Acton Institute Powerblog

The Dangers of Democratic Tyranny

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In the context of commentary on protests like those in Quebec and the Occupy movement more broadly, it’s worth reflecting on the dangers of democratic tyranny.

The “people” can be tyrannical just as an individual sovereign or an oligarchy might. That’s why Aristotle considered democracy a defective form of government, because it too easily enshrines the will of the majority into an insuperable law. As Lord Acton put it, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.” For this same reason Tocqueville worried about the tyrannical power of the will of the majority, once settled:

So, what is a majority taken as a collective whole, if not an individual with opinions and quite often interests, in opposition to another individual whom we call a minority? Now, if you admit that and all-powerful man can abuse his power against his opponents, why not admit the same thing for a majority? Have men, united together, changed their character? Have they become more patient of obstacles by becoming stronger?

Of course not. As Tocqueville goes on to observe, the self-righteous assurance of the majority makes their impatience even more striking. They will brook no dissent because of the assurance that they are correct and that the majority rules, as it ought to.

When the majority (99%) can simply decide to take what they decide they “deserve” from the minority (1%), you have the recipe then for deep injustice. What I don’t see, however, is any unified majority (yet). The student protesters in Quebec might have some sympathy, but whatever the political fallout will be, it is unlikely that the younger generation is going to be politically successful in their bid to protect their economic interests against the entrenched interests of the boomer generations. In part this is because as much as they might protest, or complain, or start Internet petitions, young people don’t vote and they don’t have powerful lobbying groups.

The dynamic is likely to be the same here in the US. As the share of federal spending is increasingly dominated by entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, you’ll end up having recipients of various entitlements fighting it out. And no matter how upset college students and recent graduates are, I don’t see their political interests holding more sway than say, the retired. The AARP will beat the student union six days a week and twice on Sunday.

We can see this dynamic playing out all over the world. As Bill Frezza writes (HT: The Transom) in the context of Greece and the EU crisis, “Democracy becomes a cancer if its powers are not limited. That is because a sustainable democracy requires not just votes, but also governing institutions that protect the rights of minorities against predatory majorities. The disease of voters voting themselves benefits at someone else’s expense has infected much of the world.”

He concludes, “Greece provides a stark example of what happens when a government runs out of other people’s money. If the rest of us don’t take heed while there is still time, we will all end up like you.” And if the Greek leftists have their way, it may not matter what the rest of the world does: “…if you want to send us to the bottom, we will take you to the bottom too.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • DBonney

    Haven’t you got this backwards? In America it is the minority that is running the country. Nice use of Tocqueville, but the quote doesn’t apply when we’re talking about the hegemony of a plutocratic minority. The majority, whoever and wherever they may be, seem to have become a constitutional liability insofar as they still must be trotted out on election day. Apart from that, they have little to say in what direction the country takes. They lack the financial wherewithal to buy influence. 

    • Sure. I’m not saying we’re in this situation right now; I’m just pointing out some of the dangers inherent in majoritarian thinking. As I said, “What I don’t see, however, is any unified majority (yet).” 

      Although it is an open question just how “unified” any such majority
      really has to be. I don’t think it has to be unified in terms of a coherent platform. It might be the case on individual issues, or as a de facto coalition. 

      What would you call it when a plurality-cum-majority are net recipients of federal social spending?

      Maybe we aren’t there yet, and maybe we aren’t close, despite Paul Ryan’s worries. But if we ever do get there, then it’s worth wondering about what dangers there might be, I think.

      Granted, as Ponnuru points out, we have to look at net beneficiaries rather than single measures like payroll taxes: “The real ‘takers’
      coalition would then include anyone who is a net beneficiary of the federal government. Under those circumstances merely requiring everyone to pay some amount in income taxes would change nothing. Any welfare state will have a large number of net beneficiaries. In a welfare state that runs routine, large deficits, almost everyone may be among them.”

      • DBonney

        I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I share the same concerns that you do about the tyranny of the majority, because frankly, there is no wisdom in majorities. . .just the power of numbers.

        Nevertheless, I think it is manifestly obvious in our society, that we have arrived at a place that neither Tocqueville, or any of the founders, envisioned, which is a tyranny of the minority, in this instance, big money. The democracy we claim to revere, is an empty shell. The system has been hijacked with the willing collusion of our representatives, both left and right. There is plenty of blame to go around, so I’m not playing at partisanship. A pox on both their houses.

