First Published in Laissez Faire City Times, Vol. 6, No. 2, January 14, 2001
By Jim Peron
Shortly into the new year, and for whatever reason, Lew Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, used his personal web site to promote an article on Mises and the Bible that first appeared in 1997. Certainly the article was not new, but Rockwell is an ardent Catholic and a “paleo-libertarian” which appears to be an anarchist and conservative with racialist overtones — at least if his web site (which often carries interesting and worthwhile material as well) is an indication.
But the Mises of the Mises Institute is not the great economist Ludwig von Mises that walked this planet. He is a Mises who has been “refined” and changed to suit the religious views of conservatives. And this article, “Misesian Economics and the Bible” by Mark Hendrickson is just one example of the rewriting of Mises that is going on.
What I shall endeavor to do here is to present the basic ideas of Hendrickson’s article, dissect those ideas and show the flaws in the logic presented. In addition I will explore the ramifications of those ideas for liberty and then show exactly what Mises himself thought about the Bible, Christianity and the free market — a view as far from Hendrickson as one can get.
The article itself is an odd bird that just doesn’t fly. Much of it is an attempt to find any similarities between Mises and the Bible. And based on the examples given not many similarities seem to exist. Mises said that man is an acting animal who must make choices. The Bible says man must make choices. Notice the similarity!
Mises called the science of human action praxeology. Hendrickson notes that “humans make choices” which are based on their own personal values. He notes: “individual human consciousness, economic values and ethical values coexist and often effect each other. Praxeology acknowledges this reality as does the Bible . . . the Bible lends considerable support to Misesian praxeology.” Now what is he saying? He seems to be saying that Mises says that humans act according to their own values. And the Bible says that humans act according to their own values. And that means what?
That question is left in limbo. Now I suspect that most people will say that human beings act and when they act they act according to their values. This is not particularly innovative thinking. It may be important as a fundamental principle but it is not innovative. Nor is is necessarily found in the Scriptures. Now Hendrickson may argue it is, but his article is devoid of any biblical references to back up his assumptions. But since he was writing for the religiously based Acton Institute, he was preaching to the choir.
Now the fact is that many Christians do not believe that the Bible teaches that man acts by choice. Those who believe in Calvin’s views would argue that God predestines how man acts. Thus man does not act according to his own values but according to a predetermined script written for him by God. And the Calvinist argument is typically heavily footnoted with Biblical references unlike Hendrickson’s article. The basic argument is that God is all knowing. For God to know all things he must know them before they happen. But to know such things in advance is to predetermine them. Omniscience leads to foreknowledge and foreknowledge leads to predestination.
Hendrickson does not acknowledge that a large number of his fellow Christians absolutely reject the idea that man can make choices. The Calvinist rejects free will and uses Biblical text to support his theory. Whether they, or their opponents, have the better argument I will leave up to those who consider the Bible important. But certainly the view that Mises and the Bible both teach praxeology is open to debate — but that is a debate that is not entered into in Hendrickson’s article.
Instead he does go into the concept of natural law — interestingly, since Mises did not accept this idea himself. (However, in an article in Ideas on Liberty (www.fee.org) I have argued that Mises’ view on utilitarianism and natural law do not differ in any substantial way.) Hendrickson’s view is an interesting one since he wants to eat his cake and have it too.
Natural Law Superseded by Spiritual Law?
He argues that there are natural laws but that such laws are “not immutable or eternal but temporal” and may be superseded “by a divine, spiritual law.” Even the most fundamental principles of rational thinking are not really fundamental at all. Even the idea that intercourse precedes birth is not a real natural law that is eternal, as proved by the Mary’s conception of Jesus. Now those of us who think Mary was inventing an excuse may not take her claims of a virgin birth as having proved anything, since the virginity of Mary is not universally accepted and, in fact, is simply a faith statement made by people who want to believe it. In fact many scholars do not think that Mary ever claimed a virgin birth for Jesus, and that the story was invented after the death of Christ and superimposed on his life by others. [The “Immaculate Conception” in Catholic doctrine refers to the conception of Mary by Mary’s mother (and hence Mary was free of Original Sin), and not to the conception of Jesus by Mary. Intercourse was said to precede the former, but not the latter.—Zola.]
Of course if spiritual law trumps natural law at any time and any place then natural law is not in fact natural law. This definition mocks the very idea of a natural law since it argues that it is temporal and exists only during the absence of random acts of God. Thus anytime a deity wishes he may invalidate the “law” and some other principle reigns supreme instead. Thus natural law is not law at all but merely the absence of divine intervention. This strikes at the very idea of rationality and Mises would not have shared this view at all.
