Friday, October 31, 2014

A 1953 Debate Between a Libertarian and a Liberal Part 1

Just finished reading the debate between a libertarian and a liberal from "Faith and Freedom" published in the months of April and May 1953. Dr. John C. Bennett represents liberalism who served as a professor of Christian theology and ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Rev. Edmund A. Opitz is the libertarian who headed the regional conferences of "Faith and Freedom." The style of the debate is in the form of a personal letter. It has two parts. In this aticle, I just want to summarize the gist of their positions.


Rev. Opitz had the privilege to introduce his position first. The sum of what he said is divided into four parts: mental adventure, indoctrination, the unknown case, and the basic question.

Under mental adventure, Rev. Optiz mentions that the pronouncements of church councils about "planned economy, or a welfare state, or socialism, or a mixed economy" are not attractive to him. For him, the recommended solutions are "nothing but an articulate form of the disease: government force against persons to cure the evils caused by prior political intervention."

Turning to indoctrination, the kind of doctrine Rev. Opitz refers to has something to do with the idea that the government is perceived as a "proper and efficient means to accomplish the end of general prosperity and security for individuals against the uncertainties of modern life." This was achieved through the propagation of the "social gospel or the welfare state idea." Seminarians did not have the opportunity to listen to an alternative concept. As a result, seminarians believed that "genuine concern for his fellows and for the good of society would lead a man to embrace the progressive extension of the functions and controls of government." And anyone who resisted this program was considered selfish.

The unknown case pertains to the absence of awareness of the seminarians about "classical liberalism", which "has long roots in the past and an impressive literature, and that it has a strong moral and intellectual case." Students never learned this in their formal education. Instead, what was taught was a "caricature" of the philosophy. However, based on the experience of Rev Opitz, after perusing the books of "social gospellers and the welfare-staters," and after talking to Dr. Bennett and other men who were "professionally engaged on one or the other of the various church councils for social action," he realized that the reason why the "libertarian case" was not taught in the seminaries was because the theological circles were not aware ot it.

The basic question is related to "Christian judgment" about the limitation of the power of the government. But before he mentioned it, Rev. Opitz showed the difference between the state and the society, and in what way can the state serves the society: "The business of society is peace; the business of government is violence. So, the question is: What service can violence render to peace? The libertarian answer is that violence can serve peace only by restraining peacebreakers."


Dr. John C. Bennett 

As a response, Dr. Bennett identifies at the outset the difference of his "presuppositions" from Rev. Opitz. It was his intention to clarify few misunderstandings by explaining three subjects: limited government, the essential element, and the main issue.

Dr. Bennett believes in limited government. Basic to his idea is the difference between the state and the society. And since the society is composed of different kinds of associations, "swampint the life of all other associations by the state is one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, evil of our age." He assured Rev. Opitz that they are one in opposing the growth of a totalitarian state.

For Dr. Bennett, it is misleading to say that the essence of the state is found in coercion or violence. He emphasizes the need of society for the state "to preserve public order." In addition, he also believes that the state exists to serve the purposes of the society, and many of these purposes do not require the use of "coercion" or "violence." And then he identifies the means to limit the power o the government:

"The state should be limited by its own law which protects the freedom of minorities, of individuals, of many kinds of association. The state should be limited by the recognition on the part of the citizens that there is a law above the state and above the national community as well. The state should be limited by a pluralistic structure within the state itself, with division of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the recognition that functions should be distributed between various regional political units."
About the essential element, it has something to do with the provision of "educational opportunity" to children. To achieve this requires coercion in relation to taxation. However, this coercion in not the essential element in education. It is bettter perceived as the "constructive function" of the state.

In the last subject, "main issue", Dr. Bennett identifies the basic difference of his position from Rev. Opitz about the relationship of the state to freedom: "I think that the chief difference between us is that you regard the state as the chief enemy of freedom in all situations whereas I believe that the state may be an instrument of freedom for its citizens."

Dr. Bennett accepts that freedom has many enemies that only the state can effectively stop them. Among these enemies, he singled out the "business cycle", which to him is a kind of "coercion that results from the blind working of economic processes." When this happens, the state must do something to prevent economic depression that will save people "from the tyranny of circumstances that are beyond their control as individuals." This is a necessity to prevent the emergence of totalitarianism for based on history, this dictatorial tendency occurred not "through the gradual expansion of the functions of the state", but through "catastrophes that are the result of the failure of weak states to deal adequately with the problems of the people."

As a warning, Dr. Bennett mentions that the policy followed by Rev. Opitz and his group is actually "indirectly" helping in the rise of totalitarianism that he resents. For the professor, the idea of Rev. Opitz about the state will create a "vacuum into which the advocates of totalitarianism may move."

Dr. Bennett concludes his message:

"It will require very great wisdom which is free from the dogmas of the right or the left to enable our country to steer a course in the next period that will use the state to help people preserve freedom from the tyranny of circumstances and from the tyranny of private centers of economic power without over-extending the activity of the state, especially without overcentralizing it."