An Update From Hong Kong

Hong Kong is currently the world’s most free-market economy. As such it is the recipient of much affection from classical liberals/libertarians the world over. And as I am currently spending my end-of-year-vacation here, I cannot deny I am in love with HK (the food! The booze! Oh my god, yes!).

However, it seems that during my stay in HK, I have come face to face with my arch-nemesis: the clergy. In particular, I have had the displeasure of reading some truly appalling and profoundly idiotic comments made by HK’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Jospeh Zen, and Hong Kong Island’s Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong, currently on display on page A3 of the December 25th issue of the South China Morning Post.

Below will be the text of two emails I have sent, the first to Cardinal Zen, the second to Archbishop Kwong.

TO Cardinal Zen (bishopzen@catholic.org.hk)

Your Eminence,
I like to recall the days when Roman Catholic intellectuals such as Pierre Abelard and St. Thomas Aquinas gave deep, considered thought to every issue they commented upon. Your comments in the South China Morning Post (December 25th, 2008) (concerning the cause of economic recessions) demonstrate that these days are over.  

 You commented that the cause of this economic downturn was over-consumption and greed. This is untrue. What actually caused this economic crisis was the period of unprecedentedly low interest rates that the US Federal Reserve set since the crash of the NASDAQ in the early 2000’s.

 When interest rates are set at rates lower than what they would be set under a market-determined interest rate regime, businesses make longer-term investments than they otherwise would (lower interest rates reduce the pressure upon businesses to make profits quickly). However, the balance between consumer spending and consumer saving is unchanged, meaning business are investing for the long term when consumers are spending for short-term satisfaction. Since production of consumer goods is not being expanded, and inputs are being fought over by both long term and short term production processes, and these long-term investments are hiring workers (hence paying them), the prices of consumer goods are bid up. This creates inflation. Inflation then scares the Central Bank into increasing the interest rate, which suddenly makes long term investments much more expensive than they were initially. These investments must then be liquidated, the workers on the projects are fired, etc. This is the recession.

 Central banks currently are further expanding credit to try to hold off the recession. However, the Neo-Keynesian economics that these central bankers subscribe to is flawed and creates business cycles. For more on how central banking creates business cycles, I advise you to read the articles on business cycle theory published at www.mises.org

 As much as I can understand why you would like to see this recession as some sort of divinely-ordained punishment for greed, economic reality is not a giant morality play. The cause of recessions is much less mythological; the cause is central bank mismanagement of the money supply.

 A piece of advice: next year, the inflation will hit, and it will be significant. So unless HK ends its fixed exchange rate regime with the US, I would advise pouring any cash lying around into gold.

 Merry Xmas,
Andrew Russell
B. Econ (2007), University of Queensland

TO Archbishop Kwong (do.dhk@hkskh.org)

Your Grace,
As someone that was raised in the Anglican Church (although is now a confirmed Atheist), I am familiar with the “three legged stool” epistemology, where Faith, Tradition and Reason are all given a role in settling disagreements amongst the faithful. Unfortunately, the comments that you made in your Christmas message concerning the current economic crisis demonstrate that the “reason” leg has been forcibly removed from said stool.

 Your comments about “mythologizing rampant capitalism” are something I’d expect from Archbishop Peter Jensen, not from someone who is the Archbishop of a city that is a great testament to the beneficience of (relatively) laissez-faire economics. First, what causes business cycles is central bank control of the money supply; in this case the unprecedently easy credit that flooded the market ever since the NASDAQ crash of the early 2000’s. This credit expansion made long-term investments look relatively cheap, however the inflation generated by credit expansion would eventually force the central bank to raise interest rates, creating a ‘credit crunch’ and suddenly making long term investments much more expensive (forcing their liquidation). Ultimately, responsibility for this lies with the central bank (in this case the US Federal Reserve), and central banks are creatures of the state rather than the free market. It is not “rampant capitalism” that is responsible for this crisis, but rather government intervention. For more on this understanding of the business cycle, please see the works of Austrian School economists Frederich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Commentary on the current economic crisis from economists like this can be found at www.mises.org

 Finally, you seem to believe that a “booming economy” or a “steady skywards climb of the Hang Seng index” are irrelevant to poverty reduction. This is a fallacious position. If the Hang Seng index is climbing skywards, what it means is that investors believe that the companies listed will have more success in their future. This would imply that the companies themselves may be increasing in size, and as such employing more people. The avaliability of more jobs is in fact very good for reducing poverty. It may also imply that the companies are going to make more money in the future, and these companies frequently will use that money to expand the size of their operations (hence generating more jobs). If they don’t spend the money on more jobs, they will spend it on improving their productivity, which means the same amount of effort produces a larger quantity of goods, thus lowering the real cost of these products and allowing price drops to be passed on to the consumer. I am sure you can see the benefits of this in reducing poverty.

 I am not denying that positive social relations are also an excellent support structure to help people get through difficult times. However, positive social relations and economic growth and productivity are not mutually exclusive, unless you want to mythologize rampant capitalism as some sort of soul-destroying, Gordon-Gekko producing, Lovecraftian horror that climbs up from under the sea in concert with the skywards growth of the Hang Seng index.

 Merry Xmas,

Andrew Russell
B. Econ (2007), University of Queensland

End text of emails
If anyone wishes to send any emails of their own to Archbishop Kwong and Cardinal Zen, they are more than welcome to.

