Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

06 March 2010

Making too much of a good thing

One of the characteristics of an ideology is that it takes a genuine good and makes too much of it, that is, it effectively makes it into an idol. Thus it becomes difficult for those liberals emphasizing the validity of free markets to resist the temptation to claim a near universal efficacy for them. Case in point: Murray Rothbard, in For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, where we find this revealing remark:

The point is that the government has no rational way to make these allocations. The government only knows that it has a limited budget. Its allocations of funds are then subject to the full play of politics, boondoggling, and bureaucratic inefficiency, with no indication at all as to whether the police department is serving the consumers in a way responsive to their desires or whether it is doing so efficiently. The situation would be different if police services were supplied on a free, competitive market. In that case, consumers would pay for whatever degree of protection they wish to purchase. The consumers who just want to see a policeman once in a while would pay less than those who want continuous patrolling, and far less than those who demand twenty-four-hour bodyguard service. On the free market, protection would be supplied in proportion and in whatever way that the consumers wish to pay for it. A drive for efficiency would be insured, as it always is on the market, by the compulsion to make profits and avoid losses, and thereby to keep costs low and to serve the highest demands of the consumers. Any police firm that suffers from gross inefficiency would soon go bankrupt and disappear (Chapter 12).

Note in particular Rothbard's use of the word consumer to describe those benefiting from police protection. In its later manifestation, of course, liberalism is no longer so fixated on markets, yet its followers are still very much enamoured of freedom of individual choice, which they see fit to extend as far as they can possibly manage, mostly under the rubric of human rights, to which everyone is now obligated to pay lip service.

The alternative to the distortions of these political illusions? That which the great Abraham Kuyper described as sovereignty in its own sphere, and which I would call the pluriformity of authorities, which understands the positive role of political authority better than historic liberalism in its various permutations. If we take seriously this pluriformity of authorities, each of which has its own God-given task in his world, then we cannot simply reduce every relationship to that of buyer and seller in the market.

We have seen the consequences of this reduction in the institutional church, where different styles of worship services are held to appeal to different market shares within the congregation. Tradition is not simply that which is handed down to us by our forebears, as in the various traditional liturgies associated with the several traditions of Christianity; it is now simply one taste among many others. We no longer choose what we sing in worship based on what is most in accordance with the faith we confess.

In the past church denominations set up committees to compile hymnals for congregational use. Such committees decided what was and what was not appropriate for liturgical use in their tradition. Now, with the rise of the praise team and worship band phenomenon, individual congregations choose from one sunday to the next what appeals to them from within the marketplace of contemporary christian music. The criterion used is primarily utilitarian: what will bring in the most people? Whether the song well expresses our beliefs is now a secondary consideration.

There is definitely a place for the economic market. There is nothing intrinsically amiss in viewing human beings as consumers of goods and services produced by the market. But we are, of course, much more than that. Consumption is only one side of who we are. If we try to reconfigure political and church life alike according to market categories, we risk taking a reductionist approach to human beings and missing the fulness of humanity as created in God's image. Let the market be the market, no more and no less. Celebrate it, if you will, but don't make too much of it!

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2 Comments:

  • I have expanded my original post from yesterday, and in this form I plan to crosspost it at First Things: Evangel.

    By Blogger David Koyzis, at 1:49 PM  

  • This might help for context:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_calculation_problem

    By Blogger Baus, at 2:39 AM  

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