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RL Dabney’s Theory of Economics

Robert L. Dabney is known, to those who know him, as the grey eminence of an old and lost form of Presbyterianism.  To call him “Old School” might be an understatement, as Dr. Dabney wrote against the incipient public school movement, women’s rights, and most infamously of all, abolition and the US Civil War.  Dr. Dabney’s writings are peppered with a certain form of racism, typically assuming a low “natural” civic potential for Blacks, culminating in his defense of Southern slavery titled, A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South.  This ought to make it plain that we do not agree with all of Dr. Dabney’s social and political positions, and we  reject his racial views altogether.  However, in this case, Dr. Dabney’s dogged old-fashionedness will actually add more force to the point we wish to make.  Dr. Dabney cannot be called a political progressive or modern liberal in any meaningful sense; yet when it comes to economics, his ideas are strikingly different from those of modern free market conservatives.  He represents an even older school of thought, viewing the commonweal as the final cause of the social bond and believing that the commonwealth has a moral duty to regulate wealth and eliminate economic immorality.

Dr. Dabney addresses politics in many of writings, including his Lectures in Systematic Theology, and he even specifically espouses economic theories in an essay titled “Principles of Christian Economy” and in The Practical Philosophy.  His philosophy is consistent throughout these writings, and we will outline some of its main points in what follows.  At many points, Dr. Dabney expresses sympathy with the “classical liberalism” of early modern political theory, yet at other points he sticks with “the old moralists” of medieval and post-medieval Christendom.

In Dr. Dabney’s political thought, “man’s will never was his proper law,” but rather his “rule of action” is the natural or moral law which is “as original (as natural) as man himself).”[1]  This means, for Dr. Dabney, that man’s obligations to his neighbor are also moral and basic, and therefore government is necessary to order and regulate this, government being also “as natural as man is.”[2]  From this, Dr. Dabney eventually deduces that both “natural liberty” and “civil liberty” are defined as “the freedom to do whatever a man has a moral right to do.”  He even goes so far as to say that, “A fair and just government would be one that would leave to each subject of it, in the general, (excepting cases of incidental hardship,) freedom to do whatever he had a moral right to do, and take away all other, so far as secular and civil acts are concerned.”[3]  This understanding is basic for Dr. Dabney’s economic philosophy, since he does not make a hard private/public distinction when it comes to morality, but rather holds that civil governments are bound to take away all immoral (and therefore false) freedoms.

But It would be wrong, and reflective of the false dichotomies to which the current state of political dialog is sadly limited, to assume that this means Dr. Dabney advocates a sort of totalitarian state.  On the contrary, Dr. Dabney affirms the old distinction between the three estates with the added modern American notion of limited and separated powers, stating:

We discard the theocratic conception of civil government.  The proper object of it is, in general, to secure to man his life, liberty, and property, i.e., his secular rights.  Man’s intellectual and spiritual concerns belong to different jurisdictions; the parental and the ecclesiastical.  The evidence is, that the parental, and the ecclesiastical departments of duty and right are separately recognized by Scripture and distinctly fenced off, as independent circles.. The powers of the civil magistrate then, are limited by righteousness (not always by facts) to these general functions, regulating and adjudicating all secular rights, and protecting all members of civil society in their enjoyment of their several proper shares thereof.[4]

Even with this paradigm, however, Dr. Dabney still believes that there is a common moral imperative involved in all politics.  Since all men have the the natural good as their end, “the golden rule” and “the active principles of sympathy and love” must guide our social relations.[5]  “We are sure then,” he writes, “that the aim of our Maker in establishing the affections of sympathy and love in many is to prompt us to all feasible acts of charity and benevolence.”[6] Dr. Dabney expands upon this saying:

The equitable moral order is thus established, as obligatory on all.  This argument shows that the rule of all relative duties is substantially “the Golden Rule”: “Whatsoever ye would therefore that men should do to you, do ye likewise even so to them.”  The Divine Moralist tells us that on this rule hang all the law and the prophets.  He is correct.[7]

By whatever argument we are bound to seek our own good, by the same we are bound to seek their equitable good.  The obligation is not only negative, such, namely, as binds us to refrain from injuring their well-being; but it is also positive, binding us actively to promote their welfare in all ways proper for us.[8]

This final cause and moral guide is obligatory on individuals and commonwealths, since “civilized men come under a just obligation to cultivate a higher, more intelligent and scrupulous righteousness in associated actions…”[9]  Dr. Dabney likens a political society to “an equitable copartnership.”[10]  Because of this, “In their individual, private or domestic actions, the citizens may pursue their private lawful ends.  But in their political actions all are bound to pursue no other object but the common weal of the whole, and that equitably.”[11]

Dr. Dabney does not argue for a communist society at all, and rather he rejects such outright.  He defends private property as authorized by the Bible[12] and even says that, “private property is the mother of material civilization and of constitutional freedom.”[13]  The law of supply and demand, along with “current market price” is the most objective measure of pricing.[14]

But it is at just this point where Dr. Dabney’s strong sense of moral duty and the collective interest of society causes him to argue for government regulation, especially in the defense of the market against monopolies[15] and other forms of immoral manipulation.  “Advantage is not to be taken of the ignorance of buyers or sellers,”[16] and “all misrepresentations as to defects of the commodity bought or sold, adulteration and deceptions, whether actual or implied are thefts.”[17]  Speculation and dealing in “futures” is gambling,[18] and usury laws, he argues, as well as punishment of outstanding debt, should be retained.[19]  Usury is a crime as well as a sin because it affects the entire society.  Dr. Dabney writes, “unrestricted usury will inevitably tend to make the money-lenders richer, and all their fellow-citizens poorer.”[20]