41 thoughts on “An Update From Hong Kong

  1. The first email show a complete misunderstanding of how a monetary system controlled by the state issuing credit works. Mate the lending of gold ended about 60 years ago, catch up.

    Business cycles have been with us before economics had any theories, Keynesian came from the complete failure of the classical model your so in love with.

    We are yet to see if Keynesian will prevent the misery of the Great depression, but it would require the conviction of a serious fundamentalist to wish such a disaster onto humanity for the sake of purity in economic theory.

    No doubt both emails where appropriately filed.

  2. Charles,

    I am quite aware that the lending of gold ended a long time ago. The point of the emails was that expansion of credit, i.e. the central bank manipulating the money supply by using Open Market Operations to lower the interest rate below what the rate would be under a market, creates business cycles.

    Most business cycles in the long-lost past could be attributed to things like natural disasters or the like. Of course fluctuations in the level of economic activity have occurred before. However in the modern economy, much less is critically dependent upon the weather. As such, things that would have caused business cycles in the past would not do so today.

    Keynesianism has been proven wrong regularly. Modern problems with stagflation and inflation that occurred in the post-war era gave Keynesianism a total beating. Keynesianism has failed to eliminate the business cycle (like it claimed it would). The Neo-Keynesian theories used by today’s central bankers should take a beating from this ‘credit crunch’ (but, as usual, it is the laissez-faire that we haven’t had that will be crucified for this).

    You can call me a ‘fundamentalist’ if you want, but the Austrian School Business Cycle Theory has predicted every recession, both von Mises and von Hayek predicted the Great Depression, the Ludwig von Mises Institute predicted the current crisis, and I also did (as well as predict the movement in exchange rates, i.e. the collapse in the value of the Australian Dollar versus the US Dollar). Certainly the evidence I have seen lends credence to the theory, and there are academics that believe empirical evidence backs up the Austrian theory (see: http://www.springerlink.com/content/pn63r1177r367n43/?p=79dee61d27c14dbeabda7d0226825f09&pi=4 ).

    My convictions are evidence-based, not fundamentalist.

  3. I like to recall the days when Roman Catholic intellectuals such as Pierre Abelard…

    Did His Eminence respond by reminding you what happened to Abelard? 🙂

  4. As of this message neither His Eminence or His Grace have responded. I don’t expect either of them too since clergy are used to having their words accepted on faith by their flock, not used to rational debate with those that disagree on the basis of evidence.

    As for the fate of Pierre Abelard, yes I am familiar with what the man sufferred (excommunication, then castration). Very unfortunate business indeed.

  5. Thank F#ck for Acquinas being successful at reviving Aristotlean reason and logic and thereby being one of the main cultural forces to give the world the renaissance – and a new chance at science.

    Here’s another potential Aristotle reviver (like Abelard) I heard about recently: Beothius.

    “For Boethius, reason (and its tool, logic) served two functions: to clarify beliefs known by revelation (from another world), and to help understand this world… In 524, the poorly educated, barbarian King Theodoric ordered the execution of Boethius, the potential reviver of ancient Greek philosophy. Theodoric’s henchmen beat Boethius to death with clubs.” [The Aristotle Adventure, Burgess Laughlin, p. 131, 135]

    I think you should circulate your letters as much as possible. Even the papers may print an excerpt. However I’m not sure if it was worth sending them to the Cardinal and Archbishop though and would be interested in your thoughts.

    What do you hope to gain by writing to these religious leaders? Would you prefer them to simply remain quiet on economic issues (I know it would be much less annoying) – Or perhaps it is better that religious leaders are left to expose their economic ignorance and stupid emotional arguments motivated by their ethics of humanity being inherently evil.

    You state the clergy are your “arch nemesis”.
    IMO religious teachings are the world’s enemy – I think the ideas taught by religion (in particular faith over reason and self sacrifice) are very damaging to humanity.
    If you agree, you may want to be careful not to advantage those who spread the religious message by giving them good economic arguments. If you consider logic and reason to be of primary importance, you may not want those teaching Christianity (and therefore opposed to reason at a fundamental level) to be on your side on other issues such as economics.
    I also say this because I don’t think Christian teachings and ethics are compatible or supportive of freedom including economic freedom.
    However I’d be interested to hear what you think.

    One final thought:
    Did you worry about revealing yourself to be an atheist so early on in the second letter?
    Considering these articles were published in the paper, your religious status is probably irrelevent and the Archbishop may automatically disregard the letter.

  6. “I also say this because I don’t think Christian teachings and ethics are compatible or supportive of freedom including economic freedom.”

    How have you come to that conclusion? The golden rule is very much at the heart of both Jesus’ message and the non-aggression axiom of libertarianism. There are many Christian libertarians – eg the bulk of the contributors at LewRockwell.com. IMO, the main difference between Christian and non-Christian libertarians is in how we interpret the basis of our rights of self-ownership – Christians believe we’re delegated that right from God, atheists believe that we claim or “homestead” our own bodies.

    BTW, I’m an atheist.

  7. “I also say this because I don’t think Christian teachings and ethics are compatible or supportive of freedom including economic freedom.”

    Greego; The reason why this statement by Tim is so silly is that Christian values and ethics are personal, that is, they are essentially a voluntary code to live by. The Ten Commandments are generally a guide to living in an environment of freedom without conflict.

