Leithner Letter No. 59
26 November, 2004

Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker, in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.

Thomas Jefferson
Letter to Richard Rush (1813)

Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought. ... Liberty is the prevention of control by others. This requires self-control and, therefore, religious and spiritual influences. ... [In Western countries] Liberty has not subsisted outside of Christianity.

Selected Writings of Lord Acton:
Essays in Religion, Politics and Morality

Often when I am kneeling down in church, I think to myself how much we should thank God, the Holy Ghost, for the gift of capitalism.

Enoch Powell
Speech at Falkirk, Scotland (1968)

Who Shalt Not Steal? Who Shalt Not Kill?

According to The Australian (10 September), earlier this year a leading member of the Liberal-National coalition government “preached the message of the Gospel to 800 worshippers at the Scots Church in Melbourne.” This politician “urged a spiritual fightback against the forces of moral decline in the nation” and “declared the answer to Australia’s problems was to be found in the Ten Commandments.” He told worshippers “we do not have to look far to see evidence of moral decay around us. We see it and hear it in entertainment like rap music, in songs that glorify violence or suicide or exploitation of others. Drugs break up families and marriages. Many addicts end up in prostitution or burglary. These outcomes are the very antithesis of all values set out by the Ten Commandments about how to order society. ... I do not want to suggest that there are no initiatives the Government should take. But I do want to suggest something [the power of prayer] that is much more radical and far reaching.”

The Official Opposition also includes committed Christians. The Weekend Australian Financial Review (25-26 September) profiled a well-known candidate (now a Member of Parliament) who is “on a mission to change the world – and he believes the best way to do that is in a mainstream political party.” In this MP’s own words, “it’s inevitable that the faith or the belief framework that you’ve got as a person influences all your activities. Of course, you take part of your belief system with you as a person but you also take your own political enthusiasm and concern and translate that into political life. So it’s not something which can be simplified.” A Uniting Church chaplain who has known him for many years told The AFR “[he is] one of those bright people who’s made that proper biblical connection – you can’t have a faith that isn’t politically involved. He is a committed Christian who is involved in both personal faith and public discipleship. That means you take your understanding of Christ seriously at the point of political action.”

Yet another politician, reared a Roman Catholic and now a practising Anglican and a “self-confessed God-botherer,” detects an important shift among members of the Australian public. “I think people are returning to some form of small ‘r’ religion or embracing a new capital ‘R’ religion in terms of fundamentalism.” To him, and to many others of various partisan political hues, this tectonic shift has vitally important implications: “any close scrutiny of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth would suggest He has a searing message for everyone engaged in policy and public life” (see also The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician by Tony Abbott).

Alas, religious politicians and devout members of the general public are either completely oblivious to these implications or are utterly contemptuous of this message. Australian politicians – of all parties, at Commonwealth, state and local levels and with very strong, usually unthinking and sometimes strident support from mainstream clerics and the general public – have for decades worked tirelessly to cement grave violations of the Ten Commandments into the country’s political edifice. In this respect religious politicians and statist priests are, as much as anybody else, agents of moral decline in Australia. They have entrenched violations of the Ten Commandments so gradually into public life that few if any Australians, whether or not they are religious, now recognise the infringements; and they have entrenched them so firmly that if they are brought to people’s attention then people either ignore them, rationalise them or indignantly refuse to regard them as violations. These contraventions of the Ten Commandments, as well as religious politicians’ and socialist priests’ staunch advocacy of these abuses, hold important lessons for consumers, taxpayers and intelligent investors.

To see this, consider (as does Jacob Hornberger in his outstanding article The Ten Commandments Controversy) the commandment “thou shalt not steal.” Very simple and powerful reasoning underlies it: if A takes something that belongs to B without B’s consent, then A has stolen from B. Stealing, in turn, is immoral and immorality deserves punishment. Let us say that Jill has $100 in her purse and that Jack removes it, goes to the races, spends it and enjoys himself immensely – all without Jill’s consent. Most people, whether they are devoted Christians, adherents to other faiths, agnostics or atheists, would agree that Jack has stolen from Jill. They would also agree that Jack’s stealing is immoral and that he should make restitution and probably be punished.