        Although I do favor programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as means to move the elderly above poverty, I must likewise share your concerns about the costs of these programs. And I don’t have a solution.

        When you speak of the “plurality-cum-majority” who are net recipients, you raise an interesting point. Jefferson and Paine spoke passionately about not allowing the dead to rule from the grave. Jefferson wrote a famous letter to Madison, saying that the “earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” He then went on to suggest that all laws should expire after a duration of nineteen years–a generation.
        Madison glossed over the idea as being wholly impractical, yet when we speak of where the majority has gotten us, it’s only fair to say that today’s recipients under these programs were not the majority that enacted them.

        As for “real takers,” every one of us is one, in one way or another, from the roads we drive on, to entitlement programs. I think you will find tea-party adherents, as well as leftists, equally enamored of portions of the social safety net.

        Again, my thanks for your comments and your ideas.

    • Roger McKinney

       That’s a popular sentiment fed by the press, but I don’t think it is true. I subscribe to Buchanan’s public choice theory and see enormous corruption in government by big money. That much is true. But I also see a majority of voters who accept it and continue to vote for the same politicians who create the laws and regulations based on the money given them by corporations.

      Big money didn’t encourage progressive taxation, social security, medicare, medicaid and the entire welfare program. Big money benefits from war, but the American people overwhelmingly support it every time.

      Ludwig von Mises used to say that no ruler, not even the most tyrannical dictator, can rule against the will of the majority for very long. And an MIT history prof I admired but whose name I forgot used to say that people get the government they deserve.

      If voters didn’t like the corruption of politics by big money, they could change it in one election.

      But keep in mind that in the first parliaments only wealthy land owners could hold office for a good reason: they paid the taxes. In the US system, the wealthiest 20% pay 80% of taxes, yet they have just 20% of the vote. That is taxation without representation and tyranny of the majority.

      All of this underscores the importance of religion. Hayek wrote in “Fatal Conceit” that religion played in important role in the past by coercing people to obey laws for which they could see no immediate benefit or reason, laws such as “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not murder”. I doubt anyone would suggest that we repeal those laws every 19 years.

      Christianity gave us what Chicago economist McCloskey calls the “bourgeois values” which made economic development possible in the West. As Americans have abandoned traditional Christianity, we have also abandoned the bourgeois values for socialist ones. There is now no restraint whatsoever on what the tyranny of the majority.

      • DBonney

        Your first paragraph makes my point. The corruption you speak of is the underpinning of the entire political system, i. e., the monied minority is running the show. . The representatives are beholden to the these interests, and the fact that a majority of voters continue to re-elect the same people over and again, is not necessarily because they condone corruption, but they are ignorant of where their true interests lie. Their opinions and their votes are, in this framework, irrational. Go back to the framing of the Constitution. The only political body that was to be directly elected by the people was the House of Representatives. The Senate members were to be indirectly elected by the state legislatures (since amended to provide direct election), and the president was elected by specially designated electors in each state. The founders had no faith in the wisdom of majorities. Tocqueville, when he visited the House of Representatives, was scandalized by what he saw. I would also point you to Hamilton’s Federalist 71, where he discusses, among other ideas, “the transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.”

        Big money may not have advocated the items listed in your second paragraph. To do so would have been to act against their personal interests; they didn’t need these programs. On the subject of taxation, it should be pointed out that Lincoln’s Revenue Act of 1862, called for progressive taxation to fund the war. The Federal Income Tax, now enshrined in the Constitution, is actually the result of Conservatives outsmarting themselves.  In 1909, the Progressives sought to attach an income tax rider to a tariff bill. The Conservatives, hoping to kill the issue, once and for all, proposed a constitutional amendment, enacting the income tax, never imagining that it would pass. Oops!

        Von Mises is correct. No tyrant can survive very long if the majority of people rise against him. But they have to rise. I refer you to Etienne de la Boetie’s “The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.” This goes far in explaining why they don’t. Machiavelli is also very pertinent on this subject. After all, “The Prince” is all about how one is to retain power once it has been taken.