    These values are considered virtuous and meant to be held at an individual level, they were never intended to be inflicted by the state. Virtue only exists as a choice between doing the right thing as a matter of personal choice when vice is an option. If such values are imposed by law, people might actually be prevented from ‘sinning’ but none of them is in any way a better person for it. (that is, if they can’t find a way around the law, or just ignore that law.)

    People hold values from all sorts of sources, religion, ethics, humanitarianism, etc and as personal values that is fine, it is only when those values are imposed on society as a whole that they become in compatible or unsupportive of freedom including economic freedom.

  8. Tim R,

    As I am an Objectivist (albiet a non-orthodox one) I agree with you that religions in general are incompatible with classical liberalism, ultimately speaking.

    As for what I am trying to achieve, I am banking on the fact that MOST people in mainstream religions are NOT completely corrupt. The vast majority of mainstream-religious people I know are not rotten-to-the-core moral-cannibals, they usually have a relatively soft interpretation of Christian ethics, and they are rational with most subjects most of the time. I am simply attempting to appeal to their rational side. Most people are of a mixed epistemology after all, not 100% either way.

    Greego,

    Many Christians have different interpretations of Christianity, so my critique does not apply for all self-proclaimed Christians. But the short answer about “why is Christianity incompatible with classical Liberalism” is..
    1) The morality of self-sacrifice is incompatible with the profit motive. If the highest good is giving to others (as an end in itself), then helping oneself is at best amoral, and is usually treated with contempt. Point out the positive consequences of egoism (i.e. the invisible hand effect) as much as you want, but religious altruists will always claim “but they did this out of greed!”

    2) Classical Liberalism requires an epistemological base of enlightenment reason. Note how Liberalism only developed when human reason was accepted as the valid way to knowlege. Religions are based on faith, which critically undermines the case for reason. At best, you can have a “reason as handmaiden of faith” situation, but when facts clash with faith, faith overrules reason.

    3) When faith is accepted as greater than reason, force results. If reason is accepted, then disagreements can be settled peacefully by discussion and debate. If people A and B are rational, they can settle disagreements voluntarily and non-violently. If, however, their positions are based on faith, discussion does not work at changing their minds. So they disagree with eachother, and a holy war begins. This is a simplification but the basic mechanics are the same: reason, debate, discussion, voluntarism, trade are the noncoercive ways of dealing with people, the only other ways to deal with people are coercive.

    4) Individual Rights are, if Christian Libertarian are correct, totally subjective. They are dependent on the consciousness of God (just like all of reality).

    There are other arguments, like the argument from human dignity etc, and all these arguments can be linked together and expounded upon so this is just a brief summary. Still, if libertarian principles are at the heart of Jesus’s message (or at least your interpretation of it) then why do the vast majority of Christian voices (ranging from clergy to evangelical pastors) clamor for more statism? You have to concede, Christianity has been more in bed with Statism than with Libertarianism for a very long time.

    Finally, if Christianity and Liberty go together, why has the American “fusionist” coalition between libertarians and religious conservatives been such a disaster? Why did the Evangelical Nazis then set off demanding constitutional ammendments banning things they don’t like?

    Ultimately I think that the epistemological base of religion is far too compatible with the empistemological basis of power lust for religion to provide a completely viable defense of freedom.

  9. Jim,

    Thanks for your contribution. Many of the sane Christians I know are of your persuasion, so please don’t think my critique of Christianity covers your interpretation of it.

    However, if Christian ethics were never meant to be coercively implemented, why do so many Christians want them coercively implemented via constitutional ammendments or morals legislation?

    Additionally, even IF Christian morality were only practiced at an individual level, that doesn’t change the fact that if greed is sinful, if man’s primary virtue is helping others as an end in itself and/or service to god as an end in itself, then self-interest as an end in itself (i.e. entering into business to make oneself happy) is at best amoral.

  10. Greego – here’re my thoughts:
    A religious person decides what issues they will apply reason and logic to. Reason and logic are not their first ports of call when evaluating issues. A religious person uses faith and emotion to filter issues, then applies reason only on certain ones. This phenomena is obvious in ares such as ethics (eg/ 10 commandments) but it can spread to science and other areas as well. eg/ new earth creationists.
    When reason and logic cannot be used to persuade those of differing opinions on political issues (often quite openly deemed to be outside the realm of reason) – then what do you have left? Force. Therefore a religious culture is more likely to resort to force politically. If a culture is anti-reason even on a small scale, applicable issues are more likely to be combatted using force.
    The best case scenario is for a religious person to simply let you burn in hell after a disagreement. But this is often understandably impossible for them – eg/ Most Christians think abortion = murder and therefore simply letting things be is not an option to them. Do you think those who murder their own kids should walk the streets?

    In addition, Christian ethics are altruistic. All religions teach altruistic ethics to some degree because if you have a super-natural higher power, you are implicitly secondary to this power and can be sacrificed.
    Altruistic cultures usually lead to force – firstly becuase altruism is not achievable. The more you suffer for others without reward the better you are morally. It is therefore very difficult to be moral and impossible to be fully moral because you’d be dead – This seems to result in the use of political force eg/ welfare state, obsession and rewarding of “unfortunates”.
    In addition, high achievers will be resented in an altruistic culture and looked down upon because they must be immoral right? and society will emotionally wish to punish them even though the society as they know it is dependent on these high achievers. Therefore it is again more likely that force will be used in politics – to punish the rich for being rich.

