Attack of the Moral Busybodies

This is a post originally written for the Prometheus blog, but it no longer appears there so I thought I’d repost it.

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Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” — C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

At the gym the other day I overheard two older women talking as they ran on treadmills.  They were talking (quite loudly – I wasn’t straining to eavesdrop) about the current situation with banks and home mortgages.  They both agreed that many people with adjustable-rate mortgages were going to be struggling to make payments if rates continued to rise.  The culprit, they said, was greed.  The banks were greedy for giving adjustable rate loans to people who may have a high risk of default.

I tried to tune them out and focus on pumping up my already massive 157 body to no avail (both the tuning out and the pumping).  Their conversation moved on to last night’s TV viewing.  “I was watching that Deal or no Deal show, and I couldn’t believe it!”  She went on to share her absolute amazement and disgust with various contestants for choosing to pass up tens of thousands of dollars in order to try for more.  Both of the treading ladies agreed that this was “A shame”, and that it boiled down to “Greed.  Just pure greed.”

As I strained to lift the smallest denomination of barbells in the gym I thought about these nice old ladies, seemingly concerned with the welfare of all mankind.  What was so greedy?  Banks chose to loan money to people, which always bears a risk of default.  These women felt the default risk was too great and the loan shouldn’t have been made; the banks, apparently, did not.  Game show contestants were faced with a choice to take a sum of money and walk, or to risk walking with nothing for the chance of a larger sum.  The joggers thought they should take the money, they thought the risk of trying for more was too great; the contestants did not.

Both of these were instances where the risk preferences of the ladies differed from those whom they were criticizing as greedy.  Whose risk preference should be enforced?  If these ladies had their way, there might be laws and regulations imposing their risk preferences on everyone else.  Would we really be better off if the opinions of these women dictated who got a loan, rather the calculations of those who own the resources?  Would we be better off if game show contestants had to call the treadmill duo and ask permission to hit the big red ‘No deal’ button?

There are two problems with anti-greed sentiment that seeks government intervention.

1. One man’s greed is another man’s self-interest

Greed is an internal condition where a person wants more than is good for them or others.  Like lust, envy, or self-deception, it cannot be identified or defined from the outside.  Only the greedy person is really able to know whether or not they are greedy.  How is an outside observer to judge whether or not it is greedy for you to seek a pay raise, or try to find a cheaper car, or buy another song on iTunes?  They can’t.

2.  There are some things the law just can’t do

Even if we were able to find some objective, identifiable, universal definition of greed, how could it be enforced?  If the point is to make people less greedy when assessing risk and making decisions, how can any external punishment make them a better judge?  To add the additional risk of fine or imprisonment to behaviors deemed greedy (presumably because they bear more risk than the result warrants) the greedy person can still be perfectly greedy in choosing to abstain from the activity.  It is the self-interested or “greedy” desire to stay out of prison that motivates to obey the law.  Law cannot change the heart.

Both the bankers and the game show contestants were merely assessing risk, and choosing to do what they believed would give them the best result.  Isn’t that what we all do with every decision we make?

As one of the ladies stepped off the treadmill and into the tanning booth I wondered to myself if she felt greedy for doing so.  Her skin was tan enough already.  Artificial sunlight increases the risk of cancer.  She chose to engage in the risky behavior of tanning anyway, just to have more bronze.

Greed.  Just pure greed.

Aristotle on Mixed Economies

This is an article I wrote some time ago for the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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A friend recently commented that he has found wisdom in moderation. He said it seems that truth and goodness are found not at the extremes, but at the place of balance between extremes. This can be very true.

As Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, “Virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.” In Aristotle’s examples, it is cowardice and recklessness that are the extremes, courage the middle ground. It is drunkenness and uptightness that are extremes, and moderate drinking the mean.

My friend went on from this concept to state that he believed in neither socialism nor capitalism, but in a mixed economy — or what he called a “messy middle ground.” There are two main problems with this conclusion.

