Thomas Merton: Seeing the Salvation of God

For several months I have been feeling diffuse, totally out of control of my life. Tension and anxiety can rule during such periods, and it’s no fun. I sleep with the television on to block out the runaway train of my ruminations. Sometimes it works; sometimes it makes things worse.

I had been seeking some good wholesome, even spiritual, reading to put myself back together, to get rid of that feeling of being a disassembled jigsaw puzzle. But what should I read? Nothing I found in my own library or on Amazon seemed to be what I needed right now. Then a friend of mine gave me this book, The Intimate Merton—a selection of his journal writings from just before he entered the monastery in 1941 until his untimely death in 1968.

Merton was a monk of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at the Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he went by his religious name, Fr. Louis. He was born into a cultured family and spent a great deal of his childhood in Europe. He was a student at Oxford and Columbia and a gifted writer.

Merton is perhaps most famous for his confessions, The Seven-Storey Mountain, his story of conversion to Catholicism, which was published early in his life. This is how I first made my acquaintance with his work in college, but since then I’ve been unable to dig in too much to his other books, until this volume of journals came along.

He was no stranger to controversy. Even in the “anything goes” Sixties a monk was playing with fire by dabbling in Eastern religions. In about 1965 the Abbot gave Merton permission to live by himself in a hermitage separate from the rest of the monastery, which occasioned some murmuring amongst the more traditionally-minded. Documentation of irregular behavior—he did in fact fall in love with a nurse who cared for him after an operation and stayed in touch with her for some time—has almost certainly derailed any possibility of his ever becoming a canonized saint in the Catholic Church, though the Episcopalians celebrate a feast in his honor on December 10, the date of his death.

Merton was an honest soul, which is to say that he was a tortured one. His private journals illustrate constant agonizing over whether or not he was doing the right thing. This only seemed to get worse with age. Some people can’t stand indecision, but I think this is what makes Merton so readable. There is an intellectual humility that appeals to anyone who is not a self-assured jackass. Bertrand Russell seems to be his agnostic or atheist counterpart. It certainly isn’t Richard Dawkins. “Humility is more important than zeal,” Merton wrote on December 11, 1961.

Like many great figures of history, Merton’s work is needlessly circumscribed by the human tendency to shoehorn everyone into a category, to decide if he’s a This or a That—and then to embrace or oppose him accordingly. This does great violence to thinkers, even to many of the people we admire the most. Merton is often considered a darling of the Catholic Left, and certainly he was liberal about many things. But I wonder how many people who fixate on these things know, for instance, that Merton carved out his own path with respect to the reforms and upheavals that were taking place in the Catholic Church in the wake of the II Vatican Council. The point, I guess, is that he deserves to be taken on his own terms, like everyone else does. Off with the tyranny of intellectual collectivization!

As a musician, I found a number of journal entries that could be set to music. His recounting of the fire watch on July 4, 1952 is particularly stirring, in which he intertwines a description of the rounds of the monastery’s night watchman with a love song to God that serves as a precious mirror image of the work of St. Francis:

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.

As an owl, this appeals to me very much. “The night,” says Merton, “was never made to hide sin but only to open infinite distances to charity and send our souls to play among the stars.”

Young Fr. Louis winds his way through the monastery, and eventually up to its peak, the steeple, from which he can seeing the rolling hills of the countryside, where he meditates on the beauty of creation and what he calls God’s unanswered question—hints of Leonard Bernstein?

Lord God of this Great night: do you see the woods? Do You hear the rumor of their loneliness? Do You behold their secrecy? Do You remember their solitudes? Do You see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?

“It must be nice to sit around and think all the time,” some of you must be saying. Merton clears this up: solitude will force you to face all your faults, all the ugly stuff of life, in a very real way. I have heard as much from other monks. And look at all the distraction people indulge just to avoid having to think about anything. That’s what television is for, after all. In a very real sense, Merton, in all his solitude was more alive than many of us will ever be. This kind of life is not meant for everyone, but it’s the only way to live for those who are destined for it.

This is one of those books that changes the tempo of the reader’s life. It’s impossible to spend much time with Merton before he rubs off on you. I found myself cultivating little shelters of silence, slowing down my pace in general, stopping to enjoy little beauties that we’re usually tempted to dismiss as insignificant. And then I stopped needing the television to put me to sleep at night, and I’m even considering cutting back on the caffeine. Well, maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

More significantly, though, I have developed more of an aptitude for patience while reading this book. Most thoughtful people grant Merton a certain measure of respect, and yet his whole life seems unresolved. One of the debates which is had about him is whether or not he was ceasing to be Christian in favor of Buddhism toward the end of his life. (His journal entries do not bear this out, in my opinion.) His life is one big, aimless journey through the desert. In fact, Merton spends a great deal of time in his journals talking about Bl. Conrad, a Cistercian monk who was quite literally a wanderer. Conrad did not appeal to him early in life, but as he grew older he started to see the value of his story, and he ceased to expect his life to be a microcosm of the Whig Theory of History—a constant ascent uninterrupted by setbacks, detours, and even deliberate changes.

