A friend sent me a copy of Lew Rockwell’s essay “The Economic Lessons of Bethlehem” (you can read the essay here). As I say in my admittedly lengthy response below, while I am in basic agreement with Rockwell regarding things like free market economic and limited government, I think his defense of them in the linked essay is poor. As I point out below, I think in places he drifts from the very (Christian) tradition to which he appeals. While free market economics and limited government are both capable with Gospel neither can be accepted uncritically by Christians or even by men and women of good will. More worrisome for me, however, the Manichean tone of Rockwell’s apology. It is simply not true theologically or anthropologically that business and the pursuit of profit corresponds to the morally good and government power to the morally evil.
All that said, I think Rockwell’s essay is important. The value of the free market and limited government need to be defended, and criticized, for moral and not simply pragmatic reasons. So if you have the time, read Rockwell’s essay and please take a look at what I’ve written here and let me know what you think.
Christ is born!
Economics, Politics and Christmas Pageant Hermeneutics
Thanks for the link to Lew Rockwell’s essay on the Holy Family and economics. While I am in basic agreement with what I imagine to be the economics and political philosophy that underlies his essay, I think he takes a number of unwarranted liberties with the Christmas narrative in order to justify his own position. To put it directly, his is a work of ideology that takes unjust liberties with the text of the New Testament and the moral tradition of the Church to defend free market economics and limited secular government. For example, he beings by asserting that:
At the heart of the Christmas story rests some important lessons concerning free enterprise, government, and the role of wealth in society.
While I do think we can draw some important lessons for all areas of life from the events recorded for us in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, it is more accurate to say that the Gospel illumine for us the limits of “free enterprise, government, and the role of wealth in society.” There certainly isn’t anything in either Matthew or Luke that argues for Hayek’s model of economics or a libertarian view of government. To be far, Rockwell isn’t, quite, arguing that his economics and politics are rooted in the Gospel but he seems to unaware that his own preferences in these areas are as much under divine judgment as those he opposes.
Let’s begin with one of the most famous phrases: “There’s no room at the inn.” This phrase is often invoked as if it were a cruel and heartless dismissal of the tired travelers Joseph and Mary. Many renditions of the story conjure up images of the couple going from inn to inn only to have the owner barking at them to go away and slamming the door.
Yes, in the popular imagination the lack of a room for the Theotokos and Joseph is presented as “cruel and heartless dismissal of the tired travelers.” I’m not sure however that appealing to Sunday school Christmas pageants helps Rockwell make his point. That there is no room for the Holy Family is offered as evidence of the marginal status of Mary and Joseph in the eyes of the world and their corresponding privileged status in the eyes of God. According to the Apostle Luke, it is precisely to the poor of this world, to those who lack power AND wealth, that the Good News is entrusted. This isn’t to romanticize poverty or to condemn material wealthy. The Gospel does however ask us to look more carefully at these categories and to see within them the hidden possibilities for salvation and condemnation.
Bringing Good Out of Evil, Or Even Bad Public Policy
In his Gospel St Luke contrast the transitory power of Caesar with the enduring power of Christ. To the degree that he rules at all, Caesar rules through fear. For His part Christ rules not be threatening the body but by wooing the heart in compassion, forgiveness and love. Rockwell is correct on economic and historical grounds that “the inns were full to overflowing in the entire Holy Land because of the Roman emperor’s decree that everyone be counted and taxed.” But he overlooks the salient theological point being made here. God uses the admitted unjust and coercive policies of Caesar to bring about His will for humanity.
For the Old Testament, the very idea of a census, whether undertaken by the government or a private person, is morally problematic. In asserting the right to count the Jewish people Caesar — in contrast to Christ—is asserting a right that he doesn’t have. Only God rules over Israel and ultimately over the human family. Whether that rule is asserted through Statist policies, a limited government or in pursuit of profit in the free market are all different and important prudential points. However none of these is to be preferred to obedience to God. Further while different economic systems and models of government are not morally equivalent (political freedom is to be preferred to dictatorship or totalitarianism and the free market to a planned economy), freedom is not—and can never be—an end in itself for either the person or the human community in either the economic or political spheres.
Looking briefly at economics, Rockwell is correct that “Inns are private businesses, and customers are their lifeblood.” To conclude, as he does, however that therefore “There would have been no reason to turn away this man of royal lineage and his beautiful, expecting bride” is an assertion that human experience doesn’t support. Theoretically it may be irrational for a white diner owner to deny service to a black man but in the not too distant American past such a denial had certain economic benefits. Or, maybe to be more accurate, the denial of service allowed the owner to avoid certain social and economic costs. While these are not benefits as such an owner might very well have refused service to a black customer not because of personal racism but for fear of losing his white customers.
(I will leave aside Rockwell’s characterization of Joseph as a “man of royal lineage.” Though a member of the tribe of David and most likely a craftsman, these didn’t have the social weight he wants them to have.)