The first is that statements like this in the abstract are meaningless. To construct a pretend spectrum, and place various actions and beliefs on it and then to choose the “middle” between them does not give meaning to that middle in and of itself. That is, without actual arguments and definitions regarding what that middle choice or belief is, it is simply a made up point on an imaginary spectrum on which other ideas are arbitrarily placed. Using this logic, I could claim that, since the mean is always good, green beans and omelets are both extremes and I prefer the middle ground.

Most often, those advocating an idea simply because it is in the “middle” of their mentally constructed spectrum do so because they lack any real arguments about the idea itself. For the idea of a middle ground or moderation to have any meaning, the extremes must first be defined and understood as opposite responses to a common problem, and must be placed on an ordinal value spectrum, such as a standard of basic morality that always holds falsehood as bad and truth as good.

The second problem with the conclusion that, since even Aristotle recognized moderation as the source of virtue, a mixed economy is better than capitalism or socialism is that it departs from the logic used in the earlier examples of courage and moderate drinking.

Courage and moderate drinking were the mean because either an excess or a deficiency was problematic. However, both courage and moderate drinking are extremes in another sense. Courage is a word that describes the good state of mind in the face of danger. There is no case in which courage itself is bad or not to be desired, since it is by definition the proper balance between cowardice and recklessness — you cannot have too much courage, nor too little, only too much fear or too little. There is either courage or noncourage (cowardice, recklessness), just as there is either truth or falsehood. In this sense it is an extreme.

Perhaps this sounds like a simple matter of definitional difference. There is, however, a fundamental difference here, meant to show that moderation is only good if it is moderating between two bad extremes and to a good mean, and not if it is moderating between a good and a bad. As Aristotle put it:

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excess or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong.

The midpoint between murder and nonmurder is not the good choice — nonmurder is. However, the moderation between not caring a lick about the actions of another and caring so much you would use violence to control them is a good middle ground — but this middle ground is not to be confused with socialism.

Socialism is a system where government uses force to tell people what decisions they can and cannot make. There may be degrees of freedom within different socialist systems, just as a prisoner may be treated better or worse by different wardens, but if you are not free, you are not free.

Capitalism is an economic system that allows people to make choices free from government intervention. All government intervention is backed by the threat of violence — if it were not, it would not be a government policy, but rather a voluntary recommendation, or a rule of a voluntary association. The fact that one cannot avoid taxation and obedience to a government without physical consequences proves that it is not a voluntary institution, but rather one backed by force.

Advocating a “mixed economy” or a middle ground between socialism and capitalism is nothing more than advocating a middle ground between threatening your neighbor with violence if he doesn’t do your will and not threatening him with violence. If he resists, it becomes the same as the “middle ground” between murdering and not murdering. In that sense, capitalism is an extreme, just as courage is an extreme against noncourage.

In another sense, there is a middle ground economically. The middle ground is between caring so much about the economic decisions people make that you would threaten them with murder to control them, and caring so little that you would allow them to harm themselves or others. By definition, you cannot escape the second extreme by application of the first. You cannot care about individuals by threatening them with violence. Such care must come peacefully and voluntarily: by persuasion, not force.

The middle ground in this case is not socialism — or control by threat of violence — but a capitalist system in which individuals voluntarily look out for one another, and peacefully persuade others to look out for themselves and others. Capitalism is not a virtue in the way that courage is a virtue; it is rather a framework that avoids the extreme of violent coercion. Avoiding the one extreme, as a capitalist system does, does not guarantee avoidance of the other extreme, just as not being reckless does not guarantee you will be courageous. But again, avoiding the extreme of neglecting others cannot be achieved by embracing the extreme of coercing them.

The true middle ground is to accept a capitalist system — i.e., avoid the extreme of coercion — and choose personally to care for and about others, and persuade them to do the same — i.e., avoid the extreme of neglect. Since caring for others is a highly subjective, individual concept, no form of coercive economic arrangement can bring it about; one can only allow it to occur.