        The quote you refer to: “Toute nation a le government qu’elle merite” (“Every nation has the government it deserves,”) comes from Joesph de Maistre (1753-1821), who became the 19th century’s principal spokesman in favor of hierarchical authoritarianism, in reaction against what he thought were the excesses of the French Revolution.

        Wealthy landholders were the only eligible members of Parliament, at one time. The reason, however, is not what you think—because they paid taxes. Actually, it wasn’t even Parliament at the time. This dates back to 1215, when the barons forced King John to limit the powers of the crown and to reinforce their feudal privileges. One of the privileges demanded, and granted, was the right to consult with and advise the king, as members of his Great Council. The Great Council evolved into Parliament, and the first use of the term dates from 1236. The barons took the power because they had superior force, not because they paid taxes.

        None of this underscores the importance of religion. The civil law is coercive enough in its ability to reach malefactors. As to traditional Christianity being the bulwark of economic development, that is simply not so. There was no economic development amongst the non-Christian Carthaginians (Phoenicians); the Romans? What of the proscriptions against usury in the Bible? What of “Give all that you have, and follow me?” “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven.” These are not ideas conducive to economic progress. They are antithetical to it. My point is that economic development is something that is hard-wired into the human mind. It’s purely secular. For Christians to even participate in the economic realm, requires some serious compromise with biblical injunctions. The Protestant (Puritan) work ethic described by Max Weber, probably has its roots in the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination. Not knowing if one was saved or damned was a heavy psychological burden. Faith wasn’t enough; good works weren’t enough to achieve it. So, with a little bit of creative thinking, the way out was to suggest that one’s worldly success was a visible sign of personal salvation. That strikes me as expedient, but not Christian.

        I appreciate your comments and opinions, but I fail to see a foundation of facts beneath them.

      •  IMHO, “Big Money” loves higher taxes for one simple reason – they don’t pay them. Rich people, The “1%ers”, do not have incomes – they have wealth, they use donations to the the Mafia – AKA the political parties, to buy exemptions from the other taxes they would normally pay. The purpose of the progressive income tax is to prevent the lower classes from accumulating enough wealth to free themselves from the tyranny of their oppressors.

  • Rdmckinney

    “The representatives are beholden to the these interests, and the fact that a majority of voters continue to re-elect the same people over and again, is not necessarily because they condone corruption, but they are ignorant of where their true interests lie.”

    I completely agree that the political system is corrupt. I didn’t say that voters condone the corruption. I wrote that they don’t care about it enough to do anything about it.

    “Their opinions and their votes are, in this framework, irrational.”

    I agree to a point that the voters are ignorant, but they are ignorant because they of the values they have chosen. They have abandoned the “bourgeois” values and as a result remain ignorant of the value of free markets. Their ignorance is deliberate. As long as the state provides bread and circuses to keep them distracted they will vote for a larger and greater state.

    I guess it boils down to what you think about human nature and the origins of evil. I take the Biblical position that people have a natural inclination toward greed, covetousness and theft. If they can steal from another and get away with it, the natural man will do that rather than work hard for 20 years to obtain the same wealth. Only Christianity changes that nature. Government cannot change man’s nature, but it can prevent man from acting on it to a limited extent.

    Still, voters have the ultimate say over what happens in politics. If they are ignorant or evil, they won’t do anything about the corruption in politics and so there is no hope for changing things.

    “The barons took the power because they had superior force, not because they paid taxes.”

    Of course they had superior power! They king would never have granted any concessions unless the barons had superior power. But why did they barons insist on concessions? Because the king wanted their money to pay for his wars. That’s why the king gave the concessions to the barons and not the common people. And that’s why the original parliaments were composed of the wealthy; they paid the taxes.

    “There was no economic development amongst the non-Christian Carthaginians (Phoenicians); the Romans?”

    No, there was not. Read any economic history of the world. Start with Angus Maddison’s books or Deirdre McCloskey’s series on the bourgeois values. Both demonstrate a hockey stick effect of economic growth if per capita gdp is graphed over time. Increases in standards of living were miniscule before 1600, but beginning in the 17th century wealth increased at exponential rates. As McCloskey wrote, that hockey stick effect is the most important historical fact that economics needs to explain. Which she does.  

