Author Archive

Hope For Non-Industrial Farming?

John D. Mueller, in his masterful Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element (see this review to get more of an idea about the book as a whole), relays an interesting story from Wendell Berry:

… Clippinger realized that the farm had failed financially because it was too specialized and too dependent on expensive purchased resources for the scale of its operation ever to turn a profit. He therefore converted the same land to raising a diversified selection of livestock (pigs and draft horses) and crops (corn, oats, and alfalfa). Instead of a tractor, he used some of the horses for plowing an planting, part of the crops to feed the livestock, and crop rotation and livestock manure to sharply reduce fertilizer purchases. But most interesting of all was how Clippinger turned what Coase and the other economists assumed to be a “negative externality,” or cause of loss, into a “positive externality,” or cause of profit:

Lancie, that year, had planted forty acres of corn; he had also bred forty gilts that he had raised so that their pigs would br ready to feed when the corn would be ripe. The gilts produced 360 pigs, an average of nine per head. When the corn was ready for harvest, Lancie divided off a strip of the field with an electric fence and turned in the 360 shoats. After the shoats had fed on the strip for a while, Lancie opened a new strip for them. He then picked up the strip where they had just fed. In that way, he fattened his 360 shoats and also harvested all the corn he needed for his other stock… . [I]nstead of harvesting the corn mechanically, hauling, storing it, grinding it, and hauling it to the shoats, he let the shoats harvest it and grind it for themselves. He had the use of the whole hog, whereas in a “confinement operation,” the hogs’ feet, teeth, and eyes have virtually no use and no profit.

In this way, Clippinger soon turned the farm from a substantial loss to a substantial profit. [116]

A little later, Mueller notes:

As we saw in the case of Lancie Clippinger, agricultural efficiency and profitability depend on using methods appropriate to the scale of the operation, and it is quite possible to be too specialized and too dependent on machinery and other purchased inputs to be profitable. This suggests that as long as laws are not actively biased in favor of large agribusinesses, it should be possible for family farms like Lancie Clippinger’s to thrive alongside agribusinesses. [121]

Occupy Handbook 3

Philip Dray writes in Chapter 3, “Take a Stand: Sit In”:

As the railroad strike of 1877 had led eventually to expanded workers’ rights, so the Greensboro sit-in of February 1, 1960, helped pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both movements remind us that not all successful protests are explicit in their message and purpose; they rely instead on the participants’ intuitive sense of justice. [28]

The last comment, perhaps predictably, puts me in mind of natural law thinking. And there is a valid point to be made here: one need not have a worked out program of policy to have one in general outline, since the universal human sense of natural law gives us a fallible but real sense of justice.

On a different note: the stories about the railroad strike of 1877 provoked me to think again about the biblical teaching regarding civil disobedience. Much thought has been expended in Reformed circles about this topic in the broadest sense (inclusive of revolution): one of the classic texts is, of course, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (“A Defence of Liberty Against Tyrants”). Arguably, the principles used to decide when revolution is necessary can also be used to determine when lesser forms of disobedience might be justified.

A more recent attempt to discuss the question of when civil disobedience is justified, especially considering the example of Operation Rescue, is John Frame’s piece, “When in the Course of Human Events Does Civil Disobedience Become Necessary?

In the hey day of Christian Reconstructionism, too, several Recon theologians published remarkably detailed attempts to elaborate on possible approaches to this question. For example, Theology of Christian Resistance and Tactics of Christian Resistance.

Much food for thought.

Occupy Handbook 2

Chapter 2 features the (in)famous Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, who argue that the 2008 crisis was a text-book Keynesian crisis with obvious Keynesian solutions, solutions which were ignored for political reasons. After laying out the facts about inequality, noting that 2007 levels were equal to those on the eve of the Great depression, they addresses this question:

Why does higher inequality seem to produce greater political polarization? Crucially, the widening gap between the parties has reflected Republicans moving right, not Democrats moving left. This pops out of the Poole-Rosenthal-McCarty numbers, but it’s obvious from the history of various policy proposals. The Obama health care plan, to take an obvious example, was originally a Republican plan, in fact a plan devised by the Heritage Foundation. Now the GOP denounces it as socialism.

