Posts Tagged Adam Smith

Free Markets as a Fruit of the Gospel

fruit merchantIn our discussions of the pros and cons of various socio-economic models, Christians have a common tendency to forget what should be our more fundamental aim: spreading the message of salvation through Jesus Christ and living as Christ would have us live.

In a recent post, Doug Wilson helps us remember (HT), noting that we should stop critiquing such systems in and of themselves—i.e. separated from the reality of sin and the project of salvation—and focus instead on how they impact each individual when it comes to realizing the life-giving freedom Christ has made possible.

As Wilson explains it:

I have written many times that free markets are for a free people, and that only a free people can sustain them. But slaves to sin cannot be a free people. And the only way to be liberated from slavery to sin is through the gospel that brings new life.

Another problem is that when slaves to sin spiral down into the civic slavery that is their natural civic condition, their masters will also be slaves to sin, albeit usually somewhat shrewder — at least for a short while. At some point the whole thing blows up for everybody, but the bottom line is that sin is the fundamental set of chains. You cannot hope to be enslaved by them, and yet be free in any sense that matters anywhere else.

Hayek, Friedman, and von Mises cannot keep people loving the freedom of markets any more than the wisest geologist who ever lived could have kept Cain from hitting Abel with that rock. Knowledge of the world is not the same thing as knowledge of the human heart.

…Other foolish observers within the Christian tradition have seen that this is true, and concluded that the problem lies with Hayek, et al. “We need to have values other than free market values, etc.” This is to say that since sinners cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, we need to haul out the chains of compassionate statism. Make ‘em do compassionate stuff and everything….

There is no salvation without a savior, and Jesus is the only savior. And how will they hear without a preacher? What we need is the gospel, what we need is a reformation, what we need is revival.

But although our political systems and economic models can’t produce revival by themselves, they do make a difference in how we interact and what we pursue. This is where our discussions need to begin.

The damaging impacts of top-down control are a bit easier for Christians to understand when we observe various governments shutting down churches and persecuting Christians in the streets on the basis of their faith, but what about when the government shuts down, redirects, or prohibits a variety of our day-to-day economic activities? When the government seizes an industry or moves money around to fund Entrepreneur X instead of Entrepreneur Y, What might such a government be preventing or distorting in terms of Christian initiative, creativity, and collaboration? Are we always to assume the Bureaucrat Z is the preferred oracle of Jehovah?

Fundamentally, we must reject the materialistic, deterministic worldviews of self-anointed economic planners of all varieties. If Christians are serious about spreading the truth, we should go about offering the Read the rest of this entry »

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Ayn Rand: Closer to Christianity than Marx

Ayn RandThe American Values Network recently lambasted Rep. Paul Ryan for expressing pro-Rand sentiments in several statements and online videos. In a response ad geared toward Ryan’s supporters, AVN criticized Rand’s atheism and ethics, acting as though Christian conservatives would be shocked to learn of her beliefs.

How could we, as admirers of Rand, ever be aware of her rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethos? She’s sooooo subtle.

I doubt any Christian Rand admirers were surprised at the news. Most of us draw value out of Rand in very specific ways, and we are very used to hearing the majority of our conservative brethren rejecting and lambasting her views outright (see Whittaker Chambers). What the ad really did, then, was illuminate the way the Left continues to misunderstand conservatives, particularly when it comes to what value, if any, they see in Rand.

Let us remember: For progressives, Rand is the epitome of what they are not. She boasts an emphasis on individualism that, in its most basic orientation, is opposed to their top-down, mechanical view of human engagement and society. For them, it is (supposedly) all about the “other,” and for Rand, the other only matters insofar as she is beneficial to the self (not a charming alternative, if you ask me). Faulty ethics aside, in mere political application, Rand’s message is in many ways your typical pro-capitalism shtick — rational self-interest does not negate or disregard the other; rather, it allows humans to identify ways through which they can share, exchange, and collaborate in a productive manner.