    It all began with the change toward the bourgeois values in the northern Italian cities, especially Venice. In the 16th century those values were codified by the Church scholars of the university at Salamanca, Spain. Briefly, they reaffirmed the sanctity of private property and the importance of free markets in determining the “just price.” Those values were first implemented in law in the Dutch Republic of the 17th and 18th centuries. Adam Smith distilled his principles of the economics from the best practices of the Dutch Republic. Adam Smith’s principles represent the best instantiation of Biblical principles of economics that are humanly possible.

    “What of the proscriptions against usury in the Bible?”

    As Calvin wrote, and many others understood, those refer to loaning money to the poor. Any other kind of lending is no different from rent, for which there are no Biblical commands against.

    “What of “Give all that you have, and follow me?”

    That’s a command to the Church and individual Christians. It is not government policy. It’s also an example of hyperbole, which Christ often used to get the attention of crowds. Christ understood that Christians couldn’t actually give away everything they had or they would starve to death.

    “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven.”

    And yet the greatest saints of the OT were very wealthy men. How can that be? The answer lies in how one becomes wealthy, not how much wealth one has. The dominant methods for gaining wealth in all of human history until Venice was through looting in war, kidnapping for ransom, and taking bribes as a government official, all of which the Bible condemns. All Jesus was saying is that people who use those methods to gain wealth are not likely to be interested in spiritual things.

    Keep in mind, too, that until the Dutch Republic there was no way to help the poor but through charity. Since the Dutch Republic we have learned a great deal. Number one is that we help the poor best by investing in new businesses and creating jobs. That is the lesson of China over the past generation.

    Do you limit your medical care to nothing more than anointing with oil and prayer? I doubt it, but those are the only Biblical prescriptions for illness. We have learned a great deal about medicine since the Bible was written. In the same way we have learned a lot about helping the poor beyond just charity.

    I apologize for the essay, but you asked some important questions. Short questions often require a long response. 

    • DBonney

      To address your last point first—essays are welcome. Here’s mine.

      You say the voters are ignorant because they have abandoned “bourgeois” values and as a result remain ignorant of free markets.” I have the sense that I’m being fed a conservative talking point, which reduces a human being to a monolithic economic organism, bereft of any of the other impulses that constitute humanity. You then offer a disquisition on the origins of evil, which implies a connection with ignorance. This, I fail to see.

      Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. It is of two kinds–willful and unwillful. Willful ignorance is the adherence to a belief, which when confronted by an irrefutable fact, rejects that fact and more strongly adheres to its erroneous belief. This would be the case if a modern person embraced the belief that the earth was at the center of the solar system, despite the proven evidence that tells us the sun occupies that position. That is willful and blameable, and enters the moral sphere. Unwillful ignorance is simply not knowing something. I imagine that a majority of people hearing your use of the term, “bourgeois” would not know its meaning. They just do not know its definition. Strictly speaking, they are not blameable, and there is no moral dimension involved.

      Positing mankind’s natural inclinations toward greed, covetousness and theft to the “Biblical position” seems narrow. From time immemorial, philosophers who were unacquainted with the Judeo-Christian bible were well acquainted with the vagaries of human nature. Diogenes the Cynic, without biblical enlightenment, went about town, holding a lantern, in his search to find an honest man. Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Seneca, and on and on, were familiar with human nature and wrote extensively on the subject.

      “Only Christianity changes that [evil] nature,” you say. That is a belief that has no legs to stand on. In Christianity’s 2000 year existence, can you provide one particle of evidence to show that it has effected even the smallest change in human nature? What do you make of the ancients’ idea of virtue? Do you know Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans?” Here are described men, some of whom had great vices, which were offset by equally great (or greater) virtues. They were all non-Christian. Why, in “The Divine Comedy,” does Dante, a Christian, choose for his guide through Hell and Purgatory, the non-Christian Vergil? Was it not for his virtues? Let’s just say that man struggles with himself for mastery over his passions. Christianity cannot change him; government cannot change him; and in all likelihood, he cannot change himself.