But what if Jack has studied economics at university? Parroting the Keynesian dogma that pervades business schools (and the academy more generally), Jack acknowledges that he has taken Jill’s money without her consent – but he also contends that his theft and spending spree is a public virtue (see in particular the preface to Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, Liberty Classics, 1924, 1988, ISBN: 0865970726). Albeit in a very small way, Jack’s theft has “bolstered aggregate demand” and “encouraged employment” and thereby “helped the economy.” Even if this contention were true (any child can see that it is patently absurd, and in any case that Jill’s expenditure of her $100 would also achieve these things), most people would concur that the “benefits” of Jack’s theft do not offset its immorality. It is wrong, in other words, to steal – especially when the proceeds benefit the thief and also when they materially benefit a third party or parties. (As an aside, few if any Australian judges would accept Jack’s “Keynesian” defence of his theft.)

But what if Jack spends the money he has stolen from Jill entirely altruistically? Assume that Jack, acting selflessly, uses it to buy a gift for his mother. Leaving aside the question whether altruism motivates his behaviour, most people would still say that Jack is a thief. From a moral point of view, in other words, Jack’s intentions (granting for the sake of argument that they are good) do not excuse his behaviour. Even if A does not benefit economically from the theft but only intends to please C, taking from B without B’s consent is stealing. It is morally wrong, in other words, to steal – even when the money is used to gratify somebody else. Again, few if any Australian judges would accept this defence of Jack’s actions.

But what if Jack takes Jill’s money in order to purchase medication that his mother requires in order to relieve chronic back pain? Is Jack still stealing? If so, do his Mum’s unfortunate circumstances excuse Jack’s behaviour? It is difficult to see how they do. As before, so too in this instance: Jack’s moral obligation is to ask Jill for the money – or, better yet, to work honestly for it – rather than simply take it. His duty is to help his mother, but not by immoral means. But what if Mum is dying from a treatable disease, and only a course of treatments that neither she nor her son can afford and which is required urgently will save her life? Do these circumstances absolve Jack? It is likely that many people would sympathise with Jack’s situation in this extreme instance. Again, however, Jack could either have asked Jill for the money or earned it. He could also have saved or self-insured (or help his Mum to insure) for this rainy day. Accordingly, most people would concur that, notwithstanding his humanitarian purpose, Jack has stolen from Jill; and many and perhaps most would agree and that his theft requires restitution and perhaps punishment (albeit probably less severe than in the other instances).

What on earth has this series of thought experiments to do with Australians’ entrenchment into their politics of violations of the Ten Commandments? Simply this: at a quickening pace since the early twentieth century and at an historically unprecedented degree at the 9 October Commonwealth election, Australians have embraced a way of life premised upon the notion that there is nothing wrong with taking from Jill in order to “redistribute” it to a “deserving” Jack. Indeed, the vast majority of Australians agree that (subject to the fulfillment of one critical qualification) this taking is right and good and moral – and they indignantly denounce anybody who says otherwise. The caveat is that the taking and redistribution be done “democratically” and “through the political process.” In other words, whilst most Australians agree that it is wrong at the individual level for B to take A’s money without A’s consent, they overwhelmingly concur that it is morally right and imperative at the collective or political level for government to take from a group of A’s, give its bureaucrats some of the takings and to distribute the remainder to a group of B’s.

Similarly, Australians would virtually unanimously uphold the principle that it is wrong for one person (B) to kill another (A). Yet today they concur – sometimes enthusiastically – that it is right and necessary for governments, including “their” government, to avenge the deaths of one group of people (A) by paying its agents to kill members of another group (B) – whether or not any Bs killed or had anything to do with the death of any As. Murray Rothbard (see in particular For A New Liberty, Fox & Wilkes, 1973, 1998, ISBN: 093073019 and The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1982, 1998, ISBN: 0814775063) has demonstrated that governments’ commencement of war in order to stop “terrorist aggression” is predicated upon a logically invalid extension of the analogy of aggression by one individual upon another. At the individual level, Smith attacks Jones; local police rush to defend Jones; they use “police action” to stop the aggression and then commence “peacekeeping” to prevent its recurrence.

