12/26/2005

How The Libertarians Stole Christmas, Part II: Lew Rockwell and The Economic Lessons of Bethlehem

Rockwell's own contribution to a libertarian Christmas has been a piece entitled, 'The Economic Lessons of Bethlehem'.
He starts by writing,
"At the heart of the Christmas story rests some important lessons concerning free enterprise, government, and the role of wealth in society.
Let’s begin with one of the most famous phrases: "There’s no room at the inn." This phrase is often invoked as if it were a cruel and heartless dismissal of the tired travelers Joseph and Mary. Many renditions of the story conjure up images of the couple going from inn to inn only to have the owner barking at them to go away and slamming the door.

In fact, the inns were full to overflowing in the entire Holy Land because of the Roman emperor’s decree that everyone be counted and taxed. Inns are private businesses, and customers are their lifeblood. There would have been no reason to turn away this man of aristocratic lineage and his beautiful, expecting bride".
Hmm...ahh...
"In any case, the second chapter of St. Luke doesn’t say that they were continually rejected at place after place. It tells of the charity of a single inn owner, perhaps the first person they encountered, who, after all, was a businessman. His inn was full, but he offered them what he had: the stable. There is no mention that the innkeeper charged the couple even one copper coin, though given his rights as a property owner, he certainly could have."
Rockwell's observations on the Gospel of St. Luke are absolutely correct; however, here are some other things which that Gospel does not say. It does not say whether or not the inn-keeper had erected a sign saying 'No Dogs or Samaritans' - as a property owner, he would have been perfectly within his rights to do so. Although there is no mention that he charged the Holy Family 'one copper coin' for the use of the stable, there is no mention that he did not.
Indeed, if the inn-keeper were an adherent of the Austrian school and thus a good price-gouger, he would have charged them the same rate for the stable as he would have for a room, given that the state's requirement that every man return to his own place for the census had created a demand from which he, as the controller of valuable resources, was entitled to maximise his profit.
Rockwell then notes,
"It’s remarkable, then, to think that when the Word was made flesh with the birth of Jesus, it was through the intercessory work of a private businessman".
Anf of course the Prophets had nothing to say about it.
The anarcho-capitalist ideology of people like Rockwell is as crazy as Communism, for both make the elemental mistake of elevating the importance of Man. It had been foretold that this would happen - the inn-keeper was merely an actor in a play whose script had been written elsewhere.
Rockwell continues,
"It was because of a government decree that Mary and Joseph, and so many others like them, were traveling in the first place. They had to be uprooted for fear of the emperor’s census workers and tax collectors. And consider the costs of slogging all the way "from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David," not to speak of the opportunity costs Joseph endured having to leave his own business. Thus we have another lesson: government’s use of coercive dictates distorts the market".
This line of argument completely neglects to mention the factor which was most relevant to Joseph's motivation.
He was a religious man - the "opportunity costs" involved in leaving his business were of very much lesser importance to him than that he obey the command of his God. So while he may have been concerned at the loss of income involved in the journey to Bethlehem, he realised that his higher duties to the rule of his God and the rule of Roman law meant that he would have to go.
Such analyses as Rockwell's always assume that at all times and under all circumstances individuals will act for solely economic motives. Some people always do, for sure: but they are thankfully few and far between.
And even if St. Joseph were one of them, receiving a direct order from God to act in a way contrary to your business' best interests would always merit heeding.
Rockwell goes on,
"Once having found the Holy Family, what gifts did the Wise Men bring? Not soup and sandwiches, but "gold, frankincense, and myrrh." These were the most rare items obtainable in that world in those times, and they must have commanded a very high market price.

Far from rejecting them as extravagant, the Holy Family accepted them as gifts worthy of the Divine Messiah. Neither is there a record that suggests that the Holy Family paid any capital gains tax on them, though such gifts vastly increased their net wealth. Hence, another lesson: there is nothing immoral about wealth; wealth is something to be valued, owned privately, given and exchanged."
Apart from the fact that he's jumped from Luke to Matthew, I agree with him about wealth - yet there is nothing in that Gospel to indicate that the Holy Family had the slightest care for the gifts' values. Rockwell is again imputing to them the motives of his own brand of anarcho-capitalism.
And the Magi were not engaging in philanthropy - they were honouring a fellow king.
Rockwell concludes by saying,
"In the Gospel narratives, the role of private enterprise, and the evil of government power, only begin there. Jesus used commercial examples in his parables (e.g., laborers in the vineyard, the parable of the talents) and made it clear that he had come to save even such reviled sinners as tax collectors."
And he also threw the money-changers out of the Temple.

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