Liberty, Libertarianism, and Christian Ethics

A curious feature of American Christianity, rarely shared by Christians in other nations and cultures, is its propensity toward libertarianism, a philosophy that, at first glance, would seem to be intrinsically inimical to Christian teaching.  Where libertarianism tends to put the individual, his preferences, and his interests first and foremost, Christianity has always insisted that man is social, man is meant for community, and ought to put the interests of others first.  Where libertarianism exalts the value of unrestricted free choice, on the basis of individual preferences and interests, Christianity is committed to a strong view of objective moral norms which condition our freedom, rendering many choices unacceptable on the basis that they are in fact harmful both to the community and the individual.  Clearly a Christian cannot coherently be libertarian in this extreme sense.

For many American Christians, then, their libertarianism is of a pragmatic sort.  The argument, they will say, is not that the individual should in fact be ultimate, or that any exercise of free choice is good and lawful—on the contrary, individualism is harmful, and many free choices are very bad ones, and deserve censure.  Rather, the argument is merely that the restriction of choice by the tool of government coercion will do more harm than good.  Government simply should not be trusted with the enforcement of these moral norms, because law is a blunt instrument that will suppress legitimate freedoms along with illegitimate ones, and power corrupts, so it is not safe to entrust this duty to fallen men.  Better to allow individuals to make free decisions that might sometimes be harmful than give police power to the state to repress such actions.  Such a pragmatic libertarian logic, as I mentioned recently, seems to have traditionally undergirded the right of free speech—people will say lots of harmful, offensive, and unwise things, but giving the government power to suppress such statements will be much worse than living with the collateral damage of this liberty.  Likewise, some Christians may argue that yes, stockpiling excessive wealth is a bad thing, and ought to be used for charity, but we can’t trust the government with deciding what constitutes “excessive wealth.”


Fair enough.  Of course, we might object that many American Christians apply this logic selectively, declaring themselves all in favor of government suppression of vice on abortion, marriage, or anything that falls under the heading “family values.”  Or we might point out that if the argument is going to be pragmatic, then we must be committed to a serious empirical investigation of whether the suppression of a given liberty (e.g., stockpiling excessive wealth) really does do more harm than judicious legal restriction would do.  (This, incidentally, would yield something like more classical conservatism, which is genuinely committed to limited government, but also to a firm rule of law in those areas where liberty proves harmful.)  But let’s leave those objections aside for now, and allow the basic logic.  Now, according to this logic, if certain exercises of freedom are in fact harmful or morally objectionable, but civil authority should not be brought to bear in restraining them, then it would seem to follow that all other, non-coercive means should be brought to bear as fully as possible in restraining them.  I alluded to this in my discussion of Limbaugh and free speech.  If we are agreed that seditious or slanderous speech is a bad thing, but that we shouldn’t give government the power to suppress it, then it should fall to us, as responsible citizens, moral people committed to truth, and good Christians, to oppose such speech to the fullest of our ability.  We should use our own freedom of speech to denounce it, we should withdraw our support from those engaged in such wicked speech, should seek to leave them socially and economically isolated.  The fact that nowadays the right to “freedom of speech” is invoked to give any kind of speech immunity from criticism, to imply that those denouncing it are virtually fascists, is clear evidence that in this realm, the pragmatic justification has given way to an ideological one, that the idea that strong moral norms still individual freedom is being jettisoned.  The seductive logic of full-blown libertarianism has subverted the attempted pragmatic compromise.   

