking part in events of a more than mundane significance. But the God reached at the conclusion of a chain of reasoning is not the same God as The One in Whom our being is rooted — although it is with the philosopher’s God that the recovery of religious faith must begin. Hold fast to that which can be proved; then faith, when it comes, is a gift of grace.
While religion has gotten onto rather shaky ground in modern times, the philosophy of Materialism has gained ascendancy almost everywhere. It is the typical faith of the laboratory and the market place. Science has taken on a magic radiance during the past two centuries, appearing to deliver what religion had only promised; and the world view dictated by science was widely assumed to be Materialism. Scientists, for the purposes of their work, visualized the universe as an intricate, interlocking piece of clockwork. Every event is the effect of a mechanical cause, and a thing is “understood” when broken down and analyzed into its antecedents. Science takes on messianic significance in what Karl Marx referred to as his “Scientific Socialism,” and the philosophy of dialectic Materialism on which communism is based rigorously excludes God and regards religion as the enemy.
Religion was a compelling force in the formation of American ideals and institutions. From the religious heritage of Christendom came our understanding of human nature and destiny — the belief that God has called men to His service while in the body to perform their duties as citizens, their tasks as employers and employees, as well as in their homes, their churches, and their play. The central doctrine of our political theory is the idea that each person possesses inherent, God-given rights, whose protection is government’s primary job.
But if man is not a created being, if man instead is simply the end product of material and social forces — as the strict environmentalists believe — then there is not a spark of the divine within him. If there is no God there are no God-given rights in a person, which all other persons are bound to respect. And if there are no rights natural to man as such, then men will not strive to limit government to the public domain. To the contrary, the powers and functions of government will be extended and some men will come to regard other men simply as objects to be manipulated: “We who wield power will create the environment to mold men to our specifications and thus bring a new humanity into being.” At the first Creation God made man in His own image; the second Creation proposes to improve on the first!
The philosophy of Materialism cannot allow the idea of inherent rights, nor does it countenance the idea of a soul, or mind, as a genuine reality. Materialism is the theory that bits of matter alone are ultimately real, and when one reflects on this position it is evident that Materialism is self-refuting. If only matter is real, the theory that only matter is unreal is fanciful! A theory, or an idea, or a belief is certainly nonmaterial; and the fact that we can have an idea of matter demonstrates that there is more to the universe than matter!
The Reality of Ideas
Ideas are real! An idea does not occupy space, nor is it in time; it will not submit to chemical analysis, nor can it be weighed or measured. But it begs the question to assume that these are the only tests for genuine reality. If we deny reality to an idea or a thought, then neither can we vouch for the truth of an idea or thought. The Materialist actually denies the validity of thought when he doubts the reality of an idea; and, to be candid, he must admit that he cannot trust the reasoning which purports to lead him to Materialism!
The tragedy is that religion has weakly succumbed to this ideology, and the idea of rights derived from the Creator has been replaced by the notion of privileges granted by the State. This has had a profoundly disturbing effect on American political institutions.
The second ill consequence following upon the decay of religious belief affects the individual person by diminishing his life goals. It is the Christian position that man is made to serve a transcendent end, in other words, to seek first the Kingdom. The ancient promise is that if we put this first thing in first place the other necessary things will come in sequence. But under the rule of Materialism men are limited to the pursuit of earthly goals which, in practice, boil down to two; the pursuit of power and the pursuit of wealth.
The relentless pursuit of power destroys the idea of limited, Constitutional government; the ruthless pursuit of wealth destroys the market economy. If a people acknowledge the Ten Commandments, seek freedom and justice, practice love of God and of neighbor, and then employ a modicum of intelligence in their economic and political arrangements, they will restrain government and release productive energy; they will have a free and productive commonwealth on these terms, and on no others. For it is almost a truism that disorder in society is but a reflection of disorder in the souls of men. Earmarks of today’s inner disorder are widespread uncertainty about the meaning of life, loss of proper goals, confusion as to what it all signifies, a loss of hope, and an enfeeblement of resolution.
As the religious man understands the universe, this natural world is grounded in a spiritual reality, which we cannot sense, but whose reality may be corroborated by intuition, reason, or revelation. When man loses contact with this divine order he will transfer his loyalty to worldly objects, and a part of him will be crippled as a result. The full embodiment of the Gospel vision is beyond the capacity of any generation of men. But the City of Man may be a proving ground for the City of God, and a portion of that vision has worked its way into the law, customs and conventions of Christendom. This ideal once inspired our free institutions, and its original inspiration can be rekindled. Until that rekindling occurs the promise of America remains unfulfilled.
What Is Life’s Meaning?
Each of us is thrust into life and saddled with the task of discovering what this life of ours is all about. The first thing we discover is that the life-meaning we seek is not something which will simply drift toward us while we passively wait; we have to work for it. It is only as active participants in life that we begin to discover clues as to the meaning of our earthly pilgrimage.
The full meaning is, of course, denied us. Mortal man, with his finite understanding, can do no more here than “see as through a glass darkly.” But the part we can and do see is at least enough so that we know what our next step should be. Take the right step and it leads to another. Look back over our trail and a definite pattern is decipherable.
We human beings did not invent ourselves. Our fumbling efforts to discover the laws of our being —the rules for our proper operation — contribute toward making human life the painful thing it is. But this pain of ours is a peculiar pain; joy is mingled with the pain — the joy that comes from knowing that each one of us participates in the very process of creation itself. Every other creature but man obeys the Laws of God, which are the Laws of Life, willy-nilly — almost mechanically. But God solicits the cooperation of man. We have free will, and we may refuse to cooperate; or, we may exercise our power of choice and thus begin to realize the tremendous potential that lies latent in each one of us.
Life challenges us to grow, and it provides abundant occasions and opportunities to test our nerve. Every test is just a little beyond our capacity; so, in one sense, we fail. But in the very act of striving lies our success, for new powers emerge out of our shortcomings; and the hardships we overcome on each level of life spur us to rise higher.