I have this same frustration. We all do, I suppose, and experience teaches us to chill out about it. “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans,” John Lennon said. And that’s okay. We are meant to live life as human beings, and not as online dating profiles where everyone has a master plan to be well fed and happy into eternity, working in the amazing career that they envisioned for themselves at the ripe old age of nineteen while living in an eight bedroom house in West Chester.

The same concept applies to all of God’s unanswered questions. There are puzzles which we will never be able to solve, and other puzzles that we will assemble and put back together a hundred times in the course of our life. These are not failures; these attempts are some of the greatest joys of human existence. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it is hard to find someone who is certain who is not also an insufferable jerk. (Mea culpa.) So I am content with the questions and enough space to contemplate them all. As Merton himself said, “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”

Maybe this makes the most sense when we consider one final thing. Merton offers a meditation on the sentence, “Be vigilant, and you will see the salvation of God.” He makes an important distinction here: This does not be mean to be patient while you wait for the salvation of God to arrive. Rather, be vigilant, so that you can see the salvation of God which is already here and which we often miss because we aren’t looking.  How often do we waste energy actively looking for something when what we need is right under our noses, but we don’t see it because we aren’t looking in the right place? I suppose that an important part of humility is being willing to sit tight and allow the unanswered questions to answer themselves.

Must-Read Books of 2010

“Do you have a soulmate?” the shrink asked Will Hunting.  A soulmate, someone who challenges you.  “Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke…” replied the precious brat.

“That’s great; they’re all dead.”

“Not to me they’re not.”

This is one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting. Both characters have a point.  The written word can be inflexible, and it lacks the dialectic that is so crucial to learning in many situations.  On the other hand, even if a book is a thousand years old or more, it is still alive.  The author might well have something to say to us today.  Given our poor track record for following the good advice of scribes, it isn’t difficult to find an old book that’s useful today.  This is one of the reasons why reading is as important to me as food, clothing, and water.  If I don’t frequently sit down and soak in the wisdom of great writers, I feel like I forgot to brush my teeth.  It is good to have such enhancing activities; they help us more gracefully to wend through the mysterious space between angels and animals that Man occupies.

Every January, I like to share a list of the best books of the past year—books that I’ve read.  Listening to someone talk about the books they’ve read can be annoying, but please be assured that I realize most people couldn’t care less how much I’ve read, and that’s largely how it should be.  It’s not about me; it’s about the books and my desire to share great ideas with other people.  For other readers, this is an excellent way to maximize effort.  No one wants to read a bad book, so recommendations are key.  I have left out a lot of books that are very deserving of mention.  Perhaps others can speak on their behalf.  I will stick to these:

 

Allan Bloom:  The Closing of the American Mind

When this book was published in the 1980’s it was alternately praised and lambasted as another conservative prophecy of doom.  Any close reading of Bloom’s work, however shows that this reaction was hasty if not illiterate.  Bloom, for instance, laments the collapse of the American family but adds that he isn’t necessarily calling for a return to the 1950’s Leave It to Beaver bliss.  Bloom, in fact, defies categorization.  This is because he is a thinker and a man of the arts.  He is, in a word, human.

Bloom is most famous for his critique of the modern university, which a friend of mine quite accurately says is a monastery gone bad; but to me some of his most striking observations have to do with relationships.  He scratches his head at the cold nature of romance in the youth of the 1980’s:  after years as lovers, two students would part ways with a handshake, and Bloom would be rendered speechless.  In this context the author, who was apparently no sexual prude, sharpens his knives for the modern hookup culture, which he says ruins the aura of real love.

Of particular interest to me is Bloom’s critique of rock music, which he considers to be decadent.  Good music should be an integrating force and not a fragmenting one.  “To Plato and Nietzsche,” he writes, “the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul—to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness.  Bach’s religious intentions and Beethoven’s revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.  Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity.  A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good.  By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is made up of coarse, intense entertainments, is divided, and each side of his existence is undermined by the other.”

Bloom’s volume is a dense one, and I would only be doing violence to it to try to say too much more than I already have, since every word he writes is important.  He might well sound like a noisy gong to most modern readers because he will prove impossible to pigeonhole into some ridiculous worldview or cause.  Bloom’s argument is not that we need to be more conservative or more liberal, or more or less religious, or even necessarily more decorated with degrees.  I think what he really wanted was a fuller realization of the potential of humanity.  He was, incidentally, an advocate of the Great Books Program, and so I dedicate this post to his memory.

 

Bertrand Russell:  The Problems of Philosophy

One of the things that all the warring world views of humanity have in common is that their practitioners think their system can solve all the world’s problems.  If only everyone would listen to what So-and-So says, there would be peace on earth, a chicken in every pot, a case of beer in every fridge, and five computers in every home.  The best of the So-and-Sos, of course, are cautious of such naivete.  The problem is that usually it’s some follower of the So-and-So that implements the realization of the philosophy, and these people are usually wearing blinders.

This arrogance, it seems to me, comes from a failure to understand the limits of human reason, and that, to me, is the most important contribution of this work of Lord Bertrand Russell.  He begins his work with a discussion of appearance and reality, using a table as an example.  We can see a table, and touch it, but does the table exist outside our ability to perceive it?  In other words, does it have an existence of its own?  This eventually leads to a discussion about Idealism, which holds that reality owes its existence to human thought, a notion that Russell rejects.

