May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)
We are engaged in a great struggle for liberty. There are forces at work in the world seeking to literally enslave all of mankind. At any moment in history, there is a small minority who have given their time, treasure, and even lives in an effort to hinder and ultimately defeat the would-be tyrants.
Ironically, some of the most passionate and zealous combatants — and the combat might not be physical, but instead take place on the plane of ideas — are acting inconsistently with their own professed views of the ultimate foundations of justice and morality. Only if we believe in some higher power, and moreover one that has constructed the very fabric of the universe to ensure that good will triumph over evil, does our struggle make any sense.
Reason Is Not Enough
Many champions of liberty have been agnostic or even outspoken atheists. It does not take an intellectual devotion to God to yield fine and courageous advocates of freedom. But do their heroics make sense, in light of their professed justifications?
We can find no better exemplar of this dichotomy than Ludwig von Mises. He did not justify his advocacy of private property and free markets by appeal to the alleged natural rights of man, let alone to the supposed commands of a supernatural being. For Mises, a society based on private property and the rule of law would be far more productive than one based on arbitrary government privilege, or worse yet a chaotic anarchy in which people stole and murdered with reckless abandon.
Therefore it seemed obvious to Mises that everyone bore responsibility in promoting the free society, because only in such a society could all of us achieve our long-term objectives through cooperation and the division of labor. Whatever temporary thrills one might derive from theft and violence, would be far counterbalanced by the inability to have large-scale capitalist production and market exchange.
Unfortunately there’s a flaw in Mises’ reasoning. He didn’t prove that everyone should be moral and law-abiding. Rather, Mises simply proved that everyone would be better off if everyone were moral and law-abiding. Those are two different propositions.
There are many situations in life that resemble a "prisoner’s dilemma" as discussed by the game theorists. That is, there are situations in which self-interest and reason leads each person to act in a way that makes the whole group worse off, compared to the outcome where everyone acts against his self-interest.
Hard-headed rationalists cannot get around this stubborn fact. It’s true that many social situations repeat themselves, and so even if they resemble the prisoner’s dilemma in any given iteration, in the long-run they actually foster cooperation. For example, even if one could get away with it, it would be foolish to skip out of a restaurant without paying the bill, if the diner expected to return to the same restaurant in the future.
Yet this clever answer doesn’t really solve the problem of evil. Is it really true that a secular humanist, armed with all the knowledge of economics, could convince a David Rockefeller or a Henry Paulson that his standard of living would be improved by abiding by the tenets of classical liberalism? If those examples leave the reader unsure, what about Kim Jong-il? If Ayn Rand were locked in a room with the North Korean leader, could she really convince him that the value of his own life would be enhanced by refraining from looting others?
Again, it is true that if the whole world embraced laissez-faire capitalism, even current despots would probably end up living with greater material prosperity. But that is not the choice any current despot faces. He looks at the options at his disposal, and the likely choices that others (including despots) will make during his lifetime. It is wildly unrealistic to assume that the most powerful (and evil) people on the planet are currently hurting their self-interest by violating the rules of traditional morality. A student of David Hume could explain why traditional moral rules benefit everyone, but he ultimately could not prove why anyone ought to be moral in the first place.
Heroes and Sociobiology
We can go further. If the foundation of morality really were a rationalist calculation of the actions promoting one’s self-interest, some of the most heroic defenders of liberty would be fools. Consider the dissidents under a thug such as Chile’s Pinochet. Many of them chronicled his abuses so that future generations would know the extent of his crimes, knowing full well that they would likely be murdered for daring to oppose his regime. Under the Misesian and especially the Randian framework, these rebels all behaved foolishly — indeed they arguably behaved immorally.
So why do even secular humanists cheer such heroes? Because they view themselves not as simply maximizing the chance of material prosperity, but as engaged in a battle of ideas. Many of today’s libertarians would rather live on the streets than become an IRS agent. Surely this decision wouldn’t be driven merely by an estimate of the likely long-run earnings from either career path (where other libertarians perhaps punish the person for seeking IRS employment and temporarily earning a higher paycheck). No, there is a much deeper sense among many secular libertarians that working for the IRS is just plain wrong and therefore it’s not even an option.
The Darwinists of course have something to say. Like many other creatures, we Homo sapiens experience strong feelings of altruism, especially for our kin. This is biologically programmed into us, because a genetic predisposition for a soldier to jump on a live grenade would tend to survive in a population. It’s no more "irrational" for people to die in the cause of liberty, the sociobiologists could argue, than for parents to spend $100,000 sending their kids to college.
This explanation is too glib. After all, evolutionary theorists can come up with stories to explain why people experience optical illusions and other "mistakes" in sensory experiences. Yet someone wandering in the desert who thinks he sees water would use his reason to resist the faulty biological urge; the same goes for someone caught in a blizzard who is experiencing hypothermia and suddenly feels very hot and wants to take off his hat and parka.
By the same token, then, a captured member of the French Resistance might feel a strong urge to tell his Nazi captors to go jump off the Eiffel Tower when they demand to know the addresses of his colleagues. Yet if he were a rational egoist, he would recognize those biological traits as dangerously inappropriate in that specific instance, nudging him to engage in behavior that would lead to his torture and death. Talk about a maladaptive response!
The Hope of Victory
The theist who believes in a just and omnipotent God does not suffer from the above inconsistencies. He can justify his passionate and heroic defense of liberty. Even if he dies, he knows he has done the right thing — where "right thing" is not defined as a set of strategies to maximize the likelihood of achieving earthly happiness.
Belief in the God of the Bible gives one hope in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. We know that those who enslave, steal, and murder may experience temporary victories, but that ultimately they are doomed to defeat.
Ironically, we have come full circle. The theist can tell David Rockefeller, Henry Paulson, and Kim Jong-il the following advice which is the epitome of realpolitik:
"You should stop what you are doing because it offends the Creator of the heavens and earth. You are making an intellectual error in your assessment of the strength of your position. Your armies are nothing compared to the might of the LORD, and your intelligence networks are nothing compared to His wisdom. Repent while you still can, and save yourself from ruin."
Bob Murphy [send him mail], adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, The Human Action Study Guide, and The Man, Economy, and State Study Guide. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal.