The Bondage of the Will & Christian Liberty

I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.

The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.

Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.

Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.

Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”

Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.

This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.

Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.

There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”

So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.


The Rohingya and Syria

I read the article because of the title. “Rohingya see glimmer of hope in Suu Kyi’s election victory.” I never heard of Rohingya and was curious why his name popped up in my news feed. Turns out that it was not a person. The Rohingya are a minority group in Myanmar. The article came from The Arab News, a paper I hardly ever read (and only when I click on a headline in my news feed that seems interesting). The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar long enough that their origins are in question (probably from the Bengal region). What is for certain is they are not Burmese and are not an officially recognized ethnic group. Because they are mostly Muslim, the majority Bengali population does not like them.

Today they are considered by groups that pay attention to this stuff to be one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Many now live in refugee camps that are reportedly better described as prisons. They have high hopes that Suu Kyi’s NLD party, that just won the national election in a landslide, will deal with their perilous situation.

I am quite frankly worried about all the anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian rhetoric that has become so chic in the U.S. There are even those that want to put Syrian refugees into internment camps. Granted, there is a certain risk in allowing any stranger to live next door. But I think we might do well to pause and try to learn a lesson from the Myanmar debacle. It would be far more dangerous in the long run to dehumanize hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees and other immigrants from Syria. If we were to do that, we would have a decades-long disaster on our hands similar to Myanmar and the Rohingya. (France’s historic tendency to ghettoize immigrants, and especially Algerians, and the result of that policy is both tragic and instructive in this case.)

And, aside from the policy debate, I am horrified that we, as a society, are so quick to relegate a whole nation to this not-quite-human status. Given the rhetoric, it might be best if we dismantle and melt down the Statue of Liberty. The metal could be use to build fences to imprison the nation of Syria

This post raised some questions. I seem to conflate conservatives and liberals. I fail to recognize the differences between the Republican and Democratic political parties in the U.S. (Yeah, I also noticed that they were statements rather than questions.)

In answer I will quote John Médaille. I’ve lost the source of this quote. Sorry. He’s talking about the success of William F. Buckley’s National Review.

But it was a success that came at a price, and the price was fusionism. The “conservatism” of Buckley’s journal was an odd combination of traditionalists, Austrian libertarians, and the liberal anti-communists (who would later become the “neo-cons”). These three factions were united by their anti-communism, but by little else. The traditionalists aimed at virtue, while the Austrians and the “neo-cons” aimed at “liberty,” but a liberty that was merely formal; it did not aim at the good or at anything in particular, but was mostly expressed as a lack of restraint, particularly government restraint. As Mark Popowski points out, if freedom is foremost, then no superior principle [such as virtue] could ever be invoked. This tension is at the root of all of the problems of what we today call “conservatism.”

In other words, in the 60s the glue that held the new Republican factions together was not political ideology, it was anti-communism. Once the communist threat dissipated, the stark differences between these groups became obvious. Unfortunately (if one is a conservative, that is), it was the neo-cons who now held the reins of the Republican Party. The two American political parties (Republican and Democrat) were now in control, on the one hand, of Democrats who were formerly perceived as soft on communism and, on the other, of ex-Democrats who were anti-communists. Now that communism had become an anachronism, it left Democrats and ex-Democrats in control of the whole American political process. The fall of communism was the end of the two party system for the moment. Hopefully we can regain two distinct perspectives in American politics in the near future.


[Having a hard time with that title? How about parentheses and one letter change: Amer(irony)ca. Sort of like Americana, but with a modern twist.]


One of South Sioux City’s newest projects in Freedom Park, a place that celebrates what America is all about and the sacrifices people have made for the U.S.


It’s got a long way to go. This is what the park complex looks like so far.Freedom_2

I have nicknamed the sign in the foreground the Edward Snowden Memorial Entrance Sign, or the WB (Whistle Blower) for short. Could there be any freedom without whistle blowers?


And ironically, is there anything that better defines the Imperial U.S. government bureaucracy (at the moment) than surveillance?

It turns out (in their mind) there can be no freedom without eternal vigilance surveillance.