Nonetheless, Russell is no Randian Objectivist and courageously faces the limits of ratiocination, the process of human reasoning.  Some questions, for instance, can only be solved through inductive reasoning, as indeed many scientific experiments are conducted.  The more an experiment is repeated successfully, the more likely it is that the conclusions are true.  This kind of reasoning is imperfect but is often as close as we can get.

Somewhat different from inductive reasoning is a priori reasoning and general principles.  2+2=4 is an example of a priori reasoning; even if one doesn’t know the answer to this equation when he starts, he usually has the tools and the knowledge of general principles to come to the right conclusion.  This is a sturdy form of reasoning, as long as one’s premises are correct, but in many areas of human thinking it is impossible to know this for sure.  Because of this, Russell rejects the use of philosophical techniques for fields such as theology.

After so much talk of the limits of philosophy, one might wonder, “What’s the use?”  We modern men in particular like to have definite answers to everything; we are fundamentalists even in matters of whether or not the tree makes a noise in the forest if there is no one there to hear it fall.  Russell, however, sees much of the value of philosophy coming precisely from its uncertainty.  He says, “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

Philosophy, in other words, makes us more thoughtful.

 

Jeffrey Tucker:  Bourbon for Breakfast

I have already reviewed this book here.

 

Jean Renoir:  My Father

The well-known filmmaker Jean Renoir has written a riveting account of the life of his father, the famous painter Pierre-August Renoir.  As a musician, I’m fascinated with visual artists precisely because they use entirely different faculties than I use.  Oddly enough, though, what sticks with me are Renoir’s criticisms of modern life.  He was old enough to remember simpler, pre-industrial times, and he despised the centrally planned Paris that was poured with concrete.  Renoir in general hated modern life—the ugliness, the pace, the utilitarianism.

A conscientious capitalist who loves beauty is compelled to pause when reading a book like this to re-examine his ethical beliefs.  We would be fools to pretend there hasn’t been a downside to industrialism.  One could argue, for instance, that the Southern black slaves were being freed just as the Northern white servants were about to be imprisoned:  Many people feel stuck as a cog in the technological wheel, cubicle dwellers who are paid to leave their creativity and ingenuity at home.  And without an agrarian culture, one’s options are limited.  A landed man is a free man; a man in an apartment with rent and utilities to pay is on rather a tight leash.

Why support capitalism, then?  Leaving aside the usual caveat that the modern west is not a free market but rather a partially-free mercantilist one, there are some things to be considered.  Firstly, much of the leisure that gives us the free time to criticize modern life is a direct result of the industrial revolution, as are such things as extended life spans—hardly things to be lamented.  But beyond this, I still choose capitalism, because in its essentialness, capitalism is freedom.  I’m not talking about the capitalism of  the corporatist racket;  I’m talking about the capitalism of free exchange, the mutuality between merchant and customer.  It’s a system that allows everyone to say yes or no.

And it allows those committed to the arts to say yes or no—donors, consumers, and practitioners.  In, for instance, a socialist economy, man is not free to decide how much he will work and how much he will play.  The decision is made for him; he owes his time to the State.  In freedom, he can choose the best possible road, taking into consideration all the variables in front of him; not only those that can be measured, but those that cannot be.  For those who have not heeded the advice of Bertrand Russell, constructive leisure time is not important; they would rather work 60 hours a week to pay for the extra car in the garage.  For others, they want just enough money to survive; to them, living well is broader, deeper, and higher than one’s income level.

No one can deny that the arts have suffered in our times.  But fundamentally this is not a crisis of being helpless in the face ineluctable historical or economic forces; rather, it is a crisis of choice.  Most of us have chosen money, forgetting that man cannot live on bread alone.  Shame on us.

One final thought on Renoir:  There seems to be no genius where there is no suffering.  Renoir was surprisingly sane for a creative person.  (I’m allowed to say this, since I’m a crazy person who does his best, at least, to be creative.)  His pain in life was physical, taking the form of arthritis.  There are pictures of him in which the malformation of his hands is obvious.  It’s a great mystery how he was ever able to hold a brush with an organ that had basically devolved into a glorified claw.  It’s beautiful.  It’s inspiring.  It takes away all my excuses.

 

Seneca:  The Shortness of Life

Seneca (whose full name has something like umpteen words in it) was perhaps the most famous of the Stoic philosophers, who were essentially ancient precursors to the prudent American Puritan.  That’s not all bad; in small doses admonition to responsibility can be a good thing.

Seneca adjures his readers to keep their death always in mind.  Dark, I know, which is why I liked it.  Seneca’s point, though, is to a constructive end; it is not his desire to induce a John Donne-like bout of depression.  All resources are limited, including the space in which our lives exist.  Each of us has an unknown amount of time.  For this reason, we often hear that life is short.  Seneca, on the other hand, says that life is long if you know how to use it.  Seneca would ask each of us, “What are you doing right now, and why?”  We often waste time in our lives on things that we don’t really want to do, on tasks that are not only distasteful, but utter distractions from our real goals.