But “police action” is justifiable only at the individual (i.e., Smith-Jones) level: it makes no sense whatsoever at a collective (Country A-Country B) level. Governments that commence war virtually necessarily become aggressors against non-combatants. Indeed, on numerous occasions during the twentieth century, and whatever their initial intentions, they became mass murderers of civilians. At the political level, the bastardised analogy is thus: Smith attacks Jones; the police rush to defend Jones; and in the course of trying to apprehend Smith they bombard a city block and fire machine guns into a crowd of innocent bystanders. Clearly, however, any “police” agency that behaved in this manner would itself be a criminal aggressor – and, it is vital to recognise, commit much more aggression than the original Smith who attacked Jones. Any Australian policeman who ordered or undertook such action would face criminal prosecution.

Australia has always been and today remains a deeply religious country. But Australians’ religion has changed dramatically over the years. Decades ago its major churches included the Church of England, the Church of Rome, the Church of Scotland and the like, and their purpose was to celebrate God’s grace, teach the Gospel, help people to live worthy lives and to save souls. Today, these organisations retain their names but are mere shells. In reality, there is only one – state-sanctioned – religion. It is the “Church of Canberra,” the politics of redistribution and retribution, and its purpose is to glorify the state, enrich politicians and support the state’s dependents and mascots at the expense of everybody else. Thou shalt not steal – unless you are a politician, in which case your stealing is called “social justice.” And thou shalt not kill – again, unless you are a politician, in which case your killing is dubbed “national defence.” But never mind: in both instances, politicians’ mockery of the Ten Commandments is “in the national interest.” St Augustine once recounted a conversation between Alexander the Great and a captured pirate. “How dare you molest the seas?” asked Alexander. “How dare you molest the whole world?” the pirate replied. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief. You, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor.”

This corruption of morality – tolerated and sometimes aided and championed by virtually all of Australia’s mainstream clergy – has become so pervasive that not only do Australians hotly dispute that the welfare-warfare state epitomises stealing and killing: they have convinced and congratulated themselves that wars on poverty, drugs, terror, injustice and the like are moral, compassionate and benevolent. By making an injunction to steal a permanent and defining feature of their politics, and by pretending that state-sanctioned stealing and killing reflects their goodness, morality, compassion and benevolence, Australians have perverted the Ten Commandments. True Christians must not enforce governments’ unjust and sacrilegious ways – and still less should they try to justify and legitimise them.

Australia’s Secular Religion and Political Mafiosi

Virtually all Australians, from the prime minister to the humblest consumer and taxpayer, would reply indignantly and perhaps angrily to this accusation. Justice and economic necessity, they would likely say, logically and morally justify the welfare state; and evil people overseas and their hatred of the Australian way of life necessitate the warfare state. Jack and many people like him simply cannot afford medication or medical treatment or housing or university education or whatever; therefore (Australians seem to think it follows as night follows day) Jill and people like her must provide these things. Many Australians would say much more than this: Jack has a right to medical goods and services and housing and education; accordingly, Jill has a duty to pay taxes to the government, which uses the proceeds to pay politicians and bureaucrats and provide these various things to Jack. Abstract thought experiments and the conclusions drawn from them are one thing, the angry and indignant might say, but reality and urgent need are entirely different. To think otherwise is to be heartless and greedy and – seemingly worst of all – “un-Australian.”

Hornberger notes that the angry and indignant response to this accusation implicitly (and probably unknowingly) draws an analogy to a legal defence that some common law jurisdictions permit accused individuals to raise in a very few criminal prosecutions. If a defendant can convince a judge or jury that a particular theft – which the defendant acknowledges – was absolutely necessary in order to prevent an even greater harm (for example, the defendant becomes lost tramping in a remote area and after several days finds a cabin, enters it in order to avert hypothermia and consumes its store of rations to avert death from starvation), then the jury may acquit the defendant of theft.

Again, however, the analogy to the welfare state is inapposite and its proponents are reasoning invalidly from the individual to the collective level. First, in the courtroom the “prevention of harm” defence is invoked very infrequently and is decided on a case-by-case basis. It is therefore a far cry from a political system that taxes almost everyone in order to redistribute much to many. Secondly, this defence presupposes that the tramper’s potential loss (death from hypothermia and starvation) is demonstrably greater than the actual loss (the break-and-enter and rations eaten) suffered by the cabin’s owner. But how can a politician – or anybody else, for that matter – demonstrate that Jack’s need for Jill’s money is demonstrably greater than Jill’s need for her own money?

