Ludwig von Mises smacks down latest religious-right talking point

Right-wing hero Ludwig von Mises approaches the Jesus of the Bible the same way that Chuck Colson does — which is to say that he’s primarily interested in whether or not it will rile up the peasants or keep them sedate.

But where Colson invokes Jesus as a helpful moralist who can keep the peasants in line, von Mises sees Jesus as a dangerous class warrior seething with resentment toward his betters.

They’re both full of it. Colson hears a call for justice and calls it envy. Von Mises hears a call for justice and calls it “resentment.” Both are ridiculously confused.

This is not a minor point. This is, at a fundamental level, the confusion of virtue and vice. People who condemn justice are not to be trusted.

But von Mises’ nonsense is at least based on a more plausible reading of the Gospels. And it’s worth citing here, if only as an antidote to the current in-vogue talking point (Colson, Dave Ramsey, Tony Perkins) aiming to dismiss all criticism of the 1-percent kleptocracy as mere “envy.”

That’s not a talking point being promoted by smart people, honest people or good people. But it’s definitely making the rounds among those lacking one or more of those characteristics.

Colson, Ramsey and Perkins all insist that Jesus stands with them on the side of the rich and in opposition to the envious peasantry. Ludwig von Mises scoffs at that claim.

Here — via naked capitalism, via AZspot — is a relevant excerpt from von Mises’ Socialism, first published in 1922:

Since the third century Christianity has always served simultaneously those who supported the social order and those who wished to overthrow it. Both parties have taken the same false step of appealing to the Gospels and have found biblical passages to support them. It is the same today: Christianity  fights both for and against Socialism.

But all efforts to find support for the institution of private property generally, and for private ownership in the means of production in particular, in the teachings of Christ are quite vain. No art of interpretation can find a single passage in the New Testament that could be read as upholding private property. …

One thing of course is clear, and no skillful interpretation can obscure it. Jesus’ words are full of resentment against the rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect. The Rich Man is condemned because he is rich, the Beggar praised because he is poor. The only reason why Jesus does not declare war against the rich and preach revenge on them is that God has said: “Revenge is mine.” In God’s Kingdom the poor shall be rich, but the rich shall be made to suffer. …

Nothing, therefore, is less tenable than the constantly repeated assertion that religion, that is, the confession of the Christian Faith, forms a defense against doctrines inimical to property, and that it makes the masses unreceptive to the poison of social incitement. Every church which grows up in a society built on private property must somehow come to terms with private property. But considering the attitude of Jesus to questions of social life, no Christian church can ever make anything more than a compromise here, a compromise which is effective only as long as nobody insists on a literal interpretation of the words of the Scriptures.

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  • pharoute

    The rich man isn’t condemned, he just can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. A small but critical distinction. Now I am wondering if von Mises was just being sloppy or setting up a strawman.

    And just to play along with the “condemned” view, to be rich in the First Century meant exploiting the workers at a level that billionaires today would be envious of. It’s not the end which is condemned but the means.

  • WingedBeast

    It’s hard to read “far easier is it for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.  Take that and add in the binary afterlife view that is common to most Christianity that you either go to that Kingdom of Heavan or the pits of Hell, it’s easy to see that as condemnation.

    In either case, though, Jesus was never really all that favorable on anybody with any wealth and I’m not aware of any mention of honorable methods of attaining wealth.  There is a lot about the only perfect way to live for anybody being to sell all worldly goods and give to the poor.

    Either way, biblically, Jesus wasn’t all free-market worship.

  • Rose

    ” no Christian church can ever make anything more than a compromise here, a compromise which is effective only as long as nobody insists on a literal interpretation of the words of the Scriptures.”……..Holy hell! And here I thought it was the secularists who don’t take the bible literally.

  • pharoute

    Aha! you have fallen into my clever trap! :-) As Fred has pointed out the modern view of Hell isn’t Biblical anyway. But yes to modern Christians the rich man is condemned, and Jesus was certainly no capitalist. It’s almost like modern Christianity is now trying to keep their biggest donors happy.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    von Mises seems to have read too much Nietzsche.  Nietzsche goes on ad nauseum about how the Christians and the Jews resented their Masters.  Ironically, Nietzsche is quite resentful that the slaves figured out how to overthrow the Masters by poisoning their language.

