The Moral Case For Separating State and The Economy – What’s That About?

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“When I say “capitalism”, I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

(Ayn Rand, from the essay “What Is Capitalism?” in “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”)

Most Americans understand, explicitly or implicitly, why we have separation of state and church. We agree that faith is a personal matter; that choosing a faith, or no faith, is part of our inalienable individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We acknowledge that accepting a faith must be a voluntary decision, and that faith forcefully imposed by the government is a violation of our rights and therefore wrong and immoral.

In the United States we have close to a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire “market” for religious ideas. Different denominations and congregations, faith “sellers,” compete with their faith “products” for prospective faith “buyers.” If a potential buyer of religious ideas finds a particular faith offer compelling—a good investment in his or her pursuit of happiness—a voluntary trade takes place: the buyer invests time and certain monetary contributions in exchange for getting an anticipated set of guidelines to enhance his life and give it meaning, education in the faith in question, new acquaintances and friends sharing the same beliefs, emotional support and reassurance, and so on.

We consider this a most natural state of affairs and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Yes, we may dislike some of the faith “sellers,” and we may think they engage in false advertising and that their “products” are inferior. And yes, we may think some faith “buyers” are being cheated or have bad taste, or even make immoral choices. We may even try to persuade either or both sides to change their mind, and voluntarily withdraw their faith “product” or modify their “consumer habits.”

But in the end we accept these “market imperfections,” because we know that the alternative—some form of government force violating our inalienable individual rights to voluntarily choose a faith, or no faith—is a violation of the separation of state and church, something we almost unanimously agree is wrong and immoral.

Making the moral case for separating state and the economy applies the same reasoning to the market place for products and services:

What you and I produce and consume is a personal matter. Our right to choose a product or service, or no product or service, is part of our inalienable individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Deciding to buy or sell a product or service must be a voluntary decision; any production or consumption imposed or regulated by government force is a violation of our rights and therefore wrong and immoral.

The only system that preserves our moral right to voluntarily trade products and services is full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism. In practice, this means total separation of state and the economy. The government has no more right to regulate our production and consumption of products and services than it has regulating our choice of faith.

One would be forgiven for thinking that most Americans would consider this a most natural state of affairs and wouldn’t want it any other way, just as when it’s a matter of their faith.

Yet, when it comes to the market place for products and services, most of us don’t consider this full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire system the most natural state of affairs. Pick any area of the economy—healthcareeducation, agriculture and foodtelecommunicationsbankingfinanceretirement, and so on—and most of us do seem to want it some other way.

When we dislike a seller, and think he is engaging in false advertising or that his product is inferior, we call for the government to step in. The same applies when we think a buyer is being cheated or has bad taste, or even makes what we consider immoral choices; we don’t think it sufficient to persuade either or both sides to change their mind, and voluntarily withdraw their product or modify their consumer habits. We don’t accept such “market imperfections.” No, when it comes to the economy we think individual rights violating government force is required to deal with the problem.

Consequently, we have asked our politicians to meddle in every aspect of our economic lives in a way that we would find wrong and immoral if it were to any aspect of our faith. We have permitted them to tax, regulate, fine, coerce and threaten us to such an extent that had it happened in the market place for religious ideas it would have been considered fundamentalism of the kind that is only practiced in Islamic countries.

What explains the contradictory views on religious freedom and economic freedom? Why do most of us consider it immoral for the government to meddle in issues related to our faith, but moral when the government meddles in just about every aspect of our economic life—healthcareeducationagriculture and food, telecommunicationsbankingfinanceretirement, and so on?

Paradoxically, in most cases the answer is: faith. Almost without exception, Americans of faith exercise their selfishly guarded religious freedom to practice a faith that teaches sacrifice and selflessness as the moral ideal. For example, most Christians consider Jesus Christ sacrificing his life for our sins so that we may be forgiven the symbol of moral perfection. And most other major faiths consider selflessness in one form or another a moral virtue.

Morality has great power over us and for good reasons. Morality is necessary for humans to flourish. Most of us have a desire to be good by some moral standard. We go through life with a certain level of moral ambition, if you like. We look for moral principles to live by, and we try to act according to those principles. As life draws to an end, we want to be able to look back and conclude that we lived a good life, which for most of us implies that we lived a moral life.

If the faith we subscribe to teaches us that selflessness and sacrifice are moral ideals, then that is what we will try to practice. The problem is that practicing a morality of selflessness and sacrifice disarms us against those who want to use government force to institutionalize such practices throughout society. After all, they say, if we subscribe to a morality of selflessness and sacrifice, what better way than for the government to help us fulfill our moral ambitions? A vote for universal healthcare, for food stamps, for social security, for government education, is a vote to help us live up to our moral ideals. A tax here, a regulation there, in the name of helping the needy, the less fortunate, the elderly, our children. Why shouldn’t we be willing to sacrifice some of our individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? It may hurt our pocket book, it may prevent us from fulfilling our own, selfish ambitions, we may experience a moment of reluctance, but who can object if selflessness is the moral standard?

At SEPARATE! we consider this a sad state of affairs. We subscribe to a different code of morality, a morality of rational self-interest. We think you are as right to selfishly guard your economic freedom as you are to selfishly guard your religious freedom.

Only when you’re able to proclaim with moral certainty that the fruits of your labors are yours to keep and dispose of will you be able to defend your individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as it pertains to your economy. Only when you become as rightfully self-interested in championing your economic freedom as you are in championing your religious freedom will you be able to effectively oppose the immoral intrusion of government force into every aspect of your economic life.