Finally, this defence presumes that the accused shows remorse for his theft and is prepared to pay restitution. Quite the opposite happens in the political realm: not only does Jack typically show no remorse – politicians strongly encourage him to regard the receipt of Jill’s money as an “entitlement.” As a rule, then, the legal system based upon common law rightly condemns violations of property rights but in exceptional and carefully specified cases partly absolves certain individuals of the legal consequences that would otherwise attach to their actions. In sharp contrast, the political system celebrates and worships the principle of theft – as long as the stealing is decreed by politicians and undertaken by their agents. Hence the invalidity of most Australians’ reasoning: when they really think about it, they cannot honestly equate the exceptional necessity and strictly delimited emergency of the bushwalker with the welfare-warfare state’s routine and universal seizure and redistribution of wealth on a massive and ever-growing scale.

Yet most Australians would likely remain unmoved. They would likely deny, many strenuously, that taxpayers have not given their consent to the transfer of some of their money to the state. It is through participation at elections, they would likely say (and would likely add that in Australia attendance at the polling booth is compulsory), that this consent is derived; accordingly, it is not just false but also outrageous to say that consent has been withheld and theft has occurred. More generally, there exists a “social contract” in Australia to which all Australians are subject.

How to reply to this riposte? With the simple observation that by Australian legal standards the “consent” implied at elections is, to put it mildly, coerced. In the polling booth, one chooses among various politicians – all of whom propose (if elected) terms that will compel specified Australians to surrender given amounts of their property to the state. An election, as H.L. Mencken famously put it, is an auction in advance on the sale of stolen goods. The voter can choose this candidate or that party (i.e., this or that package of coercion) such that her surrender of property is somewhat lessened – this occurs far less frequently than Australians seem to think – or her receipt of booty is increased. Critically, however, she cannot choose to reject or disengage or exempt herself from the coercion. Like a resident of a mental institution, she can choose either more dessert at dinner or more free time to watch TV. But she cannot under any circumstances choose to leave the asylum.

Why? Because everybody, apparently, whether they like it or not, is bound to the “social contract.” This is a very curious type of contract that has no counterpart at the individual level. The social contract differs diametrically from an individual-level contract in the sense that one party (namely the state, government, politicians, etc.) can and does unilaterally decide when the other party (i.e., the individual) is violating the contract’s terms. In contrast, at no time can an individual decide that the government is breaching the contract. Further, it is not my actions that cause me to violate the contract; rather, it is the actions of others, most notably at elections when a majority vote themselves access to my property.

A victim who “voluntarily” hands his wallet to a mugger does not “legitimise” theft. Similarly, relations between politicians and individuals do not involve voluntary and mutually-beneficial exchange. Accordingly, no Australian enters into a valid contract with the state. It unilaterally takes individuals’ money via force. If you doubt this, stop paying your taxes and see what happens.

If taxation is indistinguishable from theft, then politicians are simply agents of a vast organised crime syndicate that is far more formidable and successful than any private mafia. A nineteenth-century French legislator, economist and classical liberal expressed this point best. “Look at the law,” said Frédéric Bastiat in The Law, “and see if it does for one man at the expense of another what it would be a crime for the one to do to the other himself.” If you or I or any individual attempt to do what politicians constantly do without a second thought, then the law rightly says that we are guilty of fraud, robbery, extortion, racketeering and the like. But when politicians do it, it is called “politics.” In Bastiat’s view, government beyond the strictest limits becomes “organised plunder” and a device through which “everyone seeks to enrich himself at the expense of everyone else.” Government, in other words, epitomises the very thing – aggression – it supposedly exists to prevent. Government and politics thoroughly befuddle people because politicians routinely engage in wanton criminality under the solemn cloak of the law.

Yet it is the oppressed subject – not the ruler – who is routinely treated as an offender. In sharp contrast, exceptionally rarely is a flesh-and-blood politician ever punished for anything he does to his subjects. Virtually never, in other words, does he pay restitution out of his own pocket using his own rather than taxpayers’ money. Bastiat reasoned to the conclusion that governments necessarily and unavoidably violate the most elementary principles of natural justice. If you accept Bastiat’s starting points and reasoning, then you cannot avert the conclusion that politicians are basically predators and that politics is a completely immoral activity (see also Taxation Through the Ages by Joseph Sobran).

