Saturday, June 8, 2013

Humble Recognition of God's Existence by a 19th Century Political Economist

It is considered a serious intellectual offense to recognize the existence of God in academic field such as the study of political economy. It is acceptable in religious book, but not in the field of politics and economics. 

However, a reputable 19th century political economist takes the existence of God as given. It is never questioned. Frederic Bastiat's book, The Law, is unlike many intellectual books these days that authors consider it shameful or insane to mention God in their treatises. Bastiat's book is different. You will encounter the fact of God's existence throughout the book. 

Let us take a look how Bastiat referenced God in his book.

God the Creator and Giver of Life

Like the book of Genesis, Bastiat started his masterpiece by recognizing that God is the Author and Giver of life. I do not know if Bastiat is a Christian or not. All I know, by his opening sentence, he acknowledged God as the Source of life. To me, this is equivalent to accepting the doctrine of creation, which is the most basic requirement in obtaining true knowledge.  

In addition to the gift of life, Bastiat believes that God has also given us three things to nourish life. He identifies them as human responsibility, "a collection of marvelous faculties" and "a variety of natural resources" (p.1). This responsibility is a trust from God for us to preserve, develop and perfect life. God expects that as we apply our human capabilities on natural resources, life will run its appointed course.   

Individuality, Liberty and Property

The second instance that Bastiat referenced God in his book is in relation to another gift from God, which he described as "natural right" (p.2). This right has something to do with personal defense of individuality, liberty and property. He considered these three as the "basic requirements of life" and "the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two" (ibid).

Politicians' Blindness

In the third instance, Bastiat mentioned God in connection to the politicians' desire to remedy inequality. A sincere politician hates the contradiction he observes between extreme poverty and luxury. However, instead of looking into previous laws that caused such inequality, the mind of a politician seeks aid through regulation. Instead of asking questions related to justice and individual responsibility, politicians resort to legislation that caused such evil in the first place. Bastiat raised two important questions where in the second question he mentioned God's will concerning individual responsibility. In Bastiat mind, these are the appropriate questions politicians should ask themselves:

"Since all persons seek well-being and perfection,  would not a condition of justice be sufficient to cause the greatest efforts toward progress, and the greatest possible equality that is compatible with individual responsibility? Would not this be in accord with the concept of individual responsibility which God has willed in order that mankind may have the choice between vice and virtue, and the resulting punishment and reward?" (p.26). 

Playing God

The fourth occasion that Bastiat's statement included God is in the context of socialists' outlook as to the two division of entire humanity - the potter and the lifeless clay. Such view of humanity is born out of arrogance and that's why Bastiat describes it as socialists playing God (p. 31). 

The vast difference between the clay and the "low" members of humanity is ignored. Designing this clay depends on the hands of a superior race, the legislators and planners!

Bastiat rebukes such arrogance: "Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes that this clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for themselves!" (p.48).

Statists' Fear of Liberty

Another instance that the word "God" occured in the book is connected to the statists' fear of liberty. For statists, says Bastiat, their concept of liberty leads to monopoly, competition, oppression and madness and that's why it cannot be allowed apart from legislative intervention. For Bastiat, such fear of liberty is baseless. 

Bastiat does not believe that liberty will cause people to eventually end up to atheism, ignorance and greed. It does not follow that if people are free, they will "no longer recognize the power and goodness of God" (p.73). 

Faith in God and a Vision for Humanity

The last case that we can find Bastiat's reference to God is connected to faith in Him and His works and a provision of vision for humanity. Notice how Bastiat paints such vision in explaining the path to dignity and progress: 

"... it is under the law of justice—under the reign of right; under the influence of liberty, safety, stability, and responsibility—that every person will attain his real worth and the true dignity of his being. It is only under this law of justice that mankind will achieve slowly, no doubt, but certainly—God’s design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity. (p.73)."

Those who deny God's design for humanity will not find support from Bastiat's writing. He affrims that such plan exists and identifies the prerequisite to reach such destination - the existence of the law of justice!

The description of the destination for humanity once the prerequisite is properly placed is one of peace, happiness, and morality. Bastiat based his vision on human experience. He summons us to look at the entire world and observe, which countries are most peaceful, most moral, and the happiest. He answered his own question:

"Those people are found in the countries where the law least interferes with private affairs;  where government is least felt; where the individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence; where administrative powers are fewest and simplest; where taxes are lightest and most nearly equal, and popular discontent the least excited and the least justifiable; where individuals and groups most actively assume their responsibilities, and, consequently, where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are con-stantly improving; where trade, assemblies, and associations are the least restricted; where labor, capital, and populations suffer the fewest forced displacements; where mankind most nearly follows its own natural inclinations; where the inventions of men are most nearly in harmony with the laws of God; in short, the happiest, most moral, and most peaceful people are those who most nearly follow this principle: Although mankind is not perfect, still, all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right; law or force is to be used for nothing except the administration of universal justice. (p. 74). 

Bastiat concluded his book with a challenge to try liberty:

"God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so co-stituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers!...Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!" (p. 76). 
"And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works. (p. 76)

Conclusion

In 1942, George A. Buttrick described in his book, Prayer that his generation was living in a dangerous world. God was missing both in the academic and public life. Nothing has changed since then except that the dislocation of God both in the academe and public life now is almost complete. 

My longing as a theological educator is to see Christians change the way they view the world. A change in mindset will also change the way we respond to the world. Instead of fear and withdrawal, I hope to see courage and engagement. And instead of defeat for the Church of Christ, I am praying for victory regardless of what we experience and see.

Concerning Bastiat's use of the name of God in his book, I am not sure if my understanding is similar to his. All I know is that mentioning God in political economy was considered acceptable in early 19th century. 

I personally consider Bastiat's book very important especially in a generation that is afflicted by serious political and economic turmoil. It is through the labor of Dean Russell who translated the book from French that it is now available for English readers. I also appreciate Foundation for Economic Education that without their service, I don't know if could I ever read Bastiat's work.