The same thing, I suggest, has happened to American Christians, particularly on issues such as economic ethics.  A serious Christian, attentive to the teaching of the Bible and the Christian ethical tradition, would recognize that much of what we as individuals like to do with our money is morally vicious and socially harmful—we greedily stockpile far more than we need, and withhold excess resources from those who urgently need them, we covet material pleasures of every description, we deceive and rip people off in order to come out on top in our exchanges, we pay people the lowest wage we can get by with, pocketing all the extra profit, etc.  Logically, then, a Christian “pragmatic libertarian,” while convinced that employing government power to restrain such things would do more harm than good, ought to be committed to opposing them by every other means.  Ministers should denounce such sins from the pulpit, and individual Christians should oppose them whenever they saw them.  Christian ethicists should write and speak about the dangers of wealth and greed, and seek to establish, in the absence of legal guidelines, moral guidelines for discerning a just wage and a just price, for when too much is too much.  Christians should be committed to bring non-coercive social pressures to bear, for instance boycotts, protests, etc., to seek to restrain such vices.  Right?  And yet, in my experience, we find the opposite.  In fact, whenever such moral pressures and objections are brought to bear, the reaction is no less indignant than if legal force were being used.  Not only must Wal-Mart be legally permitted to pay its workers a minuscule wage, but Christians should not be so “Pharisaical” as to critique it on moral grounds.  Rather than welcoming moral guidance on issues of economic ethics, most Christians balk at it as an intolerable restriction on freedom, and woe betide the pastor who dares to address such questions.  Instead of reasoning, “sure, there’s a such thing as excessive wealth, but the government shouldn’t be trusted to draw the line,” we are told that any attempt to draw the line is oppressive.  “How dare you judge me?” instinctively says the Christian with five cars and three houses.  But of course, this confusion—of moral judgment with genuine tyranny—is the same that modern libertine secularism routinely makes, when it decries the moral claims of Christianity as fascistic, treating any statement of disapproval as tantamount to a restriction of freedom, and hence demanding an immunity from any statement of criticism.  The homosexual rights lobby has gone from asking for civil liberty to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to sexuality, and the Christian Right has gone from demanding immunity from redistributive taxation to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to wealth.  


My suspicion, of course, is that this is no coincidence, and that in fact the “pragmatic libertarian” position, as I have called it, is inherently unstable, logically incapable, by its starting point in individual rights, of sustaining genuine social norms.  But for those who don’t want to accept that conclusion, let’s at least see an attempt at consistency—if you don’t want the government dealing with vice and injustice, then at least step up to the plate and be willing to deal with it yourself.

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 3)

Now that we have outlined the general motivations for human action, how do these function in different spheres of human life?  (I will not, of course, be comprehensive here and try to cover the entire scope of human life!)  

In most people’s conception, and certainly in the “Christian libertarian” (for lack of a better term) conception, the religious sphere is governed primarily by the love motivation, the economic sphere is governed primarily by the reward motivation, and the political sphere is governed primarily by the fear motivation: we obey God because we love Him, we obey our boss because he will pay us, and we obey the government because we don’t want it to kill us.  (Hate could also enter into any of these spheres, and I will give brief attention to its role in the economic sphere and a bit more attention to its role in the political sphere.) 

However, as I think is apparent already in that quick summary, this is dangerously oversimplistic.  The example just given above about serving God shows the complexity of motivations even in the religious sphere, a sphere from which even the coercive element does not seem entirely absent.  (This is a contentious subject, and not one I want to enter into here, but inasmuch as leaders of the Church are entrusted with the power of binding and loosing, the exercise of church discipline has a coercive character–it moves to action by the motive of fear–at the very least fear of losing fellowship, at the most, fear of losing salvation.)

The economic sphere is certainly more complex.  First, briefly, the most marginal motivation in the economic sphere, it seems to me, is hate.  Of course, it is quite possible that I could hate someone enough that I would refuse to sell to them.  This was common in the age of segregation and still is in regions charged with racial conflict; classical economists claim that good economic sense will automatically overcome such behavior, but this is to underestimate the power of irrational hate.  Or I could hate someone enough that I would go buy from their competitor even when it didn’t make economic sense, or hate someone enough to refuse to employ them.  However, it is worth noting that in each of these cases, hate doesn’t really motivate an economic action as such; it motivates a refusal of an economic action: I won’t buy, I won’t sell, I won’t employ.  So we might consider hate as an occasional but relatively infrequent intrusion upon the economic sphere, rather than something which characterizes it.  

If we cannot exclude hate as a possible motivation in the economic sphere, then we certainly cannot exclude love, however much we may tend to view the realm of love and the realm of contract as mutually exclusively.  Most obviously, I might often buy things out of love for others.  But on a larger scale, could I not, for instance see my neighbors in desperate need of some good that I am able to provide, and so start up a business out of a desire to help them and provide it for them?  Defenders of capitalism often speak in this way–the entrepreneur identifies a need, and develops a business to serve it–however, they do not really believe this provides the true motivation for the entrepreneur; instead, it is the profit motive, which is to say reward.  Adam Smith of course said it most famously: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  This has been a pillar of capitalist theory since–we must expect people to work, buy, and sell chiefly because of the benefit to themselves that they expect.  Within reason, of course, there is nothing terribly wrong with this, but if the reward motivation completely detaches itself from any love motivation–if I seek my own self-interest without any regard to that of others, then we will soon have a very ugly situation on our hands.   

