OK, I wrote this back in June 5, 2003. It is arguably one that shouldn’t see the light of day. Since an off the cuff attempt at a joke spurred a serious comment, and I’ve promised to say more at some point, I thought I had better put this back in cyberspace.
I originally entitled this “slipping into anti-statism.”
I’ve been wanting and dreading to write the post for about a week now. It started last Tuesday when Jennifer had a doctor’s appointment. Since Jennifer wasn’t supposed to drive this meant a family outing to the city (word to the wise: “the city” = Oklahoma City, in the parlance of all rural mid-state residents). While Jennifer was seeing the doctor, I took the kids (even Charis!) to a playground on the shores of Lake Hefner. Naturally, it was already past noon when Jennifer got out and we had run the other necessary errands that one can’t miss the opportunity to run when one is brought to the city. So we ended up eating at the Western Sizzler (and got a pretty good deal, since Evangeline was free).
Somehow the subject of money came up and I asked Calvin if he knew where money came from. If this was the plot of a scifi/fantasy TV program, then the subsequent conversation would be where I inadvertantly say the magic words and invite a demon to take possession of my soul. I tried to explain how money was necessary for a division of labor which left everyone better off.
Without money I would have to approach the owner of the restaraunt and ask him to feed us in exchange for a sermon on the ascension (at this point Jennifer laughs and says we wouldn’t be eating out too often).
Without money, the man wanting to buy shoes would have to find out what the shoemaker wanted in exchange for them. If he didn’t happen to have it, he would have to find someone who had the thing the shoemaker wanted and try to trade with him for those things. Say the shoemaker wanted cheese, they the shoe-wanter would have to trade with the cheese-maker to have something to trade with the shoe-maker. But if the shoe-wanter didn’t have something that the cheese-maker wanted, he would have to trade with someone else to get what the cheese-maker wanted in order to have cheese to trade for shoes from the shoemaker. Ad infinitum.
But if everyone wants one thing with some sort of predictable regularity, then things start to change. If most people like gold to some degree because it is shiny, then in almost no time gold will become money. Even the people who don’t like gold will want it because they know it can be exchanged. And when something comes to be valued because of it’s use in making exchanges, over and above it’s value for other reasons, that thing is now money.
My big disadvantage in explaining this to a very interested seven-year-old is that I really didn’t want to appeal to the example of prison and cigarettes. So where does paper money come from? Calvin, to my horror, jumped to the social contract / myth. The government simply invents paper money. At least he has an excuse, being seven. Consider this piece of propaganda:
Once Upon a Dime. This comic-book style booklet tells the story of money in a way even upper elementary school students can understand. You see–Once upon a time, on the island of Mazuma, Captain Sharky and Dr. Millicent Diligent decided to get married. But they needed flowers for their wedding, and Mazuma’s economy was based on bartering. Unfortunately, Blossom Frisbee, the island’s florist, didn’t need anything that Sharky and Millicent had to trade. The story of how they solved their problem and of how the economy of Mazuma evolved from primitive trade to a modern economic system will amuse and captivate students. As they read this funny tongue-in-cheek story, your students, along with the people of Mazuma, learn how supply and demand affect the economy and how banks help regulate the flow of money. Of course, there’s a happy ending!
What isn’t clearly spelled out here, but I will tell you from direct personal experience, is that the good people at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York tell little children that money is a result of government fiat. Somehow prices just set themselves and people trade in a commodity that no one ever really wanted, simply because their king (or chief or whatever) decided it would work better.
But that’s never how it worked nor can it. Gold is heavy enough that some people would specialize in storing and protecting it. Instead of carrying around the gold, you can simply transfer warehouse receipts. Once that has become a widespread habit, the government can then come and monopolize the practice. At that point it becomes possible to find ways of divorcing what was once a certificate-of-ownership in a commodity from the actual commodity. One can experiment, if one has a state monopoly in currency, in putting more paper in the economy.
This is commonly called “inflation,” and is done through fractional reserve banking in our own society, but it requires more thought. If a village (imagine a “closed system”) had $1000 dollars in total circulation, and suddenly everyone had 10% more, so that the total was $1100, there would be no change in actual purchasing power. Prices would be adjusted immediately and it would make no difference.
But inflation doesn’t parachute from the sky. If I am the one who increases the currency as a counterfeiter, I line my own pockets with my basement printing press. Then when I go to buy things, no one realizes that the money is only worth a fraction of what it once was. They just think they’re doing good business. Naturally, they have to either raise their prices or face a shortage since there are more dollars in the village with which to buy goods. Once the prices beging to be adjusted, those who get the new money sooner are better off than those farther away from the new dollars. The people that I buy from are the least hurt by the neocurrency and those who get the money from them are next best off etc.
Thus, inflation benefits those who get the new money first and it hurts those who get it last. The people who get it last are typically the poorest in society. Not the people getting new loans from banks, but those working for minimum wage somewhere. Inflationg take purchasing power away from the poor gives it to those who are already wealthy. And all because the government takes over a perfectly sound system for the benefit of the elites who run it. And, just to add insult to injury, the instruments of this rob-from-the-poor-to-give-to-the-rich system publish fairy tales about where money comes from.