    There are many examples of anti-business and anti-achiever lines in the bible. eg/ Jesus stopping trading in the temple, Israelites destroying Jericho, Jesus’ quote, the “camel through the eye of a needle”, “the meek shall inherit the earth” etc.
    Finally, there are examples through history (eg/ dark ages) and in our present culture and times (eg/ business regulation). A history and culture dominated by Judeo-Christian ethics.

    BTW, the golden rule can exist fine without religion.
    It’s a rule that has propped up many times in various forms throughout history and in several religions. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb even though it’s subjective.

  11. Andrew, cheers for the reply.

    I think there is value in directly writing to the “nemesis” if you want to hear their response to a challenge or understand them better, in order to increase your knowledge and/or to identify the fundamental disagreements.

    Of course there’s no possible way that the Archbishop or Cardinal will re-evaluate their life and beliefs.
    But they may start preaching for economic conservatism. – This is why you’d prefer right?
    However I am worried that this may be harmful to freedom (including capitalism) in the long run. Afterall, economics is not their primary objective. They are in the business of promoting their scripture and church. And this scripture and ideology is if followed incompatible with true freedom for reasons described to Greego.

    In addition, Atheists may get confused and think capitalism means religion.

    And you’re in danger of religious people being unable to defend capitalism because they are capitalists for traditional or faith based reasons not logical ones (although I do realise people are shades of grey like you point out).

    So that’s my point, hopefully better explained.
    I’m not trying to criticise you for writing these letters. I was actually thinking of the issue in a broader context of when to work with people of differing ideology and when not to. (I think there are instances when you should work with religious people on some political issues as long as the issue is the primary motice, and there is no religious motive).

  12. Andrew — you are correct in noting that most christians are statists. But that does not mean there is a causal relationship.

    You should also note that most non-christians are also statists. Once again, that does not mean there is a causal relationship.

    The most likely explaination (in my opinion) is that most humans are statists (through fear, conservativism and rational ignorance) and that a persons metaphysical & spiritual beliefs are not a major influence on this.

  13. I don’t know how people can have so much faith in reason that they abandon faith itself. People who ridicule the virtue of faith are in my view somewhat blind to the extent to which their own outlook is built on faith. Certainly if faith comes into conflict with reason there is a choice to be made but it is rarely as simple as choosing reason.

    The man who throws his jacket across the raging river before crossing has borrowed from the future and does so on faith. Reason tells him that if he fails the crossing he will be cold without his jacket. Reason also tells him that the crossing will be easier without the jacket. Faith is what he relies on in deciding.

    Faith is not the enemy of reason. Blind faith is. But the problem then is with blindness not with faith.

    My libertarian ideals rest on an extensive faith in the goodwill of the people in my society. Without that faith I too might long for a benevolent leader and for a moralistic state.

  14. However, if Christian ethics were never meant to be coercively implemented, why do so many Christians want them coercively implemented via constitutional ammendments or morals legislation?

    Because they are lazy bastards, who rather than convince the populace that they are right try to convince 50%+1 legislators to inflict their views on everybody. Bigotry comes in as well. This thinking is not restricted to Christians, greens and other lobby groups are very fond of this approach.

    When people stop buying certain makes of cars, you don’t see the car companies come up with different cars that are more attractive or cheaper or efficient, do you? They instead go to the government and persuade them that those consumers are doing wrong and have them taxed extra so they will have to support them. You are judging a set of values by what some choose to do with them.

    Additionally, even IF Christian morality were only practiced at an individual level, that doesn’t change the fact that if greed is sinful, if man’s primary virtue is helping others as an end in itself and/or service to god as an end in itself, then self-interest as an end in itself (i.e. entering into business to make oneself happy) is at best amoral.

    Here you seem to be somewhat confused in assuming that self interest is in some way incompatible with charity. If to be charitable you were not allowed to do anything in your own self interest, you would not be able to be charitable as you would have no resources to put towards charitable pursuits.

    I would suggest to you that to clear this up, you might be wise to read “The Wealth of Nations,” which has a passage dealing with what is called the Invisible Hand Effect, that is that the pursuit of self interest can lead to the greater good for all.

    On a personal level, I tend to consider atheists who can’t stop talking about and want to ram their ideas down the necks of others as annoying as Christians who can’t stop talking about and want to ram their ideas down the necks of others. Steve Newton just posted “Taking up Steves Challenge” part one and part two which are both worthwhile reading.

    Actually to me it comes down at the end of the day to courtesy, which I assume you are familliar with.

  15. John. Most atheists still follow Judeo-Christian ethics because they have been ingrained in western culture for 2000 years or at least since Augustine.
    Atheism, unlike religion isn’t an ideology or philosophy. It simply means you don’t believe in God. That’s it.
    And the fallacy of equivicating the two is often made – usually by religious apologists.

    Both Andrew (who beat me to it) and myself have detailed a mechanism of how religious faith is more likely to lead to political force.
    By no means just a correlation argument.

    If disputes cannot be settled by reason and logic then force is more likely to result (more primitive form of dispute resolution used by animals).
    At best the two parties would simply walk away and “live and let live” but this is not always possible.

    My response to your explanation for statism is that fear is not the natural, dominating state for the human psyche. When I took a few full days to observe wild animals on Safari, I didn’t see any fear in the animals. Fear should be a fleeting emotion that resolves quickly. Not a constant consuming paranoia. I’d agree that it is far too prevalent in our culture, but why.
    As for your rational ignorance argument. I agree people are ignorant, but why. Anyone who’s studied any history cannot claim that they are “rationally ignorant” of the extreme damage of statism to human life. Education is of a low standard but this doesn’t explain statism. ie: I think there’s a motivation for the ignorance, not that people are just born dumb.