For my purposes here, though, I want to take chief note of how the reward motivation, which I acknowledge to be the dominant one in economics, can easily become distorted into a fear motivation.  Consider someone happily working at a small company–he does his job, to be sure, out of a desire for a paycheck, and perhaps does it well because he wants a bonus.  Of course, he will probably be a better worker if there is an element of love as well–if he really likes his boss, and wants to please him, and if he thinks the work he is doing is valuable.  A new manager takes over, and efficiency is the name of the game (I’m imagining an Office Space sort of situation here).  Workers are afraid of getting laid off.  The motivation to work because of desire to get a paycheck has changed into a motivation to work because of fear of not getting a paycheck.  And as the movie Office Space shows, once this becomes the dominant motivation, you have a very unhealthy work environment.  Moreover, I would submit that once this happens, we have a subtly coercive work environment.  Now, the free marketeer will object and insist that we have a perfectly voluntary system here, because no one is under any legal compulsion–the employees are perfectly free to choose not to work.  However, the free marketeers believe that if someone is legally required to do something, on pain of receiving a steep fine, then this is coercive.  Now, what, I must ask, is the material difference between these two situations?  If someone acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in losing their job), how is this different from someone who acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in paying a steep fine)?  

 The coercion, of course, becomes less and less subtle the more desperate the situation of the employee.  If the employee has plenty of independent means, he is unlikely to be very intimidated by threats of losing his job.  Indeed, if the work situation becomes too unpleasant, he will probably just quit.  A typical middle-class worker has a lot more cause to fear unemployment than a wealthy person, but given an unpleasant enough work situation, he will probably take his chances and quit, and try to get a job elsewhere.  Someone who is dirt-poor, isolated, and unsure of the chances of getting any other work may, through terrible fear, put up with the most horrific work conditions lest things become even more horrific by losing his job.  This of course happens all around the Third World, and more often than we care to think in the First.  And yet our free marketeers will insist that this remains a perfectly voluntary arrangement.  But, as soon as any legal strictures are brought into the picture, be they the tiniest fines or penalties, capable of inducing much less fear and much less severe consequences, they decry these as “coercion.”  

 So, coercion is undeniably a reality in employment.  What about in buying and selling?  Here, the fear motivation is rarely as strong, because it is rare that any single purchase will have ramifications as great as the loss or maintenance of employment.  Of course, there are certainly exceptions.  In large enough purchases, so large that the merchant or manufacturer’s livelihood depends on them, or in desperate circumstances, the buyer can gain a great deal of leverage over the seller.  The seller absolutely must make some large sale or face bankruptcy, and so the potential buyer is able to play on this fear and wield great power over the seller, forcing him to agree to terms that he would not normally accept and that we would not normally consider just.   Inasmuch as in this situation persuasion now takes place through fear, we have a coercive situation.  Of course, this may not be morally objectionable.  Perhaps the shopkeeper made several very foolish gambles, and that’s why he is in such straits.  If no one is willing to buy his product except at very unsatisfactory terms, that is perhaps his fault and not theirs.  However, we can certainly envision situations in which the seller is genuinely a victim.  Wal-Mart, for instance, is well-known for strong-arming small producers through its enormous buying power in some pretty unsavory ways. 

What about buying?  This is the part that interests me the most, because of the great increase in the sophistication of coercion that modern marketing has introduced.  In buying, there has always been a potential fear motivation, the fear of starvation, illness, or some other kind of great danger or suffering.  If a farmer loses his whole crop and is in fear of starvation, and comes to buy grain, then the seller is suddenly in a position of power over him, able to use that fear as a lever.  If the seller does so, and ratchets up his prices absurdly high, it is hard to see how this does not count as a kind of coercion.  However, for reasons unknown to me, our free marketeers will treat this as a completely voluntary transaction, and one in which the laws of supply and demand should have free rein to set a reasonable price.  They might object that the farmer does not need to pay the unreasonable price–he can just go to another merchant.  If this were true, then we would have no problem.  But of course, it is very often not true. Businesses know how much greater coercive leverage they can gain if it is not true, and that is why monopoly is such a prized goal.