Putting his advice to use, of course, means learning how to say no.  Leonard Bernstein’s mother once quipped that it was a good thing he wasn’t a woman, because he never learned how to say no.  Bernstein, however, was a genius, and geniuses tend to be able to master superhuman schedules.  Most of us, on the other hand, need to make very careful decisions.  As the world gets more and more antisocial, people seem to become more and more demanding all the same.  We have forsaken affection for expectations, and this is not a good thing.  It can be difficult to cut out the underbrush of one’s schedule, but take courage, and remember your death.  As Boobus Americanus Primus said, “One today is worth two tomorrows.”

 

G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man

I read a lot of literature about religion, works that I agree with and that I disagree with.  It is a fascinating subject, and an important one.  For much of this work I have turned to an early 20th century Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, whose book The Everlasting Man is as fresh and as relevant as anything that could be written by Joseph Ratzinger (whose excellent Introduction to Christianity I also read this year), Karen Armstrong, or Richard Dawkins.  (Dawkins tries too hard; it gets old after awhile.)

It is common in Western Christian discourse to tackle The God Question with various kinds of philosophical proofs and theological parsing.  Mystics reject this approach, but so do other more “down-to-earth” thinkers, such as G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, as an author of a number of novels, sees The God Question in terms of a history, that is, a story, an adventure.  He says, for instance, that while the idea of a man being damned may be an unattractive one, the idea that man is damnable is quite obviously true, and accounts for mankind’s constant struggles against failure.  Hell is simply a reflection of our own ability to sabotage ourselves.

Against the historical materialism of many of the thinkers of his day, Chesterton applies the notion of immutable human nature to the question of the existence of God.  Why, for instance, did supposedly pre-human animals feel the need to create art in the caves?  What was the purpose of this art?  I’m having a hard time remembering the full argument, and I don’t have the book with me, but if you are interested in philosophy and religion, this is a good book for you.

 

Peter Ackroyd:  The House of Doctor Dee

I should call this book, “The Token.”  I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I try to do a little every year.  I have a couple of friends that I’ve put in charge of getting me the right fiction books.  One in particular is good at picking out contemporary English authors who show us that not everything written today needs to be a sleazy Danielle Steele novel.

In this book, a young chap inherits an old house owned by his deceased father.  It’s a cute little dwelling, consisting of mismatched parts built at different times.  The house turns out to be haunted by a ghost of a former owner, one Doctor Dee, a sixteenth century practitioner of black magic.  There are many fascinating erudite references in the book to stroke the egos of intellectually vain jackasses like me, but what I remember the most is the shiver that went up my spine in sections of this story.  If ghosts exist, I’m afraid of them.  And even if they don’t, I’m still afraid of them.  Ask me what happened once on Big Round Top in Gettysburg.

 

Hans-Hermann Hoppe:  Democracy:  The God That Failed

It’s common for a modern American history course to go like this:  Once upon a time, there were these evil men called kings, who used and abused their subjects to their hearts’ content, and the world was dark and dreary with no sense whatsoever of the idea of human dignity.  Then along came America, and they set the whole world free with equal rights and democracy.  The peasants rejoiced, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our government.

This narrative, of course, is largely unquestioned; it is scripture to most people.  Hans-Hermann Hoppe, certainly one of the foremost anarcho-capitalist thinkers of our time, pops this balloon of naivete unapologetically in his book, Democracy:  The God That Failed.

He begins with a careful examination of monarchical government and the several advantages that it held.   A king could not forcibly tax, and he could not forcibly conscript soldiers.  Those mercenaries that modern political scientists like to insult came at a high price; military commanders were therefore rather hesitant to risk their troops’ lives unnecessarily.  Many battles were conceded as soon as one side or the other took the high ground.  Wars were not, for the most part, fought in population centers but out in the fields, away from the citizenry, who considered war to be the irrelevant sandbox fighting of the oligarchy.   In a monarchical system, class divisions were in the forefront of awareness, making the population healthily wary and skeptical of the brainchildren of the royalty.  Kings also had a harder time being looters.  Since they planned to pass their kingdoms on to their posterity, they did everything they could to increase the value of the area through approaches comparatively friendly to businessmen.  And finally, for all the talk about the absolute rule of kings, they were beholden to the natural law.  New measures were expected to be elucidations on natural law.  There was no place for positivism, and where a king stepped out of line, there were powers in place to remove him if necessary.

Hoppe contrasts life under Kings and Queens with life under Congresses and Presidents.  The modern democratic nation-state forcibly taxes—Isn’t it ironic that after rebelling against a tax, the Americans put taxation provisions into their new founding document?—and it has forcibly conscripted soldiers.  Total warfare has resulted from the enemy’s desire to cripple the whole economy, since forcible taxation renders everyone a contributor to the military effort.  Class divisions in the modern nation-state are blurred, though one could argue that during this depression they have begun to make a comeback.  But by and large the fact that any of us can apply for a job with the government makes us forget that there are the rulers and the ruled.  While kings ruled for life and passed their property on to their children, thereby creating an incentive to nurture the land, elected officials only rule for a short time, which creates an incentive to loot.  And while kings were bound by natural law, the modern nation-state maintains that justice is decided by a majority vote, natural law be damned.