What’s a Recovering Libertarian?

At a recent family reunion, sitting over pizza at a Pizza Ranch – one of the great Iowa institutions where politicians come to meet Iowans before the Presidential Caucuses to explain their political views and aspirations – my niece asked me to explain my political leanings. (1) What is Communitarianism? (2) How does it differ from Libertarianism? and (3) Why do you call yourself a “recovering Libertarian”? (That’s in my Facebook profile). Those are difficult questions because both movements are rather amorphous and the simple definitions don’t explain anything.

  • Libertarians, for instance, include people primarily interested in small government (my thing, if you’re curious) as well as people primarily interested in the decriminalization of drugs or a whole variety of other activities. It’s an extremely big tent.
  • Communitarianism, similarly, covers a lot of ground. It’s primarily a Roman Catholic movement promoted by groups such as the Chesterton Society; but it also includes back-to-nature localists, grown up hippies who want to live off the land, and anti-urbanists.

How does one succinctly compare and contrast two such disparate movements? (Especially when distracted by “Cactus Bread”!)

A while ago another relative handed me a CD with a set of lectures by (Notre Dame professor) Thomas F. X. Noble, on the history of the papacy. I’m Orthodox, so (he thought) I would obviously be interested in these lectures. Well, not so much, but one ought to be polite, so I listened anyway. Actually, they turned out to be pretty darn good.

It’s too bad I hadn’t listened to the lecture about John Paul II before sitting down to pizza with my niece. That lecture cut to the heart of why I consider myself a recovering Libertarian (and a practicing Communitarian, even though I’m not Roman Catholic).

I am a small government sort of guy because I think that local institutions are better suited to doing many of the tasks that the U.S. Federal government has co-oped for itself. That was my attraction to Libertarianism. What I came to realize is that Libertarians were radically individualistic and in that sense were not the inheritors of Jeffersonian classical liberalism. In spite of the rhetoric, they were far more interested in the absence of government than its structure. More Nietzschean than Lockean, the Libertarians were committed to a personal autonomy that is not very compatible with Christianity.

With this background I turn to the lectures by Thomas Noble:

John Paul II castigated aggressive individualism and acquisitiveness. He wasn’t opposed to wealth or capitalism per se, … What he was really critiquing was the modern secular tendency to place the isolated individual on a pedestal; to take that individual out of all social connection and all social responsibility. ‘It’s all about me, isn’t it?’ ‘Well,’ John Paul said, ‘no it’s not actually,’

I became Libertarian because I thought that the Libertarian Party and Libertarianism in general was about reining in American federal messianism, the government gone mad with power, under the control of the two major political parties bent on growing the influence of government at home and abroad. What I discovered is that what Libertarians were actually about was placing “the isolated individual on a pedestal,” as well as the “removing of all social connection and responsibility.”

Communitarianism, on the other hand, recognized that the local community, with all of its rootedness in place and people, was the foundation of political culture. Liberty is not an attribute of an individual (unless you equate liberty with solipsism), it is an attribute rooted in a community. Liberty does not define me, it defines my relation to those around me.

With that distinction in mind, let me continue the quote from Thomas Noble;

[John Paul II] was seeking a more authentic kind of community. Not the kind of community that’s forced by Soviet collectivization, but the kind of community that is formed by people thinking in the right kind of way joining together for the right reasons.

Following the line of Leo XIII and Pius XI in defending property and defending a living wage, he is harkening back to the notion that the rich have moral obligations to share with the poor.

Talking to the American youth at one of the youth rallies, John Paul II said,

The great gift Americans have is freedom, and freedom is the opportunity to do what is right, which confers on [us] the obligation to do what is right. Freedom gives us, not the liberty to do whatever we want but the obligation to do what is right.

I have always liked John Paul II. But in the past I’ve always focused on his critique of the “culture of death,” which I believe was one of his greatest gifts to the Western world. Until listening to Thomas Noble I had not realized JPII was such a staunch defender of subsidiarity specifically and Communitarianism in general.