In one sense capitalism is an extreme in that it is the opposite of coercion. In another sense, capitalism is simply a system that allows individuals to choose the middle ground between coercion and neglect. Socialism, on the other hand, is an extreme in both cases; it is the opposite of freedom and it is not a middle ground between coercion and neglect; it is itself coercion.

Attempting to find a middle ground between coercion and freedom is a bad idea.

Finding a middle ground between coercion and neglect is a good one.

Capitalism is the only system that allows for both of these. We should not stop advocating capitalism, nor should we stop caring about ourselves and others in peaceful, voluntary ways.

I find it no less disturbing when someone says both capitalism and socialism are extreme and they seek a middle ground than if someone were to say both love and cruelty were extreme, and they therefore seek a middle ground. Some vices or virtues are found in moderation; some are found in absoluteness. As Barry Goldwater famously said,

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! — Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Capitalism is just. Socialism is unjust. There is no “messy middle.”

Christianity and Freedom

Is there a dichotomy between law and love?

After reading an article I wrote (Palm Sunday and Politics), a friend of mine told me he thought I espoused a sort of dualistic view of Christian life.  As if Christ came only to preach a spiritual transformation as something entirely separate from physical life.

Upon a rereading of the article, I can see how one might draw that conclusion.  That is not, however, what I meant to communicate.  Indeed, I view life as holistic, with all elements – spiritual, emotional, mental, physical – inextricably intertwined.  I view the Christian life as wholly transformative, of the spiritual life as well as the others listed above.  I do not see a dichotomy between the spiritual and physical life as far as my Christianity is concerned.

That said, there was a dualism expressed in the post.  It was not a dichotomy between the spiritual and physical life, but a dichotomy between peace and force – and by force I am referring to the initiation of physical violence, or the threat of it.

The things I believe as a Christian affect every aspect of my life.  My goals in life spring from my theistic view of the world and the resulting actions that view brings.  Things like caring for those in need, learning humility, showing love and offering freedom to others–these are goals because of my acceptance of the Kingdom Jesus preached.

These beliefs and duties are physical as much as anything else.  What they are not is violent.

To attempt to achieve these goals by initiating force against others is antithetical to the ends themselves.  Though physical force may be justified in some instances (such as self-defense, though Christ and many others refrained even from this and chose martyrdom), I do not see any way in which the initiation of violence can be seen as a moral way to advance the work of Christ.  When Jesus taught kindness to the poor, do you think he meant it by first doing violence to the rich or middle class?  When he taught righteousness, do you think he meant making others righteous on threat of fine or imprisonment?

I do not.

If we do not feel justified in using force to advance these goals individually, why should we feel justified doing it as a group, or hiring it out to others?

Everything government does is done by force.  If it’s a new law or regulation, it is backed by threat of fine, imprisonment, or (if you are persistent enough in resisting) force to the point of death.  If it is a welfare program, it is funded by tax dollars, which are not given voluntarily.  Try not paying your taxes long enough and you’ll find that indeed, force is what’s ultimately behind tax collection.  If it were not, funds would be collected by a voluntary association, not government.  Government has nothing to give but that which it first takes, and it takes by force or the threat of it.

If you’ve accepted the Christian life, it should indeed transform your entire being and all your actions.  Far from believing Christ’s example and words regarding righteousness or care for the poor to be merely spiritual commands, I see them as part of the holistic goal of His kingdom, and involving physical actions.  However, I do not see these ends as a justification for violent means.

To attempt to use government to achieve Christian goals is to, ultimately, use physical force.  This not only corrupts government, it corrupts the goals themselves and diminishes the true depth of the work of the Kingdom.  It reduces a life-transforming message delivered by loving believers into a program for political preferences pushed by a religious interest group.

