Blogs > Liberty and Power > Christmas: A Reflection

Dec 21, 2008 8:26 pm

Christmas: A Reflection

It is nearly Christmas, one of the two most prominent holy days of Christianity.

Most libertarian historians are probably not Christian, but they know that Christianity made a distinct and perhaps necessary contribution to the growth of liberty in the West. Whether this happened through providence or the happenstance of competition (for the latter see Deepak Lal’s insightful book Unintended Consequences) is not the subject of this reflection.

Rather, I’d like to make a point about liberty.

For some, perhaps most, Christians, the Christmas season is emotionally overwhelming, to the point where one Episcopal church in Raleigh has a “Blue Christmas Service” for those who find Christmas painful. Some Christians feel sad because a loved one has died and they miss the good times of the past. Others experience the season’s expressions of joy, hope, and salvation as an indictment of themselves because they do not feel joyous or hopeful or capable of being saved. And no one can escape the secular (but non-commercial) pressures of Christmas—to be with family, to give gifts, to make charitable donations, to be extra-friendly and cheerful (and not Scrooge-like).

Beyond that, all Christians experience the gulf between the celebration of an ideal world yet to come and the actual reality we live in. My father, an Episcopal minister, used to shape his sermons to acknowledge that gulf. He ended his Christmas Eve services with a prayer that the world would someday “give back the song the angels sing, of peace and love, good will to men.” But he also recognized that, nearly 2000 years into the project, it hasn’t.

Libertarians experience a parallel gulf. We dream of a world that respects the rights—the negative rights—of all people. Yet we look around and what do we see? Coercive government influence, seemingly increasing by the day. Profound ignorance about government, history, and the incentives that motivate people. Arrogance and self-righteousness. Blindness to the desires of people who want to cross borders and seek jobs. Populism, elitism, hypocrisy.

For us, nearly every day is a blue Christmas.

The good news is that libertarians are not restricted by theology, so they do not have to wait for a day that may never come. They can do something about today’s conditions.

Libertarians can use the tools of public choice, political entrepreneurship, communication skills, wealth accumulation, and more to understand why freedom is always in peril and incrementally restore or strengthen it. They can argue against restrictions on freedom. They can find models of freedom’s successes and promote them. And even in their dark hours they can admit that history, in spite of awful lapses, does reveal expansion of liberty, at the very least by the prosperity launched by the Industrial Revolution.

Rather than feel dejected about constraints on freedom, libertarians can—and I believe, must—keep trying to extend freedom, step by step. Seeking liberty incrementally through persuasion, logic, and example is, I believe, our Social Gospel, with a much better outcome for humanity than was achieved by the adherents of that somewhat distorted Christian philosophy.

The writers for Liberty and Power—and many readers—are trying to safeguard liberty. I wish them all success, whatever the season.

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Jane S. Shaw - 12/25/2008

What a rich collection of thoughts. I'll look for the books you mention.

On the question of whether Christianity was necessary, I'll start with the fact that I'm mostly talking about economic liberty, although my position may be true for political liberty as well. Economic liberty flowered in Western Europe, although it may have initially done so in China, too, around the time of the Song dynasty.

Liberty might have been sustained elsewhere-but as far as I know it didn't take root elsewhere, which is (sort of) a case for Christianity. The religion produced two forces leading to freedom. First was the idea that there was a difference between a king or emperor and God--demanding different loyalties. This was, I believe, a distinctively new idea and opened the door to challenges of temporal power.

Second, this difference between the temporal and spiritual realms played out pragmatically in the conflicts between temporal rulers like kings and religious rulers such as the Pope. Freedom grew in the interstices of this conflict.

Other factors mattered, too, from primogeniture to the rights and obligations attendant to feudalism. But Christianity was a factor.

Now, something else could have replaced Christianity, providing the competition that led to freedom. But elsewhere, did it? I don't think so.

Mark Brady - 12/23/2008

I enjoyed your thoughtful post which prompts a couple of questions.

You write, "Most libertarian historians are probably not Christian, but they know that Christianity made a distinct and perhaps necessary contribution to the growth of liberty in the West."

Athough we might well agree that Christianity made important contributions to the development of Western civilization and both its more and less attractive attributes, it seems less evident to me that Christianity made "a distinct and perhaps necessary contribution to the growth of liberty in the West."

First, although the ascendancy of Western political individualism was shaped by the Christian society within which it evolved, how evident is it that without Christianity men and women would not have fought for individual liberty in somewhat different ways against social and governmental suppression? Indeed, some of the most awful oppression and savagery took place with the support of Christian churches and sometimes even under their direct command. We need only but consider, for example, the institutions of feudalism in Europe and black chattel slavery in the Americas. Someone might therefore assert that liberty evolved despite Christianity. It is also true, of course, that every age witnessed Christian voices against such oppression and barbarity.

Second, private property and commerce were very important in many other non-Christian societies in Eurasia and helped create private spheres in which men and women have produced, traded and consumed to their considerable advantage. I would reference two books by Jack Goody—CAPITALISM AND MODERNITY: THE GREAT DEBATE (Polity Press, 2004) and THE THEFT OF HISTORY (Cambridge University Press, 2006). When we met this fall and I recommended the first book, I was unaware of the second, which I now also commend to you.

Later you write, "And even in their dark hours [libertarians] can admit that history, in spite of awful lapses, does reveal expansion of liberty, at the very least by the prosperity launched by the Industrial Revolution."

I agree that liberty has expanded, in fits and starts, over the course of recorded time and particularly in the last few hundred years. Economic individualism is certainly both a vital aspect of liberty as we libertarians understand the concept of liberty and in very large part the cause of the enormous growth of prosperity inaugurated by the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions. And I certainly welcome the extension of lifespan and health and material wealth which that prosperity makes possible. But I suggest these extend our capabilities and not our liberties as such. In what way can we say that the libertarian concept of liberty was itself enlarged by those profound economic changes? After all, a person can be materially poor but free and another person can be materially rich but subject to severe restraints on their freedom, even enslaved.