I suspect I’ve had a sense for many years, which I’ve not been able to put into words, that Communitarianism was the correct political posture. It insists that governance (whether church or state) be carried out by the most local authority possible, thus shrinking and limiting national bureaucracy. At the same time it insists that institutions and community bonds are not bad, but are actually necessary to our well being because we were not created autonomous individuals. (That sense of autonomy is a result of the fracturing of sin. Read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, to see a great picture of autonomy gone horribly wrong.)

But being (1) an American and (2) a Protestant with that one-two punch of autonomy and private responsibility that they both celebrate, I had no framework in which to formulate a political philosophy that reflected my sensibilities. Not surprisingly, the church, with it’s long history of struggling for the truth against all manner of cultures and societies, had a long established political philosophy that was actually far more Christian than culture-bound.

That being said, I’m still an American and that Protestant mindset runs deep in my being, in spite of the fact that I left Protestantism behind almost two decades ago. That’s why I self-identify as a “Recovering Libertarian.”


I am fascinated by the response to spy scandal. For the most part I’m neither surprised nor upset by it, although I admit I find the trends ominous. I wrote much more extensively about this a year ago, found here. What interests me in the current flap is our focus on the government as the potential abuser of power rather than big business.

It seems we Americans are hard-wired to distrust the government and give everyone else a pass. From where did the NSA get the data? Google, Facebook, the phone companies, etc. Who is better than anyone else at analyzing meta data? Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc. Oh yeah, and don’t forget HyVee and their “innocuous” little loyalty cards. I suspect the NSA are actually a bunch of pikers compared to the geeks out in Mountain View.

The kids in Redmond and Mountain view even have their own airports, their own fleet of planes. Who knows, they probably have their own collection of drones to take out bad internet citizens who block cookies on their browsers and send emails in all caps.

Well, maybe not.

Social networking” (from the server side) is simply a euphemism for figuring out exactly what you’re doing, where, and what you want while you’re doing it, so that the those who are paying attention can connect us with someone who wants to sell us something.

Privacy is dead. The NSA are a bunch of pikers. And has the best deals on the planet tailored to your most secret desires.

Classical Liberalism: A Summary

[This essay is a summary to date of my thinking on Classical Liberalism and the Church. I am writing this as a precursor to some thoughts about Carl Jung, which will come soon in another essay.]

The thesis in much of my recent writing under the category of “Liberty” has been twofold. First, American politics and religion are both inherently Liberal. This includes Republicans and the Tea Party; this includes Evangelicals and Protestant fundamentalists. What we call Conservatism in the modern era is simply a flavor of the Classic Liberalism (or “Jeffersonian Liberalism”) espoused most famously by John Locke and applied to theology (albeit, in a far less virulent form a generation prior) by John Calvin. As Wikipedia accurately describes it,

Classical liberalism is the philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets.

The second part of my argument has been that Classical Liberalism is an inherently secularizing philosophy (which constantly pressures Protestantism toward a secular form of religion). Unfortunately, “secular” is completely the wrong word to use in this context, but I know of no other term which can more adequately bear the burden of what I’m trying to say.

The classic Judeo-Christian way of thinking involves certain assumptions that make Christianity what it is. Without those assumptions, Christianity becomes something rather different than what it ought to be. Among those assumptions are a belief that the interior life of a person is real and capable of doing remarkable things and that there is an inherent link between what has come to be called our spiritual and physical existence. Our material existence (the body) can affect and change our spiritual existence for good or ill. Conversely, our spiritual existence can affect and change our material existence. And finally, among those assumptions is that just as there is an indissoluble link between material and spiritual, so there is an indissoluble link between the one and the many, or the individual and the community.

Our very humanity, our personhood, is not defined only by our material and spiritual aspects, but also by our communal aspect. A person who has cut himself off from all community is less than a person in the classical sense. One might say that a disconnected person has reverted to an aspect of their animal nature.

But Classical Liberalism brings all these relationships (material/immaterial, material/communal, and immaterial/communal) into question. Elsewhere I have traced the secular philosophies rooted in the Enlightenment to Christian practices. Here I will simply highlight the following.

First, Protestants don’t trust ascetical practices. The idea that fasting is not only an interesting and helpful suggestion but an actual necessity for spiritual growth is nearly always dismissed as a form of works religion. I would argue that this reaction to ascetical practices is not so much rooted in a fear of works salvation as it is a bifurcation of the material and immaterial world. It assumes that salvation is primarily spiritual, not physical (as if those two realms can be separated!).

Second, Protestants don’t trust the tradition. I have frequently called this the Berean Heresy. (See, Acts 17:11, where the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonicans because not only did they receive the word, they “examined the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”) Protestants typically believe that a truth from scripture cannot be truth unless it is verified by my own personal study. In this manner, the individual is set as judge over the community and the whole idea that the Holy Spirit reveals himself to the community rather than the individual (Mt. 18:20) is rejected in favor of a privatistic interpretation of scripture. This is a break between the immaterial person (the mind) and the community.

Third, there is a break between the material person and the community. Protestants (and American Catholics!) tend not to trust outside authority. Our churches are volunteer organizations with no real authority over members. Creeds, confessions, and statements of faith tend to be suggestions rather than iron-clad requirements for membership. And while many denominations have some sort of authority structure, the idea of a bishop as the divinely appointed protector of the faith is anathema.

Because of the bifurcation (or in this case, the trifurcation) of the material, immaterial, and communal existence, contemporary Western Christianity is not whole or complete. It is in this sense that I use the word “secular.” Contemporary Christianity goes about its religious practices viewing reality in much the same way as her secular counterparts.

This breakdown is secular, not only because it is incomplete, but because it undermines our perception of the very activity of God in the world. How does God speak to us? Contemporary Christians embrace the idea that God speaks to me, to my heart, that he reveals his will to me. But what if the Bishop said I was supposed to do something that I didn’t want to do? Would that be God speaking? What if I believed I was called to be a pastor, but the church (the congregation or the presbytery, etc.) said I wasn’t qualified? Would I accept that as the voice of God, or would I go find another group more amenable to my personal revelation? The very fact that we ask the question at all belies the fact that we do not trust the community, only our own inner heart.

Our trifurcation (the breaking apart) of material, immaterial, and communal means we distrust the very presence and voice of God in its completeness. In that sense, we are a thoroughly secular religious tradition.

One of the other results is that we fail to appreciate the fullness of our humanity. The human mind, apart from God, is capable of incredible things and can even influence and change the physical world. Because of the Western distrust of the non-material this inherent ability of the non-material person is questioned in both science and religion. But Christians can’t so easily dismiss the spiritual world, so this power is often dismissed as demonic.

And yes the world of spirits, both fallen (demons) and unfallen (angels) is real. But so is the spiritual aspect of humans. One of the products of the secularization of the Western church is the incredible diminishing of our humanity because of our tendency to relegate all powerful or materially significant spiritual activity to angels and demons.

Ah, but aren’t we spiritually dead? Aren’t we incapable of all these things except through the Holy Spirit’s life within us? The classic Christian tradition claims that spiritual death is separation, not annihilation. The death of spirit means that it is subject to corruption because it is cut off from God. But even though it can no longer function to its full capability, because it is corrupt (ie, rusted, like iron is corrupt with that most power solvent, oxygen, and becomes mixed with iron oxide, or rust, and thus weakened), it is still a powerful force.

In this sense, even though cut off from the true God and true religion, the monks of Nepal can do astounding things, not because they are controlled by demons, but because they are not secular and understand the profound relationship between the material and the immaterial.

This is why a careful definition of terms is so critical to understanding the failures of Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Protestant Fundamentalism, and the Western Church in general. We are all Liberals. We have all been liberated from responsibilities of the classical world view and are now free to do as we see best without the burden of ancient rules and customs and without the meddling of other people in our lives. In the process of gaining the ephemera of freedom, we have lost the Body, and in losing the Body, we have lost many of the facets of our connection to God himself. We have been reduced to a largely secular religion.