The most likely explanation of the relationship between inequality and polarization is that the increased income and wealth of a small minority has, in effect, bought the allegiance of a major political party. Republicans are encouraged and empowered to take positions far to the right of where they were a generation ago, because the financial power of the beneficiaries of their positions both provides an electoral advantage in terms of campaign funding and provides a sort of safety net for individual politicians, who can count on being supported in various ways if they lose an election. [10]

Krugman and Wells argue, then, that inequality was the cause of the crisis. They contend the 1% became rich enough to buy the Republican party, and to cause deregulation enough to create crisis. However, while the first part of that assertion may very well be true (and I have sympathy with it), there are other points to be made. Firstly, rich people and institutions, like banks, support the Democrats as well. Secondly, rich people can cause crises (even unintentionally) through manipulating the market just as much as they could through recklessly deregulating it. I’ve read fairly persuasive (to my mind) responses to their view along the lines that (a) Hoover was not significantly practicing austerity, (b) that “regime uncertainty” may help to explain the length of the depression (see the work of Robert Higgs), and (c) that the 2008 crisis cannot realistically be traced ultimately to deregulation, but rather should be blamed on various interventions through fiscal and monetary policies (this is a common Austrian argument, anyway, and an example can be seen in Thomas Woods’ Meltdown). These things are at least worth considering, and actually need not oppose Krugman and Wells’ point that rich people may have caused this crisis; this is more about the mechanism through which they might have done this.

Krugman and Wells, I think, are fair to ask us to consider whether the rich might have effectively bought a significant chunk of the democratic machinery of the USA. And it perhaps should lead us to consider whether it may not be just to try to set a limit to inequality simply to prevent this possibility. Republicans/Conservatives are completely willing to engage in preemptive attacks in cases like Iraq, or potentially in Iran, to prevent disaster to the republic. Why, then, not preemptive action to prevent a coup by crony capitalists in their own country? The principles seem the same to me.

Occupy Handbook 1

Whilst browsing my local Chapters-Indigo, trying to find a half-decent use for a recent well-appreciated gift-card, this jumped out at me:

I couldn’t resist. One of the features that attracted me to it was the brevity of the (many) chapters. Because it is broken up into small bits, it makes for good blogging material. Thus, I hope in the weeks ahead, to occasionally blog on things that strike me as interesting. I pretend to no expertise on economics, and almost as little on politics. Hopefully, still, someone besides me will find it interesting.

To begin, a comment on the introduction, and on the first essay by Michael Lewis. Janet Bryne writes in her introduction:

Occupy Wall Street has the rare distinction of being a protest movement that even the objects of its attack can find little fault with. According to the Spectrem Group, a consulting firm serving ultra-high-net-worth individuals, 61 percent to 68 percent of millionaires support raising taxes on millionaires. Although every banker [we learn later that Paul Volcker is the only exception–AF] I approached to participate in this book, including JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, politely declined, it was impossible not to sense that, behind the scrim, income equality was a subject that everyone, even bankers, wanted to speak about. [xvi]

As always, when I read statistic assertions, I think of that infamous quote about statistics. But let’s assume this is true. Is this a remarkable fact? Perhaps it is; many would say these people are voting against their own interests. But I wonder if this is not, in a way, defining “self-interest” in a rather Darwinian way, as pitting the survival of one against the survival of the other. Is it really in the interest of millionaires to always vote to lower taxes on themselves? Consider a possible analogy: a man who knows he is going to binge drink at a party, and therefore takes the precaution of giving his keys to his friends. Prudent people sometimes act in ways that might, on first glance, seem to harm themselves by restricting their freedom of choice, but which, on a more thorough analysis, at least preserve their external conformity to the standards of goodness written on their nature as social beings.