    I also think there are causes of fear. I don’t think it’s inherent.
    ie: I do think libertarians generally have lower levels of fear than statists.

    I do think a person’s ideology relates to their politics. In fact I think politics is entirely dependent on ethics.

    Many people are bored by philosophy, and in our culture religion and philosophy are generally out of bounds for public discussion. Many people don’t want to realise that their ideology influences them. They try to lead lives in the more obviously rational worlds of physical sciences, technological development, engineering or business. I think this phenomena is yet again a consequence of the impossibility and illogicality of Christian ethics creating apathy and boredom amongst many rational people.

  16. Terje, your example simply shows we are not omniscient.

    We are uncertain of many things. And always will be. This doesn’t mean we need faith. It means we should consider risk or probability. ie: acknowledgement of uncertainty. Quite different to faith which means obedience and doesn’t acknowlege uncertainty.
    If you declare yourself to have faith in your example, you should be certain you would make it across the river. A reasoning man would know it’s a gamble and probably make a better decision.

    Also, why do you need faith that people ideally want to feel and act with goodwill towards each other? Makes plenty of logical sense to me considering it would be good for my life and everyone elses life.
    I think quite the opposite. Because if your standard is one of faith, you will be intollerant of those who refuse to have faith. ie: They’ve heard the word but even in the face of this awe inspiring holy word, they rejected it – there’s no hope for them and they are evil. To be flippant, It seems like the more faith you have, the more likely you are to commit a suicide bombing, throw acid on a school girl or some other act of extreme benevolence.

    Rejection of faith doesn’t imply total scepticism or nihlism, descarte-style rationalism or even empiricism (empiricists can reject the use of inductive reasoning).

  17. To clarify Terje, when I talk of reason and logic, I’m not rejecting contextual considerations, or inductive reasoning. If you know the law of identity – then induction does not require faith (I think Hume was the first to claim inductive reasoning was not logical)

    I’m treating logic in the broader sense, not in the sense or some lingustic analysis game of dropping contexts and word organising.

    And I meant that traditional rationalists reject some inductive reasoning, not empiricists.

  18. Tim,

    First, I’d like to say that all I’d want is for the clergy to stop thinking they are qualified to comment on economic issues as if stock market indicies are some sort of giant morality play.

    However, I know many very religious people, including clergy. A significant majority of them are not Ellsworth Tooheys, they simply misunderstand the issues. I have personally found that a significant number of religious persons are simply mistaken, not cesspools of intellectual dishonesty.

    Thus, the reason I wrote these letters is simple: because I believe that there is at least some chance, no matter how slight, that they are open to reasoned discussion.

    John,

    Thankyou for your reply. You are correct, most human beings are statists. However, you state that most humans are statists because of fear, conservatism and ignorance. Maybe these three factors cause both religion AND statism? Its a hypothesis I’d certainly argue.

    Terje,

    Tim has dealt with your comments pretty comprehensively, but I’d simply like to say you are using a different definition of “faith” to us. We are using the epistemological definition of faith, i.e. belief without any evidence to back it up. You seem to be using a more ‘common-usage’ definition of faith as “I have seen SOME evidence to back this up, but not totally incontrivertible proof that this is true in all situations.”

    Jim,

    Thankyou for your reply. You state that I am judging a set of values by what people choose to do with them, but If that set of values is faith-based, how can they CONVINCE others of it, especially if the other people will only accept rational arguments? Secondly, moral values are tools by which we judge actions, so your division between a “code of values” and “actions used to achieve them” is somewhat tenuous a definition. I mean, if someone said they valued nonviolence and acted to establish a police state in order to achieve said value, you’d be somewhat skeptical of their sincerity, to say the least.

    Additionally, I am very familiar with the invisible hand effect, and with the fact that self-interest and benevolence are NOT mutually exclusive. However, I believe you are actually making a slight misinterpretation of Christian ethics, and its use of the term “charity.” To clarify, I believe Christian ethics supports ALTRUISM, which I use to mean “the belief that doing good for others is in-and-of-itself good” (i.e. helping others is an END IN ITSELF).

    I believe that being nice to others is good BECAUSE it is good, ultimately, for yourself (it improves your reputation and trading opportunities).

    You seem to be arguing that self-interest is INSTRUMENTALLY good because it allows you to be charitable to others (i.e. “if you can’t be self-interested you won’t have any money to donate to charity”). This is entirely compatible with Christian ethics because the ULTIMATE end is still the good of others, not the good of the self.

    However, this attitude often results in the belief that freedom, markets etc are a ‘necessary evil.’ They make people act in ways which (according to this morality) are morally reprehensible WITHOUT some sort of higher justification. This attitude cannot defend free markets forever, since it justifies markets by an ‘end justifies means’ argument.

    This is why I believe only ethical egoism can defend capitalism. Since capitalism is premised on the profit motive, then unless self-interest is AT VERY LEAST “perfectly legitimate” (i.e. “natural” or “OK” or “nothing wrong with it”) then Capitalism can at best be a means to an end, i.e. a means of (quoting Dinesh D’Souza, who actually tried to argue this in his recent book “The Virtue of Prosperity”) “civilizing greed.”