Eternal Vigilance

I’m currently reading The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, by Thomas P. Slaughter. Near the beginning of Ch. 8 he uses the phrase “eternal vigilance.” “Eternal vigilance was the price paid for the blessings of liberty.” Or as it was stated over 200 years ago:

“Free government, in any country naturally verges by imperceptible advances to tyranny, unless corrected by the vigilance of the people. Nothing but perpetual jealousy of the governed has ever been found effectual against the machinations of ambition.” [From the National Gazette, Jan. 16, 1792, p. 3, as quoted by Slaughter.]

This sentiment, uttered by the so-called “friends of liberty,” was in contrast to the sentiments of the so-called “friends of order,” who were concerned that the American republic was spinning out of control. In this historical context, typical of the periods both before and after the Revolutionary War, the vigilance is required against those that seek too much government.

What struck me about this quote and Slaughter’s slightly altered phrase, “eternal vigilance,” is that in today’s patriotic rhetoric it is rather the “friends of order” who have co-opted the phrase. We are being called to vigilance against foreign enemies. In today’s rhetoric implied in the call for eternal vigilance is a strong standing army, expanded powers for the national police to ferret out dissenters within our borders, both citizens and aliens, and a large military budget to pay for it. Two centuries ago “eternal vigilance” was the watchword against taxes, a standing army, and federal government attempts to clamp down on dissent within its borders.

I wonder if many of today’s patriots who bandy about such sentiment as a defense of our huge, permanent military are aware that they have turned 180° from the sentiment of the Revolutionary period.

A Tale of Two Regions

DATELINE: Port Gibson, MS. On our way to Mississippi to visit family we stayed overnight in Dumas, Arkansas, which, according to local claim, is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta region. (This is not the “Mississippi River Delta” as in the “mouth of the river” south of New Orleans; this is “Mississippi Delta” as in the flat, delta-like land stretching either side of the river from Memphis to Vicksburg where “Delta Blues” music came from.)

Thursday morning we drove south from Dumas through the heart of the Mississippi Delta – some of the richest farmland in America. Last summer some of this land was under the waters of a so-called “500 Year Flood” along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. This year the farmers are getting it back into cultivation. Seeing this recently ravaged, but once again reclaimed and productive land got me thinking about capitalism, mercantilism, and liberty – a topic I haven’t attended to in these essays for quite some time. [Just a note: On the right side of the web page, scroll down to the “Posts by Category” section and click on the “Liberty” category to see the eight previous essays in this series.)

In my essays on liberty I have made a careful distinction between Capitalism and Mercantilism.  Capitalism is an economic system rooted in the free market where market forces determine production, prices, distribution, etc. In political and classroom discourse, Classical Capitalism is most typically contrasted with Classical Socialism, which can be defined as State involvement or control of the means of production, distribution, and prices.

But America is neither capitalistic nor socialistic (although these terms get thrown about a lot, albeit in a rather loose manner). The economic system we have is more properly understood as Mercantilism.  For a detailed technical discussion of mercantilism the article in the Library of Economics and Liberty is very good. For a brief definition, mercantilism is a system of cooperation between government and big business through which big business reaps most of the rewards while much of the risk is born by the taxpayers.

Historically, when money was backed by gold, this arrangement allowed governments build their gold reserves. The trade-off was to give the big businesses with which they were cooperating a competitive advantage. Large multinational businesses were able to increase their profit with little risk while governments built their gold reserves through the resulting trade imbalances, and as long as things were good, everyone in the country benefited. But when things took a turn for the worse, the taxpayer took the brunt of the loss, leaving big business with their profits intact and the government with gold.

Since the demise of hard currency back in the 70s mercantilism has a slightly different character, but the basic structure remains the same. There is close cooperation between big business and government (and today we would have to add the big banks and their currency manipulation which have replaced the hard currency of gold as the third leg to this stool). But it is still true that when there is a downturn, the taxpayer remains responsible for most of the risk.

Wednesday afternoon, on our trip from Kansas City to Dumas, we drove through some of the prettiest country in the U.S. The Ozarks, from Springfield, Missouri down to Little Rock, Arkansas, besides boasting great beauty, also lay claim to very thin, rocky soil which results in poor farmland. the effect is a poverty-stricken region where the farmers barely survive on their farms and the surrounding communities that support the farms are equally poor because so little profit is made on the farms.

