state, market, and original sin

Imagine that the pure and original human condition is freedom from all political constraint; and when governments intervene, they introduce arbitrary and illegitimate power. Then the market is Eden and the government is original sin. In that case, anyone who deliberately increases the scope of government must either be a purposeful or a deluded friend of sin. Regardless of what the Congressional Budget Office or the American Medical Association may say about the new health care act, it can only be a snake in the garden. The difference between literally “taking over one sixth of the economy” by nationalizing health care and merely adding some new insurance regulations and subsidies (as Congress did this week) is immaterial, because sin is sin. On this view, the only important political distinction is between those who would protect freedom from the state and those who would use government for their ends. Communists, fascists, liberals, and moderate conservatives–despite what I observe as profound differences–run together.

I am certainly not the first to note a similarity between this specific kind of libertarianism and religious thought. In 1922, Charles A. Beard argued:

About the middle of the nineteenth century, thinkers [in the field of Political Economy] were mainly concerned with formulating a mill owner’s philosophy of society; and mill owners resented every form of state interference with their ‘natural rights.’ … The state was regarded as a badge of original sin, not to be mentioned in economic circles. Of course, it was absurd for men to write of the production and distribution of wealth apart from the state which defines, upholds, taxes, and regulates property, the very basis of economic operations; but absurdity does not stay the hand of the apologist.

Beard wanted to rebut the idea that markets were primeval and natural by demonstrating that states originally created modern markets by seizing territory, chartering corporations, coining money, literally building physical exchanges, and so forth. But Beard’s language suggests another point. The doctrine of laissez-faire echoes Christian principles, but almost precisely in reverse. (And to teach an inverted Christian doctrine would be blasphemous.) The conventional Christian view is that property was absent in Eden and among Jesus’ apostles. Property entered because of sin; anointed or otherwise legitimate governments rightly restrain it with law.

I think Tom Paine represents an intermediary stage between the original doctrine (property is sin) and its laissez-faire inversion (property is pristine). In Common Sense, he writes:

[Natural] Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. This first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil . . . Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.

This is not yet philosophical libertarianism, because Paine thinks that government, like dress, is a good idea under the circumstances. But it introduces the association of government with original sin.

Glenn Beck waded into the same territory when he denounced churches that embrace “social justice.” His sense of sin was religious, I think, although his doctrine was the precise reverse of what all Christian denominations still officially hold. Jim Wallis has a nice rebuttal in the Huffington Post. If the official and traditional religious position still influences believers, then Beck bit off more than he can chew.

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