FEE's Ebeling Explains Religious Views
Ebeling: Christianity Requires Freedom of Choice
Dear Mr. Armstrong:
I recently had the opportunity to read your article about FEE's one-day seminar in Denver, Colorado on December 3rd.
I wanted to thank you for such a detailed summary of the day's events. I hope your readers will find it of interest, including on the work that FEE does.
By the way, my own introduction to the ideas of individual liberty also came through Ayn Rand. When I was a teenager I met two gentleman who suggested that I read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness. Soon after that I also read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I was living in Hollywood, California at the time, and began to attend the taped lectures that were being offered around the country by the NBI [Nathaniel Branden Institute].
It was while attending the lectures that I discovered books by Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, Frederic Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, and William Graham Sumner. These set me on the track that led me to major in economics when I went off to college.
When I was asked that question about religion and the case for freedom, my answer was to place the positive elements of Judaism and Christianity in the context of the stream of Western history. That these (and other) religions have served as a bases for political and economic tyranny and oppression at various times is not something I would want to either deny or discount. But to trace out the entire path of religion in Western Civilization would have required a separate lecture.
I do not share your suggestion that adherence to, say, Christianity need imply or lead to political altruism. That it has done so in some instances does not prove that this is inseparable from Christian doctrine itself. It would be like suggesting that because some people have read Rand's novels and think they are living the principles of her philosophy by trying to act and dress like various characters in her novels, that this "proves" that Objectivism leads to "nutty" behavior. (And over the decades I have met such individuals in Objectivist circles.)
Nor do I think that because Christianity has often emphasized a spirit of "sharing" with others that this implies an inescapable link to coerced redistribution of wealth. Christian doctrine requires a voluntary acceptance of Christ for salvation, it calls for a freely-chosen following of a Christian life of "love," and it emphasizes the idea that all men are "brothers" in the eyes of God and as such each believing Christian should have a sense of of obligation "in Christ" to take a concern for the well-being and needs of others.
But the moral concern for others that Christian doctrine asks of all those who are believers in Christ is abrogated when the freedom of choice in how one lives one's faith is annulled by political means. When the State seizes an individual's wealth against his will and therefore without his consent, to "give to the poor," let us say, he is denied the financial ability to make his own decision himself about how he shall use that which he has honestly earned. Thus, it takes away property that is rightfully his, without which he is denied the material ability to choose how he share act -- including according to his religious beliefs (or not!).
Thus, "forced" charity (or "altruism") is fundamentally inconsistent with the Christian imperative of individual acts of conscience and choice. How can one live according to one's Christian faith if the State plunders the means through which the individual may materially live his values?
The Objectivist understanding that each individual should live a life of "rational selfishness," would also be abrogated if the State passed laws making it a punishable offense to voluntarily give charity. How could an Objectivist follow a moral life if the State tried to prohibit the right to be altruistic if the individual wanted to? This, too, would close off moral choice.
Of course, it would seem perverse if a group of "Randians" were to gain control of a government and then tried to use the power of the State to stamp out altruism through political means as the method of fostering a society based on "rational" virtues. But (no matter how strangely it may seem to you and me) I could conceive some people who had read some of Rand's works, and who concluded that the philosophy and practice of altruism were destroying man and civilization -- and that it's stranglehold over men's minds seemed extremely hard to break. So... to prevent the end of man through altruistic self-destruction, they would use the power of the State to create a better and more "rational" world.
Those Christians who seem "impatient" with the slow process of individual conversion and the degree of "un-Godly" selfishness in society -- let alone "sin" around every corner -- try to use the State to get people to be moral. Their impatience leads them to use means inconsistent with the tenets of their own faith, as I see it.
Finally, I believe that you may have read both to much and too little in my statement, in my talk, that in the market each of us is both "master" and "servant."
It is certainly the case that in earlier times, political power was used through war and conquest to enslave some, so others might use them as the human tools for their own dominating ends. Thus some were the "masters" and others the "servants," and those who were made to "serve" had limited ability to escape due to the threat and the use of force to maintain them in a state of servitude.