Dr. Dabney views economic inequality as an undesirable situation, and he quotes Thomas Jefferson to the effect that the US constitution could not easily be reconciled with “a society possessing great wealth unequally distributed.”[21]  For this reason, Dr. Dabney does not believe that large inheritances should be absolute,[22] nor that “overgrown estates” should be “permitted to enlarge themselves to dangerous amounts in hereditary hands.”[23]  The government should restrict any “perpetual corporation, even the most religious and benevolent.”[24]

Indeed, there is a natural law which guides the use of wealth.  Dr. Dabney continues:

What are the righteous uses of wealth?  This question can only be answered under the guidance of these two principles” the Golden Rule; and, To that steward to whom much is committed, of him shall much be required.  These show that the rule of self-indulgence in anything allowed by law, and for which I can honestly pay the money, will never suffice for a virtuous man’s guide.  Behind the question, whether this proposed use of possessions is lawful, stands a higher question, Is it the best use?  the use most highly promotive of the legitimate ends of possessions?[25]

It is important to note here, that while Dr. Dabney has consistently taught the separation of Church and State, or, as we prefer to say, magistracy and ministerium, and a certain understanding of the limited aims of each jurisdiction, reserving spiritual things for the Church, he still has no trouble applying the teachings of Jesus to socio-political issues.  The institutional Church need not attempt legislate or to to enforce civil laws, but Christian citizens must still bring their social and political lives into obedience to the teachings of Christ.

Dr. Dabney reserves his most extended critique for the luxurious rich, defining luxury as any “unproductive consumption of values.”[26]  According to Dr. Dabney, luxury is “a moral disease” which “robs the producer” and “debauches the consumer.”[27]  It is more than a personal question of morality, however, because it also wastes the “true wealth of the State” which is “the labor of its people.”[28]  “When the whole stock of values for the whole society is diminished,” Dr. Dabney writes, “some persons, somewhere, have to suffer destitution.  Who shall suffer will probably be decided by the old rule, that the weakest are left in the rear.”[29]

Again, luxury is a moral and a civic issue, since Dr. Dabney believes the whole society is interested in using wealth in accordance with the moral law and because the society has a collective wealth.  He adds:

Every cause which tempts producers away from the creation of values for productive consumption, to the creation of those destined for unproductive consumption, ensures that other members of society in its lower strata shall suffer for the necessaries of life.  The misdirection of that industry, falsely claimed to be encouragement of industry, is the criminal cause of the suffering of the innocent at the other end of the social scale.[30]

Given this suffering, Dr. Dabney believes that the State should redistribute surplus income.  He doesn’t believe that this should merely go to alms, however, since that could run the risk of promoting indolence.  Instead, this surplus should be used for “enlightened and truly useful benefactions.”[31]  Included in these are “the creation of industries promotive of productive consumption and solid values of utility.  So all expenditures which promote true intelligence and virtue are true philanthropies, because these are sure sources of true, equitable welfare.”[32]

And so we see that Dabney finally comes out for what, to contemporary readers, seems like significant government intrusion.  His society is not one where the government is content to play the role of a negative boundary marker, but rather one which takes the initiative to maintain civic equilibrium.  Dr. Dabney wraps up the matter:

In conclusion, while the State must not resort to any communism, or invasion of private rights of property, which must be sacred, yet the State has strong reasons to deprecate great inequalities in the aggregation of wealth.  See the reasons above, both economical and moral.  Hence, the legislation of the State should always be shaped to discourage large accumulations, and to favor equal and moderate fortunes.  All legislation is mischievous which causelessly gives any indirect aid to these excessive accumulations, which make luxury feasible and apply the temptation to it.[33]

Much of Dr Dabney’s economic writing is, no doubt, uniquely conditioned by his point of view as a 19th century American.  As we’ve already conceded, he writes for his time, and we are not here suggesting that Dr. Dabney’s particular prescriptions of the government’s role in wealth should be implemented today.  What matters are the principles, principles he claims are continuous with the old Christian moralists.  Again, Dr. Dabney cannot really be called a progressive.  He is not espousing Marxist or “left wing” views.  And yet he still looks to be at quite a distance from modern conservatives, especially Christian conservatives who tout a “Biblical economics” that is essentially Libertarian in nature. This difference is quite striking actually.

This should cause us to ask some searching questions in our search to form Christian theories of economics and law.  What tradition was Dr. Dabney drawing from, and what became of it?  What might such a “lost tradition” teach us about our assumptions concerning Biblical theories of politics and “common sense” conservatism?  And would we be ready to hear it?


[1] Lectures in Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1972) 867

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid 869

[5] The Practical Philosophy (Sprinkle Publications, 1984) 321-322

[6] ibid 322-323

[7] 323

[8] 324

[9]> 421

[10] 423

[11] ibid

[12] 454ff

[13] 460

[14] 480

[15] 481-482

[16] 483

[17] 484

[18] 486

[19] 489, 492ff

[20] 491

[21] 477

[22] 465

[23] 467

[24] ibid

[25] 470

[26] 472; See also Dabney’s “Principles of Christian Economy” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 19820) 1-29

[27] The Practical Philosophy 472

[28] 472; Leading into this section, Dabney claims a continuity with the pre-modern Christian economic tradition, writing, “The clear, common sense of the old moralists was as little at fault in condemning luxury as wasteful.”

[29] 473

[30] ibid

[31] 474

[32] ibid

[33] 476

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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