Hoppe is not a monarchist and admits that there were problems with monarchies.  Like modern constitutional governments, the royal system decayed at least partly because of its own arrogance:  “Divine right” ceased to be the idea that the king owed his power to God and became the idea that the king could call upon God to justify any of his decisions.  This was the beginning of positivism.  But clearly democracy leaves a lot to be desired, and this is where Hoppe begins his appeal on behalf of what he calls the natural order, which is what many of us call anarcho-capitalism, the system of a common law ethic built on private property rights and the free market–without the existence of a monopoly on violence, otherwise known as government.

Usually I like to list ten books, but this year I just didn’t have ten that I could recommend unreservedly, owing to one factor or another, few of which reflect on the actual quality of the books.  I would like to thank the friends who pointed me in the direction of some of these works.  They know who they are.  Cicero said that if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.  In my case it might be appropriate to replace the garden with a microwave, but in any event I’m quite glad to say that my cup runneth over.

A review of Thomas Woods’ “Meltdown”

One of the marks of great writing is that, no matter how abstract a subject might be, the author’s text remains lucid and understandable.  It is not crowded with irrelevant information, unduly antiquated language, or a dense texture.  H.L. Mencken, Joseph Ratzinger, and Murray Rothbard all have this gift.  So does Tom Woods, whose recent book Meltdown I finished earlier this week.

The grand larceny that the government commits is probably aided in no small part by the abstract and difficult nature of the subject of economics.  Add to this factor the reality that most schools of economics, such as Keynes’ and Friedman’s, in addition to being absurdly objectivist, are also about as exciting as the first four and a half hours of Dances with Wolves.  The information that does get to the public is usually watered-down lies:  the GDP, which only measures the consumption of final products and not of raw materials, and the unemployment numbers, which are, at present writing, grossly underestimated, are but two examples.  Little mystery is left as to why there is so much misunderstanding, confusion, and downright indifference in the general public.

Enter into this lamentable situation the work of Tom Woods, whose latest book has descended into the hellish American political debates like dew from heaven.   Woods strikes at the root of the philosophical errors which have our economy trapped in a kind of samsara cycle of booms and busts, and he does so in a way that people whose eyes rightfully gloss over during the business reports on TV can understand and appreciate the nature of the problems that the United States now faces.  I have read many books on economics, but this one cleared up so many issues for me, including certain details on which I was foggy with respect to fractional reserve banking and the operations of the Federal Reserve.  But as understandable as his writing is, Woods does not gloss over anything, drawing carefully-written lines in just the right places.  Qui distinguit, bene docet.

In the center of this book, Woods takes on the myths surrounding the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt.  The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the Great Depression was worse than it needed to be because Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire president and did nothing, and that FDR arrived on the scene, fully armed with public works projects and other chimeras which, along with a major war, allegedly saved us from further economic disasters.  Woods systematically dismantles this version of history, and in the process of showing that it was precisely the government intervention that made things worse, he brings to light the interventionist policies of the Hoover administration and a journal entry from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau which admitted that none of the government programs were actually working, amongst a whole host of other fascinating information.  And yet again, he takes on the false notion that World War II ended the Great Depression.  As a matter of fact, the numbers did not improve until 1946, after the soldiers returned home and re-entered the work force.  In the midst of all this, Woods glances at something most wouldn’t think to consider:  the inexperience of the women and children who replaced the soldiers in their jobs while they were off at war.  What impact did their inexperience have on productivity?

Woods’ engagement of the Civic Religion surrounding New Deal politics is the great keystone of his book, for these myths are, for many people, the assumed truth that they bring to any conversation about economic issues, and if there is any progress to be made in re-establishing a market that is actually free, then these prejudices must be confronted.  In addition to his theoretical arguments, Woods examines a number of economic downturns in American history, many of which are cited by economists in an attempt to discredit the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle which Woods promotes.  Time and again, the author brings facts to light that only buttress the work of Mises and Hayek, who were pioneering members of the school of thought in which Woods works.   Two of the most important examples used are the crashes of 1819 and 1920, the latter of which was worse than the crash of 1929 but which lasted only a year because the government did precisely nothing.

Back to contemporary issues.  Woods discusses the government’s role in creating the housing bubble which burst in 2008.  First there is Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose careless policies encouraged banks to give out risky loans.  (This is made all the easier when everyone knows that the Fed will act as a “lender of last resort” in the event that the risky loans end up in default.)  Then there is the Community Reinvestment Act and affirmative action lending, which the government promoted by practically harassing banks to make loans which they knew to be ill-advised.  And in addition to discussing the various kinds of wreckless speculation which were taking place, such as “house flipping,” Woods also takes on the dishonest debate between the Republicrats and Democans about how much regulation there should be in the market.  The status quo has made this discussion fundamentally pointless, since neither party really supports the idea of a free market, however much one of those parties likes to bandy that term about.

