Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Synopsis of Augustine's Socio-economic and Political View

Augustine's economic views were scattered throughout The City of God and his other highly influential writings. But he definitely, and presumably independently of Aristotle, arrived at the view that people's payments for goods, the valuation they placed on them, was determined by their own needs rather than by any more objective criterion or by their rank in the order of nature. This was at least the basis of the later Austrian theory of subjective value. He also pointed out that it was the common desire of all men to buy cheap and to sell dear.

Furthermore, Augustine was the first Church Father to have a positive attitude towards the role of the merchant. Rebutting the common patristic charges against the merchants, Augustine pointed out that they perform a beneficial service by transporting goods over great distances and selling them to the consumer. Since, according to Christian principle, 'the labourer is worthy of his hire', then the merchant too deserved compensation for his activities and labour.

To the common charge of endemic deceit and fraud in the mercantile trades, Augustine cogently replied that any such lies and perjuries were the fault not of the trade but of the trader himself. Such sins originated in the iniquity of the person, not in his occupation. After all, Augustine pointed out, shoemakers and farmers are also capable of lies and perjuries, and yet the Church Fathers had not condemned their occupations as being per se evil.

Clearing the merchants of the stain of inherent evil proved enormously influential in the following centuries, and was quoted time and again in the flowering of Christian thought in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

A less tangible but still important contribution to social thought was St. Augustine's recasting of the ancient world's view of the human personality. To the Greek philosophers, the individual personality was to be moulded to conform to the needs and desires of the polis. Dictation by the polis necessarily meant a static society, with discouragement directed towards any innovating entrepreneurs trying to break out of the contemporary mould. But St. Augustine's stress was on the individual's personality unfolding itself and therefore progressing over time. Hence Augustine's profound emphasis on the individual at least set the stage indirectly for an attitude favourable to innovation, economic growth and development. That aspect of Augustine's thought, however, was not really stressed by the thirteenth century Christian theologians and philosophers who built on Augustine's thought. It is ironic that the man who set the stage for optimism and a theory of human progress should, on his death-bed, find the barbarian hordes besieging his beloved city of Hippo.

If St Augustine looked benignly on the role of the merchant, he was also favorable, though not as warmly, towards the social role of rulers of state. On the one hand, Augustine took up and expanded Cicero's parable demonstrating that Alexander the Great was simply a pirate writ large, and that the state is nothing but a large-scale and settled robber band. In his famous City of God, Augustine asks:

"And so if justice is left out, what are kingdoms except great robber bands? For what are robber bands except little kingdoms? The band also is a group of men governed by the orders of a leader, bound by a social compact, and its booty is divided according to a law agreed upon. If by repeatedly adding desperate men this plague grows to the point where it holds territory and establishes a fixed seat, seizes cities and subdues people, then it more conspicuously assumes the name of kingdom, and this name is now openly granted to it, not for any subtraction of cupidity, but by addition of impunity. For it was an elegant and true reply that was made to Alexander the Great by a certain pirate whom he had captured. When the king asked him what he was thinking of, that he should molest the sea, he said with defiant independence: 'The same as you when you molest the world! Since I do this with a little ship I am called a pirate. You do it with a great fleet and are called emperor'. 

Yet Augustine ends by approving the role of the state, even though it is a robber band on a large scale. For while he stressed the individual rather than the polis, in pre-Calvinist fashion Augustine emphasized the wickedness and depravity of man. In this fallen, wicked and sinful world, state rule, though unpleasant and coercive, becomes necessary. Hence, Augustine supported the forcible crushing by the Christian Church in North Africa of the Donatist heresy, which indeed believed, in contrast to Augustine, that all kings were necessarily evil.

Note: This excerpt is taken from Murray N. Rothbard's Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought Volume I, 1995, pp. 34-35.


If someone steals small, he is called a thief and a robber. But if you plunder a nation's wealth or steal the property of others through legal means, you are either called a Congressman or a Senator. You may even receive a Nobel Prize!