      The barons and King John. Read the Magna Carta. You say “Because the king wanted their money to pay for his wars. That’s why the king gave the concessions to the barons and not to the common people. And that’s why the original parliaments were composed of the wealthy; they paid the taxes.” Again, read the Magna Carta. But let’s look into this a bit more. and look at the realities of feudal society. If the baron paid taxes to the king, where did the baron get his revenues? He did not work his lands, or his forests, or his mines, or his roads. Yet he grew rich. Doing all that labor for him was the medieval serf. In exchange for the lord’s protection, serfs improved his landholdings, and some time was allotted them to work specified pieces of land for their own subsistence. All gains from their labor on the lord’s portion went into the lord’s barns and counting-houses. Was this not a tax? And if, under your formulation, “they paid the taxes,” why were they not eligible to sit in parliaments? Their exclusion wasn’t because they didn’t pay taxes, but had everything to do with a rigid class structure.

      There was no economic development among non-Christians. . .? “No there was not,” you say. Of course there was! “Economy” is the careful or thrifty use or management of resources such as income, material or labor. It’s rather simple. Ancient non-Christians may not have measured their economies by GDPs, standards of living, hockey sticks or bourgeois values, nor participate in consumer-driven models, but they did develop economically. The Phoenicians were arguably the first great seagoing empire. Owing to their trading connections with southern Europe, particularly in Spain and Sicily, they expanded into North Africa, where they established a “trading post” on the location that grew into Carthage, which itself developed into a world power in its own right. The wealth that they accumulated, and their economic sphere of influence, brought them into collision with Rome, from whence proceeded the three Punic Wars. Both of these states had massive, highly developed economies. From whence the wealth that flowed into Carthage? Trade, colonization and conquest. Rome’s? Trade, colonization and conquest. These differ from the economies you describe only in kind, but they were well-developed nonetheless. And they were non-Christian. We won’t even get into the developments along the Silk Road.

      The rise of modern capitalism has its roots in the 15th century–specifically in Italy. It was yet another direction that the Renaissance led in its all-encompassing march into modernity. It had nothing to do with Christian principles, although one does have to take a backward look to the Crusades. As Jacob Burckhardt explained in “The History of the Civilization of Renaissance Italy,” the Crusades had given the European mind a perspective of unknown distances and had awakened a passion for travel, adventure and knowledge. The interests of the Italians were significantly broader than those of the other European states because cities like Venice and Genoa already had naval powers and they had already developed commercial relations with the East. The ages-old civilizations that existed along the Mediterranean had developed “mental impulses” that differed from those of the northern Europeans. The Venetian, Marco Polo, penetrated China in the 13th century; Genoese seamen discovered the Canary Islands, and the Genoese conceived and executed the first attempts to find a sea passage to the East Indies. The most famous among them is, of course, Columbus.

      The Renaissance was not driven forward by the Church, but by the rediscovery of the arts and civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. It was the resurfacing of the knowledge of the ancients that gave the world this cultural explosion. It was through the humanists, not the Christian clerics that the Renaissance gained impetus. “Freed from the countless bonds which elsewhere in Europe checked progress, having reached a high degree of individual development and having been schooled in the teachings of antiquity, the Italian mind now turned to the discovery of the outward universe.” Burckhardt mentions: “Nor must it be forgotten that the inquisitorial power of the Dominicans was exercised less uniformly in Italy than in the North.”

      Your admiration of Venice stops at its trade practices, making no acknowledgement of its liberal institutions. Burckhardt notes that “solicitous care for the people in peace and war was characteristic of the Venetian government.”  Apart from their “Geneva Convention-like” fame in caring for their wounded enemies, they had public hospitals, a system for pensioning off servants, and provisions for the support of widows and orphans. I presume you do not approve.

      Your admiration of the Church scholars of Salamanca, affirming the sanctity of private property is well-placed. However, this is the same group that laid every possible obstacle in the way of Columbus. Coming around after Columbus’s explorations were successful seems to me a mere expediency of compromising with the inevitability of commercial progress. They followed; they did not lead.

      Your comment on Calvin hearkens back to my assertion that he acted from expediency rather than from Christian conviction. I stand by it. Calvin’s economic ideas were first communicated in a letter to Claude de Sachin in 1545. His views were not published until after his death. “We ought not,” he said, ” to judge usury according to a few passages of scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity.” The essential “principle” was to change the word “interest” to “rent paid on capital.” It took more than a century for his compromise to become accepted in the Protestant world. Catholicism didn’t change its position until 1830, when the industrial revolution  threatened to swamp the economies of Catholic Europe by non-participation. Another expedient not based on religious principle.