Classical liberalism freed men from this servitude by arguing that due to God, nature, and/or reason (the bases of the argument varied from thinker to thinker over the last four hundred years) each individual has an inalienable right to his own life, and liberty and property. That, indeed, the first and more fundamental property, is self-ownership. Thus, no man may hold another man in servitude.
The very nature of the arena of free market exchange is that no one may be coerced to perform an act or give something up that is in his (rightful) ownership without his voluntary consent. Thus, if I want something that another has I must offer him something in trade that he will accept as a means of payment to part with what he owns.
In the division of labor, I specialize in one (or a small number) of thing(s), and obtain the vast, vast majority of other things that I desire through trade with others. If I am to get them to accept such transactions I must apply myself to producing and supplying those goods or services which I believe they will take in trade. I must apply myself and "serve" other men's wants and desires as the means to my own ends -- obtaining from them those things that I value for my own life purposes. Through their consumer demands, they are the "masters" whom I serve in the marketplace ("service with a smile"; "the customer is always right.")
But I do this "serving" as a free choice precisely because I may not use force to acquire from them those things that I want. In turn, when I have successfully earned income in the market by producing and selling what others desire, I reenter the market as a consumer myself, as the "master" whom those I have just "served" now serve me in their respective roles as producers of things I want to buy.
The free market ended the long epoch of bondage, and replaced it with the relationship of reciprocity between free men.
My use of the terms "master" and "servant" in the market place was meant to be a metaphor that highlighted the radical contrast of what such words meant and imposed in the thousands of years before the (however imperfect) practice of capitalism over the last three hundred years.
Again, thank you for your commentary on our FEE seminar in Denver.
All Best Wishes,
Dr. Richard Ebeling
December 22, 2005
Armstrong: Christianity Supports Statism
I appreciate the fact that your comments on religion were cursory.
I didn't suggest that adherence to Christianity "need imply or lead" to the forced redistribution of wealth for purposes of welfare. Obviously, I know some Christians who advocate the protection of property rights and a government limited to that purpose. My point was that there is nothing inherent in Christianity that prevents statism, and a lot within Christianity that encourages it. (See, for instance, the Biblical quotes I included.) To the extent that Christians support full protection of individual rights and property rights, they do so not because of the tenets of Christianity, but because of outside principles of rights grafted onto Christianity.
And, as Rand argues in "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World" (reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It), religion indeed gives rise to altruism. She writes, "The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value... It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it..." (pages 61-2)
I was not discussing the "nutty" Christians: I was discussing the mainstream ones. The simple truth is that the Bible explicitly calls for statism, numerous religious leaders have advocated the forcible redistribution of wealth, and the overwhelming majority of Christians advocate such redistribution.
By contrast, no Objectivist advocates the forcible redistribution of wealth for purposes of welfare or the banning of charity (fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding). Objectivism explicitly advocates that people be left free to spend their income as they see fit. (Also, "sharing" is not the equivalent of altruism. Rand's own fictitious heroes voluntarily offer charity in some cases, and various Objectivists have described cases in which voluntary charity is appropriate.)
As I argued previously, the Christian doctrine of "voluntary acceptance of Christ for salvation" in no way precludes statism. The point of forcibly redistributing wealth is not, after all, to save the soul of the giver; it is to improve the material conditions of the receiver. Thus, forced welfare in no way contradicts the basic tenets of Christianity. Furthermore, nothing in Christian doctrine prevents the authorities from forcibly stopping heretics, witches, drug users, scientists, homosexuals, etc. from corrupting others. Again, this point is obvious if you look at the history of Christianity. In the past Christians murdered, tortured, and otherwise persecuted "witches," scientists, heretics, etc. Today, the overwhelming majority of Christians support all sorts of social (and economic) controls. Christianity obviously does not support a libertarian order (and, if it did, it would be curious that hardly any Christian believes that).