In the first chapter, Michael Lewis gives us a 1%-er Screwtape writing to his posse of 1%er Wormwoods. He expresses (in his indirect way) what he believes the 1% have to hope for, if they want to survive with their privilege intact:

The modern Greeks offer the example in the world today that is, the committee has determined, best in class. Ordinary Greeks seldom harass their rich, for the simple reason that they have no idea where to find them. To a member of the Greek Lower 99 a Greek Upper One is as good as invisible. He pays no taxes, lives no place, and bears no relationship to his fellow citizens. As the public expects nothing of him, he always meets, and sometimes even exceeds, their expectations. As a result, the chief concern of the ordinary Greek about the rich Greek is that he will cease to pay the occasional visit.

That is the sort of relationships with the Lower 99 we must cultivate if we are to survive. We must inculcate, in ourselves as much as them, the understanding that our relationship to each other is provisional, almost accidental, and their claims on us non-existent. [6]

This passage lept out at me because it poignantly expressed the inversion of the natural law that Emil Brunner described in his Justice and the Social Order, as I’ve noted before. Instead of the classes seeing each other as part of an organic whole which must work in an integrated and mutually beneficial manner to achieve the common good, the rich, in Lewis’ fictional letter, are counselling themselves to believe they have no obligations to people they have not contracted to fulfill. If (and I write this conditionally because Lewis is imagining this dialogue, and offers no proof here that it corresponds to the actual beliefs of any sizeable portion of rich people) this is how the 1% really think of themselves, then they are ultimately only harming themselves, just as an arm which decided it could survive just fine without the body would soon learn it is not the whole.

Two Kingdoms Roundup

From time to time I discuss magisterial Protestant political theology here at CoG, and in that vein I wanted to direct our readers to a series that has just completed. Brad Littlejohn and, in one case, Peter Escalante, have done a helpfully brief series on two kingdom theology, laying out their narrative from Luther (and his context) to the present day, via Calvin, Hooker, and early modern thinkers like Locke.

Here are the six installments

The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 1: Introducing the Antagonists
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 2: From Luther to Calvin
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 3: From Calvin to Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 4: Richard Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 5: From Hooker to Locke
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 6: Why Does it Matter?

Brad nicely summarizes many of the themes within the series (though there is much more in the final installment than the following):

1) It [Protestant two-kingdoms thinking] de-sacralized, or more properly, de-totalized, the State and the exercise of civil authority. Political authority was still ordained by God, accountable to God, and indeed redeemed in Christ, to be sure, and to this extent, could be said to mediate his rule. However, this rule of God’s “left hand” was radically distinct from His proper work of redemption and oversaw matters of temporary and limited significance; civil authorities were responsible to preserve the created order, not to bring in the new creation. This teaching set a decisive limit to the scope of civil authority, or the sorts of demands it could make. Of course, medieval papalism had certainly limited the state as well, but by seeking to make the civil authorities the policemen of the church, it had made rulers tangle with matters of conscience with politics, making heresy a civil crime. Although haltingly and inconsistently, Luther’s heirs worked to disentangle these two.

2) More foundationally, it deprived the church as such of juridical or coercive authority. There could be no spiritual jurisdiction in the full and proper sense of both of these terms. This was in stark contrast to the medieval system, in which the penitential system of the church was conceived in increasingly juridical terms, and the church accordingly tended to take on the characteristics of a civil polity. Worst of all, in the Crusades and in Boniface’s claim to a plenitudo potestatis, it made the sword to be a possession of spiritual rulers, calling for holy violence on behalf of the Church against the Church’s enemies. Luther’s reform, however, radically de-sacralized violence, associating it entirely with temporal rule and very limited temporal ends, and many of his heirs admirably carried forward this legacy.