  • Anonymous

    Every time someone mentions von Mises, I think of von Mises stress, which is the kind of mechanical stress all we poor engineering students loved to calculate the most because it is easy, and made pretty pictures on our charts.
    The professor would always complain that we didn’t know how to use it properly, but I didn’t listen, because I had way too much other homework to do to give a crap.

    I don’t know who the hell this other douchebag is.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    From the Tony Perkins article:

    Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance.

    He thinks equality of outcomes is an idea that has occupied America for the last few decades?


  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Dave Ramsey says

    At the core of this demand [to raise taxes] is envy.

    So…what’s the deal with people who want to raise taxes on a group that includes themselves?

    Or people in countries with a much higher marginal tax rate than the US who are happy with their local policy and want to keep it that way?

  • Oh, Dave Ramsey. I’ve got a teacher who makes us watch his videos all the freakin’ time. I despise Dave Ramsey so very, very much.

  • ako

    Well, you know, sports teams hand out participation trophies to everyone, instead of only giving trophies to winners!

    Obviously not all sports teams, but some.  Granted, mostly ones aimed at young children.  At least it’s been said that they do.  There is definitely a significant possibility that some team of five-year-olds is getting participation trophies for everyone, instead of special rewards for the winners and nothing for the losers.  That proves that the collectivist “everyone gets a trophy” mentality is dominating the country!

  • Anonymous

    The standard “Jesus was capitalist” line involves pointing out the dozen-odd parables that involve debts, investment, etc. Generally the owner is not condemned; in fact, he usually corresponds to God. Jesus is often grudging when accepting the role of money, work, etc. in society, though – see the parable of the dishonest manager, and the tax collection “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

  • nirrti

    I was wondering when Fred was going to write about Perkin’s article.

    My eyes felt such indignation for being used to read that dreck I’m surprised they didn’t jump out of my skull to escape.

  • Kim

    The story of the rich man and Lazarus at his gates does not say whether the rich man enters specifically “Hell”, but it does show that he is condemned to some sort of punishment.

  • Nekouken

    Amanda Marcotte wrote what I found to be a very thoughtful article on this several months ago. Is the end goal of all competition merely to separate winners from losers? Perhaps in major league sports, but not in schools. At all academic levels athletic programs at least have as their original intent the health and fitness of the student body. High school and college football, baseball and a handful of other sports have subverted that, but i’ll let that slide for now because it creates opportunities where there might not be some (the quality of those opportunities being the subject of another discussion). Most academic athletic programs are designed to keep the student body fit. A program like that accomplishes its goal much better, I think, when every participant is given encouragement. Instead of keeping scores in gym class, why not wipe the slate clean at the end of every game. “Yeah, you lost, but you’ll get them next time!” Competition is not the only way to get people, including children, interested and involved in activites designed to keep them healthy.

  • Cor

    Dave Ramsey.  If you think it’s crazy-making to listen to his “economics” or theology, try being a financial planner and listening to his “investment philosophy.”  Egads.  He generally recommends mutual fund brokers to fee only planners (stupid and expensive)*, repeatedly advises a tremendously risky portfolio of funds (25% each of growth, growth and income, aggressive growth, and international = stupid and risky)**, and has told retirees on his show to expect to spend 8% or their nest egg per year (12% “average” stock market returns less 4% inflation) which is amazingly, jaw-droppingly stupid (generally accepted safe maximum withdrawal rate is about 4%).***

    Dave Ramsey, good for getting out of debt, but once you have your emergency fund in place, hire a real financial planner for pete’s sake.

    *** I don’t have a citation of this incident because I heard it in the archive one day, and didn’t write it down.  :(

    If anyone wants me to go into detail as to why I say that advice is stupid, please ask.  I’ve already gotten off-topic enough, and I don’t want to go further unless someone really cares about it.

  • Anonymous

    The story of the rich man and Lazarus at his gates does not say whether the rich man enters specifically “Hell”, but it does show that he is condemned to some sort of punishment.

    Not because he’s rich, but because he’s a dick, what with letting Lazarus fester and die at his gate. At least, that’s my interpretation.