Perhaps you notice I’m writing in some heat. That’s the point. Starting to explain this all to Calvin–a mere idle conversation–brought back all my anarchist leanings and capitalist convictions (notice, I’m not necessarily proud of my leanings, just acknowledging their presence). My experience is that encouraging ideological conformity in churches, though one can easily see reason to do such a thing in order “to apply the Bible to all of life,” can be counterproductive to Christendom in the long run. Like it or not. Not every Christian is going to be a home-schooler, or hate all unions, or favor free trade, or question the American Empire. Churches that are known as home-school churches or Republican activist churches or whatever are all too often simply niche merchants who simply find those who have read the right kind of newsletters. Everyone else is excluded at the door.
So, I try to be non-ideological as I can possibly be. This is not a rejection of the “political” nature of the Gospel as much as an affirmation of it. The Gospel calls people from where they are and transforms them. Having Republicans and Democrats at the same table not worrying about differences (I’ll make an exception for abortion) is much more important than gathering a few more Republican Christians to one’s congregation so that the pastor can make barbs about Monica Lewinski from the pulpit (to use a dated example).
Also, lately (from some point in seminary on) I have been trying (believe it or not) to not be too “libertarian” in my Christian social theory. Ayn Rand and Cornelius Van Til were my two favorite authors in college. Since I believed in a few extra death penalties, I never qualified as a libertarian, but I was quite close. I read Calvinists that more or less supported my convictions in this way.
But then I started realizing how much I was assuming to reach my conclusions. Basically, everyone was presupposing a “regulative principle of polity” in which, unless a role for government was explicitly mandated in Scripture, it was tyranny for the government to take action in that area. If the Bible doesn’t tell the government to educate children, for example, then it is sin for the government to establish and it is theft for the government to tax the citizenry to support a school. I had a friend once who wanted to go to the state school to get his law degree but wanted to pay out-of-state tuition in order to not be receiving “stolen funds.”
That’s all stupid.
First of all, if there was something intrinsically sinful about benefitting from government-funded (i.e. taxpayer-funded) programs, then we would hear about this in the Bible. Does Daniel ever face such an issue? Or Mordecai, Nehemiah, or Joseph? The trend among some minarchist (libertarian or not) Calvinists to see the height of the Christian Worldview in telling welfare recipients they must renounce all their benefits and depend on the Church alone is nothing less than legalism–full-fledged pharisaic legalism, the real kind that Jesus actually denounced as placing huge burdens on the people especially widows, not the fiction of merit theology. Whatever a Christian utopia might look like (or the natural-law utopia that some oddly promote in the name of Jesus Christ [?!]) we are shown how we are to act when exiles in a pagan empire, and the sort of “benefits revolt” ethic that is being espoused so loudly in some quarters is simply missing from the Bible. Is the Bible a sufficient guide for Christian ethics or is it not? Going around saying that Christians must not benefit from unauthorized government benefits or else they are guilty of “receiving stolen goods,” is an ungodly anarchism.
Secondly, this regulative principle of the civil magistrate needs to be argued, not assumed, as the standard for condemning politicians. Where does the Bible ever say that the civil magistrate is ever limited to only doing what the Bible minutely orders him to do? As a matter of fact, Reformed Ethics has always considered the Fifth command to be a command regarding all superiors and inferiors. Deuteronomy 6 is not only telling fathers to disciple their children by teaching them the Bible, but it is instructing civil magistrates (like it or not) to do so to their subjects. If the entire Reformed Tradition is wrong, lets see an arguement that admits the baseline here. Simply appealing to instructions to “fathers” as only applying to male parents in a nuclear family is question begging, and fails to deal with all the evidence.
Having said all this, I have finally realized that I am not penitent of my minarchist ways. Why should I be? I am convinced that inflation robs from the poor and gives to the rich when a perfectly viable alternative is available that requires nothing more of the civil magistrate than to enforce honest weights and measures. OK, so I no longer have the “regulative principle of the civil magistrate” as a rationale for demanding that the state not “regulate” the economy. The fact remains that I still have plenty of Christian reason for wanting to spread prosperity to all, something the state simply cannot do. I don’t have a divine command that there can never be public eductation of any sort. I still have plenty of economic and historical arguments to show that we’d be better off (as a whole and in the long run) without a public education system. And if the government wants to promote public welfare, it would do so more efficiently by not promoting tax-bloated bureacratic management of all aspects of life.
What’s happened lately, due to this discussion with Calvin, is that suddenly I’m listening to economics lectures and downloading essays by Frederic Bastiat. I don’t have to embrace libertarianism to recognize effective economic and political analysis when I read/hear it. I don’t have to subscribe to some kind of timeless “pro-gun” principle, to recognize that gun control in the U.S. is and can only be a legal and cultural disaster.
But neither to I have to condemn people for sin if they disagree with me about public policy. I can appreciate N. T. Wright’s work on the public nature of the Gospel without having to get mad at him for being far to the left of me, politically (where does one expect a Brit to be? The tories are all far to the left of me). I don’t need to promote this stuff from the pulpit or encourage a unified ideology in the congregation.
I’m just a Christian here with personal opinions. Strong ones, no doubt, but that’s all they are.