Two asides on the Economy, for the nerdy

First aside, on social contract and the economy. Thinking this over I realized why “the economy” is what politicians talk about all the time. Democracy brings blessings! This is the needed stand-in for a political theory of the good. If the economy is expanding and jobs are being created, we must be doing what is right. Think about Bill Clinton’s famous in-house campaign slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!” The test of any sitting president (or party) seems to be his “handling of the economy”. At the end of George W. Bush’s presidency the hot topic changed dramatically from our ongoing wars to the economy, and many believe this proved decisive in the election of Barack Obama. Last week’s Economist opined that the economy will probably make the next presidential election as well.

In effect, the economy is a stand-in for God, or at least for natural law. Its judgment is the final word. A social contract that brings wealth not only represents my good (because it is a social contract) but also the good (because prosperity is a transcendent gift). That is the subtext of neoconservatism and the reason American leaders think that “what we have” can and should be exported (by force, if necessary) to other parts of the world. And the reason that “the economy” is a litmus test for a statesman: if the blessing of wealth is pouring out, the statesman must be serving “the good”; if not, he is failing in his quasi-priestly duty.

An interesting side-effect is that politicians can’t find it in themselves to properly criticize coercive but economically prosperous regimes – notably China. Some of this certainly comes from an unwillingness to irritate trade partners and creditors. But some of it reflects a theoretical problem as well. How bad can a country be if it “works”? After all, what truly damned Russian Communism were the bread lines and Ladas, right?

My second aside is for people familiar with the Covenanter tradition of political dissent in the British Isles and in the United States. The Covenanters and their heirs probably mistook biblical covenant-making and covenant renewal for social contracts (see 2 Chronicles 15:12; 29:10; 34:29-32; Nehemiah 9:38). Biblical covenants were both less flexible, since they continually returned to God’s revealed will, and more flexible, since they adapted to changes in polity and social needs, than Western social contracts like the U.S. Constitution are. Writers like Sam Brown Wylie baptized social contracts and dubbed them covenants. The result has been two centuries of heartburn over political involvement and covenant thelogy turned to hash.

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The Desire of the Nations, Chapter 2, part 3

The theory of authority, other than “social contract theory, that has dominated the West dates to the late Middle Ages. It roots the alienating nature of political authority – that political authority chooses for me things that are not my choice – in the vast difference between God and his creatures – what theologians call the “creator-creature distinction”. God commands us, through Scripture or human mediaries (like the king), and his command must be obeyed. A grand jury summons me to appear in court, on pain of a fine or arrest; it is probably for “the good”, but I have no idea whether it is for “my good”. This account does a good job of explaining why political authority brings the good to bear on us. It is God’s command and therefore good by nature. But it does a poor job of showing that God’s command is good for us as well. In fact it tends to portray God as foreign, far off, alien, and perhaps not interested in our good at all; just threatening us with punishment for disobedience.

O’Donovan believes that when ancient Israelites proclamed, as in Psalm 99, “Yahweh is King!” they were not following either of these routes. The kingship of their God was, obviously, not the result of a social contract. But it was also not merely the byproduct of God’s existence and infinite power. Instead it is the result of God keeping faith with his creation. He has shown his loving authority to a world in rebellion against him. “This authority evokes free action because it holds out to the worshippers a fulfilment of their agency within the created order in which their agency has a place and a meaning,” (32). In other words, the one who made us (and therefore knows our good intimately) commands us to live in the way he shows to be right – the way he has built the universe. This is how God’s authority over Israel could present both “the good” and “their good”. 

The Desire of the Nations, Chapter 2, part 2

Two ways of looking at authority have dominated over the past seven hundred or so years.