Where conservatives typically differ with Rand is on her view of the human person — the nature of the individual himself — and the subsequent moral responsibilities we as individuals have toward others. For example, what precisely is our value? Is it intrinsic? What precisely is in our self-interest? Could it actually be selflessness? It is here that we move away from the political jabber — the primary kumbaya nexus of, say, Atlas Shrugged — and toward the more fundamental disagreements over philosophy and theology (still a largely evident feature of Atlas Shrugged, if not too much so).

Yet, I suspect, even on matters of philosophy and theology, conservatives and Christians can actually find more in common with Rand than they might assume (not to mention what they might learn from their differences). As a way of illuminating this, one might consider how Rand stacks up against other atheist or “non-Christian” thinkers. For example, I continue to hear Rand compared to Karl Marx, as though Read the rest of this entry »

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The Magic of Regression: Following the Leader in Reverse

I recently posted my thoughts on Hans Rosling’s TED Talk, “The Magic of the Washing Machine,” which does a fine job of illustrating how progress can feed progress, and how human ingenuity is at the heart of it.

In my most recent post at Common Sense Concept, I focus on a different phenomenon: our tendency to greet such progress with opposition:

If humans are really the “ultimate resource” as Julian Simon suggested, it’s no wonder that the continuous maximization of human time and freedom will lead us toward ever-increasing output. Yet just as the fruits of industrialization and widespread innovation seem to be evidence of some kind of “magic,” various opposing forces seem intent on demonstrating their own variety of bizarre tricks. Alas, just as society seems to progress, we exhibit a strange tendency toward regress.

Yet not all opposition leads to regress. We should indeed meet each new technological innovation with plenty of skepticism and criticism. In some sense, that’s what being a conservative is all about. So how do we properly discern? How do we know what will truly lead to progress and what will actually push us backwards?

We don’t. At least not always — which is why I think the more important question has to do with who is doing the discerning rather than what we are discerning about. As Thomas Sowell says, and as I quote quite frequently, “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.”

Here’s more from the post:

We will always have error, and we will always have disagreement, particularly in the realm of progress. But when we as individuals truly screw up, the consequences come quickly. When disruption comes, we humans are pretty good at responding and adapting. Nobody likes to look stupid and nobody prefers to be on the “wrong side of progress.” In a society guided by self-interest a la Adam Smith, the invisible hand typically spanks us when we need it, and progress gets back on track accordingly.

So what happens when the central planners mess up? What happens when lofty bureaucrats and paper-pushers start making decisions about what light bulbs we use, what toilets we flush, and how much salt goes in our French fries?

An inescapable, large-scale game of Read the rest of this entry »

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The System Is to Blame: Kenneth Minogue on the Threat of Political Idealism

Kenneth Minogue seems to be heavy on my mind these days. I recently finished his newest book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, and it has provided me with lots and lots to chew on (some of my initial comments are here, a full review is forthcoming).

In a video I came across last week (not connected to the book), Minogue does a fine job of outlining the threat of political idealism on our political development (what Minogue calls “civilization”). Minogue’s definition of such idealism basically boils down to any sort of excessive trust in the perfectibility of human systems. He even indicates that libertarians are often guilty of it (worshippers of the market…that sort of thing). In many ways, Minogue’s opinions align very closely with those of Thomas Sowell.

Watch the video here:

This discussion comes in the wake of what Minogue sees as modern society’s attack on libertarianism and individualism. In order to respond to such an attack, Minogue argues, we need “something more sophisticated than Hayek and Adam Smith and the glories of the free market.” The ideas offered in this video are indeed part of Read the rest of this entry »

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Instruments of Righteousness: Leveraging Human Nature through Capitalism

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt

The Apostle Paul recognized human depravity, but he also saw redemption.

In a recent piece at The American, Arthur Brooks and Peter Wehner write splendidly about the connection between vision and political execution. After summarizing three basic views of human nature — what Thomas Sowell would call “visions” — Brooks and Wehner dive into the issues involved in executing each vision in the political sphere.

The three primary views, as the authors see them, are as follows:

  1. Humans are flawed but perfectible (a la Jean-Jacques Rouseeau and Karl Marx).
  2. Humans are flawed and cannot change (a la Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville).
  3. Humans are flawed but “under the right circumstances, human nature can work to the advantage of the whole” (a la Adam Smith and James Madison).