    I hope this clarifies my position.

  19. Yes Andrew — I agree that fear, conservativism & ignorance are causes of religion. That doesn’t make religion wrong and I don’t think we should be fighting religion. We should be addressing the fear, conservativism & ignorance.

    Terje — what you call “blind faith” I call “faith”. And what you call “faith” I call “belief”. I agree there is nothing wrong with having beliefs (even beliefs in sky-fairies) if that belief is based on thinking. I define “faith” as a belief free from thinking. I think that is indeed dangerous, and much worse than religion.

  20. Andrew, the problem with using the deontelogical defence of capitalism is that it is simply not very convincing for a majority of people. Most people want to know about the outcomes. If you can convince them the outcomes are good… they are happy. If you say you don’t care about the outcomes… or if they are allowed to keep thinking the outcomes will be bad… then they are not happy.

    I agree that the deontelogical argument is worth making. I agree that we should be saying “freedom is a good thing” and explaining what freedom means. I agree we should defend the right of people to pursue their own happiness peacefully.

    But the consequentialist argument is also very important. Sometimes I worry that the objectivist insistence on highlighting the deontelogical argument might undermine other more convincing arguments. Indeed, I’ve seen some objectivists going quite feral & weird in their insistence that anybody who looks at consequences is a socialist.

    I’m not saying that you’re doing this. It’s just a point I wanted to make.

  21. Andrew; You seem to assume that a set of values, which is based in any sort of faith is non rational. Christianity is essentially a set of values with a story line attached, the same as any other faith. Whether you accept the story is not all that relevant, it is the standards contained within the story that is the important aspect. For example, whether God exists or not is not going to chance the fact that it is a bad thing to bear false witness.

    There is though a considerable difference between the ideals of Christianity and those of the organized church, for the simple reason that in establishing a church a you give a group a sense of authority over others which they will seek to expand, which was warned against with the admonition, “You shall place no man between yourself and your God,” in other words,”Think for yourself.”

    The bible is not a collectivist document, it is in fact closer to an individualist one, bordering on libertarian/anarchist. The words, This is what your king shall do unto you,” followed by a list of things that are all accepted roles for the state in the modern context, is an example of this. I in fact do not go to church because I think they have really blown the true meaning of the word, and feel there is more value in “The Mainspring of Human Progress” than any church will ever deliver.

    There are a number of misconceptions that are around such as the ones mentioned above, indicating that Christianity is anti commercial. The camel through the eye of a needle, probably came about because in those times, most of the rich were those entrenched in state privilege and corruption, which probably relates to the various rants about “worldly possessions.” The temple is a place for peace and reflection on the eternal vagaries, and there is nothing anti commercial in telling some bastard to go and flog American Express somewhere else. The meek … is something I tend to see along the lines of tyranny shall not prevail. I am not familiar with the Jericho thing.

    My self interest comment was not suggesting that charity was an end in itself, it was pointing out that without self interest there can be no charity. You were indicating a belief that the Bible is against self interest which I don’t believe to be the case. Certainly there are values of altruism in the bible however I cannot recall ever reading into it that it was the be all and end all of personal value, you might but I think you are wrong. It is easy to knit pick passages from anything and see them as meaning something they were probably not intended to.

    Altruism is simply the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others, in other words putting your old clothes in a Vinnies bin is a form of altruism. I fail to see a problem with that. You are confusing giving help to the less fortunate with the stuff that Rand railed against. The stuff that John Humphries does in Asia could easily fall under the definition of altruism, it would be no less worthy if he were doing it out of a thought that God wanted him to do so than it is for whatever reason he sees to do it.

    It is my view that the real meaning of Christianity is very much tied up in ethical egoism. The message of most churches is in fact one of self interest, if they can plug the message that it is great to give as much as you can to them, then they live better and are able to extend their influence and power. The history of organized religion is tied up in endorsing state oppression in exchange for influence and power generally to the detriment of the populations of the countries they were able to do this in. This is very different to the ideals of the faith itself.

    Andrew; I have no problems with your atheism thats your business, but don’t try to tell me that I cannot be Christian and capitalist.

  22. John – most religious people I have encountered use the word faith in the way that I have. If you define faith as “belief free from thinking” then I think any criticism you, or others that share your definition, choose to level at people of faith will mostly entail strawman arguments. Most religious people I know don’t think you should believe stuff without thinking. More typically they are disappointed that thinking people don’t share their beliefs. However most of us suffer that form of disappointment on a regular basis.

  23. Terje — perhaps most people with a religion share your definition, but I would suggest that most strongly religious people share my definition. Certainly that was the environment that I was brought up in… which is indicative of the general penticostal (ie Hillsong, AOG) view.

    When I raise difficult questions for christians I have often been given the response “without faith you can’t understand” and “how can you expect to understand the mind of god… you just need to have faith”. These are common views, and it’s appropriate to have a word to describe this approach to epistomology. Given those people use the word “faith” I thought I would accept their nomenclature.

    Why do some christians believe that the bible is the infallible word of god? Is there some rational line of logic that leads them to that conclusion? When I ask, they tell me it’s faith.