And it would be dangerous to gloss over the implications for libertarians of the idea that “spiritual” law supersedes natural law. Hendrickson makes it quite clear that “natural law is never ultimate law”. Not even in basic economics is this true since “spiritual law trumps natural law in economics as surely as it does in physics and biology.” Not only does spiritual law trump natural law but it should be the foundation of legislation by the state as well! Surely this position goes against everything Mises advocated and taught and specifically against his views as laid out in his book Liberalism.
Hendrickson says that the Bible “must be the primary source from which to derive moral values that are codified in human legislation.” Now for this he will receive many Amens from the corner of the Calvinists and sundry Reconstructionists. Once we accept that someone’s notion of spiritual law trumps the natural law and natural rights of individuals we have written a blank check for unlimited government power. And the Christian Reconstructionists, who feign support for free markets, are very clear at what kind of state they want and what they say the Bible mandates for a “free” society. The “free market” Institute for Christian Economics published one “defense” of free markets by David Chilton: Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. The book is a rebuttal to a pro-socialist Evangelical work by theologian Ron Sider. It may rebut Sider but it does not defend free markets. And while such Bible-oriented Christians may dance around the periphery of libertarian circles they are, in fact, staunchly anti-libertarian. As Chilton writes “libertarians are fond of talking about ‘the rule of law’; but it is not the rule of God’s law, it is nothing but anarchy, the rule of lawlessness.” One example of “libertarian lawlessness” is “they want government to stop controlling prices (correct); but they don’t want government to punish homosexuals, adulterers, and abortionists (incorrect).”
God and His Honchos Own It All
These “free market” Christians do not advocate private property since “the earth is the Lord’s” but they will accept private stewardship provided you run things according to their Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. As Chilton notes: “Everything I have must be owned in terms of God’s requirements.” And that can include the literal ownership of human beings — slaves. Chilton too thinks that spiritual law trumps natural law and the spiritual law is clear: “The Bible permits slavery. This statement will come as a shock to most people. The laws of the Bible concerning slavery have very seldom been studied, must less preached upon. But the biblical laws concerning slavery are among the most beneficent in all the Bible . . . If slavery were a sin, God would not have provided for it . . . the fact that He gives rules for proper management of slavery shows that to disregard the laws of slavery is a sin.” If you want to read it for yourself this is all on page 60 of Chilton’s book and the man is quite serious when he says that not practicing slavery is sinful.
Now perhaps Hendrickson would not wish to go this far. But if we accept that the Bible should be the foundation of morality and human legislation then we are asking for trouble. And since Hendrickson, and presumably the Acton Institute which published his piece, says spiritual law trumps natural law then any regulation found in the Bible could be imposed on society today in the name of free market economics. And Calvinist “free market” economist Gary North does just this. Not only does he accept capital punishment but he has joined his fellow Reconstructionists in extending the death penalty to a plethora of crimes — which include adultery, fornication, homosexuality etc. Depending on which Christian is speaking, some 40 offenses, many of them victimless crimes, would be subject to death in this “free” society.
Stoning by Jesus, Economics by Moses
And don’t assume that the death will be a comfortable one either. There is no electric chair or lethal injection in a Biblical free society. As North himself has argued, the means of execution should be stoning — something recently witnessed under the Taliban. North has argued that stoning is not only biblical but cheap as well. And most importantly it’s a “community” event. Under spiritual law the whole town gets to kill people by violent stoning and this helps create a spirit of community amongst the people.
Please keep in mind that Hendrickson said that spiritual law trumps economic laws. And he is quite clear that Moses, not Mises, is the economist to follow. “When economic phenomena shift more into a realm of the normative — into political issues such as taxation, a public policy on debt, the redistribution of wealth, workfare versus welfare — then the Bible necessarily eclipses Mises as the greater authority.”
Now what are the arguments presented against socialism? They are based on economic laws. Socialism doesn’t work because it violates natural law and nothing will change that. But this article by Hendrickson says that natural law is always trumped by spiritual law; and despite the tiny minority of Christians saying the contrary, the general consensus is that Scripture backs up wealth redistribution, price controls, welfare, and a plethora of socialist policies. The fact that such measures don’t work is irrelevant since that is an appeal to the facts of nature and natural law is always superseded by spiritual law. One problem that so-called Christian free market advocates cannot avoid is that they ultimately, and unintentionally, justify the system of state socialism. If you are you brother’s keeper, if there is no greater love than to sacrifice yourself for another, then selfish profit seeking and capitalism will be pushed out to wander the wilderness unloved and unwanted.
Hendrickson says that Mises “was silent about the spiritual, divine laws of economics that are manifested in the Bible” But still: “We who uphold the Judeo-Christian tradition should be proud to claim Ludwig von Mises as one of our own.” Now whether Mises himself would keep such company is not open to question. He was quite vocal concerning Christianity and economics. And he was anything but silent on the Bible and its teachings. But when you read Mises you can understand why Hendrickson wished to pretend otherwise.