 Now generally such coercive power over buying has been restricted to absolute needs–if someone breaks their pencil and has to buy another, the seller is unlikely to be able to bring much of a fear motivation to bear.  Enter the power of modern marketing.  Marketing of course has many valid uses, but one key function of modern marketing has been to redress the limitation that only absolute needs can put a buyer in a coerceable position.  The solution, of course, is to increase the scope of absolute needs, since “needs” are largely a matter of perception.  Take me, for instance.  I would say that I need a regular supply of milk, eggs, bread, butter, meat maybe three times a week, some cheese, salt and pepper, at least a cup of coffee a day, preferably some tea as well, several sets of nice clothing, a computer, earbuds, several albums of music, a cell phone, a number of computer programs, a steady supply of new books, wireless internet access, a comfortable bed and blankets, and some basic hygiene supplies.  Clearly, most of these are not genuine absolute needs.  But the fact that I perceive them as such means that I am prone to fear if I do not have them, and thus prone to having that fear worked upon to persuade me to do things or pay prices that I rationally would not want to pay.  And of course I think I would be reasonable in saying that this is a fairly short list of needs compared to most young people in the modern West, who are fairly easily persuaded that they need iPods, iPhones, thousands of songs of music, a digital camera with at least ten megapixels, an almost endless supply of the latest and most fashionable clothing, along with various food and drink addictions, ranging from the grossest junk food to the faddiest health food.  Some of this need-creation is done by marketing working on our physical appetites–whether the lust of the flesh or the lust of the eyes–but the most powerful forms work on our emotional appetites–on the pride of life–and sometimes by creating or preying on fear.  Teenagers are probably the most vulnerable demographic, easily convinced that they will be a complete social failure if they do not buy any number of fashionable absurdities.  We would point out that most of these “needs” are illusory, but in some cases, that’s not quite true.  For instance, in the realm of business, most businesses now pretty much need to have a website–if a new device can be successfully marketed to the majority of businesses in an industry, then suddenly, the others will find that it has gone from being a luxury to a necessity if they want to stay competitive. 

Now, again, not all of this by any means is morally objectionable.  In the latter example–of businesses constantly having to upgrade–that’s just part of how the advance of technology works, and although we might legitimately argue in certain cases that technology ought to move a bit more slowly, it is not necessarily exploitation for the purveyors of such technology to make it so that everyone has to jump on board.  And in the former example, we would no doubt say that the insecure buyers bear plenty of responsibility for letting themselves be duped into “needing” luxuries.  However, it is crucial to note that the fact that there is fault on the one side does not mean there is none on the other.  If someone has an irrational fear of something, and I decide to play up their irrational fears and use them to convince them to do all sorts of things for me, then I am certainly guilty of a wicked kind of manipulation, and probably, given the definitions we have been working with, a subtle form of coercion.  I think that we are naive if we do not recognize that a kind of “coercion” may be going on when a clothing company convinces a girl to pay four times what a pair of jeans is worth because they have played up her fears that she will be rejected by everyone if she doesn’t buy them.

The point here, of course, is not to argue that all or even most modern marketing is “coercive,” or to deny that most needless purchasing decisions are still made out of a vices as simple as covetousness, rather than fear.  The point is simply to establish that we need to offer a more complex account of how the economic sphere really operates in our world, and such an account, it seems to me, must include an analysis of the various subtle and even overt kinds of coercion at work.  In the next segment, I will turn to try and offer a similarly complex account of the political sphere.

Coercive Corporations? (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 1)

Nowadays if you listen to any conservative media, you can expect to find an almost reflexive hatred of everything relating to the government, and an almost reflexive confidence in everything relating to the market and to corporations.  This seems deeply puzzling, since it seems that most of the things that people hate about “the government” apply equally to many large corporations–they are massive entities, reaching their tentacles into everything, sucking up our money, trying to control our lives, faceless and bureaucratic, always expanding–plus, large corporations add an additional unsavory feature not shared by governments: they are legally bound to look out for their own interests firsts, as opposed to the common interest first.  The government may fail to advance the common good, but at least it is supposed to be trying to.

The ferocious reply comes back: “No!  The difference is that corporations aren’t trying to control our lives!  Corporations leave you free to buy or not buy as you see fit, and they can only survive if you choose to buy.  Governments, however, rule by coercion–they force you to pay taxes, even if you don’t want to–that’s the essential difference.”  Hard right libertarians or anarchists will push this further, and describe every function of the government in terms of the baldest coercion: “We have to pay taxes for our schools because otherwise they’ll lock us up in a cage; we’re being forced to pay for these new roadways at gunpoint”–that sort of supercharged language.  All this, I want to suggest, rests upon a rather oversimplistic concept of “coercion” and indeed a false understanding of how human psychology and human societies work.  

In this series, I want to explore a provocative pair of questions: Just how uncoercive are markets really?  And, for that matter, just how coercive are governments, really?  The tantalizing answer, I suggest, is: It depends–upon you, that is.