Bastiat, a devout Roman Catholic, derived his premises from a philosophy of natural rights (see in particular Bastiat’s Providence and Liberty, Acton Institute, 1991, ISBN: 1880595001). These rights inhere in individuals – not groups. By calling them natural, Bastiat meant that they logically antecede governments and their pronouncements. Government, then, does not create rights. Sometimes it encodes rights and occasionally it protects them. But what a government gives it can also revoke. Hence the wisdom of the old saying: any government powerful enough to give you whatever you want is also powerful enough to confiscate everything you have. And so it seems: historically, Australian governments have trampled upon natural rights far more frequently and enthusiastically than they have respected or protected them. Hence the anti-utilitarian doctrine, drawn from the notion of natural rights, that politics is routinised and legitimated violence (see in particular Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1982, 1998, ISBN: 0814775063).

From this insight comes the idea that government must always and everywhere be severely limited, and citizens be eternally vigilant, lest government oppress individuals and weaken or revoke their natural rights. Arguably more than any other people in history, British North American colonists of the late eighteenth century understood these fundamental points. Sobran notes that George III taxed his colonists at the rate of a few pennies a year. This, and the government’s other threats to the colonists’ natural rights, provoked a Lockean rebellion. Today, in sharp contrast, another George taxes with impunity (wake up America: a dollar of budget deficit today is at least a dollar of tax that will be levied tomorrow) and – no thanks to Congressmen – regards the Constitution as a quaint anachronism that he can ignore as he pleases. Alas, contemporary Americans have either forgotten or repudiated their forebears’ noble principles.

Christianity: A Foundation of Western Liberty

The Liberal-National politician quoted in the opening paragraph is correct to say that the answer to Australia’s problems can be found in the Ten Commandments. And his ALP counterpart is also correct to say that any close scrutiny of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth suggests that He has a searing message for everyone engaged in policy and public life. That message is that the Ten Commandments are not negotiable; stealing and killing are immoral; politics as it is conventionally practised (i.e., the politics of the welfare-warfare state) is stealing and killing; and therefore contemporary politics is immoral. Further, because Christians can have no truck with immorality, they must have nothing to do with politics as it is conventionally practised. When it comes to politics and the state, many Christian “fundamentalists” actually compromise rather than uphold fundamentals (in sharp contrast, see John Cobin, Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective, Alertness, rev. ed. 2003, ISBN: 0972541802).

It is absurd to think that a practising Christian who becomes a conventional politician can remain a practising Christian. The entry of Christians into contemporary politics does not purify politics: it merely sullies Christians who become politicians. Why? Because just as God says thou shalt not worship other gods, secular élites tolerate no opposition to their claim to god-like status. The Ten Commandments is a higher law – higher than the state’s convoluted statutes and pettifogging regulations – to which all Christians must submit. Politicians cannot abide this: they and nobody else will determine what is right and wrong and what is acceptable and impermissible. It is thus not theocracy that Australian politicians fear. It is anything that challenges the sovereignty of the Church of Canberra. Politicians often say they want separation of church and state; but what they mean is that the final authority of the state must be undisputed. No other authority – not even the Ten Commandments – can be tolerated because no other authority is compatible with their grasping and monopolistic vision. But in the Christian and especially the Roman Catholic tradition, no government can compel a man to act against the laws of God and still remain a legitimate government (see also The 10 Commandments Question by Llewellyn Rockwell and Taking Stock: Christianity and the State by Ryan McMaken).

In "How I Became a Christian Libertarian," Steven Yates says “I wish more Christians would realise that initiating coercion to achieve desirable social goals is out of accord with true Christianity. And I wish more libertarians would realise that the freedom philosophy they rightly treasure cannot be made to last among a people who have no sense of the transcendent in their lives, because people just aren’t like that.” Christians and classical liberals should be staunch allies because individual liberty cannot exist among irreligious and hedonistic people (see The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, especially Robert Sirico’s < a href="" target="_new"> Toward a Free and Virtuous Society , and also the Christianity Archive at

The connection between liberty and Christianity is hardly new: more than two centuries ago, Edmund Burke noted that “men are qualified for civil liberties in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. ... Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” In the first half of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville recognised that “freedom, in truth, is a sacred thing. There is only one thing else that better deserves the name: virtue. But then what is virtue if not the free choice of what is good? Much more recently, Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty “a successful free society will always in large measure be a tradition-bound society. ... We ... are able to act successfully on our plans [involving others] because most of the time members of our civilisation ... show a regularity in their actions that is not the result of commands or coercion ... but of firmly established habits and traditions.” According to Yates, “history has shown us no better source for these traditions and habits than the Christian faith.” And no doubt Buddhism and Hinduism and other religions too.