Central to Woods’ thesis is the aforementioned Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle.  This system of thought, first developed by Ludwig von Mises, holds that business cycles are not intrinsic to free markets, but that they are rather a result of government tampering with the marketplace through the creation of central banks, manipulation of the currency, playing with interest rates, fractional reserve banking, and the like.  In support of the Austrian view, Woods offers up the dot-com bust and the crash in Japan in the 1990’s.  He explains how artificially low interest rates encourage mal-investment and send business leaders the wrong signals, encouraging them to embark on projects that are doomed, since an inflationary bubble does treacherous work on the factors of production involved in long term projects.

Woods devotes an entire chapter to money:  its origins (neither from government nor greed), its history, and the way it creates wealth by making trade more feasible.  He not only covers the hot topic of inflation but also ventures into the more obscure but no less important matter of deflation, the latter being considered by the voodoo economists as a bad thing.  This was the mistake that FDR made in the Great Depression, and his subsequent decision to enact price floors was disastrous for the American economy.  Woods’ discussion of commodity monies such as gold and silver is followed up by a reckoning with the usual bromides offered by the monetarists who are opposed to a hard money solution.  The author’s arguments are thorough, and though he seems not to deal with one issue—the contention that more gold could be mined to create more money and thereby destabilize the money system—he does address it obliquely in that he mentions the fact that gold takes a long time to produce and bring into the market, unlike paper, and especially unlike the electronic computer transactions which the Fed does in modern times.

Professor Woods is not content, however, only to tell us what’s wrong with our present situation, and he develops a final chapter on where we should go from here.  At the beginning of this argument he offers the useful distinction, first elucidated by Adam Smith, between productive consumption and non-productive consumption.  Woods uses the example of wearing out an air conditioner over a number of years to show what non-productive consumption is:  A good is exhausted without creating other materials to provide for its replacement.  A machine, on the other hand, is an example of productive consumption:  While it will eventually wear out, it will have performed sufficient work to provide more resources for the future.  Woods puts it pithily:  “Consumptive expenditure uses up, exhausts, and destroys; productive expenditure provides for its own replacement in the form of an increased supply of goods in the future.”  The diminishment of capital which takes place in the wake of the recent government stimulus packages is a form of non-productive consumption, Woods argues.  It is yet another aspect to the civic superstition that we can spend our way to a prosperous paradise.

From here (and I can only hope that I’ve explained the above distinction adequately) Woods goes on to suggest some concrete moves, including letting the companies who fail go bankrupt.  Their assets will be bought up by others, and certainly if they served a useful function in the market someone else will step in and fill the need.  Woods advocates the abolishment of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as ending the Federal Reserve, which is really the sinister force behind most of our economic problems, not least because this bank is so difficult to understand.

It has been said that knowledge precedes love.  To love someone, you must know him first.  The same is perhaps true for ideas.  Libertarian economists—usually men of the Austrian School—have taken a beating over the years, having been accused of possessing an irrational hatred for the government and its programs.  Only one who is unfamiliar with the work of these men, however, would level such a charge, for the fruit of their elucidations is the insight that liberty and mutuality, not theft and coercion, are what create our prosperity.  Lying at the heart of the libertarian argument is a deep concern for the welfare of mankind.  Understanding the libertarian mindset is, of course, a prerequisite to seeing the truth in this, and I can think of no better way to start in this process than by reading this offering by Tom Woods.  Because of this, his greatest service is not that he has debunked the quacks, but that he has shown us the way to liberty and prosperity.  Will we have the courage to follow him?

Henry Hazlitt and the unseen

One of my Christmas presents was Henry Hazlitt’s very excellent Economics in One Lesson.  The essential point of this work is the importance of understanding the broader consequences of economic decisions, and not just the immediate effects.

For instance, certain spread-the-work policies do give jobs to more people, but without an actual increase in production no one has gained anything in terms of real wealth.  Certain union policies regarding division of labor also create the same appearance.  Union rules might make it necessary to hire two men to perform a job that could be efficiently completed by one.  Yes, someone got a job out of it, but the customer spent more money than he needed to, which has a negative impact on his limited resources to benefit the economy in other ways.  It is true that these kinds of policies can benefit certain individuals, but only at the expense of society as a whole.

These wider-reaching deleterious effects are what might be called the “unseen” effects of these policies.  They are not invisible, mind you, but rather go unnoticed for whatever reason.

Perhaps the tendency for these kinds of things to go unseen explains the frequent false accusation that free market economics, and in particular Austrian economics, is atomistic.  In truth, though, it seems as though the aforementioned make-work projects are the actual atomistic approaches, for they take account only of the most obvious effects of a given situation without realizing the broader consequences which are involved.  They look at the benefit to one particular man or group and not at the consequences for the entire economy.   That sounds pretty atomistic to me.

Of plumbers, philosophers, and would-be “DeFamers”

There has been some discussion on the Mises Yahoo! Group regarding an attack that a Brad DeLong — a man who does not register on my radar — directed towards a book written by Ludwig von Mises, the dean of the Austrian school of economics. The target of the attack was The Theory of Money and Credit — a book I have not read.