In contrast, some of America’s richest agricultural land is found in the Mississippi Delta region a couple hundred miles to the southeast. Historically, the people who were lucky enough to settle in that region made huge fortunes through farming. Even today it is valuable farm land where huge profits can be made.

Of course the reason the Mississippi Delta soil is so rich is that the whole region is river bottomland that, without human intervention, is prone to flooding and periodic changes in the path of the river. The very wealth of the land is built on the destructiveness of the river. In modern times we’ve channelized the river and turned this bottomland into seemingly permanent farmland. The farmers who own it now get the benefit of the once erratic river while the taxpayers pay the cost of the levee system that controls the river. (And only the occasional 500 year flood belies the myth that we control the river.)

And in the event of a 500 year flood, these bottomland farmers also receive payments from the government taxpayers for the destruction of crops and property. The poverty stricken farmers up in the Ozarks have none of the advantages of the farmers in the Delta. Yet when that 500 year flood comes along or a levee needs to be rebuilt, the Ozark farmer’s taxes go to pay for the Delta farmers’ success. In other words, the reward goes to the Delta farmers with the risk passed off to the taxpayers … the very essence of mercantilism.

This illustrates the great extent to which mercantilism has infiltrated our economic system. It is no longer just cooperation between big business and government for the sake of successful foreign trade and a positive trade balance (the classic definition of mercantilism); it is now a cooperative effort between even small businesses and government at the expense of all the taxpayers.

Liberty could be described as “the conditions which allow people to govern themselves.” Our contemporary system of mercantilism, where some people are able to make large profits while passing off the high risk to the taxpayer, undermines liberty because mercantilism is necessarily rooted in coercion. (Those poor Ozark farmers do not willingly nor gladly pay the cost of the risk while the Delta farmers get to keep the majority of the reward.) And once a system of coercion is in place, we become accustomed to government coercion and allow it in other facets of our life together. Coercion – any coercion – is an acid which eats away at the foundation of liberty, creating a culture of dependence.

Sing those Delta blues, my friend, but don’t sing for those Delta farmers, sing it for the Ozark mountain folk eeking out a living in the rocky hardpan hills. That lonesome music may be the only reward they’ll get. for risking their future to the vagaries of mountain farming.

Immigration and Liberty

In my previous post I poked a stick at the immigration issue. It’s easy to say what’s wrong (or at least to point out how silly the debate can occasionally get); it’s a bit more challenging to say something constructive about an issue as intractable as immigration. But since I poked a stick at the bear I figure I should at least take a shot at the subject. But rather than merely say I’m for it or against it, and why, I would like to put immigration into the context of liberty.

And not only liberty, but the ideas of place, limits, and liberty (three terms I borrowed from Front Porch Republic).

I am actually a big fan of limiting immigration and having everyone stay put unless they’ve got a very good reason to go somewhere else. This is the concept of “place.” As much as I’d like (in my imagination) to be one of those so-called “world citizens,” and just travel around from here to there and back again, I know that such an existence is untenable for a real human being. We are creatures of place. We need to be a part of community to fully become what we were meant to be. We need to have our identity planted in a locality in order to have the ability to become expansive. (The same principle applies in child rearing; give a child solid limits and that child then has the ability to grow far beyond the expectations of the parents. Give the child no limits, and he tends to become withdrawn and far less than what was possible.)

Open borders and unlimited immigration implies that “place” is unimportant. Furthermore, open borders and unlimited immigration results in a bland, cultureless society which is a hodge-podge of all that is. (Something that can hardly be called a “place.”) In that environment the genius of any one culture is lost in the competing variety of every other culture.

But while I’m a big fan of closed borders and strict immigration control, the reality is that such a position is untenable in an empire. Alas, the American empire requires porous borders and the free movement of both goods and the labor force. So my love of immigration control is strictly theoretical.