Brooks and Wehner side with the last option, and after exploring the political implications supporting it, they explain its overall consistency with Biblical teaching:

This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the Bible declares — yet it also tells us to be holy in all our conduct, to walk in His statutes, and not to grow weary in doing good. Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.

But how does this vision of human nature connect with the political realm? How do we take the Pauline view of human nature and translate it into a proper political framework?

Brooks and Wehner explain:

As for the matter of the state: Romans 13 makes clear that government is divinely sanctioned by God to preserve public order, restrain evil, and make justice possible. This, too, was a view shared by many of the founders. Government reflects human nature, they argued, “because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

This brings the authors to the subject of self-interest. After all, it is capitalism’s reliance on self-interest that leads its opponents to ridicule it as immoral and Read the rest of this entry »

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The Economic Spanking: Harsh Discipline from the Invisible Hand

The Invisible Hand

In my recent post at Ethika Politika, I argue that my generation is not so much addicted to wealth as it is spoiled by it.

Here’s an excerpt:

We take seven years to complete our bachelor’s degrees, and when we’re finally finished, we complain about our debt. We specialize in fields like literature and “diversity studies” and then complain about the lack of high-paying jobs. We live with Mom and Dad till we’re 30, only so we can have enough cash to buy the newest gadgets and clothes. All of this delayed development – all of this self-absorbed, childish dilly-dallying – has led to an unproductive and entitled generation.

My proposal? A good old-fashioned “thump in the rump” from the invisible hand:

In our current economy, we still have plenty of time to choose lesser punishments – to get serious about our goals, to reexamine our futures, to readjust our attitudes, to pursue new careers. But at some point, drastic misbehavior will require drastic measures. And when it comes to my generation’s defiant, entitled, know-it-all mentality, I fear that we will reject the milder forms of discipline in hopes that we can escape any discomfort altogether.

To read the full article, click here.

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Up from Feudalism: Cultivating Culture in the Status-Free Zone


When status competition was limited, people were more likely to turn to status-free zones.

Michael Knox Beran has a hearty piece in this month’s National Review discussing the cultural implications of status competition (“Status Hiatus”). In the article, Beran discusses the evolution of such competition throughout human history, focusing primarily on the West.

Beran explains that in the feudalistic societies of old, status was organized through “state-enforced hierarchies” of one kind or another, whereas in today’s free(r) societies there is a great deal of status competition.

However, despite the advances we’ve made in making status mobility more universal, Beran sees a fundamental problem that will always exist:

The difficulty is that every tremor of satisfaction we feel when we look down (upon those who are lower than we are in a particular hierarchy) is counterbalanced by the pain we feel when we look up (to those who are higher). The farther one climbs, the more vexing the problem becomes.

There are two basic approaches to “managing” status, both of which present their own problems. First, we can make status primarily about merit (which we have done in America), but by doing so we will risk the marginalization of society’s lower-skilled members. Second, we can try to destroy all hierarchies by force (via government “equalization”), but this route will surely lead us backwards toward feudalistic containment (not to mention the resulting miseries).

To solve the problem, Beran tries to determine which approach leads to more human flourishing. Based on the historical record, Beran concludes that as silly as our status pursuits may be, they do indeed lead us to Read the rest of this entry »

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Life After Death: The (Secular) Evidence

Life After Death: The Evidence by Dinesh D'SouzaLet’s imagine that an atheist asks a Christian to prove the existence of God. Most Christians would typically respond by pointing to some kind of personal experience or encounter. If the atheist is especially lucky, the Christian may be able to talk about a few fulfilled prophecies or relatively unknown archeological artifacts.

However, if the atheist presses any further on the matter, most Christians would readily throw up their hands and concede with this refrain:

“I just know, ok? I know it doesn’t all add up, but I can just feel that it’s true deep down inside. That’s enough to convince me.”

Don’t get me wrong. Personal experience is important — as are fulfilled prophecies and archeological artifacts — but the problem with arguing on these premises is that such matters seem utterly silly and unconvincing to your average nonbeliever. Unfortunately, the Church is fond of gathering evidence only so far as their own needs and curiosities require.