3) Closely related to these two points, it stood as a bulwark against any attempt to immanentize the eschaton. Since we walk by faith, not by sight, any attempt to attribute eschatological ultimacy to any visible institution or activity was misguided. The two-kingdoms doctrine instilled in the Christian a sense of healthy detachment toward earthly loyalties, a healthy realism about what earthly institutions can accomplish, and offered consolation when they failed to achieve their lofty aims. It discouraged any attempt to make the kingdom of God a complete outward reality here and now by force, whether by holy war or holy law. Neither civil authorities nor church authorities could expect to create a perfectly virtuous people here in the midst of history.

4) Because of all these things, it treated freedom of conscience as sacrosanct. Because faith was not dependent on any human works, nor could it depend on any human authority, God alone remained master of the conscience, and his word alone, not the commands of either princes or bishops, could bind it. Although of course the realm of this freedom was debated fiercely and at times constricted, the principle was clear, and however much Protestants might quarrel over the scope of “things indifferent,” the fact that civil authority was limited to the regulation of these set the stage for the progressive expansion of civil society and individual freedom.

5) It served as a bulwark against an overextension of the sola Scriptura principle, to which many Protestants were tempted, and safeguarded the continuing value of natural reason and prudence to guide political deliberation. Good two-kingdoms thinkers resisted any idea of a Scripturally-mandated blueprint for politics or jurisprudence. This was one respect in which two-kingdoms thinking, in many other respects hostile to late medieval theology, preserved some of the rich contributions of scholastic Aristotelianism. Richard Hooker is perhaps the most prominent example of this use of the two-kingdoms doctrine, recovering the full resources of Thomism in his account of law in the civil kingdom even while maintaining a staunch Protestantism when it came to the spiritual.

6) In all these ways, the two kingdoms doctrine clearly paves the way for the development of liberal institutions. However, it provides what many Christian defenders of liberalism have lacked—a basis for secularity in the sense of non-ultimacy, but not in the sense of non-religiousness. In Protestant two-kingdoms thinking, the civil kingdom, despite all of the above, remains both informed by and concerned with the exercise of true religion. While natural law was retained and even championed by many of these thinkers, Scripture remained its authoritative interpreter, and the redemption wrought in Christ, although fully realized only in the eschaton, had implications for civil rule inasmuch as it disclosed the proper, restored order of fallen creation. Since grace perfected nature, good religion conduced to civil peace, and hence a good ruler could not be entirely indifferent to the promotion of true religion, although he must never seek to compel belief.

As a bonus, a few other essays by these gentlemen:

In celebration of the upcoming DVD release of The Dark Knight Rises, I want to share again a condensed form of a multi-post discussion Littlejohn wrote on the political themes of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. I include this post here both because I’m a complete Batman nerd, and because TDKR can be plausibly seen, in my humble opinion, as an apology for a 2K order over against the eschaton-immanentizing project of Bane/The League of Shadows.

Escalante (in some cases along with Steven Wedgeworth) has also discussed the themes of the 2K series previously. Here he interacts with Davey Henreckson further on Locke’s period, and here and here Peter and Steven delve into more detail on Calvin.

I commend to you, in general, both The Sword and the Ploughshare, and The Calvinist International.

On How My Mind Has Changed

I used to spend a fair amount of energy defending libertarian positions on politics and economics on this blog. In the time that has passed since then, I have shifted my positions on a number of issues, but the conclusion is, I don’t regard myself as a libertarian in any sense anymore. In general, my political/economic views probably come most near to Philip Blond’s Red Toryism (or, insofar as it is another name for the same thing, Blue Labour). Since I have changed positions quite substantially, I feel I owe it to my readers to be explicit in my shift. (more…)

Greg Koukl On Pockets Of Agnosticism

The following is part of a meditation by apologist Greg Koukl that has been a companion of mine over the years. I always find myself coming back to it now and then, as a reminder that my experience of what he describes is not unusual. Perhaps others will feel the same.