The first theory is back of the American Constitution: social contract theory. The idea is that at some point in the past “we” (our nation, or city, or human society in general) decided to trade some personal liberty for the security of laws that restrict all of us from doing whatever we want. This view of the world owes a lot to John Locke, who wrote of a primeval “state of nature” in which isolated humans roamed around, doing whatever they pleased, each looking out for number one. (This state of nature probably never existed, but we’ll go with it.) Then humans figured out that they could do better, and they entered into a “social contract,” an agreement to respect “rights” like property, life, and freedom and punish those who violated others’ rights. This social contract is the source of all political authority.

What this theory does pretty well is explain why political authority is “alienated” (it makes demands on me ) and yet still somehow “my good”. Following certain rules is my decision, as part of a certain culture or human society in general, even though I don’t feel like it at the moment. Long ago we made a decision, and that decision remains in force despite our changing whims. By way of example, let’s say I buy an expensive ticket to a concert, but at the last minute I get sick (or sick of the band) and don’t want to go. The ticket is non-refundable. If I don’t go, I face the pain of losing my money. If I do go, I face the pain of doing something I no longer want to do. The fact that I paid money already and have the ticket in my hand tells me: this was my decision. Social contract theory tells me that these rules, laws, rights, etc. are my rules, laws, and rights – alienated rules, laws, and rights.

What this theory does very badly is show that the social contract’s authoroity enforces “the good” – what is actually, objectively right and beneficial. Knowing that I bought my concert ticket – that it was my decision – does not assure me that I’ll go to the concert when I go to it. Knowing that the Founding Fathers thought democracy was a good way to run a nation may tell me why, historically, I live in a democracy, but it can’t possibly prove that they were right in the first place. What makes the laws of a long time ago any better than the laws and ideas of today? Why, for instance, keep an 18th century “right to keep and bear arms” when our culture and technology have changed drastically since then (as in, we have machine guns and bombers now)?

For this reason there is ongoing tension in the USA between advocates of a “living document” view of the Constitution and “strict constructionists”. Both agree that right and wrong are up to us. The strict constructionists think it best to put the brakes on change. The revisionists think change is an improvement. But their basic assumption is the same: the rules are what we decide(d) they are. Both are subject to the same authority problem: social contract theory explains why “the rules” bind me, but they do nothing to show that they are good. (That must come from some source completely outside of political theory.)


The Desire of the Nations, Chapter 2, part 1

What is authority? How is it different from force, or power, or persuasion? Authority, according to O’Donovan, is something we submit to without needing a reason. Beauty has authority: no one needs to tell us to look at (or make) something beautiful. It is worthwhile “just because”. Likewise truth has authority: scholarship is an end in itself, even if it never makes you rich or popular. For political authority to be authority, it must have this same characteristic.

But there’s more to it. This is difficult to follow, but political authority is a different kind of authority: we freely submit to it even when it means giving up good things. Political authority performs a balancing act:

  • it makes us give up doing things we want to do for the sake of “the good”
  • but at the same time we recognize that it is “our good”

Political authority has a purpose that I would not have planned for myself, but a purpose that is nevertheless a blessing to me. Examples abound. Political authority has me give up driving my car as fast as possible down the road (a thing worth doing for its own sake, as most young men can tell you) for the sake of the world’s good, but I know that the law is not just being a buzzkill: the speed limit is also good for me, and if I’m honest I’ll admit it. Political authority places limits on my authority over my children: I may not decide whether they live or die (as fathers in some cultures may). Parental power and authority are limited for the sake of the children and society at large. But that limitation is also presented as somehow good for me, the father who is being limited. It’s not just a matter of taking something from me and giving it to others. It’s somehow right even for me.

How can political authority do both? How can it limit my good in the name of the good, and simultaneously maintain my good? It’s got to be different from force or power: anyone with a gun can get someone else to do things against his will, but that’s not “authority”, it’s force. Power is an even broader concept: someone can possess power in the form of wealth or beauty or education or age, and this will enable her to dominate another without regard for the other’s good. Persuasion is focused on someone’s good (mine or everyone’s) but it is always standing at the door begging, as it were; it does not have the right to expect to be obeyed, as authority does.

This question – what is authority? – is basic to political theology.