      But what of Calvin’s conversion? It had a context which lay in the recession of 1535-1540 in the areas around Geneva. The city recovered because of the emergence of the Swiss banking system, and what was particularly germane to Calvin was the sympathy with which the major Swiss cities accorded his religious agenda. The survival of his religious movement was owing in large part to the banks bailing him out of financial difficulties associated with the administration of his church. No wonder that his opinions on usury changed. Without their assistance, Calvinism might have died out then and there.

      The prohibition against usury was general throughout the Christian world. The council of Nicaea (325) forbade the clergy from engaging in usury. The prevailing meaning of the word at that time was simply the charging of interest on money, not the exorbitant rate at which it was lent. This ban was soon after extended to include the laity. In 1311 Clement V declared that usury was a heresy, and he abolished all secular laws that had permitted it. Jerome called usury murder. Augustine objected to it because it was “forbidden among brethren in the Old Testament and was injurious to Christ in the person of the poor man.” Aquinas condemned it as upsetting the balance of money as a measure of value. He described it as being akin to one selling a bottle of wine at an agreed price, and then adding a surcharge if the purchaser actually drank it.

      “Give all that you have, and follow me.” I agree that it is a command to the church and individual Christians. You know this to be hyperbole? It seems to make sense to me since Jesus’s concern was the Kingdom of Heaven; not the kingdom of the earth. Beyond that I don’t presume to know what Christ understood, although you seem to. I admire that.

      “And yet the greatest saints of the OT were very wealthy men. How can that be?” Well, the Church burned Joan of Arc for heresy, and then she was elevated to the sainthood. Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition, and died under house-arrest. He was pardoned in 1984. What is your point? Are looking for consistency? Rather than attribute Jesus’s “needle’s eye” comment to a wealthy man’s probable disinterest in spiritual matters, an application contrary to Ockham’s Razor in my opinion, why not attribute it to the comments written in 1Timothy. There we find a bar to entering the diaconate leveled against men “greedy for filthy lucre.” Shortly afterwards: “For the desire of money is the root of all evils.” It seems pretty clear that money and spirituality were antagonistic to one another

      You say we’ve learned alot–that we help the poor best by investing in new businesses and creating jobs. Why, then, are there so many of them?

      Do I limit my medical care to nothing more that anointing with oil and prayer? I resort to neither; I see a doctor.

      In the final analysis, there is nothing in religion that informs our sense of economics; nor anything in economics that informs our sense of religion. The essential problem is that Christ’s second coming failed to occur during the lifetimes of the apostolic generation. Christianity has had to compromise many of its core principles to adapt to that fact. How else remain relevant in a world far removed from the biblical age?

      ” Shortly

      • Roger McKinney

         Remember that in your first post you asserted that voters are not in control of politics and that politicians respond only to big money interests. Still, politicians must get voters to vote for them or they can’t stay in office, so ignorant or not, voters are still in control of who gets elected.

        I think voters are willfully ignorant because there is no reason for them to be ignorant. And they are willfully ignorant because they prefer socialist values to the bourgeois values. See McCloskey’s books for definitions, but the essential values are respect for private property and markets and equal treatment of all citizens by the state. The idea that people are willfully ignorant comes from the Apostle Paul’s depiction of non-Christians in Romans 1: they know the truth but suppress it because they prefer the lie. And Jesus said men love darkness more than light. So yes, there is a moral dimension to ignorance. That is the Biblical position on spiritual ignorance. I’m just applying it to economics.

        “Positing mankind’s natural inclinations toward greed, covetousness and theft to the “Biblical position” seems narrow.”

        That doesn’t mean that only the Bible holds that position. There is some truth in all religions and philosophies.

        “”Only Christianity changes that [evil] nature,” you say. That is a belief that has no legs to stand on.

        Well, that is the historic Christian tradition. And my personal experience confirms it.

        “If the baron paid taxes to the king, where did the baron get his revenues?”

        Now you’re just obfuscating. Did the king send tax collectors to the peasants or to the baron’s. Yes, the barons extracted wealth from the peasants, but the king demanded the taxes from the barons.