I mentioned a little while ago that I was challenged by a thought made by a professor of mine, and the thought had to do with the notion of pockets of agnosticism in our lives. He simply made the observation that all Christians have pockets of agnosticism in their lives.
Now agnosticism simply is uncertainty, lack of knowledge. Technically speaking, an agnostic when expressing his world view says, “I don’t really know whether God exists or not. I don’t know what the structure of the world is. I am withholding judgment.” In a broader sense it is simply, in people’s lives, uncertainty about those things which are true. And the point that he was making is that all of us as Christians, and you can expand that to all of us as human beings, regardless of what it is that we happen to believe in, have pockets of agnosticism in our lives. We have times of uncertainty. We may have a conviction about a particular thing–about God’s existence or about His non-existence, for that matter, but we have times when we are pressed, and we get to reflecting, and we are just not quite sure.

First of all, I want to say I think if we are honest we would all acknowledge that that’s true. No matter what it is that we happen to believe in or disbelieve in, we’d all have to acknowledge that that’s true. That one has pockets of agnosticism is not necessarily a negative reflection on his belief, whatever it happens to be. This is not a reflection on any particular belief that there are problems with it, or uncertainties associated with it. This is a problem of knowledge in general. There is no system of belief that you will ever have that is going to answer all of the questions all of the time in a way that is coherent and satisfies all of your thinking. It seems that the nature of reality and the limitations of knowledge are such that there are going to be things that we’re just not certain about. And so in a sense, we have to place our bets with the best hand.

Read the rest.

The Nature Of OT Laws

I just today found some thought provoking work done by my friend Brad Littlejohn a couple years back on the nature of some OT case laws. More specifically, he is, in various ways, fielding arguments from the perspective of Reconstructionists and theonomists (though also to some degree from people outside those camps, such as Christopher Wright and Umberto Cassuto) which suggest that many laws, especially several of an economic nature, were not enforced in Israel. They were considered as moral exhortations without legal force. Littlejohn argues ultimately that this is an anachronistic imposition of modern liberal legal perspectives onto the Torah.

Three posts on the subject: 1, 2, 3.

And his main essay: The Heart of Torah: Understanding Law, Justice, and Mercy in the Old Testament. [Since the direct link didn’t seem to work, to find the essay, go here and scroll to the very bottom of the page: Writings]

Class War Is Mutual Destruction

I’ve been slowly ploughing through Emil Brunner’s Justice and the Social Order. Soon, I hope to have some more extensive thoughts on it to share. It has been an encouraging experience. For the moment, though, I’d like to offer one passage I just read that, I think, demonstrates Brunner’s insight into the connection between the created order and our everyday realities.

The capitalist or employer who regards his workers merely as “factors in production,” as “hands” whom he can dismiss whenever he finds it more profitable, who feels no common bond with them but his immediate interest in profit, repudiates the bond of common service with them. He regards his workers in the same way as a bad general regards his men as cannon fodder. The Marxist worker, on the other hand, for whom even the employer whose attitude is totally different, and who has a full sense of responsibility, is only the exploiter, denies the community of labour and rends asunder what belongs together by order of creation. The primary wrong has to be laid to the charge of that kind of capitalist, but the secondary wrong, arising as its result and hence more pardonable, is not less disastrous. On both sides the class war is the mutual destruction of the community of labour. And yet economic life is precisely the field in which the mutual bond, the mutual dependence of the responsible chief with the authority vested in him by the matter in hand, and the worker submitting in confidence of his own free will, exhibits most clearly the difference of kind and function and the equality of personal dignity established in creation. (192)

On Becoming Machines

Nicholas Carr relays a profound warning from Joseph Weizenbaum in his fascinating book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

What makes us most human, Weizenbaum had come to believe, is what is least computable about us— the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers— as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens— is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly “tasks that demand wisdom.” (Kindle Locations 3526-3532–and yes, I recognize the irony).

Of course, we’re in no danger of doing that…