  24. I’m back! I just couldn’t let this argument go without contributing!
    As an unusual christian, I can offer unusual explanations, but I think you should do some looking yourselves. For instance- ‘Man was made in the image of GOD’. Some people doubt this, but there are two esoteric explanations.
    In ‘A guide for the perplexed’, by Maimonides, the word ‘image’ is revealed as a hebrew word meaning ‘creative capacity’, i.e. having the ability to plan, etc. Also, the letters Y.H.V.H. in hebrew, which make up the name of god, can be arranged to make a stick outline of a man.
    Also, in the Lamsa translation of the Bible, where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, he explains that this is a cultural term,still used by his Aramaic community, to mean she became white, as in shock, and died. A stroke would be a likely explanation.
    One objectionable objectivist, from America, tried to bad-mouth Jesus, by saying that his message of loving everyone was bad ethics. I was able to correct him by pointing out the context- Jesus was speaking to a fellow jew who believed that loving your neighbour only applied to other Jews, and they could be rude to nonjews. Jesus gave him the parable of the Good Samaritan, so as to show him that any other person, regardless of race, should be treated as if he was your neighbour. I never heard from that objectivist again.
    All of this is to prove that the Bible, when correctly interpreted, and put into the right context, is infallible. I would agree that you don’t need blind faith, but you do need to be open-minded.

  25. John,

    I agree that the consequentialist argument (utilitarian argument) is a very useful argument and it needs to be made. I actually think that the deontological and consequentialist arguments are quite strongly connected (I see the latter as the empirical proof of the former’s correctness).

    However, if greed is still regarded as intrinsically wrong, and you cannot really deny that most people in our culture do regard greed as intrinsically bad, then even IF they concede “greed works,” they will still never be fully at ease with doing ‘what works.’ They will at best see it as an amoral means to a moral end.

    Im aware that many people are just somewhat ignorant about economics, and if you can show them that capitalism works, then they will be fine with it. Still, the anti-greed ideas are still left unchallenged within western culture, and these ideas basically are deontologically anti-capitalist (i.e. fuck the fact that greed works, the ends don’t justify the means).

    I’m not attempting to diminish the fact that the consequentialist case for markets is powerful, useful and essential. But the last time we libertarians attempted to promote freedom as a means to other people’s ends was in the conservative fusionist coalition, and we all know how they ended up screwing us all over.

    Jim,

    Please do not think I am attempting to say you are not a Christian. Many people that call themselves “Christians” have very different understandings of their religion from other people that call themselves “Christians.” You are obviously not the kind of Christian that I am targeting… you interpret the texts in a very heterodox manner (compared to what I usually see biblical texts used to justify).

    To clarify, I think the Bible can be used to back up anything at all. Simply quote-mine to get the effect you want. This may be wrong, but when faith is the standard, there is no rational way to decide ‘which is the correct interpretation.’ So honestly, I don’t consider your interpretation of Christianity any less defensible than any other, I’d say its probably less dangerous than most interpretations of Christianity.

    Also, you say that I am assuming “any set of values based upon faith is non-rational.” You are correct, unless you can justify these values rationally as well.

    As for Altruism, I am using the definition of the term used by Rand and Comte. Specifically, I define Altruism as “living for others,” i.e. the ULTIMATE end of your life must be benefit of others (lets say that God can be filed under the category of “others” for purposes of this analysis). This is different from Benevolence, which is being nice to others, but this does not imply that being nice to others is the ULTIMATE end of one’s actions.

    As for helping the less fortunate, or charity, I don’t consider this as necessarily altruism. What makes it altruism is WHY you do it. In the case of putting some clothes into a Vinnies bin, you are probably just getting rid of stuff with basically no value to yourself, thus you could hardly call this self-sacrifice. For a larger analysis of the Objectivist distinction between benevolence and altruism (and why benevolence should be considered a virtue by Objectivists) please see Dr. David Kelley’s “Unrugged Individualism; the Selfish Basis of Benevolence.”

    Additionally, you seem to use the bible as your only source. I use not just the bible but religious traditions and systematic theology in ascertaining what ideas are promoted (or at least promoted most often) by Christianity. I’m not saying you are wrong, I’m just pointing out that since I do not regard myself as qualified to decide what is and is not Christian, I will take a holistic approach.

    I sincerely hope this has clarified my positions and removed any possible misunderstandings between us.

  26. Andrew, you should love your neighbour as yourself, to be a good jew or christian. Altruism asks you to love your neighbour more than yourself, megalomania is where you love yourself more than others.
    All cultures believe that greed is bad!
    My dictionary defines greed as a great or unreasonable desire. Unreasonable means not guided by reason. Reason is a function of the mind. Don’t objectivists value the mind, and reason?

  27. Nicholas,

    Your own interpretation of the Christian texts differs from that of many Christian ethicists, including St. Augustine. You openly concede that you are not an orthodox Christian, so you can’t really expect me to say your interpretation is the correct one. If you want to change how other Christians interpret their religion, you should talk to them first.

    And yes, all cultures believe that greed is bad. Additionally, I don’t think I have came accross any culture that does not have some version of the self-denial/obedience/sacrifice/altruism/etc. morality embedded within it (it may not be the ONLY moral theory popularly accepted in that culture but I have never seen a culture without some variant of that moral theory). The fact that all cultures believe in X does not mean X is correct.

    Your dictionary definition of “greed” has two variations: “great desire” or “unreasonable desire.” You are correct, Objectivists would be against unreasonable desire (i.e. trying to acquire things for, say, social status, rather than achievement of personal values). But we certainly aren’t against “great desire” at all.