What makes this particularly interesting was that the book was mentioned in the December edition of The American Spectator by unlicensed celebrity plumber Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber.”[1] When Lew Rockwell posted this on the Mises Blog, more than a couple of regular visitors reacted with a certain degree of disbelief. What would a plumber — an unlicensed one, at that matter? — be doing reading up on an unorthodox school of politico-economic thought?[2]

I myself thought the same thing; then I thought, why not? What would a freelance jack-of-all-trades like myself be doing reading Mises? As I’m a contract laborer for the institute named after the man, I’m “closer to the action.” But Joe is not, which upon further thought makes his disclosure all the more notable. It would be interesting to discover how he discovered the writings of Mises.

I link to DeLong’s post without reading it myself only to provide the resource to readers who care to examine the evidence. However, this comment on the Mises list gives me reason not to waste the time (of course, I spent the time writing this post):

The closest he comes to a critique is declaring The Theory of Money and Credit to be “totally bats.” Which, of course, is name-calling, not a critique. If I were to “respond”, it would be by saying that DeLong’s selection of quotations seems haphazard at best. Most of it is just fragments connected by ellipses, chosen in such a way as to prevent the reader of the quotation from having much clue what Mises was actually saying. The effect is exactly what DeLong wants: making Mises look like a mad man, as the method of quotation “sounds” like someone who has lost their mind and whose rambles turn into mumbling between the disconnected thoughts.

Which is very far from what Mises’s writing is actually like.

I can confirm this with absolute certainty. I am in the middle of reading Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics; he writes in an impressively logical, concise, but dense manner. To use ellipses when quoting this man comes pretty close to misrepresentation; one would do well to cite full paragraphs in many cases. This makes DeLong’s selective-prooftexting attack seem pathetic, based on secondhand information.[3]

DeLong will have to try harder to have this blogger pay attention to him; indeed, I have spent too much time with this post.

Notes

[1] Wait until next month for the current issue to appear online; others have tried to locate it online and failed.

[2] However, none other than Lew Rockwell asserts,

Had progress in economic thought not been interrupted by Keynesian theory and the rise of positivism in the social sciences, we would not even be speaking of the Austrian school. Misesian theory would be economics proper (emphasis added).

[3] To be sure, Mises has a treasure trove of relatively short quotations as well. But you will need to delve into his writings to appreciate the wisdom contained in the short snippets.

Ten Must Read Books for Your Christmas List

Here is a short list of selected books which I’ve read in the past year which I think are indispensable to anyone’s bookshelf. I have listed them in order of what would seem like a good progression from one to the next for the reader.

1. Richard Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences

With every turn of the page, Weaver clears out the angst of modern existence by fearlessly going after the “sicknesses” of modern society. Readers of this blog will be familiar with Weaver’s qualms over modern education, as well as what he calls fragmentation and obsession. He also discusses egotism in work and art, as well as the dissolution of hierarchy. Weaver devotes the last three chapters of the book to his proposed remedies for the elucidated societal ailments: restoration of property rights, language, and respect for tradition.

2. Frederic Bastiat: The Law

In this short work, Bastiat, who called out the Broken Window Fallacy, discusses some of the absurdities of democratic societies. His principal insight in this work is perhaps that the law is constantly being used by one sector of society in order to try to loot another sector. That might be one of the more accurate and pithy descriptions of politics ever formulated.

3. Albert Jay Nock: Our Enemy, the State

If you think limited government is the way to go, read Nock. He will quite quickly disabuse you of that notion. In this short work, Nock describes the parasitical nature of the State, mixing in surprising observations. One that sticks out in my mind is that term limits are an instrument, rather than a circumscription, of power, since a given term grants a sitting politician nearly free reign in what he does. This was the book that converted me from “limited government” libertarianism to anarcho-capitalism.

4. Buchanan: Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War

This particular book deserves a full length review. Suffice it to say that many in the press have not been friendly to it, but that Buchanan, while sparing the reader no piece of information, is eminently fair in his descriptions of the various power players who were behind the commencement of hostilities in Europe before both World War I and World War II. Buchanan does not look back longingly at what might have been, but rather lays out the mistakes made by the world’s leaders, and the prudent will no doubt take heed of the author’s warnings. Suffice it to say for now that, while Hitler was evil, the West was pulling all manner of diplomatic bloopers which only made the situation far worse than it needed to be. This book is the antidote to the kind of Americanism which always cites World War II as the fundamental moment in State Salvation History which justifies all manner of ill-advised 21st century military excursions.

5. Schall: The Regensburg Lecture

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. takes an in-depth look at Pope Joseph Ratzinger’s well-known lecture at Regensburg which sparked protests in the Muslim world. Schall elaborates Ratzinger’s central question of whether or not Islam can be a “reasonable” or “logos-based” faith. The theological opinion known as voluntarism–the belief that God is not bound by reason–is explored thoroughly by the author with respect to Islam. I only wish, perhaps, that certain fundamentalist Christian outlooks which are adding tensions to the world stage would have been discussed as well. In any case, Schall’s great contribution here seems to me to be a fearless exploration of the theological roots of the problems we presently face. The question might then dawn on the reader: Why are we dropping bombs instead of having an honest exchange? (I should add that I don’t know that this last point was Schall’s goal.)