What von Mises Really Thought of Jesus
Mises says that the gospel of Jesus was ‘utterly negative.’ “He [Jesus] rejects everything that exists without offering anything to replace it. He arrives at dissolving all existing social ties. The disciple shall not merely be indifferent to supporting himself, shall not merely refrain from work and dispossess himself of all goods, but he shall hate ‘father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life’ . . . His zeal in destroying social ties knows no limits. The motive force behind the purity and power of this complete negation is ecstatic inspiration, enthusiastic hope of a new world. Hence his passionate attack upon everything that exists. Everything must be destroyed because God in His omnipotence will rebuild the future order . . . The clearest modern parallel to the attitude of complete negation of primitive Christianity is Bolshevism. The Bolshevists, too, wish to destroy everything that exists because they regard it as hopelessly bad. But they have in mind ideas, indefinite and contradictory though they may be, of the future social order. They demand not only that their followers shall destroy all that is, but also that they pursue a definite line of conduct leading towards the future Kingdom of which they have dreamt. Jesus’ teaching in this respect, on the other hand, is mere negation.”
As Mises saw it, since Jesus simply repudiated all values of this life “His teachings had no moral applications to life on earth.” In another place he said: “Jesus offers no rules for earthly action and struggle; his Kingdom is not of this world. Such rules of conduct as he gives his followers are valid only for the short interval of time which has still to be lived while waiting for the great things to come.”
The Rich Suck
While Jesus, according to Mises, gave no thought to an ethics for living on earth he did express his negative values quite strongly. “One thing of course is clear,” said Mises, “and no skillful interpretation can obscure it. Jesus’ words are full of resentment against the rich . . . The only reason why Jesus does not declare war against the rich and preach revenge on them is that God has said: ‘Revenge is mine.’ In God’s Kingdom the poor shall be rich, but the rich shall be made to suffer. Later revisers have tried to soften the words of Christ against the rich, of which the most complete and powerful version is found in the Gospel of Luke, but there is quite enough left to support those who incite the world to hatred of the rich, revenge, murder and arson.”
As Mises saw it, this negation of values and hatred of wealth permeated the church so much so that “no movement against private property which has arisen in the Christian world has failed to seek authority in Jesus, the Apostles and the Christian fathers.” In fact this man that Hendrickson wants to claim for the Christian tradition actually said that the words of Christ “bore evil seed. More harm has been done, and more blood shed, on account of them than by the persecution of heretics and the burning of witches. They [the words of Christ] have always rendered the Church defenseless against all movements which aim at destroying human society.” The Gospels, he said, “can be extremely destructive”.
Built on these negative values the Church could not help but espouse doctrines inimical to the classical liberal values which Mises upheld. And this he recognized. He argued that Christian opposition to liberalism was not harmless. “The Church is such a tremendous power that its enmity to the forces which bring society into existence would be enough to break our whole culture into fragments. In the last decades we have witnessed with horror its [the church’s] terrible transformation into an an enemy of society. For the Church, Catholic as well as Protestant, is not the least of the factors responsible for the prevalence of destructive ideals in the world today.”
As Mises saw it [classical] liberalism and Christianity were and are in conflict. He says one reason is that liberalism (libertarianism) “transformed the world more than Christianity has ever done. It restored humanity to the world and to life. It awakened forces which shook the foundations of the inert traditionalism on which Church and creed rested.” The Christian Church recognized this and “resented modernity and the modern spirit. What wonder, then, that it allied itself with those who resentment had driven them to wish for the break-up of this wonderful new world, and feverishly explored its well-stocked arsenal for the means to denounce the earthly struggle for work and wealth. The religion which called itself the religion of love became a religion of hatred in a world that seemed ripe for happiness. Any would-be destroyers of the modern social order could count on finding a champion in Christianity.”
Contrary to Hendrickson’s claim, Mises certainly was far from silent on the values of the Christian Bible. And while Hendrickson may pretend that Mises belongs to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is clear that Mises would never have seen himself in this position. Instead he said, quite clearly, that Christianity “cannot, it seems, exist side by side with Capitalism. Just as in the case of Eastern religions, Christianity must either overcome Capitalism or go under.” A Mises who would fit in the Judeo-Chrstian tradition is not the Mises who wrote Human Action, Socialism, Liberalism or any of his other masterful works. Paul of the New Testament said that James, the brother of Jesus, preached “another” gospel from what Paul was spouting. And today Hendrickson is preaching another Mises.
Jim Peron is the author of “Die, the Beloved Country?”, a book exposing the misrule by mismanagement of the African National Congress during its first term of office in South Africa. He recently finished an expose of the Mugabe regime: Zimbabwe: the Death of a Dream.