In any case, the second chapter of St. Luke doesn’t say that they were continually rejected at place after place. It tells of the charity of a single inn owner, perhaps the first person they encountered, who, after all, was a businessman. His inn was full, but he offered them what he had: the stable. There is no mention that the innkeeper charged the couple even one copper coin, though given his rights as a property owner, he certainly could have.
The text doesn’t say whether nor that anyone offered the Holy Family the stable or that (if someone did) that if they didn’t Joseph didn’t pay “one copper.” The argument he is making here is from silence and so logically suspect. Just a moment ago Rockwell dismisses the hermeneutics of the Sunday School Christmas pageant, here he depends upon them. While we are not required to do so, the text of the Gospel allows us to assume that—far from being respectful of private property—the Holy Family we’re squatters who simply appropriated the stable for their own use. While maybe not “Occupy Bethlehem!” the text isn’t necessarily a tribute to a virtuous innkeeper and can, reasonably, be read as a pointed criticism of the innkeeper and private property.
But, let’s assume that the innkeeper was hospitable, that he was a man of charity. Though we need to remember that we do so in the absence of any clear statement from the text, we can assume that he was a man of personal virtue. Doing so, however, we need to bear in mind that if he was charitable he was so precisely because he was a pious Jew who lived in obedience to the Law of Moses. Far from being an undifferentiated advocate of limited government, the innkeeper is more likely an advocate of limited secular government or maybe even theocratic anarchy.
At the same time precisely because the text is silent as to the man’s motivation, he may also have been neither pious nor charitable. Is it so hard to imagine him as a quisling who didn’t wish to appear disobedient to Caesar? If the Virgin Mary and St Joseph “had to be uprooted for fear of the emperor’s census workers and tax collectors” and bear “the costs of slogging all the way ‘from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David,’ not to speak of the opportunity costs Joseph endured having to leave his own business” is it any less likely that the innkeeper would at least give the appearance of assisting the Holy Family in order to seem a friend of Caesar?
The Consequences of Human Freedom
But since we do better to assume the best in others, we can let stand the assertion that the innkeeper acted from charity. And so yes,
It’s remarkable, then, to think that when the Word was made flesh with the birth of Jesus, it was through the intercessory work of a private businessman. Without his assistance, the story would have been very different indeed. People complain about the “commercialization” of Christmas, but clearly commerce was there from the beginning, playing an essential and laudable role.
Though it has historically taken many forms the argument about the “commercialization” of Christmas is longstanding among Christians. There is something appropriately worldly about the Incarnation of the Son of God. After all the Word is made flesh “and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” after all (Jn 1:14). For the Greeks at the time of Jesus the was something downright tasteless and embarrassing about the Christian claim to worship a God Who took on human form and Who embraced all humanity as His brothers and sisters. Given this, is it really so hard to understand that that when we celebrate the Incarnation and we court a certain amount of excess?
Though I don’t assume the innkeeper’s motives were mixed, even if they were, the story of our salvation in Jesus Christ would have been different if he hadn’t offered the stable (really, a stable in a cave). But at the same time we need to keep in mind that—whatever his motives—the innkeeper didn’t intend to cooperate with the salvation of the world. This is the thing about human freedom, our actions invariably bring with them unforeseen consequences and if (as Rockwell does here) we want to claim as our own the positive unforeseen outcomes then we must accept responsibility as well for those that are negative and even downright evil.
Manicheanism Isn’t Just Yesterday’s Heresy
There is a more substantive anthropological criticism that still needs to be made. Yes, we forget the innkeeper in the Gospel just as we all too often forget those merchants who “throughout all history” have been “doing well, doing good.” We shouldn’t minimize or overlook the work of the entrepreneur, the businessman or the innkeeper and the good all these men and women have done and continue to do. But do they ever do evil? Do they ever seek to do well for themselves by doing harm to others? In failing to consider this second possibility, Rockwell’s essay takes on Manichean tone. The innkeeper is the embodiment of goodness, an angel of light and government the embodiment of evil and an angel of darkness.
So yes the Christmas story turns on the fact that “there was a room shortage” and yes, “it was an unusual event and brought about through some sort of market distortion.” But this economic and political state of affairs is just as much a part of the story of our salvation as the (putative) generosity of the innkeeper. Without the Caesar’s use of “coercive dictates” and market “distort[ing]” tax policies, “the story would have been very different indeed.” Caesar’s policies no doubt cause the “shortages of rooms in Bethlehem” and while this was a hardship for Joseph and Mary it was for the entrepreneurs of that time and place a source of profits. But the positive and negative consequences are both a part of the Christmas story and God uses both for His own glory and our salvation.
Moving on in the story, we come to Three Kings, also called Wise Men. Talk about a historical anomaly for both to go together! Most kings behaved like the Roman Emperor’s local enforcer, Herod. Not only did he order people to leave their homes and foot the bill for travel so that they could be taxed. Herod was also a liar: he told the Wise Men that he wanted to find Jesus so that he could “come and adore Him.” In fact, Herod wanted to kill Him. Hence, another lesson: you can’t trust a political hack to tell the truth.