Oh, and it just so happens that the way human nature works, peaceful and voluntary means of helping the poor and promoting moral behavior achieve unimaginably more than any force-backed government initiative ever can.  The genius of creation is manifest in economics – free individuals acting to prosper individually achieve more for their fellow man than mandatory efforts.  What is moral, it turns out, is also very efficient.

Christians should not only daily examine their hearts to see if their goals and actions are in line with the ultimate Truth; they should also ask themselves if the means they are using to accomplish those goals are righteous.  Sometimes a government program would be easier than doing the work of Christ ourselves, or organizing voluntary efforts.  Then again, Christ never said it would be easy.

Palm Sunday and Politics

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” Luke 19:41–42

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of, “Hosanna” and cloaks and palm branches thrown on the road before him, it seems it must have been a joyful experience. But instead of taking joy in the cheers of the people, Jesus wept over the city.

I’m no Biblical scholar or Jewish historian, but what little I’ve studied of the Bible and the history of the time suggests that the kind of savior the people expected was not the kind Jesus came to be. And for their misplaced hopes, he felt pain.

When Jesus came into the city that day the people gathered to see him and many began to think he may be the Messiah that had been promised the Jews for hundreds of years. They were under the control of the Roman Empire and its various local puppet governments. Understandably, when the Jews learned the promises of a savior and King in the line of their great king David, they expected a Messiah who would free them from Roman rule.

When Jesus entered the city they waved Palm Branches and shouted, “Hosanna.” History suggests these were significant, even dangerous political gestures. Hosanna was a Hebrew word that meant, “Save, now!” and had a very physical connotation. It was not at that time a cry of spiritual or abstract salvation, but a very real shout for physical salvation, which had specific meaning to a people under Roman rule. The Palm branch was a nationalistic symbol for the Jews, a symbol that had appeared on the last coins made when Israel was free. That is perhaps why the Pharisees told Jesus to “rebuke” his disciples – because to openly praise one they thought came to defy their rulers was politically dangerous.

As the crowd of people saw Jesus entering the city, they saw a political savior; one who might at last rise up and free them from the Romans, and they cheered His arrival. But He wept. He wept because they did not know, “The things which make for peace.” He had not come to free them from physical bondage.

Jesus did not intend to be a political figure. He seemed to largely ignore the Romans, and even saved His criticisms and rebukes not for the political leaders, but for the leaders of His own people; their spiritual leaders. When He taught righteousness it was never backed by force. When He told the rich man to give all he had to the poor the man walked away; Jesus did not force him to obey, but instead let him go. He refused to use earthly law to punish a prostitute by stoning; instead he told her, “Go and sin no more,” and left her free to decide. He did not come to spread his Kingdom with the tools of earthly kingdoms – force and coercion. He did not come to offer political freedom. He came to offer freedom from something much deeper.

To conflate the work of Christ with the work of worldly politics is to miss the meaning of His life, death, and resurrection. To claim that a Christian must vote for a specific policy or politician, that Christians must use government to enforce our morals – to prohibit bad behavior or to force good behavior – is to reduce the work of Christ to the work of a politician. He is not too weak or insignificant for political battles; political battles are too weak and insignificant for Him. The kind of freedom and righteousness He offers is far too great, too personal, to be advanced by physical force (which all politics boils down to); politics is beneath the spiritual life, not above it.

Physical freedom is a worthy goal. Defending oneself from violence and oppression is not immoral. But as a Christian, to use government to enforce the morality you believe in through law, backed up by the agents of the state, is to contradict Christ Himself.

It is that desire to look to Christ as a way to accomplish political goals that made Him weep as He entered Jerusalem. They looked for peace through a political savior; He knew the peace He brought was much deeper and could be had regardless of the physical conditions around them. Politics is force. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem that day had been prophesied by Zechariah, who described Him as, “Gentle.”

Let us emulate Him when we attempt to alter the world around us. Let us never forget that the freedom He brings transcends this world, and His peace cannot be attained or spread by force.

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Read the follow-up to this post, Christianity and Freedom.

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