Saturday, November 1, 2014

A 1953 Debate Between a Libertarian and a Liberal Part 2

This is the second part and the conclusion of the debate between Rev. Opitz and Dr. Bennett. 

Rev. Edumund A. Opitz

Rev. Opitz divided his reply to Dr. Bennett into four parts: right of self-defense, helping some by hurting others, tyranny of power, and the planned economy. 

Rev. Opitz accepts that Dr. Bennett also wants to limit the power of the government. However, when the professor mentioned about the need "to work here experimentally rather than dogmatically" in order to limit the power of the government, for Rev. Opitz, this confirms that in the mind of the theology professor, that moral principles applicable to individuals "do not apply when individuals act on behalf of government." "In short, the state is beyond the human judgments of good and evil which are relevant to individuals."

1. Right of self-defense

After giving his opening statement, Rev. Opitz explains the meaning of the "right of self defense." This is related to habving an "a priori moral principles", which are relevant to politics. Rev. Opitz elaborates more:
"If the individual has any inherent, God-given right to be on this earth at all, then he has the corollary right to defend his life. This is true of all men equally. They are within their moral rights to use force if need be to defend themselves against violence initiated against them. If men individually have this moral right, they may severally delegate it provisionally to an agent. This agent, government, has the moral right to use force only as the delegating individuals have a right; namely, defensively to neutralize force. This accords with the basic principle that no man has a right to impose his will on another, and with its corollary that every person has a right to resist the imposition of an alien will over his own."

"Government is the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion. A law is not a mere suggestion; it has a penalty provision as a rider. There is no need to pass a law to make people do what they do naturally or can easily be persuaded to do. Every law supersedes the wills of some individuals, forcing them to do what their own will and conscience would not lead them to do; or, conversely, restrains them from doing what they want to do or think they ought to do. It is morally right to use legal force to frustrate criminal action for the protection of peaceful citizens. But the use of legal force against peaceful citizens is something else again. It impairs the moral principle which should guide political action."
After giving his brief exposition of "a priori moral principles", he identifies that there are groups of men who seem to be unaware about the "coercive nature of political action." They include people who implement the act of coercion itself and people like Dr. Bennett who advocates for the "extension of government functions, regulations, and controls."

2. Helping some by hurting others.

In advocating for social goals using political means, there are people who will never be convinced as a matter of principle for they think that such policy is "morally and economically unsound." However, though they do not give their consent, they will be forced to follow the will of those who advocate for such social aims due to the support of the state. As a result of this, they are deprived of their freedom of choice. If these people will insist and will fight for their principle "to the bitter end", they may end up as victims of violence from the hands of the agents of the state.

Rev. Opitz believes that Dr. Bennett does not advocate this, but this is the logical end of his position. If Dr. Bennett therefore is opposed to such an end, he should stop advocating for such type of political action. 

At this point, Rev. Opitz explains what he means by "helping some by hurting others." He accepts that collectivists and central planners have noble aims. They want to help the people. But their chosen political means would helping some people at the expense of others. 

The government serves as a tool of freedom if it protects the rights of each citizen. In implementing this function, it is legitimate for the state to use of coercion to individuals who harm others.

When Dr. Bennett mentions about the "blind working of economic processes", for Rev. Opitz, the former is referring to a different kind of coercion. He then explains the real meaning of the phrase:
"What you speak of as 'the blind working of economic processes' is really the resultant of millions of individuals making voluntary decisions as to how they will dispose their limited energy so as to maximize their material and spiritual satisfactions." 
A central planner can coerce these voluntary decisions by force. Doing this, it will result into both "economic chaos" and "spiritual disaster" due to human pride. 

3. Tyranny of Power

For Rev. Opitz, the only action that politicians can do in economic sphere is to "grant privileges", which means once again that they can only "confer advantages on some at the expense of others." He then challenged Dr. Bennett to scrutinize the real origin of what the professor mentioned as "the tyranny of private centers of economic power." Doing this, he would certainly discover that such private institutions rely on the favor of politicians either in the form of a "tariff" or a "subsidy." If not, this anomaly exposes the failure of the government to implement the laws against "predation." Rev. Opitz emphasized that as long as politicians intervene in the market, "injustice and the resulting economic dislocations" will never disappear. 

Rev. Opitz criticizes Dr. Bennett's way of fighting totalitarianism. People who embraced a portion of totalitarian philosophy can never fight this ideology. The meaning of the phrase "ineffective state" is not clear to the mind of Rev. Opitz. For a libertarian, an "effective state" for Dr. Bennett is a government that created numerous regulations to extend its arm on "economic activities such as housing, insurance, medical care, electrical power, and so on." A libertarian oppses this. An "ineffective state" is not needed in these economic activities. The best thing the state can do is to keep away from these realms. If not, the state will become a tool of injustice. What the libertarian wants is a state that is "sufficiently virile and alert to perform adequately the functions within its competence."