Genuine liberty, then, presupposes that each individual be able to curb his own actions. Liberty cannot last if people can do absolutely whatever they please without any regard for others. Liberty and license, in other words, do not just differ: the former cannot survive the latter. Clearly, liberty and authoritarianism are also mutually incompatible. Accordingly, if people are to enjoy liberty and not suffer authoritarianism then the controls upon individuals’ actions must come from within individuals. Liberty and internalised morality are mutually dependent. The choice appears to be stark: unless the individual voluntarily restrains his own impulses, then others (namely mobs or governments, which are often indistinguishable) will restrain him. And even if the individual does restrain himself, a Leviathan state will attempt to restrict him in additional (and probably counterproductive) ways. Historical experience demonstrates that external constraints are far more arbitrary, severe and violent than internal ones. In recent decades, as their internal moral compasses have weakened, Australians have been controlled more and more by the strictures and regulations of the welfare-warfare state. These restrictions have generally been endorsed by a majority (or at least a plurality) of people who see big government as a bulwark against depravity and social chaos.

License, then, facilitates coercive government. Alas, just as the hedonism of the Epicureans did much to transform Rome from a vigorous Republic into a decadent Empire, examples of license and Epicureanism abound in contemporary Australia.

The leaders and followers of the European (as opposed to the Scottish) Enlightenment were never able to accept the Christian notion of sin. This is because sin challenges the European ideal that societies and civilisations can be improved and perhaps even perfected. Enlightenment Scots, however, knew better. Science has vastly expanded man’s knowledge; and technology has vastly expanded his creature comforts and mastery over his environment; but neither abstract nor applied knowledge per se has made people more moral. Accordingly, the idea that politicians and their policies can improve society – to say nothing of the contemporary Anglo-American fixation that democracy in general and the election of the “right” politicians in particular are necessary conditions of a better civilisation – is naïve and dangerous. Many people in Anglo-American countries flatter themselves that they are superior to the French: but they are much more “French” and much less “Scots” than they suppose. The inherent defects in human nature precluded the erection of the utopia on earth fondly envisioned by the philosophers of the European Enlightenment. For the same reason it bars the New Jerusalem imagined by neo-conservatives.

These defects in human nature – the Christian notion of sin – afflict everybody. Christ forgives sins when one becomes a Christian; but the Christian, it is vital to bear in mind, does not automatically cease to sin. The notion that faith preserves the devout from moral and empirical error runs deep among some believers. But this confidence overlooks theology, history and the church’s sober common sense in past years. John Henry Cardinal Newman put it trenchantly: “being a great theologian doesn’t make you more holy. It only makes you more guilty when you sin.” Accordingly – and Americans, note carefully – devout Christians are not necessarily better (i.e., more intelligent and moral) politicians than non-Christians or agnostics or atheists. And in any case it is not easy to distinguish a Christian politician: anybody, devout or merely devious, can quote scripture. As Christopher Manion shows in his excellent article Bush the Christian, “a solid ‘conservative Christian’ [can] stray far from the principles of the Founding Fathers, of conservatism, and of Christianity itself.” The exercise of political power inevitably provokes one sin: hubris, i.e., the belief that the anointed élite is more intelligent and worthy or otherwise superior to the benighted ruled. Another sin endemic to politics, according to Manion, is the lust for power. This is “the highest passion in fallen man, for it aims at the replacement of God and His power and law with that of the man who wields earthly power. While many politicians often condemn greed, few politicians will condemn the lust for power, even though it is much more dangerous. If the Christian ruler does not recognise this powerful temptation, he will be sadly susceptible to the voice of the devil masquerading as God and urging him to violence and destruction in the name of a divine mandate.”

Yet Christianity – and classical liberalism – renounce and denounce the use of force. God does not impose His saving grace upon anyone. Sinners must come to Him, genuinely desire absolution and ask for salvation through Christ. Only then is it granted. Jesus does not press his will upon anybody. He coerces nobody; and least of all does Jesus command that anyone be converted by force. Analogously, when asked what his religion was Benjamin Disraeli replied, “the religion of every true Englishman.” “And what is that?” the questioner continued. “That every true Englishman keeps to himself.”