Let’s try to unpack this.  My main argument rests on deconstructing the concept of coercion, but first, let’s offer an easier, purely empirical challenge to the notion that governments coerce where corporations do not.  Is it true that corporations do not exercise coercion?  As a matter of fact, many do.  Here in the US, the largest corporations have long learned how to harness the power of the legal system to destroy smaller competitors, or to repress protesting workers, or, more frighteningly, have manipulated foreign policy or even collaborated with military forces, CIA, etc., to take down obstacles to their expansion, or to take foreign markets captive.  This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff, but a pretty open-and-shut part of history (not just, of course, in the last century, though the massive reach of multinations has amplified the effects of corruption).  Books like Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, or even Niall Ferguson’s Empire are a good primer in this sort of thing.  

Of course, the right-wingers will reply that this is just because the state, with its coercion, has gotten mixed up in business: in each of these examples, corporations are calling upon the coercive power of the state to do their dirty work, not doing it themselves.  This, however, is a rather poor defense–it reminds me a bit of Boniface VIII’s argument that the Pope doesn’t wield the coercive sword directly–he just gives it to civil authorities and tells them how to use it, so he remains spiritual and peaceful.  If corporations are asking the government to wield coercive power for them, then corporations themselves are seeking to exercise coercive power.  Moreover, outside the First World, private companies often do maintain their own security forces that will protect their interests by force.  So even with direct coercion, a neat distinction between governments and corporations is not possible.  

However, I’m not so interested in direct coercion.  Later on, we’ll try to find an actual meaningful definition for coercion.  But for now, let’s go back to that phrase above “trying to control our lives,” which for now we could call “coercion broadly construed.”  Now, do corporations try to control our lives?  Well, not all of them, sure, but many of them.  They try to control what we eat, how we sleep, what we do for entertainment, what we read, where we travel–in short, all of our lifestyle choices are not left simply up to us, but are pushed and pulled by marketing.  This isn’t a conspiracy theory either, but simply a truism about the purpose of much modern marketing.  “Ah, but the difference,” our free marketeer will object, is that the choice is still always up to you whether you will listen to the marketing, what you will buy, etc.  A corporation can never force you to choose one thing over another.”  But this is to return to a narrow definition of coercion.  When we say that someone has a “controlling husband” or that “so-and-so’s friends are trying to control her” we usually do not mean that physical force is being employed–no, control is usually exercised by psychological and social pressures, by all sorts of forms of bullying, alluring, and manipulating.  We rightly detest the idea of being manipulated–indeed, almost worse than being outright coerced, because at least then we know what’s being done to us, instead of being secretly pulled and prodded.  We are so immersed in the manipulative power of marketing that we often don’t even notice it anymore; we think we’re freely choosing to eat at McDonalds, and then finally we wake up one day and ask, “Why do I eat at McDonald’s?  I hate it!  It’s terrible food, and terribly unhealthy,” and so we try to stop, and then we realize how strong the impulse remains.  Later on, I will return to offer a more thoroughgoing psychological evaluation of choice and this sort of subtle coercion.

For now, though, we shouldn’t forget another even simpler way in which companies try and “control our lives”–by limiting the number of choices available.  If I want something to eat and you present me with a choice between corn chips and oatmeal, but I don’t want either, I may still be technically “free,” but I sure don’t feel like it.  The panegyrists of capitalism tell us how much capitalism has increased the number of choices available.  But as many critics have documented, this proliferation of choice is in many ways an illusion.  The vast number of food products seemingly available are often just variations on various corn products and hyper-processed foods; we are not necessarily given the choice to eat healthy beef or natural vegetables.  The most dramatic example of the deceptive proliferation of choice is in drugs.  Supposedly, we are now blessed with an amazing plenitude of medicines for every conceivable need; however, most of these contain one of a few basic chemical ingredients, chemicals that often are far less effective than the plethora of natural remedies that have been pushed off of drugstore shelves everywhere.  More obviously, choice is limited by monopoly.  The massive number of brands out there reflect, in many industries, only a small handful of actual companies, many of which basically follow the exact same production processes.  The goal of most large companies is to choke out the competition and establish a monopoly, or at least an oligopoly, and of course it is precisely the monopoly role that the government seeks to play that angers so many of the libertarian stripe.  Here, then, we cannot draw a clear dividing line between the “control” exercised by government and that exercised by the “private sphere.”  And of course it should be pointed out that this blurriness between the private and the public realms is not a modern development; on the contrary, the modern period has seen an attempt to differentiate between these two much more sharply than ever before.  

Now, this empirical case is not really my chief interest.  In the following three sections, I want to analyze the concept “coercion” and see how useful it really is in enabling us to condemn political action and endorse economic action.