6. Murray Rothbard: The Ethics of Liberty

You all knew I had to get Murray in here somewhere. This book is a tour-de-force, a thorough working out of a positive theory of anarcho-capitalism. The reader will not likely agree with everything Rothbard says, but the achievement here is a broad-based approach to dealing with the various issues that would come up in a stateless society. Rothbard has no fear: He relishes the opportunity to take on those very subjects which many would consider to be begging for the existence of the State, e.g. crime, courts and police.

7. Albert Jay Nock: Memoirs of a Superfluous Man

Nock did not think of himself as an interesting person, but whoever twisted his arm to write this autobiography certainly did, and to that nameless friend we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude. This book is an account of the various impressions Nock put together in his mind over the course of his life. His “mind your own business” attitude is refreshing, and his mix of Toryism and anarchism is yields some fascinating results. This book will not offer eye-popping moments of astonishment at every page; it will feel more like sitting in an old man’s living room, listening to him yammer on about what he’s learned in life. But when you finish and put the book down, you will realize that your paradigm has shifted.

8. Mencken: Notes on Democracy

I will pick up and devour anything by Mencken from cover to cover in a matter of days. In this book Mencken fearlessly tackles the problems, triumphs, and absurdities of our sainted political system. Along the way he calls out Americanism, fundamentalism, and even the Rotary Club, and brings up the most unpopular point that a democracy, too, can wield a tyrannical kind of power. While ever skeptical, Mencken softens the blows of his more difficult material with his unique wit. Yet, there are moments in this book that are deeply serious which might indicate just how troubled Mencken was by any number of problems that needed to be faced. The book winds up to a grand conclusion, which explodes on a rhetorical question that will flabbergast the reader.

9. Richard Weaver: Language is Sermonic

This is a collection of a number of essays and other works by Richard Weaver. The first chapter, in fact, is the chapter on language from Ideas Have Consequences. Writers and speakers will find this volume to be indispensable, but this is no ordinary book about writing. Weaver tackles hard questions about the essence of language, and, in the process, seems to stumble, almost unintentionally, upon some of the more important subjects for our time. This is a great book to read on the front porch of a Southern manor. One can almost hear the masterful deliberateness of Weaver’s locution in these pages.

10. Dom Joseph Gajard: The Rhythm of Plainsong

What the hell is this book doing on here? Well, the truth is that Gajard’s book is about more than just Gregorian rhythm. He in fact discusses the most fundamental aspects of rhythm in such ways that all musicians could benefit from his insight. Much of rhythm boils down to arsis and thesis, i.e. the rising and falling motion, which mimics natural movements such as the rising and falling of the foot during walking. How many performances I have heard in which the musicians do not understand the principles discussed by Gajard! Often we over-emphasize rhythm until it is oppressive, or we add a facade of vitality to a piece of music by assaulting every single down beat. Gajard’s book is the remedy for this and many other musical problems. If you can so much as read music, get this book.

The dynamic tension between Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard

In his book Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, Murray Rothbard confronts the cynicism of Albert Jay Nock and asserts that such outlooks on life lead inevitably to conservatism. To the Nock enthusiast this can be a jolting statement to contend with. At first one might not want to believe what Rothbard is saying, but weeks of studying this question from time to time will yield that, on the whole, he is right.

One of Nock’s more impressive statements is that a great portion of wisdom concerns the development of a sense of the inevitable. There is much to be learned from this, but consider the damage that can be done when one decides that the State, or taxes, are inevitable. How would one then deal with the presence of these evils? Since they are “inevitable,” lobbying for their dismantling is out of the question, so one resorts to the idea of “limited government,” that infamous conservative bromide.

One of the advantages which Rothbard had over Nock is that he developed a positive system of anarcho-capitalism. Nock called himself a “philosophical anarchist,” but essentially got no further than spelling out the evils of the State. We should not be ungrateful for this; often the house built upon the rock cannot be built until the one that sits on sand is removed. It might be true, nonetheless, that Nock’s negative outlook did little to encourage him to work out a positive theory of anarchy. Rothbard’s passion for justice, on the other hand, clearly compelled him to do just that very thing.

So far it looks like Rothbard is the hands-down winner in this “battle” of free market anarchists, but I would caution the student of these writers not to deliver a verdict too quickly. On closer inspection, it would appear more likely that there is actually a dynamic tension between these men; that one need not shun one in order to embrace the other. How is this so?

One of the happier byproducts of Nock’s skepticism is a sense of duty to mind one’s own business. Nock considers it to be a waste of time, and even in bad taste, really, to try to change other people. This leaves each man with only one approach: live well. Mind your own business. Cultivate your own garden. Clean up your own act.

We modern men love the opposite approach, taking the speck out of our neighbor’s eye before taking the log out of our own. We love to save people, to rescue them, to proselytize them until they agree with us, who could make the world just perfect if only everyone would see things our way. Nock’s healthy skepticism is an antidote to this sanctimonious arrogance.

In the end, a workable anarcho-capitalist theory depends upon our willingness to mind our own business. It is what makes sense out of Rothbard’s theory of private property rights. It’s what allows us to say “I don’t agree with x, but I don’t think it should be illegal, either.” In a word, it’s what makes us passionate lovers of freedom and justice.

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