Hence Yates’ “Christian libertarianism.” He concludes “that there are things libertarians can learn from Christians, such as the need for a transcendent morality as necessary for the liberty and the extremely limited government libertarians espouse. There are, however, I am sure, Christians who believe we would all be better off if we simply had a Christian government. But Christians are no more fit to rule than anyone else. We’re all sinners. On a large scale, this suggests that one of the most important theses a Christian libertarian ought to advocate is decentralisation, the idea that [secular] power should be as widely dispersed throughout society as possible. That way the damage humans with power are capable of doing can be minimised. ... Christianity can check any libertine tendencies hiding within libertarianism – tendencies to moral relativism and latter-day Epicureanism. Libertarianism can check any theocratic impulses hiding inside the veneer of the so-called ‘religious right.’”

Up With Religion, Down With Court Priests and Religious Politicians

Thomas Jefferson wrote to the German classical liberal, Wilhelm von Humboldt, in 1813: “history, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” So never mind politicians spouting religion and priests playing politics: the central issue facing Australians – particularly devout Australians of whatever faith – is whether government should expropriate and redistribute vast amounts of their compatriots’ money. Do such actions obey God’s commandment against stealing? From a moral point of view, does it matter whether the government that does the expropriating and redistributing is democratically elected? Does a government that seizes wealth and dispenses largesse among favoured groups and mascots convert its subjects into moral, compassionate and benevolent people?

For classical liberals, Christians and, not incidentally, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, the answer to these questions is clearly “no.” Moral principles are immutable, unchangeable and unchallengeable. That is why they are principles. If it is wrong to steal on an individual basis, it is also immoral to steal on a collective basis. It is just as immoral to steal in the two chambers of Parliament House, the corridors of Treasury or the boardroom of the Reserve Bank as it is in the back alley of a CBD, the suburb of a major capital city or the square of a country town.

The first nine Commandments are theological principles and social laws: thou shalt not make graven images, steal, kill and so on. The Tenth Commandment has a more directly material bent. It states “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.” The Ten Commandments enumerate God’s basic rules about how Christians must live. They provide principles through which people can live in harmony with others. As P.J. O’Rourke (Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998, ISBN: 0871137194) interprets it, “if you want a donkey, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don’t bitch about what the people across the street have. Go get your own.” The most serious points are made flippantly, and so O’Rourke continues: “the Tenth Commandment sends a message to socialists, to egalitarians, to people obsessed with fairness, to [politicians] and to anybody who believes that wealth should be redistributed. And that message is clear and concise: go to Hell.”

The Australian (13 October) is correct: “say what you like, but please don’t call the county’s newest political force – Family First – a fundamentalist Christian party. ‘The media have tried to paint us as right-wing fundamentalists – it’s just not true’ says the party’s founder. [Its leader adds] ‘our policies are not religious policies at all.’” This is quite right – like every other contemporary Australian party, FF is doggedly socialist and therefore resolutely secular. Its raison d’être is to separate Australians from their property, lavish some of the proceeds upon politicians and spread the remainder upon mascots and favoured groups. With respect to acts between consenting adults of which its members disapprove, FF seeks primarily to ban rather than set good examples and persuade. In that respect it follows Pontius Pilate more closely than the Carpenter of Nazareth. If FF differs from other parties, it is only because it is – is such a thing possible?–even more clueless than Australia’s major parties. It appears to be completely unaware that governments’ social policies have done more than anything else to weaken and destroy families and thereby to breed social pathologies (see Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, Basic Books, tenth anniversary ed., 1995, ISBN: 0465042333 and Eric Schansberg, Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor, Westview Press, 1996, ASIN: 0813328241).

The autonomous family, as Marx and Engels well understood and today’s social engineers realise, is a formidable bulwark against collectivist schemes to control vital social processes. Although a few clearly do, politicians need not necessarily hate families. Indeed, today’s politicians are more than willing to shower massive largesse upon them. But politicians’ fair-sounding rhetoric and “family-friendly” policies omit one essential point: they cannot countenance the family as a unit of decision-making that does not depend upon the state. Accordingly, politicians will direct vast amounts of taxpayers’ money to families precisely in order to enable politicians’ preferences to supersede individual families’ decisions; but pollies are not equally willing to allow families to keep the money that they have earned – and thereby to decide matters that they deem important in their own time and in their own way (see Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy, Basic Books, 1996, ISBN: 046508995X and Is Reality Optional? Hoover Institution Press, 1993, ISBN: 0817992626).

