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An Economic Analysis of Romans 13

The Text of Romans 13:1-7

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

Libertarian, specifically anarchist, Christians have undoubtedly heard this section from Romans 13 cited ad infinitum by statist Christians. They pose the question: “Isn’t libertarianism unbiblical?” Michael Knowles did just that to Michael Malice on an episode of the Michael Knowles Show. The argument, however, inevitably fails for a variety of reasons. (Hey Knowles, maybe you should ask a Christian libertarian that question!)

Which authorities shall be obeyed? Shall the natural authority of the elite or elders in society be respected? Shall the authority of the family be obeyed? What about the authority of private property owners? Did not God institute these authorities as well as the civil authorities? When they conflict, whom shall one follow? Conflict between authorities certainly provides some justification for resistance.

If everything from courts to police are privatized, do not the private arbitrators, police, and private property owners become the “governing authorities”? If so, then they should be obeyed according to Paul’s admonishment. So, libertarians seemingly desire a change in who the governing authorities are, not to throw away all governing authorities as more radical, “socialist” anarchists seem to desire.

A libertarian can also be a Christian for the simple reason that libertarianism does not require the violent overthrow of the state. Non-violence, which is a theme present throughout the teachings of Jesus, mandates anarchism as well as not violently overthrowing the civil authorities. We must eliminate the state through non-violent means.

All of these are fine arguments; however, we must consider another possibility: Paul was making an economic argument. This article explains the economic problem of rebellion and why rebellion leads to another, perhaps worse, state. This consequence of rebellions is not only contrary to the ends of libertarians, but it contradicts what it means to be a Christian.

The Paradox of Rebellion

Drawing from Mancur Olson and Gordon Tullock, political scientist Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard writes that, in regard to revolutions, “when personal costs are high and the expected utility of contributing to the collective good [rebellion] is small, large-scale collective action is unlikely.”

Essentially rebellions become a prisoner’s dilemma. The effect of the marginal revolutionary is close to zero, so the revolutionary, compelled by the high cost of participation in the rebellion, opts out of the revolutionary activity, choosing instead to free ride off the effort of others. Since the actor will receive the benefits of successful rebellion whether he engages in the revolution or not, he chooses not to participate. Given that everyone faces this tradeoff, the rebellion will not occur, and anyone who engages in rebellion will fail, be rounded up, and killed.

There must be some escape from this prisoner’s dilemma, right? Evidently, since there are famous cases of successful revolutions, such as the American Revolution. One method Kurrild-Klitgaard hints at is to apply “selective benefits” to individual revolutionaries. By giving benefits to revolutionaries that exceed the base payoff that everyone gets from the overthrow of the old regime, potential participants will opt to partake in the revolution to obtain these benefits they would not otherwise get.

This can be done through giving state privileges to those who participated in the revolution. By doing so, revolution participants are spurred out of docility and are more inclined to aid in throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. However, there is one catch: how does this make them better than the oppressors?

If the revolutionaries are going to establish a state that dolls out privileges after the revolution, then what was the point of the revolution? Of course, a non-libertarian might not have qualms with this method, but a libertarian definitely should take issue with this. If the new state is no better or worse than the previous state, the revolution was pointless at best or destructive at worst.

Take, for example, the American Revolution. Dr. Patrick Newman discusses the crony influences during the time of the Revolution in his book Cronyism: Liberty versus Power in Early America 1607-1849. Individuals, like Robert Morris, exploited the Revolution as means of making profit from the Continental Congress; therefore, expropriating the American taxpayer. Expropriating the taxpayer definitely secured Morris’ cooperation though. The Congress also pushed soft-money policies to finance their war, no doubt directing the new money to its revolutionaries and the Revolution’s benefactors.

Gary North also notes, in his essay, “The American Revolution Was a Mistake,” that the tax burden tripled along with an increase in the debt burden all of which coincided with a significant increase. increase in inflation, all to finance its revolution. Essentially, the Congress, to make its coup d’etat possible, had to increase the financial burden on the populace. This was to direct funds and goods to revolution participants. Without doing so, the revolution would have been impossible to coordinate.

The so-called “self-governance” by the Americans turned out to be not better, but arguably worse, than rule by the British. Libertarians should reject this method of uprooting the state because it plainly requires the large-scale dolling out of privileges and benefits during and after the war, privileges and benefits that are funded by transfers from non-participants.

Likewise, Christians, who should take non-violence seriously, must also reject this method of eliminating the state. By this same virtue, libertarians and Christians must reject the state, but acknowledge that the violent overthrow of the state leads to the same kind of activities that make the state undesirable in the first place.

Paul’s Wisdom

Using economic knowledge can help enhance our understanding of Paul’s wisdom. Though he may not have been making an economic point, the economics of rebellion, the topic of Romans 13, can help enrich our understanding. Keeping the economic argument in mind gives a new reason to have a more literal interpretation of his advice that we should submit to the government. To rebel against the state, for whatever reason, will spell disaster for oneself and others.

If the ancient Roman Christians rebelled against Rome, they might have succeeded, but in doing so, they might have to become something contrary to what the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, had in mind for them. By rebelling, they would have conquested against the state, seizing it for themselves, and as a result, they would have been no better than the Romans.

To close, keep in mind the call of Colossians. We are not to have a kingdom of earth, but a kingdom of heaven. “2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:2-3). Revolutions build states. They serve man-made ends that are earth-centered. To reorient oneself to what is above requires the abandonment of such violent, earthly activities.