But it is not merely that Christianity happens to endorse statism, while Objectivism happens to endorse individual rights. As Rand also argues, politics is based on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. The belief in the supernatural and faith as a means of knowledge leads to the view that God determines morality and that politics properly institutes God's will among men. By contrast, the view in a single, real, naturalistic world knowable through reason and the senses supports the view that the standard of value is human life and that each individual person properly pursues his or her own values in a voluntaristic society. Thus, a Christian who consistently supports individual rights and strictly delimited government is an exception to the rule who is bringing in outside principles.
Obviously I appreciate the voluntary, mutually-beneficial exchanges of the free market. Nevertheless, I think I accurately characterize your moral case for capitalism as "basically Smithian" in nature. Peikoff discusses Adam Smith's ethics in The Ominous Parallels (pages 70-1). The basic idea is that self-interest is justified (for Smith) because it serves altruistic aims. In this view, Peikoff writes, "Man's ego... is not a demon to be exorcised, but a homely stepchild to be dutifully awarded 'a certain cold esteem' [quoting Smith], before one proceeds to the realm of 'ardent love or admiration,' the truly moral realm: self-sacrifice." Peikoff rightly notes that this "precarious structure" cannot withstand scrutiny. The basic problem is that a morality rooted significantly in self-sacrifice cannot uphold a political system based on the view that each individual has a moral right to pursue his or her own life and values, according to his or her own judgment, in a system of fully-protected individual rights. That is why I claimed "that Ebeling is unable to offer a convincing case for the morality of economic liberty."
Call: Liberty Comes from "Creator"
[Armstrong writes:] "Of course no reasonable person wants forcibly 'imposed secularism' -- freedom of religion is essential -- but the notion that Judeo-Christian traditions are what protect our liberty is false. And the essential aspect of 'state-centered totalitarian regimes' is their collectivism, not their 'secularism'."
Perhaps. But, I believe it is undeniable that the basis of (what once was) our Constitutional Republic is the Declaration of Independence. Simply put, everything else that follows is based on this:
"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men..."
Whether or not we agree on Who that Creator is... I contend that we are already seeing what happens when we try to tear down that foundation upon which everything else rests.
PS. You are right. Christmas is based on multiple pagan traditions. I think that it is demonstrable that Yeshua of Nazareth was born during Sukkot, in the fall. Happy Chanukah, too.
Armstrong: Watch False Alternatives
I agree that the doctrines of skepticism, postmodernism, and subjectivism are undermining our system of individual rights. However, as I argued, the fact that those doctrines are false does not imply that religion is true.
Welch: Religion Supports Subjectivism
Thanks for your article(s) in which you answer the "there can be no morality without God" argument by demonstrating that there is in fact an objective reality-based morality, and that religious morality is in fact another form of subjectivism in that it makes moral dictates dependent upon the will of God (which is invariably, of course, "interpreted" by earthly representatives).
Allow me to go one step further and posit that faith-based morality is indeed more flexible than objective reality. Much of this fact is due to the concept of "forgiveness" present especially in Judeo-Christian ethics; I would suggest that reality is much less forgiving than the Judeo-Christian God.
Moreover, there are the "dispensations," explicit or otherwise, promulgated--again, by supposed earthly representatives of the divine. One can easily imagine that Jimmy Swaggart rationalized that his work on behalf of God entitled him to dally with prostitutes and that his public contrition resulted only from having been caught in the act. The "will of God" can even be used to justify murder, as succinctly related in the following passage from the Book of Mormon (I Nephi 4:10-18) [see the text]:
10] And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.
Keep up the good work. I enjoy many of your articles, and although I am not always familiar with the references particular to Colorado, one can easily understand the general principles you are applying.
Armstrong: Don't Obey Voices in Your Head
I didn't look up the full story of Nephi and Laban, but it does appear that Laban was a bad guy. Nevertheless, even if Nephi was the victim of Laban's criminal acts, Nephi should not have "smote off his head" because he heard voices telling him to do so. If you hear voices telling you to whack off people's heads, you should check yourself into a mental institution, not obey the voices. Instead, Nephi should have sought justice according to rational principles in accordance with the rule of law (insofar as just law existed). Note that one of the reasons Nephi killed Laban was that Laban "would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord." I needn't belabor the point that killing people because they don't follow the commandments of some God is inconsistent with a political system of individual rights.