4. Planned Economy

Rev. Opitz frankly declraes that a "collectivist or planned economy philosophy has a grave defect." He describes this defect:
"It tends towards a fixation, at the level of comprehension in social affairs men have now attained. It gives legal sanction to practices which trouble the sensitive conscience, and it places legal obstacles in the path of the gifted innovator." 
On the other hand, a libertarian philosophy is "open-ended toward life." It acknowledges human limitation. For a libertarian, no one has the right to impose his will on others. 

Once the idea of "extended and accelerated functions" of the government is accepted, people "will be politically directed and controlled in ever-widening areas of their lives." And the logical end is "a society in which whatever is not forbidden is compulsory." Laws will restrict the citizens freedom and will limit their alternatives. 

In a libertarian philosophy, the goal is to provide enough space for people to develop their fullest potential. If people will abuse such freedom by harming others, this is the right context to use the "coercive apparatus" of the state to defend the person's life and property "against the murder, the thief, the libeller, the fraud." People are free to commit crimes, but they will face justice as a consequence of their action. 

A peaceful society can be achieved through the "system of the division of labor, the marketplace, the free exchange of goods, services, and ideas." Such society always receives threats from private acts of violence coming from people who do not want to follow the law or from the government itself that perverts its true function.


Dr. John C. Bennett

Dr. Bennett divides his response by clarifying first a misunderstanding, and then he proceeds to enumerate the major issues that separate them.

1. Clarifying the misunderstanding

The misunderstanding centers on the idea of "a priori moral principles". Dr. Bennett denies that his refusal to accept the applicability of "a priori moral principles" to politics does not mean that he believes that the moral principles applicable to indviduals are not relevant to government. He argues that the application is not as easy as Rev. Opitz perceives it and not because of the absence of permanent moral principles, but due to the tension in the principles that will be applied. 

The most common tension is connected to the relationship between justice and freedom or order and freedom. Above all principles, love for neighbors is the principle that should guide Christian conduct. The reason why the application is complicated is due to the fact of conflicts in interests and sometimes due to the varied needs of our neighbors themselves. As a consequence, most Christian actions are to be implemented in a complex and rapidly changing situation that "a priori moral principles" are incapable of. 

Dr. Bennet does not believe that the state is beyond the standard of right and wrong. He accepts that the state has functions different from that of an individual. And because of this, the situation of the state is more complex than the situation of an individual. This makes the application of moral principles difficult. A Christian citizen who happens to help either in the formulation or implementation of government poliicies has to consider the welfare and dignity of those who will be affected. This noble motive and the need for humility before God, we cannot therefore allow any concept or social order to become "absolute or frozen." Instead, we should be sensitive to the needs and interests of others. These are the "moral resources" where we need to derive our concrete actions for every situation rather than depend on a precise "a priori principles."

2. Primary issues

The first issue has to do with Rev. Opitz' lack of interest in community and the common good. Dr. Bennett noticed that the libertarian advocate did not mentionthe importance of community and common good. For the theology professor, the statement of the apostle Paul about "being 'members one of another'" is relevant not only to the church, but to the larger community as well where we belong to, Besides the fact of human interdependence, Dr. Bennett dreams of a society that share "common values." He is referring to a society that is not divided between the very rich and the very poor and families in it that do not lack minimum "protection against the hazards of unemployment, sickness and old age." Dr Bennett is talking here about "common good" that can only be achieved through "common action." The state plays a significant role in achieving this. 

The second issue concerns the threats to common good and welfare of individuals. The problems of modern society are so complex that cannot be solved by independent individual actions. At this point, Dr. Bennett argues that Rev. Opitz' idea of "laissez faire" is no longer relevant to modern time. Dr. Bennett picks unemployment as an example of problems that the market is incapable of solving. The solution cannot be found in "decentralization" or "individualism". Only the state is capable to address this. In the end, Dr. Bennett's recommendation is for cooperation between the market and the state, which is better known as the "mixed economy." If this solution will fail, the remaining alternative is "tyrannical collectivism."

The third issue is about the nature of freedom. In the mind of Dr. Bennett, Rev. Opitz emphasizes only the freedom of those who are already well established socially and economically and neglects the freedom of the majority. Only the state has the ability to depend the weak from the strong. 

The fourth issue is about the insufficiency of private charity. Private charity cannot be relied on in giving of opportunities, rights and freedom due to the size of the problems. Instead, it is better to consider them as matters of justice. Christian generosity is proven by its "willingness to be taxed or to cooperate in the interests of justice." 

Dr. Bennett is not convinced that his proposal is theft. He argues that the wealth of an individual is a product of a social process where the members of the community contribute to its growth. And besides, the society has responsibility to provide opportunities for the less fortunate similar to the opportunities enjoyed by those in the upper level of social ladder. 

Dr. Bennett ends his response with a word of warning: "Insofar as you are successful in preventing experiments in the solution of the real problems of our economy and of our people you and your movement will help to destroy freedom."


Source: Faith and Freedom May 1953 Issue