St Augustine says somewhere that the difference between an emperor and a pirate is the relative sizes of their navies. So here Rockwell is on more solid ground as far as the Christian tradition is concerned. But just as quickly he strays again from the very tradition to which he is appealing to support the free market and limited government.
Once having found the Holy Family, what gifts did the Wise Men bring? Not soup and sandwiches, but “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” These were the most rare items obtainable in that world in those times, and they must have commanded a very high market price.
Far from rejecting them as extravagant, the Holy Family accepted them as gifts worthy of the Divine Messiah. Neither is there a record that suggests that the Holy Family paid any capital gains tax on them, though such gifts vastly increased their net wealth. Hence, another lesson: there is nothing immoral about wealth; wealth is something to be valued, owned privately, given and exchanged.
There is to be sure nothing inherently “immoral about wealth.” But the point of the gifts was not the goodness of wealth but what the gift themselves reveal about the Christ Child. He receives gold, because He is the King of Kings, frankincense because He is the High Priest of our salvation, and myrrh because He is the acceptable sacrifice Who will suffer death for our salvation. Yes, gold, frankincense, and myrrh could not be gifts if there weren’t good in themselves; it isn’t the use of things that make them good. It is rather how we use things can make us good or evil. Yes wealth is good but its goodness brings with it moral demands. What these demands are Rockwell leaves unaddressed. Likewise he leaves unexamined what, if any, might be the role of even limited role government in the use of the myriad good things of creation. He simply defends wealth and do so seemingly as an end in itself.
Herod’s Temptation and Ours
But to do so opens us to the temptation to which Herod succumbs. When wealth and power are ends in themselves my neighbor becomes my enemy.
When the Wise Men and the Holy Family got word of Herod’s plans to kill the newborn Son of God, did they submit? Not at all. The Wise Men, being wise, snubbed Herod and “went back another way” – taking their lives in their hands (Herod conducted a furious search for them later). As for Mary and Joseph, an angel advised Joseph to “take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt.” In short, they resisted. Lesson number four: the angels are on the side of those who resist government.
So much to say here but let me simply say two things.
First, unlike Herod the Wise Men and the Holy Family refused the temptation to make wealth and power the goal of their lives. That they did so resist their glitter and glamor meant, as Rockwell rightly points out, risking their lives. It also lead to the unintended consequence of the slaughter of all the boy children under the age of two years of age (Matthew 2:16-18). I’m not suggesting that the Wise Men, much less the Holy Family, are responsible for these deaths, that blood is on Caesar’s hands. It is only to point out that these deaths are also part of salvation history and without them, the story of our salvation would have been much different.
Second, Rockwell asserts that “the angels are on the side of those who resist government.” Well, no, they’re not. Or at least they aren’t necessarily so. To resist an unjust law is laudable though not necessarily obligatory. In any case, there is no undifferentiated call for Christians to resist government as such. Indeed as the Christmas story makes clear, God can use even an unjust government or morally evil policy for His glory and our salvation.
Rockwell concludes by implying that the Gospels support “the role of private enterprise” and criticize “the evil of government power.” Like I said above, this seems to me to be an assertion more Manichean than Christian. Private enterprise is a good thing but in a fallen world populated by sinful human beings it is not an unmixed. And while governments can, and do, misuse their power, we can’t simply claim that government as such is necessarily anymore than we can call evil the pursuit of private property, profit in business, or the acquiring of personal wealth. While I am sympathetic to his free market economics and his limited government political philosophy, Rockwell’s defense seem to me romantic than reasoned. While he appeals to the Gospel his defense seems more the fruit of political ideology than sober Christian theology
Recalling That All Have Sinned
The whole of human life is wounded by sin—the personal pursuit of property and profit as much as human government. While both are disfigured by sin, neither is evil even if neither necessarily is as good as God intends.
Yes, “Jesus used commercial examples in his parables (e.g., laborers in the vineyard, the parable of the talents) and made it clear that he had come to save even such reviled sinners as tax collectors.” But He also saw in the Centurion who more than anyone else embodied Roman rule, a man more believing then any in Israel.
Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.”
Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick (Luke 7:1-10).
Finally, for all I agree with his intention and disagree with his execution, I think Rockwell does get it at least partly it right in the last paragraph:
And just as His birth was facilitated by the owner of an “inn,” the same Greek word “kataluma” is employed to describe the location of the Last Supper before Jesus was crucified by the government. Thus, private enterprise was there from birth, through life, and to death, providing a refuge of safety and productivity, just as it has in our time.
The Cave and the Upper Chamber are places of refugee. They are also the fruit of human ingenuity and creativity. So though is government. Neither however is, nor can hope to be, “a refuge of safety and productivity … in our time” anymore than they were in Jesus’ apart from His Presence. What makes both the free market and limited government a blessing is our obedience to Christ and the Gospel. Business and government are both under the judgment of God and both need men and women of virtue who to bring these institutions into an ever close obedience with the will of God. Christians are called by God to work for the sanctification of both government and business. We would do well to remember that even if both invariably fall short in this fallen world, work in neither is necessarily morally superior to the other. Both are needed .