  28. Far from being unorthodox, my ‘interpretation’ is a quote from Jesus. He had been asked to name the Greatest Commandment, and he also named the next one- “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Not greater or less than, but ‘AS’. ‘As’ has the definition of ‘to the same degree’. In what way is this an interpretation?
    I have also noticed that Objectivists take some texts out of context. They say that ‘Love your neighbour’ is bad ethics, whilst ignoring that fact that Jesus said this to a racist Jew who did not think of Samaritans as human beings- which is why Jesus came up with the parable of The Good Samaritan. It’s an anti-racist tract, teaching us that we should judge by what people do, not bloodlines.
    Altruism is the belief in doing things for no reward, but the gospels always promise a future reward, in this life, or another. You don’t believe in a life after this, so this holds no appeal to you, but believers do think of this as a promise worth considering, like putting money in a bank, and earning interest. You are wrong to equate Christianity with altruism. The promise keeps us going!

  29. nicholas — in another passage Jesus turned away a women asking for a miracle because she was not a Jew. He said something like “you should not feed the dogs while the people are still hungry”.

    Only when the lady said “even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall off the table” did Jesus decide to help her.

    Of course, as this was written long after Jesus died by somebody who never met him, it’s possible the story is wrong. But either way, it doesn’t seem like a good moral lesson.

    But I agree with you that Christianity can be consistent with freedom. And I don’t think it makes sense to talk of a “correct” interpretation of any religion. People believe what people believe.

  30. Jesus also healed the sick child of a Roman Centurion, because he was a good man, even though romans were hated and feared in Judea.
    I do agree that interpretation is imprecise, and I think this is good, since it keeps believers arguing, and not just falling into rote thinking.

  31. Nicholas,

    If you want to argue that your interpretation is the correct one, you should argue with other Christians. Suffice it to say, many Christians in fact disagree with your interpretation of Jesus’s message. You can call them incorrect if you wish, but it is not me that you have to convince. I know of many Christian thinkers that would disagree with your position (and you probably wouldn’t consider them Christian but that is beside the point).

    The reason I use terms like “interpretation” is because many mutually contradictory ideas have been promoted under the aegis of Christianity, and Christians are still debating amongst themselves what the correct way to understand their own religion is. Since I do not consider myself qualified to say what is or is not Christian, I talk about various different interpretations of Christianity. I am not passing an evaluation on which ones are or aren’t correct.

    Additionally, even if a pro-liberty interpretation of Christianity became popular (lets remember that every popularly-accepted interpretation of Christianity has tendencies towards statism, for example evangelicalism/pentecostalism), is there not at least some danger in premising all defense of liberty upon that religion? That means conceding that you require faith to defend freedom, implying that freedom cannot be defended by reason and logic.

    I have no real problem with establishing a coalition of different-minded libertarians, some of which consider religious arguments ‘a defense’ of freedom. My problem is with the idea that religion is or should be the ONLY defense of freedom. We should make it clear that although libertarianism CAN be defended with religious arguments, they are not ESSENTIAL to defending liberty.

  32. Andrew — I don’t understand this fascination that westerns seem to have about a “correct interpretation” of a religion. Christian is a catch all for people who follow Jesus but not Mohammad. The rest is just details that each person can make up (and I do mean “make up” — sorry nick) for themselves.

    Religion is used and abused for many reasons. But , in my opinion, the brand name of the sky-fairy is less important than the attitude of the person.

  33. Andrew, I tend to agree- I just don’t accept TimR’s claim that it’s all the fault of Judeo-Christian religions!
    John, why are you mentioning sky-fairies? We’re having a serious discussion about GOD, not fairies! If you can’t see the difference, get glasses!

  34. Sorry nicholas, could you please explain the difference?

    And to be precise, I guess we are talking about the Yahweh brand of sky-fairy/god, not all sky-fairies/gods. I accept that Yahweh is by far the most popular sky-fairy/god (being followed by Jews, Christians & Muslims), but I’m a big believer in equal treatment for all sky-fairies/gods.

    My personal sky-fairies of Baldor, Odin, the Singularity, Satan, Ra (and various others) were being sadly neglected in most of the above discussion. 🙂

  35. My dictionary defines ‘fairy’ as a tiny supernatural being said to have magical powers. God is outside the universe, and thus impossible to give a size to. There is no Yahwah brand of fairy. Fairies would be created beings, and God is the creator. In stories about them, fairies can die, but God cannot!
    Those are just some of the differences. You have been free at any time to bring in these friends of yours to the discussion.

  36. Who says God is outside the universe? I thought he was supposed to be omnipresent. In which case he is everywhere within the universe (even inside my bladder).

    And given that the universe is everything then the area outside the universe must be quite small so if God is only outside the universe he must himself be quite small indeed. Perhaps a bit like a fairy. 😉

  37. Who says the universe is everything? Modern Cosmologists wouldn’t agree with you there! They regularly talk about multiverses, and black holes being gateways to other universes, and they do all this so they don’t have to explain how our universe came to be just right for life (the Anthropomorphic principle).

  38. Do you admit that if God fits within the multiverse he could be the size of a fairy? And if it turns out that he is the size of a fairy then he might just live in the sky, or perhaps sometimes on the head of a pin. In which case he is a sky fairy, or maybe a pin fairy. Either way you must surely admit that anything worthy of being called God must have magical powers.

  39. I only concede your last sentence.
    God is outside our scale of reference, so size would be impossible to measure- and there would be no reason for god to contain himself to the size of a pin, so he wouldn’t do it.

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