Tuesday, April 20, 2010


One thing I’ve noticed from cleaning out backyard ponds and paddling around lakes is that when the water is very clear, it’s usually because nothing is churning it up. Thus, my muddy thinking this weekend, and most likely in this post, is because I’ve just finished a week with a lot of cross-currents. The week began at the meetings of the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE). One of the popular themes at APEE is “spontaneous order,” an idea associated historically with the likes of Adam Smith and Hayek. The study of spontaneous order is experiencing somewhat of a revival right now. I think that’s because it speaks so much to a society in which so many people address every problem with “They [the government] ought to do something to fix ____ (you fill in the blank).” Students of spontaneous order demonstrate (often through historical or documentary analysis) that some of these “problems” can be handled quite well by voluntary action. A world in which an intoxicated freshman is judged by a student review board is, in my mind, superior to one in which the police are called each and every time a 19 year old has a beer. However, proving that voluntary non-governmental institutions can handle some problem doesn’t prove that they can handle all problems. Please hold that thought for a moment.

At church on Sunday, the Gospel Reading, exactly a week after the opening of APEE, was the beachfront appearance of Jesus (John 21). And, of course, the command to Peter is starkly laid out (as much also for our benefit). Jesus says that if we love him we will follow him and care for his sheep. And, this much is clear: the sheep do need caring. That is Biblical. It starts with the Fall, it continues with the first murder, with the degeneration of humanity so severe that God destroyed most of his original creation in disgust, and with the blatant disregard of God’s own chosen people for the Law that he had given them. It is called sin. In a sinful world we covet our neighbor’s everything, rampaging backwards through the other nine of the Big Ten. As we say in church just about every Sunday, we sin against ourselves, our God, and our neighbors. We leave brokenness in our wake. And, to risk paraphrasing the famous joke about the New York Times*, as we sin God reveals his particular anger that we neglect the poor, the widow, the alien, the lame, and the orphan.

So, good readers, how does the economic study of spontaneous order intersect with caring for the sheep? If you think I’ve solved the paradox today, you might want to quit now, because I haven’t. However, I think that we can rein-in the problems with some boundary observations:

1 ) There is nothing inherently hostile between Christianity and institutions of spontaneous order. In fact, Jesus himself recommends non-governmental institutions of justice and reconciliation.

2 ) On the other hand, I don’t see how a Christian can believe that spontaneous order, in and of itself, can restore all of God’s purpose for creation, separate from anchor in Christ. Therefore, from my perspective it follows that spontaneous, voluntary order necessarily leaves many problems unsolved. Let me elaborate on this point. It’s interesting at one level to read Peter Leeson’s recent accounts of spontaneous order among pirates. Although Leeson’s argument of why that might have been the case depends on economic analysis, the same general description of the stories of spontaneous order among pirates have been around for decades.(As an example, see the background on the History Channel series “True Caribbean Pirates”, http://blindkat.hegewisch.net/pirates/pirates.html , which suggests that the stories need to be taken with some qualification.) Regardless of whether there was a lot or a little of spontaneous order on a pirate ship, at the end of the day, they were still pirates. As Leeson himself points out, a key to developing the spontaneous order on a pirate ship was the fact that the ship itself was usually stolen in the first place.

3 ) But, on the other, other hand, I have just as many problems with the idea that for every purported societal failure we can take a subset of sinful humanity, give them a monopoly on the use of force, pin some flair on their shirt that says “I’m the government and I’m here to help you,” and believe that this transforms this particular system of sinful humans into an omniscient, unerring vehicle for expressing God’s will. This is essentially the path of the Liberal/Social Gospel/Progressive Protestantism of which I written so much recently, and it is codified by those contemporary mainline Protestant denominations who explicitly state that they see the government as the primary vehicle for, if I may be so bold, tending the sheep.

4 ) The missing element in both of these approaches is that Christianity teaches, through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, both the forgiveness of sins and the transformation of the sinner. Therefore both the spontaneous order of Christians acting as individuals and our approach to collective action, whether voluntary or through a government, ought to be identifiably different. In Matthew 5, Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the pirates do the same?” (OK, so he actually said “tax collectors”). And, I can find no hint that Jesus expected Peter (Simon Peter, not Peter Leeson) to go to Rome to lobby the Roman Senate for a new Department of Sheep-Keeping. This doesn’t answer the paradox that’s been bothering me, but I think it’s a good place to start.


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