Peter Leithart: More Statism
I got some flak, of course, for criticizing Peter Leithart for his confused thoughts on capitalism and helping the poor. The most emotional of all responses told me, “Peter Leithart is not a statist, that’s ridiculous.” Others agreed that Leithart, by writing on capitalism and economy, is playing out of his league, but that the Federal Vision has nothing to do with Leithart’s confusion of mind. In other words, either I have misunderstood Leithart, or he has misunderstood his own theology and its practical implications.
Before I could answer my critics, Leithart answered them. He continued his thoughts in another one of those essays on capitalism, free markets, and the state. He says this time that without state intervention there can be no economy. Yes, intervention is the word he uses. Not protection. Intervention. We’ll see why. He was informed that he was in a hole. Instead of looking for ways to get out of the hole, he is digging deeper.
Here is his article: “State-free economy?”
Guess what arguments he uses to defend his defense of state intervention in the economy. Socialist arguments, used by all socialists and statists today. First, we can’t do without state intervention in the economy because the state must intervene to enforce contracts, and this is the minimum. Heard that one from your Marxist professors? Second, the only free economy we can have is a tribal economy; if we want to have a modern, developed economy, we need the modern bureaucratic state. In other words, our choice is a sliding scale between Somalia and Sweden: Somalia as the true libertarian economy, and Sweden as the true modern economy. Heard that one from your Marxist professors?
If we concede that Leithart is not a Marxist, then we must say that among all non-Marxist writers, he has an unusually high ratio of agreement with Marxism and an unusually high inclination to use Marxist arguments when it comes to economy. And of all theologians, he has an unusually low willingness to refer to Biblical principles when talking about society or economy or law, and an unusually high obsession with the “modern” as opposed to what was before, for example, when that old tribal code of Moses was applicable in that old tribal economy.
To explain why he believes that a state intervention is inevitable, he says the following:
Virtually every time two individuals or two companies enter into a contractual agreement, they invoke the legal power of the state.
What he means is that since there is always the possibility of one of the parties in an economic contract not fulfilling their obligations, that possibility, and the consequent action by the state to restore justice, it is a sufficient proof that the state must intervene in the economy. The justification for state intervention is not really in the economic actions of the participants; Leithart’s whole argument – which is the argument of all statists and socialists too – rests on that possibility of fraud or violation of the contract.
What he doesn’t do is apply the same argument across the board to find out if it holds water. I’ll do it for him:
“Virtually every time when a man and a woman enter into marriage, there is the possibility of one of them committing adultery, or not fulfilling their obligations. Therefore, a state-free family is impossible, and therefore, the state must intervene in the family, enforcing marriage contracts, at a minimum.”
But why limit the argument to contracts? After all, the possibility of people committing crimes is not limited to economic contracts or marriage vows. Any communication between two persons runs some possibility to end up in a crime, whether a murder or a robbery, or some injury an din this case, this website is a great resource where people can get compensation for such damages. Even if we don’t officially sign a contract with the people we meet on the street, we still expect them to obey certain rules as if there was a formal contract. So, let’s apply Leithart’s argument here:
“Virtually every time when two persons are in communication with each other, there is the possibility of a crime. Therefore, state-free communication is impossible, and therefore, the state must intervene in every communication between persons.”
Indeed, Leithart should be able to conclude: State-enforced marriage relations and state-enforced rules for personal communication reduce risks and encourage marriages and personal communication. And the same can be said about every single aspect of our society because there are possibilities for crimes in every single aspect of our society, including in the church. (How about state intervention in the church? Jordan wanted to vote for Romney for Romney would have “left the church alone.” But is it possible to have a state-free church? Shouldn’t the state intervene in the church?)
Leithart’s argument, if developed to its logical end, will lead to a full-fledged defense of the totalitarian state. Oh, wait, scratch “will” from the previous sentence. Leithart’s argument is indeed used today for a full-fledged defense of the totalitarian state by Marxists, socialists, and statists. And Leithart is arguing for intervention of the state in the economy. Why intervention? Leithart explains it:
“Intervention” implies that the state is “outside” reaching “in.”
I think Douglas Wilson needs to teach his friend some basic Latin. “Intervention” doesn’t imply “reaching” at all. It comes from inter and venīre, “come between.” To intervene is “to come between two things,” in this case, between the two participants on the market, so that they can’t deal with each other unless they go through the state. Another dictionary meaning for “to intervene” is “to involve oneself in a situation so as to alter or hinder an action or development.” Leithart’s choice of a word certainly doesn’t describe what he claims it describes, but rather denotes what any Marxist, socialist, or statist would like to see the state do to the economy, or to the society in general.
