Friday, August 14, 2009

Threescore and Ten

Traffic for this blog has dropped off significantly. That means one of two things: 1) I can quit writing here and focus exclusively on posting controversies on my Facebook wall, or 2) throw caution to the wind and write whatever I fancy here.


I continue to be astounded by the breathless embrace of socialism by a growing number of young Christians. Speaking of blogs, Jim Wallis’ “GOD’S politcs” rag is commanding the attention of these well-meaning but misguided souls who believe the State can be turned to good purposes. Wallis’ latest preoccupation is the Obama healthcare plan. Legions of young believers agree that providing universal healthcare for the poor and uninsured is the “red letter” thing to do.

Frédéric Bastiat – who, incidentally, was also a Christian – taught us 160 years ago that good intentions in political economy have unintended negative consequences. The “iron law” of economic reality is this: a subsidized system expands coverage and causes the demand to rise; higher demand results in higher prices, i.e. higher costs to the government; higher costs lead to government price controls; and price controls invariably lead to shortages.

Right-wing nuts, whose demagoguery about “death panels” (Sarah Palin, El Rushbo, et. al.) does little but discredit the argument against socialized medicine, wax long about “rationing.” I suppose a shortage of doctors, procedures and medications could be so labeled; but it implies some shadowy, bureaucratic goon deciding who gets what treatment. The economic truth is that shortages translate into delays in service delivery to patients. And delays can, in many cases, lead to diminished quality of care.

But the rise of the “Christian Left” is merely symptomatic of bad, fallacious reasoning. Tom Woods, the author of the New York Times best-seller Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse (and a Catholic), wrote a challenging piece on the Church’s tendency to endorse erroneous economic policy prescriptions.

It is obviously not “dissent” [from the Church] merely to observe that the cause-and-effect relationships that constitute the theoretical edifice of economics are not a matter of faith and morals. They simply do not fall within the range of subjects on which a Catholic prelate is endowed with special insight or authority. Catholic laity cannot head up petition drives against them. They are facts of life. Facts cannot be protested, defied, or lectured to; they can only be learned and acted upon. There is no use in shaking our fists at the fact that price controls lead to shortages. All we can do is understand the phenomenon, and be sure to bear it and other economic truths in mind if we want to make statements about the economy that are rational and useful.

Here’s hoping our Christian brethren of all stripes come to some rational understanding of economics. After all, we can no more successfully sustain an alteration of market behavior than we can change the direction of the wind. I think our old friend Richard Hooker would remind us that economics, like other spheres of the natural order, is subject to its own laws.


On a far more encouraging note, we visited a new mission church this past Sunday. My wife and I had met the pastor and his wife several weeks ago and instantly hit it off. The little mission is the result of the pastor’s “undercover work” (spiritually speaking) as a part-time employee at a Starbucks coffee shop (he maintains a full-time teaching job at a Christian school). There, he led an informal Bible study that resulted in conversions to Christ. When the church had its inaugural service this past week, it marked the first time some of its members had ever attended a Christian worship service.

There were around 20 that showed up for the first service – including parents and friends of those new believers. The little flock met in a former consignment shop that the pastor and his wife have transformed into a cheerfully bright worship space.

I don’t want to say too much about this little testimony lest I jinx it. But it is off to a very promising start.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Alternative Continuum

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was my kind of man – a strange quantity known as “liberal conservative.” He taught that we live not for ourselves but in honor of our ancestors and for the sake our children. He was an Anglican man through and through – a respecter of historic Christian tradition passed down by generations of faithful saints, but an embracer of necessary reforms. A role model for G.K. Chesterton, Burke was loyal to his culture and his king (a friend and advisor to King George); but he was for the American Revolution (secession) – after all, the Americans had forged a new society based upon the rights of Englishmen, thousands of miles removed from London. Why should their wealth be expropriated to fund the empire’s continental and oceanic wars? That wasn’t citizenship but slavery. The Americans had taken risks in the New World; Burke believed in the self-determination of people on their own ground. On the other hand, Burke despised the French Revolution and its appeal to abstract “universal” rights. In it he detected the makings of a Total State, a rebirth of Babelesque idolatry of the worst sort.

Albert Jay Nock (1873-1945) and Frank Chodorov (1887-1966) helped me distinguish the State from government. Nock perceived one detail about the American Revolution that Burke missed; that its underlying motivation had been little more than rank land speculation. George III didn’t want Anglo-Scots and German settlers pouring over the Appalachian spine and agitating his anti-French Cherokee allies (whose stateless society Thomas Jefferson admired). That wasn’t to say that the Americans shouldn’t have been cleared of the British yoke; but early on the Antifederalist instinct was snuffed out by a group of opportunists who recreated a modified British system on this continent. Nock identified the State as a “criminal gang,” a group of men who use constitutions and charters to seize as much power and expropriate as much wealth as possible within their term limits.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe (1949- ) taught me that term limits have the ironic effect of making democracies far more violent than monarchies ever were. The 20th century was bloodier than all previous centuries combined in a world “made safe for democracy.” Hoppe is a proponent of natural orders within society.

Hoppe’s Austrian School predecessors (Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, et. al.) taught me that central banking – a key element of Alexander Hamilton’s plan for state-building – devalues currency in order to fund internal improvement projects, often at the expense of farmers and small merchants. In modern times the bank also suppresses the price of borrowing money below its natural rate, which causes consumers to stop saving for the future while simultaneously luring entrepreneurs to invest in the future – resulting in the pernicious “boom/bust” cycle.

The Southern Agrarians (1929) and Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963) taught me the beauty of small things, of rustic values, of humility towards nature, of living off the land and within one’s means. When the former Marxist-skeptic historian Eugene Genovese (1930- ) embraced the Christian faith and an earthy conservatism, his lifelong study of the Agrarians and the Southern tradition helped reshape his thinking.

All of them, from Burke to Hoppe, have taught me that while all men are indeed created equal none of them demonstrate equal talents, abilities, or gifts. To act as if that were untrue is the height of folly.

A special acknowledgement is due historian Joseph R. Stromberg, whose essays and articles directed my attention to, or affirmed my already-existing interest in, many of these thinkers and their alternative ideas.