Sunday, December 27, 2015

Property, morality and religion

Just read Larry Arnn’s (President of Hillsdale College) Imprimis piece Property Rights and Religious Liberty.  It’s excellent, but ultimately uncompelling as an argument that property rights are insufficient to secure religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Some rambling reactions...

Arnn:
[R]ecognizing that property is at the heart of the political argument we are having these days, [there] are those who say that all that is needed is to protect property rights. Get money right and get property right, these people think, and leave it at that—leave morality and religion out of the political equation. But that way of thinking too is foolish.
Not sure it’s foolish.  I’d like to try it somewhere and see what eventuates.  My prediction would be that such a lucky civilization would follow the arc of history of the United States up until Woodrow Wilson… and then keep going.  

Morality and religion are different things, though they are both your property. Property rights do imply a moral code, but I can't see any particular philosophy of religion there.

I am inclined to think economic freedom is a prerequisite for “freedom of conscience and religious liberty."  Arnn seems to agree: "If private property is going to be abolished, everything will have to be abolished.”  

I will agree that an ethical system like Judeo-Christianity is necessary, if not sufficient, to establish the fundamental principle that you are your own property. Not the church's, not the State's.

I do not agree that we must have a supernatural underpinning for that.

Arnn:
Yet Churchill went against the advice of all his advisors, including his wife, to make the point publicly that the socialists would never realize their ultimate aims without the use of “some form of Gestapo.” They did not intend this, at least the better of them did not, he said; but this is what it would take for their aims to be successful—this is what it would take to produce an equality of outcomes.
And Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom on precisely that theme.

Questions of "‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’” are answered differently by different supernatural interpreters.  Which Diety can bring “comfort to the soul” is a matter of long extra- and intramural contention.

How do you reconcile the G_d who cares about every sparrow's fall with your experience? A conversation between Yossarian and Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife in Catch-22 explores this question:
"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued... "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else he's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about -- a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatalogical mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”

"Pain?" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife pounced upon the word victoriously. "Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.”

"And who created the dangers?" Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. "Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of his celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't He?"

"People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads.”

"They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupified with morphine, don't they? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He make of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It's obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!”

Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. "You'd better not talk that way about Him, honey," she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. "He might punish you.”

"Isn't He punishing me enough?" Yossarian snorted resentfully. "You know, we certainly mustn't let Him get away with it. Oh, no, we certainly mustn't let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He's caused us. Someday I'm going to make him pay. I know when. On the Judgement Day. Yes, that's the day I'll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and —"

"Stop it! Stop it!" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. "Stop it!”

Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. "What the hell are you getting so upset about?" He asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. "I thought you didn't believe in God.”

"I don't," she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. "But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. "Let's have a little more religious freedom between us," he proposed obligingly. "You don't believe in the God you want to, and I won't believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”
Another interpretation might be that G_d is just uninvolved. That’s not much in the way of comfort, but does answer the problem of evil and maybe of free will.

All in all, I think property rights protect, or at minimum provide the basis for, protection of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. As Arnn says, you can't really separate these things: It's not just a fight about property. But, without property rights, the fight is already lost.

Related: The foolish ‘theism’ of government enthusiasts

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