But I ought to define that idea of the American empire. America is not an empire in the same sense that Rome, Babylon, and Egypt were empires. The American empire actually transcends the nation. While it is rooted in America, it is driven by multinational corporations. But without a strong American military and cooperative interrelated governments (such as the European Union, the G8, NATO, SEATO, NAFTA, etc.), multinational corporations wouldn’t have the freedom to homogenize the world as they do. Conversely, without multinational corporations, there would be far less need for all the various treaty organizations. And the engine which continues to drive this interrelationship between government, commerce, and military might is the engine of the United States. It is in that very specific and rather narrow sense that it is proper to refer to an American empire.

But the empire comes at a great cost. The ability of multinational corporations to ship fresh food around the world means that there is an artificial demand for tomatoes in Missoula and Montreal during the winter. And this artificial demand results in huge tomato farms from Southern Baja to Sinaloa in Mexico. In turn these huge agricultural cooperatives, which cater to the multi-nationals, fundamentally change the local economies, inadvertently displacing Mexican workers.

Meanwhile another group of multinationals is buying and butchering beef, then shipping it around the world in quantities that the economy of Siouxland simply cannot support. So it is that Mexican workers, displaced in Southern Baja, migrate to Siouxland to work at factory jobs that the local economy (without this infusion of outside labor) simply can’t support. But arcane and contradictory immigration laws make it such that these factories need far more workers than can legally come to the United States to work. The result is a steady flow of illegal immigrants, which forces the wages which the multinational corporations must pay lower and keeps the prices of the final product lower. The simple fact is that while this system is unfair to some people caught up in it (in this case, the Mexican workers on both sides of the border), it brings the largest economic benefit to the greatest number of people. So it is tolerated.

In short, the modern world could not function without the sort of immigration which exists today. I would argue that the modern world could not function if immigration was made fully legal because of the likelihood of wage increases which would make the price of the final product high enough that it would bring the whole system to a grinding halt.

From a Libertarian perspective, this is all good precisely because it brings the largest economic benefit to the largest number of people. And this brings us from “place” to “liberty.” (We’ll get to “limits” in a moment.) The Libertarian understanding of “liberty” as liberty without limit is the standard definition of liberty today in American political debate. True liberty, in this contemporary American sense, is the liberty to have sex without consequences, the liberty to eat tomatoes in January in Missoula and Montreal without consequences, the liberty to drive from Nebraska to Mississippi and back again twice (with a possible trip from Mississippi to Arkansas to Mississippi again in the middle) without consequences. (I’m thinking ahead to my springtime plans and family obligations.)

Of course all of these things do have consequences. The fact that I’m able to pay for the consequences (an abortion, a dozen tanks of gas, $3 per pound for the tomatoes, $5 per pound for asparagus) is the very essence of American liberty in the world of the American empire (… the whole process oiled by international banking … but that’s another subject entirely).

But it’s not nearly as simple as this. My liberty to have sex, unlimited mileage, and fresh salsa to go on my BLT for Martin Luther King Day, impinges on the liberty of the aborted baby, the Saudi citizen oppressed by the House of Saud emboldened to oppress by an American government that does nothing for fear of losing a source of crude oil, and the Mexican migrant forced to come to Sioux City to work in a packing plant because of the tremendous agricultural disruption in Mexico.

I would therefore propose that liberty without limits is no liberty at all. This sort of liberty is the subjection or servitude (or in the case of the unborn baby, the death) of the invisible parties involved. One cannot have true liberty (in contrast to selfish liberty) without “limits.” But without “place,” “liberty” within the context of “limits” is rather meaningless. But in the context of the American empire, “place” has little or no meaning.

So as long as we live in the context of the American Empire, semi-open borders with purposeful confusion as to just how open they actually are, is absolutely essential. Citizens protecting their property from illegal aliens becomes a threat to the American ideal of liberty without limits. States like Alabama and Arizona, which have imposed strict immigration laws, are considered downright medieval, and people who barter for milk from an actual cow who was probably chewing her cud and watching you drive up the lane to pick up a gallon or two from the farmer, are considered illegal, highly dangerous, and just a little bit crazy.

So, call it crazy, but there is no liberty without place and without limits. Liberty is circumscribed while oppression has few limits.