He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Brain-Dead Utopian Seekers

David Mamet (screenplay of The Untouchables, director of The Spanish Prisoner and The Heist) has a great piece from a couple months ago about his 'conversion' from leftist-socialism to free-market libertarianism, or (in Mamet's words) why he is "no longer a brain-dead liberal."

While the whole article is reflective of Mamet's writing style, one part of it particularly stood out:

As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life....

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

In other words, the whole notion that 'capitalistic America' is
basically evil while the people who benefit from and take part in 'capitalistic America' remain basically good is glaringly inconsistent. Such views are nothing more than dreams of a utopia that simply does not (and never will!) exist.

Through recent years, it's become increasingly clear that one of the fundamental flaws that both 'Christian America' (to the right) and 'Socialist America' (to the left) ironically share is their search and quest for civil utopia. Their goals, presuppositions, and agendas are massively different....and yet they both need a certain amount of intrusive government to pull off their visions.

This explains (in part) why libertarian political and economic philosophy seems so foreign to the average American today. Why? Because we've become so accustomed to trusting the government to provide and produce utopia for us, whether it be in matters of economics or faith/religion. Just listen to the candidate speeches going on during this current election year -- are not most of them filled with 'promises' about what the government is going to do for you? Candidates that run a platform of 'less government' (e.g. Ron Paul) are deemed 'nutty' and 'radical'.

Mamet continues:

What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.

Economist Walter Williams argued a very similar point earlier this month by pointing out that "[m]ost of the great problems we face are caused by politicians creating solutions to problems they created in the first place." Bigger government is not going to solve our problems, whether moral/religious or social/economic!

Mamet's article highlights an interesting irony -- far from allowing individuals, governments, or corporations a blank-check to do whatever they deem right in their own eyes, Libertarian 'freedom' has a remarkably realistic way of approaching the topic of total depravity as a 'given' this side of heavenly perfection. I suspect this is one reason why I find libertarian economic theory to be quite compatible with my Calvinistic-amillennial eschatology, given that neither hold out empty pre-consummational, utopian promises. There is certainly a legitimate place for Christian involvement in civil affairs, but this should not be confused with the only true 'Christian utopia' to be found in the eternal age to come, an age that we partake of even now in an anticipatory form. Failure to make this distinction between the present age (which recognizes the need for the State to bear the sword per Romans 13) and the age to come (which recognizes there will be no need for sword-bearing since the final judgment is now past-tense) continues to be a prime source of error among Christians thinking about politics at present in the US.

Now go watch the Untouchables (again)!


steve said...

"I suspect this is one reason why I find libertarian economic theory to be quite compatible with my Calvinistic-amillennial eschatology..."

As a "confessionally-Reformed-Calvinist-Amillennial Christian secularist," this is what I find compelling. The recent swell of popular rallying for Ron Paul in our circles seems to continue to repeat the very same mistakes found in our Constantian traditon it is trying to counter, namely that the Christian project is at all interested in the affairs of this world: the notion seems to be that one ideology is more or less compatible with our shared theology. Fact is, no ideology is more or less friendly to our confessed religion. That seems to be the point.

I am happy to let those within our narrow and radically intolerant theological confines battle out their ideological differences with charity and radical tolerance. But I am even more happy as a Xian secularist to help remind everyone that we have no stake in any of this, which is to say, you may want to re-think what you mean by "quite compatible." That's what got us here in the first place, you know.


Matt Morgan said...


Maybe "compatible" is not precisely the word I'm looking for.

I suppose I'm trying to answer the question what kind of government provides best accords with (a) non-theocracy and (b) general well-being for its citizens.

Clearly, Christianity can exist in any civil goverment, whether it be socialist China or Cromwellian England....so couldn't we in some sense say any system is 'compatible' (in one sense) with the Christian faith? But clearly not all civil governments are equally 'good' for the well-being of its citizen.

One of Mamet's points is our 3-branch system of government is quite ingenious in terms of the way it provides 'checks and balances' against total depravity within its citizens.....without a religious theocracy (a la the Christian right) OR a dictatorial system (a la the Socialist left) to enforce it.

And so the Libertarian position seems to me to be a pretty good via media....though not the "only compatible" system (which is what I think you hear me to be saying....which would of course be wrong!)

One of course is welcome to come up with some kind of government system in a non-theocratic state....but the one we have seems to work pretty good.