But I guess, trying to understand the true meaning of the word, or looking up its dictionary definition is my “semantic prerogative.” Just like with “capitalism,” Leithart has his own unique definitions of things and builds his theology and ideology around them.
The use of the word is important, and it shows something of Leithart’s intentions. Of course, his supporters will claim that Leithart’s use of the word is innocent, that he doesn’t mean what Marxists, socialists, and statists mean by it. In other words, that he doesn’t know what he is doing.
And the reason I disagree is that there is a second witness to Leithart’s true meaning and ideology, in the very same article. It is here:
At a minimum, the state is the guarantor of contracts. . . .
Also at a minimum, the state is the guarantor of property rights.
“At a minimum.”
The Law of God determines these as the maximum of the legitimate action of the state in the economy – if it can really be called “action in the economy,” as we will see later. But Leithart has abandoned theonomy long ago – if he ever held it at all – and that’s why in his writings about economy, market, and capitalism he insists so much on the concept of modern economy, as opposed to that old, pre-modern, tribal state of humanity where the Law of God could be applied. (Ever heard that argument from Socialists, about “modern” and “pre-modern”?) The bureaucratic state is important for the modern economy, and its guaranteeing contracts and property rights is only the “minimum.” There, apparently, is more than just that, and the word “intervention” is not chosen lightly, or out of its true meaning. Leithart has much greater – that is “more modern” – role for the state in the economy.
Those who insist that Leithart is not a statist, are simply not reading what he is actually saying.
Those of us who understand and subscribe to the Covenant Theology of the Bible can reply to Leithart’s argument:
By enforcing marriage contracts, the state is not “intervening” in the family because adultery is not a family affair anymore, it is a violation of the family covenant. Adultery is not a “family affair,” it is a destruction of the family, and therefore when the state enforces the marriage contract, it doesn’t “intervene” in the family, simply because covenantally, there is no family anymore. By committing adultery, the guilty spouse places himself or herself out of the marriage covenant, under the curse of the state, and therefore there is no “reaching in” by the state. The transgressor has put himself in the realm of action of the state by his action, and therefore the state is acting in its own realm, without entering the realm of another institution.
In the same way, murder is an action that happens between two individuals but it is not an “inter-personal” issue. It is an issue between the murderer and God, and the murderer and the Law. By committing murder, the criminal exits the legitimate realm of inter-personal relationships and enters the realm of justice, that is, he places himself under the curse of God and the punishment of the state. The state, when executing murderers, is not “intervening,” it is taking care of those who have entered the realm of earthly justice by their crimes. (See Gary North’s discussion on duelling in his Tools of Dominion, Chapter 9.)
To say that violation of economic contracts is “economy” is the same as to say that adultery is a “family thing” or that murder is an “inter-personal relationship.” To make it even clearer, a violation of contract is theft, and therefore Leithart is basically saying that theft is part of the economy. And then he justifies the state’s intervention in the economy on the basis of that.
But theft is not part of the economy, and violation of contracts is not part of the economy, and therefore the actions of the state in protecting property rights are properly not an “intervention” in the economy. Economic assets are involved in both theft and fraud but theft and fraud are crimes, and therefore they are not “economy,” they are injustice. Theft and fraud have nothing to do with stewardship of assets; but since Leithart has abandoned the concept of the Dominion Mandate, stewardship of assets is not high on his list of theological principles. Ironically, it is some secular libertarians who use the argument that theft and fraud are legitimate part of the economy; Leithart takes their definitions, and then uses their definitions to agree with the statists. What is missing in his articles is Biblical definitions, and Biblical solutions.
This is the view on contracts and property from a Biblical, covenantal position. Robbery, theft, fraud are not “economy.” But Leithart needs them to be “economy” to justify his claim that we need state intervention in the economy. There is nothing innocent about his argument. And there certainly is no room for misunderstanding what he means.
In other words, Leithart is a confirmation of what I have said before: We don’t have a problem with socialists; we have a problem with our own Christian celebrities. With theologians like Leithart, who needs socialists?
Combined with Jordan’s earlier defense of centralized government and his call to Christians to vote for a Satanist with openly statist ideology, I can safely say that the Federal Vision is going socialist and statist in its practical ideology. Any claims to the contrary will have to deal not with my articles but with the solid evidence in Jordan’s and Leithart’s articles. The attempts to explain away that evidence and justify these two prominent FV writers as not meaning what their words plainly say are hardly convincing.
Like my friend said: “High-churchism always ends up an ally of statism.”