Archive Civic Polity Peter Escalante

Von Mises, Liberalism, and the Kingdom of God

Peter Leithart here draws attention to libertarian guru Ludwig von Mises’ animosity toward Christianity. Mises’ charges are old ones, whose most recent variants include Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as resentment-driven Sklavenmoral.

This is not to say that there’s nothing at all to the thesis that Christianity deliberately upsets fixed settlements of inequity. It is in fact true. Like the law of Israel which Christ assumed and whose substance he confirmed, Christianity has always been hostile to demonic pretensions of innate superiority on the part of those who find themselves in possession of power or riches, and the Church has always insisted that God alone is the world’s true “owner,” and is the only power worthy of worship. Biblical religion denies that any inherited status of the flesh ipso facto means favor in the eye of God- God elects whom He will, and what He loves in humankind is His image, which He restores in Christ, in whom there is indeed “neither Jew nor Gentile, Greek nor barbarian, male nor female.”

This does not, however, eradicate all difference. Difference rather becomes an aspect of vocation: God’s call to us first of all constitutes us as beings in one way and not another, in order that we might distinctly glorify Him and serve one each other. Difference is gift, and outfitting for the work of glorifying and giving; and wealth, honor, and authority are included in those gifts differing. So long as these are submitted to the kingship of Christ, and thus recognize that they are gifts from a servant king, to be used in humble service- really humble, not the rhetorical humility of hypocrisy- they are things to be thankful for. Christianity has never been concerned to overthrow civic order- quite the contrary. Mises’ claim that there is nothing in the Gospels by way of a social ethic misses the fact that Gospel which regenerates the heart presumes the equity of the Torah and all legitimate positive law as the norm of expression of charity. The early Christians strove to be model citizens, praying for the Emperor and the city, setting an example of probity in manners, chastity in marriage, justice in exchange, and fidelity in service.

This is not to deny that people have often enough misused the themes of election and redemption as warrant for resentment-driven violence against neighbor. The nominally Christian mobs of ancient Alexandria are proof of it- though their fanaticism was really more an effect of decline into superstition, loss of sanity and charity, not of any revolutionary principles. Even worse, every once in a while warlike schism has justified itself eschatologically, and claimed to be the vanguard of the end-time host of angels. Eric Voegelin famously called this delusion “immanentizing the eschaton”. But this analysis had been made long before Voegelin; he himself recognized that Richard Hooker had described the phenomenon. What Voegelin didn’t recognize was that Luther preceded Hooker in making this observation. Mises, however, knew next to nothing about Christianity, and it shows; but still, being an Austrian by birth, might well have known he was literarily echoing Luther when he refers to the object of his condemnation as “enthusiastic”- for “enthusiasm” is the older English word commonly used to translate Luther’s schwarmerei. And insofar as Mises’ finger is pointing to those people, Luther would agree with him- they’re crazy, and they’re trouble.

But just as his critique, where it actually finds a real target, is anticipated by Luther; so too in his praise of Liberalism, where it actually describes the real development of a real good, Mises inadvertently finds himself doing little more than echoing the great Protestant jurists who pioneered the modern order of freedom by restricting the State to the temporal good and by arguing that magistrates were in principle bound to recognize freedom of conscience for all within the bounds of reason and public good; not to mention creating the institutional and legal space for the associations of civil society to bloom in self-direction. Original Liberalism was in many ways simply the developed and consistent form of Protestant political doctrine, and the ethos presupposed by early Liberalism was in large part a creature of evangelical teaching on vocation.[1]

And Mises’ obsession with Christianity as revolutionary mob ideology are suspiciously out of all proportion to the real historical sins of Christendom. Nominally Christian powerholders have much more often aggressively grieved the powerless-Christian or otherwise- the poor, the unlearned, the enslaved, the strangers, and those of different faiths, than Christian throngs have come after the rich with torch and pitchfork; so why then Mises’ passionate defense of the rich against these nonexistent mobs? For all Mises’ supposed Liberalism, critiques of Christianity as inherently revolutionary are very often pretexts for treating other people very illiberally indeed.

Christendom has had its sins- but whether the rare one of throngs mobbing anyone of civic distinction, or the much more common one of tyrannies grand or petty, we can see these sins and repent them precisely because of the high standard of love which the Gospel has taught us; and that Gospel has over time gently but surely changed things for the better. The reign of Jesus, reflected formally in certain basic constitutional foundations of Christendom, however imperfectly, and existing directly in the hearts of those who really hold fast to Him, has been breaking out all over and grows like the mustard tree. Even Ludwig von Mises can’t miss it; for in praising the hardwon political order of modern freedom, he is, however unwittingly and unwillingly, praising the fruits of the Kingdom of God.

[1] Mises’ idea of what society is however profoundly defective. As John D. Mueller notes in his magisterial Redeeming Economics (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010), Mises’ individualistic utilitarianism runs against the classic tradition of Christian economics, which he correctly points out was not simply a medieval teaching, but taught continuously by Protestant doctors too. He examines Mises on pages 164-165, noting how his theory of man and his pagan worldview ignore the medieval and Protestant Scholastic teaching that man is not only the rational animal, but also the political and matrimonial animal, and what this means for human choicemaking. Mises ignores crucial factors which Augustine, Aquinas, and the Protestants all took account of, including distributive justice- which, in the these classic writers, does not mean a sentimental rationale for coercive redistribution of gain, but rather a more basic principle informing legislation and policy recognizing, among other things, the distinctness of the domestic order.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.

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