[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Yesterday evening, I participated in a symposium sponsored in part by Northfield School of the Liberal Arts, a private Christian academy, here in Wichita, KS. I’ve done a lot with Northfield over the years, as I strongly admire their sense of public engagement and their fascinating mix of evangelical traditionalism and downright hippie experimentation, including participating in an earlier symposium of theirs. The one last night, though, which focused on Pope Francis’s recently encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)–about which I’ve written before–was really our best conversation yet, not the least reason for which being that I heard a libertarian argument that was enormously clarifying to me (despite being, in view, both wrong and frankly kind of ridiculous).
This is how it came about. While I’d come prepared with some remarks about Pope Francis’s condemnation of consumerism, the discussion itself quickly veered in the direction which a couple of very pious, very evangelical Protestant, Tea Party folks wanted it to go, which is that Francis’s comments, as learned and as valuable as they may be, were completely undermined by insistence upon social and collective responses to the problems he diagnosed. While one of these two gentlemen was more willing than the other to recognize that “capitalism” itself is a financial construct which has no clear basis in Christian scriptures, both of them were absolutely resolute in their belief that God called his people to an individualistic, free-market social order. So far, so good: I’ve heard this before, and it’s never made any sense to me, but that’s par for the course. But then one of these good fellows (the same more radical one who I mentioned above, a quite successful businessman whom I know and get along with well from previous interactions) went on a long theological spiel that was actually kind of amazing. He emphasized that he, unlike Catholics, understood the words of scripture (particularly John 3:8 and Revelations 22:17) to stipulate an unforced, unguided, “whosoever will” relationship with God–and moreover, since all interactions between Christians are to be guided by the Holy Spirit, the obvious conclusion is that Adam Smith’s unforced, unguided, invisible hand is a good representation of the will of God, so long as the free market is population by Christians who are attentive to the Spirit. Thus, any truly Christian society, or even one which only aspires to such, must recognize that any regulation or redistribution which interferes with the free will decisions of individual Christians regarding how to dispose of their property or share their wealth–even edicts which exist to serve putatively Christian ends like community and equality–contravene the word of God. Hence, Pope Francis’s insistence that we need to perceive an additional commandment against an “economy of exclusion and inequality” [paragraph 53], to say nothing of his defense of states as defenders of “the common good” [paragraph 56] and his call for “politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots…of the evils in our world” [paragraph 205], is simply nonsense from a Christian point of view.
Have any of you readers ever heard this argument before? Maybe I have before, but if I have, I didn’t recognize it for what it was. In any case, I’ve never heard this particularly kind of Christian libertarian anti-statist spelled out in such detail, not to mention which such fervor. I really had to thank and congratulate this man; his sermon enabled me to understand just how deeply grounded in scripture some evangelical Protestants believe a radical individualism to be. And I should emphasize that, when it came to the particular details of his response to the specific ills that Francis condemned, I was in agreement with probably 80% of them or more, as they mostly revolved around attacks on powerful financial institutions and our addiction to a consumption economy which can be well expressed in localist and social democratic as well as libertarian terms. But for anyone who knows my writings, it won’t be surprising to hear me say that I find this overall argument both scripturally groundless (I don’t see anyway to present a fundamental–and I think mostly correct–Augustinian understanding of our will’s relationship with the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and marketplace decisions on the other, as somehow equivalent) and philosophically and sociologically ridiculous (the marketplace, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, is I think characterized far more by the concentration of social power than by the independent decisions of free agents, and consequently has to be responded to collectively–and, obviously, one hopes democratically). For now, though, I just want to know: has this kind of Christian libertarian argument been commonly expressed for a long while, and I’ve just somehow missed it? Or did I, last night, encounter a genuinely original claim? I’d appreciate someone more familiar with this line of thought letting me know. My thanks in advance.