    As for the eye of the needle, all it means is that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom, because they tend to be dicks, either because they behaved dickishly to gain their wealth, or having gained their wealth, they start thinking they’re superior people, i.e., dicks.

    What is the greatest commandment? Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like unto it: Don’t be a dick.

  • Anonymous

    Please note that parables are analogies, not true stories.  Jesus was talking about God as somebody in a role that people would be familiar with.

  • I was on a T-ball team when I was 6.  Most of us were as comically incompetent as any bunch of small children on a T-ball team, but we dominated the neighborhood league, because we had two players who could actually hit, run, throw and catch.

    We all got league-champion trophies after a season in which we lost only one game.  I think I still have the trophy somewhere.  But most of us were free riders!  It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a participation trophy, it still wasn’t properly meritocratic.  I think this notion of “teams” is suspiciously communistic!

  • Anonymous

    “At the core of this demand [to raise taxes] is envy.”

    I’ll cop to it: I am envious of the lower unemployment we saw with higher taxes.  I am envious of the infrastructure we built with higher taxes.  The scientific discoveries we made with higher taxes. The technological advances.

    I am envious of my parents and grandparents- all public school teachers- and the interest rates the banks paid them, their ability to buy homes in pre-balloon housing markets, the security of their pension funds, the fact of no one threatening to cut or privatize their Social Security rather than make easy fixes.

    I am envious of the booming economy that we enjoyed when I went to college under the slightly higher tax rates of the 1990s, as compared to the economy and job market of historically low tax rates that followed.

    It must be envy, right? Why else would I think the current economic conditions and practices are not optimal?

    I am resentful of anyone who with a straight face can suggest that the eras of greatest growth in American history were actually a socialist nightmare and that any calls for a reversal of the policies that turned a surplus into a deficit and turned 4% unemployment into 10% unemployment and saw the rate of deep poverty rise to the highest level since 1993 (coincidence?) are merely petty envy and resentment.

    And I say this as a fortunate member of the 53%. As I heard a rich Obama supporter say in 2008, higher taxes on more money beats lower taxes on less money. At least for 99% of us.

  • There is definitely a significant possibility that some team of five-year-olds is getting participation trophies for everyone, instead of special rewards for the winners and nothing for the losers. 

    I was on a soccer team like this a little over ten years ago. What they did was give everyone a participation trophy and then hand out little medals for the kids who were actually good. (Not me. My idea of a fun soccer game was one I spent on the sidelines picking clover. I think I actually sat down on the field a couple times, because I was tired and didn’t want to run anymore.)

  • Anonymous

    They can say Jesus never supported coerced redistribution… He prefered to coerce through hell-scare (“far easier is it for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”) for the rich who didn’d sell all their possesions and shared it with the poor.

  • Anonymous

    You know, I have had run ins with Ludwig von Mises followers before.  There is one particular argument that I found particularly disturbing.

    That the free market always provides the most effective way of producing goods and services is explicitly raised to the status of a necessary truth (I think they regard it as mathematically proven).  So any time a free market winds up not delivering things as expected, the problem is not with the free market system but because this market isn’t really free in some way – probably because of the Government.

    In roughly the same way that most of us, if we know we put a shilling in the piggy-bank and then another shilling, then find that there’s only one there later, would conclude that someone has taken a shilling, not that arithmetic is wrong.

    I know a lot of free marketeers argue in practice roughly like this, but I’ve never heard the goodness of the free market explicitly ellevated to a necessary truth before.  There’s usually at least a vague acknowledgement that empirical proof otherwise could, maybe, be bought to bear, even if they don’t think that there is or will be such proof.

    I can only hope it doesn’t catch on – it’s very effective insulation against empirical evidence that free markets aren’t always better than other arrangements.

  • Karl Polanyi offered an interesting argument against Mises. He said, “Okay, you are right that the free market does a good job, EXCEPT it does not distribute economic power very well. Here’s my fix for that.”

  • Caveman

     if you aren’t able to enter heaven, then where, exactly, are you expected to go?

    The strawman is built up and torn down when rhetoric has no other fodder with which to do battle; religion will always have such fodder, and it will always be less strong than any strawman.