In a free market exchange, as detailed in Letter 52, each party to the exchange trades something he values less in order to receive something he values more. If they deal honestly, such an exchange benefits all parties to the exchange; accordingly, free trade and the free market benefit everybody. Open and honest trade flouts none of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the most important thing about free market morality is that it does not presuppose that market participants are saints. As Adam Smith famously put it, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest.”

Smith understood what Mandeville earlier saw dimly and what few since have seen so clearly: a flawed (i.e., selfish) man’s concern with his well being, which is human nature, has desirable consequences for society. He “intends only his own gain,” noted Smith, “and he is in this ... led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” The market mechanism is one of a number of spontaneous social processes whereby the actions of imperfect individuals facilitate the development of a more virtuous society (see also Samuel Fleischaker, On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion, Princeton University Press, 2004, ISBN: 0691115028 and James Otteson, Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN: 0521816254). And as Reverend Robert Sirico has concluded, “common sense tells any sane person that a society that is both free and virtuous is a place where he or she would most want to live.”

But the market mechanism is fragile and third party decision-making – i.e., decisions that are taken out of the hands of the individuals concerned and hijacked by politicians – weaken or bastardise or wreck the market mechanism. In Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (Harcourt, 1962, 1990, ISBN: 0156334607) Milton and Rose Friedman note that only individuals spend money and that an individual can spend it in one of only four ways. In Scenario #1 he spends his money on himself; in Scenario #2 he spends his money on someone else (or other people); in Scenario #3 he spends somebody else’s money on himself; and in Scenario #4 he spends somebody else’s money on somebody else (or other people). Given the self-interest that underlies human nature, if you spend your own money on yourself then you tend to seek the best value – a subjective thing that only you can determine when it comes to your wants and needs – at the best price. You seek the best value at the best price because you want to stretch your money as far as it will go and thereby meet as many of your subjective desires as possible.

If you spend your own money on other people, you still seek the best price (after all, it is your money). The problem is that you may not know – or care – what the other person or people want. This shortcoming is minimised when people spend money on their children or family members: they tend know their relatives and their wants and needs reasonably well (or at any rate better than strangers); and when money is spent on minors, who do not yet know their best interests, parents’ vicarious self-interest is usually the best proxy for the children’s long-term self-interest. If you spend other people’s money on yourself, you are intensely concerned about subjective value – i.e., buying what you want – but have much less incentive to obtain a good price. Rather than stretch each dollar as far as it will go, it may well be easier to extract more dollars from others (Jack, remember, chose to steal from Jill rather than earn the money). And if you spend other people’s money on other people – i.e., if you are a politician – then you have no incentive at all to care about either value or cost: any damn thing that wins votes will do, and to hell with the cost others will have to bear. Clearly, then, as one proceeds from Scenario #1 to Scenario #4, moral as well as economic constraints weaken, probity evaporates and pathologies proliferate.

By abandoning the Ten Commandments and economic scenarios consistent with them (i.e., Scenarios 1 and 2), and embracing the welfare-warfare state and scenarios consistent with it (i.e., Scenarios 3 and 4), Australians have not only compromised moral and economic principles: frequently they have abandoned them. Championing the welfare-warfare state, leaders of major churches and religious politicians have helped to transform Australian government into a false deity. The problem is hardly unique to our country and this day. “In every country and in every age,” Jefferson wrote in 1814, “the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” Today, the state encourages the expectation that in exchange for its subjects’ docility and obedience it will provide education, medical goods and services, housing, compensation against unemployment, various family “benefits” and God knows what else. Statist priests and religious politicians, concludes Jacob Hornberger, have made government their golden calf. They worship, adore, support and follow it; and they never condemn it. They routinely and sometimes severely criticise government on the grounds that it robs Peter insufficiently and therefore gives Paul too little (indeed, some priests and politicians seem to do little else). But these days they never condemn the robbery. By placing the “god” of government alongside the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they commit the greatest possible transgression. They mock the first of God’s Ten Commandments: “thou shalt have no other Gods before me.”

Chris Leithner


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