The Christian Left or the Torture Party

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. This statement, long attributed to Edmund Burke but not found in his writings, doesn't explain how or why good men would do nothing — I always assumed Burke was referring to complacency and cowardice.

But in addition, maybe some "good men" were too pure in their principles to ally themselves with lesser beings, even when they faced a common enemy. Other good men are fooled by lies – lies of politicians, yes, but usually lies ingrained in their minds and conscience in their youth. And even good men find it hard to break with old loyalties, and are not immune by the sway of a charismatic leader who says what they want to hear.

So, thanks to American churches, public education, and the two-party system, enough good men did nothing, and John Kerry and George Bush won the Presidential nominations. The result is that we are becoming a nation that excuses torture.

The Warfare/Police/Torture regime has got to go. It offends me not as an American, but as a human being. If I wasn't born here and didn't live here, I'd be as anti-American as are most people in the world. It wasn't always this way, and it shouldn't have become this way, but President Bush's Administration has made it so. Any possible alliance to defeat this menace to America and the World is worth pursuing. I mean, hey, alliances aren't marriages. They're not even friendships. They're coalitions.

To that end, there are some folks who might be useful allies. They are kind of the "anti-libertarians," actually. Conservative on moral issues, liberal on economic issues. Concerned about both personal morality and the poor, in the sense that they believe the State ought to do something about both. I'm talking, of course, about the Christian Left, those who agree with Evangelicals for Social Action and Sojourners magazine. There are more of them than many people realize.

I believe they are wrong – disastrously wrong – on many issues. But they are anti-war, anti-torture, anti-Bush. That's a start. To associate with such people could either be seen as an unacceptable compromise, or as an opportunity. What choice do we have, but the latter?

The Left is animated by three prevailing concerns:

  • equality/democracy: concern for the dignity of each individual, their equal rights in the commonwealth, and the integrity of the democratic process;
  • poverty: alleviation of the hardships facing the poor.
  • ecology: proper stewardship of the earth's resources.

Does having these concerns necessarily make one a Marxist? A Jacobin?

I don't think so. These concerns are valid. It is indeed unjust for a person to face legal hurdles because of his birth status. It is indeed unjust that the political process is rigged. It is indeed unjust that those less-well-off are denied opportunities to better themselves, and it is indeed valid that in a world of scarce resources, they should not be wasted.

The question is, how should our values be advanced? Will the Christian Left give libertarians a hearing on these subjects? Are libertarians willing to enter into constructive dialog on these matters?

Not if Leftists hate markets more than they love the poor, and not if libertarians call leftists "thieves" for desiring some wealth redistribution. That is, common ground will never be found if no one wants to look for it, if principled purity and animosity motivate our behavior. But if we don't cooperate, the Torture Party triumphs.

Libertarians have the advantage of providing information and insights that others haven't thought about before. We think of things in ways that others don't. This should be an advantage as we build alliances against the Torture Party.

Here is an example, from Sojourners magazine, "Ford vs. Wal-Mart, a Tale of Two Companies," in which the authors David Batstone and David Chandler contrast the wages of Wal-Mart's employees with those of Henry Ford's employees 100 years ago:

"Wal-Mart’s recipe for success, however, does depend as well on squeezing labor costs. The majority of its hourly workers earn less than $8.50 an hour, which means that a full-time sales clerk at Wal-Mart falls under the official U.S. poverty level for a family of four."

Whereas,

"For Ford, mass production went hand-in-hand with mass consumption. He established a simple benchmark for worker compensation: His workers should be able to buy the product they were making. Ford promised a $5-a-day minimum wage for all his workers – twice the prevailing automobile industry average.

Doing so, Ford created a virtuous circle. Workers flocked to his factory to apply for positions. If they managed to secure a coveted job, then in time they too would be able to afford one of his cars. The company flourished on these twin pillars – a desirable product and a highly motivated employee base. By the time production of the Model T ceased in 1927, Ford had sold more than 15 million cars – half the world’s output."

The argument is that Ford's policy encouraged upward mobility, whereas Wal-Mart's policy is one of downward mobility. Wal-Mart's employees shop at Wal-Mart because they can't afford to shop anywhere else.

I'm not here to defend Wal-Mart, or to bash Henry Ford. William Anderson explains why Ford’s way of doing business back then wasn’t all that different from Wal-Mart’s today. Rather, I’d like to mention something that’s always taken for granted. Ford's employees in 1914 were the best-paid in the industry — at $5 a day, twice what other auto companies were paying. Today, at $8.50 an hour, Wal-Mart's employees are allegedly underpaid. $5 a day in 1914 good, $68 a day in 2005 bad.

Why?

In 1914 the year Ford initiated the $5 wage, the Federal Reserve Board was just coming into existence. Money was hard — a “dollar” meant that you were entitled to an ounce of silver. Government was small, the national debt miniscule. Laborers didn't have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes, as they do now. Also, Ford's higher wages were the result of his revolutionizing the factory process. His workers could become more productive, and more Model T's could be built at a lower cost of production despite the higher wages. So he made the Model T affordable to not just his own workers, but to many others as well.

Companies try to find ways to mass-produce, to lower the cost of production of each unit, so that more and more people can afford it and will buy it. This isn't greed, this is efficiency. This is stewardship.

Governmental policy has always been the cause of inflation. There has been no other cause. A nation's currency, especially when it isn't backed by a precious metal, is a reflection of the faith others have in that nation's government and economy. But the inflation of the currency is a tax on the nation's people. The dollar cheapens more and more as the government spends more than it takes in. Even if inflation is "under control" when compared to the 1970's, it is still a regressive tax that punishes low-wage earners, like Wal-Mart's, the most.

Prosperity in the real sense is the story of goods and services becoming more available to more and more people. Which means that the prices fall when accounting for inflation.

And this is something that must be discussed. Why isn't $5 a day considered a good day's wages anymore? Why, nearly a century later, is $70 now considered insufficient? Shouldn't that scare all of us, on both the Left and the Right?”

It is easy to see how lower prices hurt smaller businessmen, smaller competitors. They have higher overhead costs relative to what they produce. But what is worse for the working poor, lower prices with small government and miniscule taxes, or inflated prices, big government, and high taxes?

I mention this as an example of where libertarian thought may oppose the Left's stated policies, but not necessarily their basic concerns. Not all libertarians are "selfish" or "rugged individualists." Many of us come to this ideology only because of our rational conclusions of how economies and governments work.

Is such a dialog possible? I don't know, but it can't hurt to try. Does hard money, balanced budgets, limited government, and falling prices hurt the poor more than fiat money, deficit spending, big government, and rising prices? I think that's a fair question, and the purpose of asking it is to open minds to different ways of looking at economic problems.

The difference between libertarians and the Left, particularly the Christian Left, is not a matter of values, of ends, but of means. Let's hope that enough common ground is reached so that we have enough power to depose the Torture Party as quickly as possible.

January 12, 2005

James Leroy Wilson Archives