        “There was no economic development among non-Christians. . .?”

        No. There wasn’t. I can’t help you there unless you’re willing to read some economic history. As I wrote, start with Maddison and McCloskey. Yes, some empires became wealthier than others by conquering and stealing from others. But until the advent of capitalism all people did was steal from each other.

        “The rise of modern capitalism has its roots in the 15th century–specifically in Italy.”

        And that’s what I wrote. The traditional attitude toward commerce changed in Venice, especially, and made the idea of gaining wealth through commerce respectable for the first time. But capitalism didn’t appear as a system of economic organization until the Dutch Republic. The Northern Italian city-states fell short of real capitalism.

        “It was through the humanists, not the Christian clerics that the Renaissance gained impetus.”

        That’s just typical humanist propaganda.

        “Your comment on Calvin hearkens back to my assertion that he acted from expediency rather than from Christian conviction.”

        No. He acted from conviction. He studied the Bible and found no reason to reject the charging of interest for anything but lending to the poor.

        “It took more than a century for his compromise to become accepted in the Protestant world.”

        That’s not true. Read the history of the Dutch Republic. And Calvin wasn’t the first to see no harm in charging interest. The Church borrowed money on many occasions long before Calvin. The Church got a few things wrong in the centuries after Constantine because it had absorbed too much Platonic philosophy and Gnostic heresy. But Aquinas straightened a lot of that out.

        “Beyond that I don’t presume to know what Christ understood, although you seem to.”

        Yes, you presume a lot. You just don’t admit your presumptions. The principles of hermeneutics laid down by Aristotle and refined by Aquinas and others are the best guide to interpreting any form of communication, but especially necessary for interpreting the Bible. An important hermeneutic principal is to interpret writings in their cultural context. Hyperbole was a common rhetorical device among rabbis of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ style was similar to that of rabbis. Another important principle is to interpret passages in context. In the context of the whole Bible, especially the Torah, which Jesus embraced, giving away all of one’s possessions would be irrational.

        If it were literally impossible for the wealthy to enter heaven, how was it possible for OT saints to be wealthy men? If wealthy men cannot enter heaven, then the OT saints couldn’t have been saints but very evil men. Is it impossible to be wealthy and be free from greed? If not, then Abraham was a greedy SOB and not a saint!

        Ockham’s Razor does not justify taking passages out of context. You clearly don’t have the bourgeois values. You are interpreting passages in a superficial way according to your value system which apparently sees all wealth as evil. The Church promoted that error in the early centuries and saw asceticism as holy. But after Aquinas it returned to a truly Biblical position on wealth. Wealth is a blessing from God if attained through work. A truly godly person can be wealthy and godly if he shares his wealth with the less fortunate and doesn’t live to attain wealth. Job was a good example. Greed is not the desire for the means to achieve a better life for one’s family. Greed is the extreme desire for wealth for its own sake and the willingness to hurt others to get wealth.

        “You say we’ve learned alot–that we help the poor best by investing in new businesses and creating jobs. Why, then, are there so many of them?”

        You don’t think there are fewer today than in the past? The World Bank has written that we have cut world poverty in half in the past 30 years, primarily through freer markets in China and India. Again, I can’t help you unless you’re willing to read some economic history. Another good book is Nobel-prize winning Fogel’s “Escape from Premature Death and Hunger”. Until you read that book, you will have no idea how poor people were before the advent of capitalism. But to get an idea, the average person every where in the world lived like people in Bangladesh today.
        “there is nothing in religion that informs our sense of economics;”

        Well, you can assert that as long as you choose to remain ignorant. But not after you read a history of economic thought.

        “The essential problem is that Christ’s second coming failed to occur during the lifetimes of the apostolic generation.”

        No. It is not a problem. It is a straw man that those who oppose the truth fabricated in order to make themselves feel better. Jesus spoke of two “comings” in the Gospels. One referred to his coming in judgment against an unbelieving Israel, which would be evident by the destruction of the Temple as happened in 70 AD. That was the “coming” in the lifetime of his generation. The other coming was the one to establish his kingdom, which he made clear several times would be a long time off and not occur within a generation.

        Again, you need sound principles of hermeneutics to interpret any literature, but especially the Bible. A superficial reading of the Bible will only confuse people.

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