It is this type of Christian apologetics that Dinesh D’Souza hopes to enrich in his new book, Life After Death: The Evidence.

Although most of D’Souza’s analysis is focused on proving the existence of an afterlife rather than simply the existence of God, many of his arguments could be used to support both propositions. What is clear, however, is that D’Souza’s apologetics are far from the Christian norm.

“We speak one kind of language in church,” D’Souza says, “and must learn to speak another while making our case in secular culture.”

But what kind of “language” is that?

D’Souza continues:

I want to engage atheism and reductive materialism on their own terms, and to beat them at their own game…I am not going to appeal to divine intervention or miracles, because I am making a secular argument in a secular culture…[Secularists] wonder if there is something more beyond death, and they are eager to hear an argument that meets them where they are, uses facts they can verify, and doesn’t already presume the conclusion it seeks to establish.

This is what separates D’Souza’s arguments from the rest. He approaches the likes of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins not with Bible verses or creationist appeals to God, but with Read the rest of this entry »

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The Empathic Civilization: Self-Interest and the Empathic Drive

The Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts recently released a video titled “The Empathic Civilisation.” The video is narrated by social commentator Jeremy Rifkin, who has released a book by the same name.

You can watch the video here:

The main gist of the video is that we are soft-wired for empathy, and thus, if we are to construct an “empathic civilization,” we must construct systems that properly leverage this key human component.

Rifkin’s rant is a long one, and there is much to enjoy, much to agree with, and much to disagree with, but the primary thing that rubs me wrong is his suggestion that empathy and self-interest are mutually exclusive.

He suggests that we are not soft-wired for aggression, violence, self-interest, and utilitarianism, but rather for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship. Aside from the audacity of making such a claim about the human disposition, I’m not sure why he lumps self-interest (or even utilitarianism) in with aggression and violence. If we are soft-wired for empathy, and if we find pleasure and reward in discovering Read the rest of this entry »

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The New Culture War: Free Enterprise vs. Big Government

The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's FutureThroughout my childhood I was taught to live honestly, work hard, and pursue my dreams. It always seemed pretty generic. After all, it’s sort of the American disposition, which is probably why I never thought to question it.

That is, until I went to college.

From the start of my freshman year, I was bombarded by claims that capitalism was “immoral” and that the pursuit of happiness was selfish, materialistic, and possibly evil. Life was no longer about honing your free will or achieving your dreams, but about outsourcing such “burdens” to the benevolent State.

I had always believed that free enterprise was just and moral simply because it made sense. But here I was, surrounded by smart people, being asked to defend my political beliefs on moral grounds. I didn’t necessarily think I was wrong, but I felt stunned, overwhelmed, and confused.

I found myself in the middle of a moral struggle.

It is this type of struggle that Arthur Brooks hopes to capture in his new book, The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government will Shape America’s Future.

Although such struggles have been going on since the beginning of time, Brooks sees a distinct battle over free enterprise taking place at the forefront of our current political discourse. Now is the time, Brooks believes, for the free enterprise movement to face its enemy (“big government”) head on.

Brooks, who is president of the American Enterprise Institute, is no stranger to discussions of morality and public policy. His previous two books (Who Really Cares? and Gross National Happiness) closely examine such issues with specific focuses on charity and happiness, but this time around, Brooks is not interested in mere social analysis. Above all, The Battle is a call to action.

Brooks begins by diagnosing the country, which he believes is in the middle of an aggressive culture war over the fate of the free enterprise system. Although he claims that the movement retains a vast majority of the American people (approximately 70 percent), Brooks is convinced that the remaining 30 percent have gained the moral high ground and have thus been able to seize the reins of policymaking.

Brooks then moves on to a dissection of the (very) recent financial crisis — a particularly good specimen for showing how capitalism can be wrongly accused (especially on moral grounds). Brooks walks the reader through what he calls the “Obama narrative” of the crisis, pointing out each distortion and fallacy along the way (and there are plenty).

Brooks believes that through a mix of misplaced good intentions, lust for power, and good old-fashioned hypocrisy, the free enterprise movement has Read the rest of this entry »

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