Hence our mission to champion the moral case for separating state and the economy. We’re preaching the gospel to those who walk in economic moral darkness with the hope that they will see a great light.

Mission impossible? On the contrary. We’re convinced that deliverance from the evils of government intrusion in our economic lives is closer than most of us think. But it will require serious re-thinking of some of our most deeply held beliefs. The Americans people have been up to the task in the past. We think they are again.

So how do we get to where a morality of rational self-interest becomes more widely accepted, where respecting individual rights gains more followers, and where championing the moral case for separating state and the economy is embraced by more people? A recurring theme throughout history is that people of faith who are committed to reason and rationality—and there are a lot of them—tend to adjust their religious views as new scientific and other facts are discovered. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

  • In 1633, Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest for life by the Roman Inquisition for his advocacy of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, because it was against the teachings of the church. But sentencing Galileo did not stop heliocentrism from gaining widespread acceptance. On the contrary, his discovery quickly became central to future scientific discoveries, for the most part spearheaded by scientists who themselves were deeply religious. When faced with the newly discovered facts that contradicted their faith, they went back and reexamined and often reinterpreted the religious texts, and adjusted their faith accordingly.
  • In the early 1800s the new science of geology was all the rage. William Smith, the father of geology, examining fossils in different strata of the earth discovered that our planet had been around a little longer than previously thought. The standard, religiously based view before William Smith was that of Bishop Ussher who in 1654 had calculated the night preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC as the date of creation. The debate between the proponents of the new science and the people of faith that supported Bishop Ussher’s view was as heated as any debate today about the role of government in our economic life. But over time, the facts became irrefutable and religious people gradually adjusted their views.

History is full of examples of this process at work, with faith and facts initially clashing but eventually being reconciled. We think the same development will occur in the views of the role of government in our economy. We’ll start to see more and more people of faith reconciling and adjusting their religious views in favor of a morality of rational self-interest. We’re not saying it will happen tomorrow or next year. Faith based views are deeply personal and each individual has to find a way of reconciling the new facts with his faith, and allow the time it takes.

But gradually, religious men and women with a reverence for reason and rationality will gravitate towards the facts, in this case the fact that only a morality of rational self-interest provides the necessary underpinnings for defending individual rights and championing the moral case for separating state and the economy.

So far we have discussed a faith based morality of selflessness and sacrifice as a hurdle to widespread support for the moral case for separating state and the economy. But what about the large group of Americans who subscribe to a morality of selflessness and sacrifice on secular grounds? The altruists who subscribe to one form of collectivism or another in politics: socialism in all its incarnations, including the welfare statism of our current American “mixed” (unseparated) economy. Is there any hope for them?

The answer is “yes, of course.” Secular altruists possess the faculty of reason and free will to recognize the facts when they see them just like everybody else. However, in our estimate they are probably slightly less open to considering these facts than the average man and woman of faith.

Somewhat generalized, secular altruists are less morally/politically conflicted than people of faith on the issue of separating state and the economy, as a large government presence in the economy is part of their collectivist political philosophy. They don’t experience the same contradictions between their moral and political beliefs as many religious Americans do who tend to support some version of a free market.

Contradictions can serve as terrific intellectual stimuli and calls to action. Most of us feel uncomfortable living with unresolved contradictions. Imagine living in the time of Galileo, believing that the earth is the center of the universe because the church says so. Then imagine being exposed to the irrefutable facts of heliocentrism. Now you’re faced with a serious contradiction between your religiously based views and Galileo’s discovery. You may try to push the unresolved contradiction aside for a while, you may try to evade it or explain it away—the all too common “don’t wanna go there” tactics. But being of an independent mind, sooner or later you’d probably take the bull by the horn and resolve the contradiction, coming out in favor of Galileo and the facts and finding a way to reconcile them with your faith.

Fast forward to the idea we’re concerned with here at SEPARATE!, the moral case for separating state and the economy. The facts are that as humans we have individual rights, and that only a morality of rational self-interest provide the proper ethical foundation for respecting those rights. Politically this requires total separation of state and the economy or we’ll end up with a system where we endemically violate each other’s rights through taxation and regulation. Just look around you.

Let’s say you find this idea attractive but that you currently subscribe to some form of altruistic morality on religious grounds. Now you’re facing a contradiction between the morality of rational self-interest that is inseparable from championing total separation of state and the economy in politics, and altruism, which has some form of statism or another as its logical, political corollary (if it’s moral to sacrifice, then it makes sense for the state to help you along on the path to selfless moral perfection).

We’re quite optimistic that over time, you’ll find a way of reconciling with your faith the irrefutable moral facts underlying the moral case for separating state and the economy. Again, because living with unresolved contradictions is darn uncomfortable.

However, in the case of many secular altruists, the moral and political worldviews don’t clash. If no contradiction rears its ugly head, you are probably less likely to challenge your positions, however wrong and disconnected from the facts they may be.

There was a time when secular altruists preaching their collectivist political utopian ideas may have been excused for their mistaken beliefs. A time before the disastrous political experiments of the 20th century—Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet Union and China—and the current slow break down of Western Europe and the United States under the yoke of welfare statism. But today, the facts are undisputable: collectivism in all its forms not only does not work, but is immoral. (Ironically, holding on to collectivist beliefs in the face of the facts has developed into a religion; today you have to have faith in collectivism, because all the facts are against it, morally and politically.)

Our current assessment is that people subscribing to a religiously based form of altruism are somewhat more likely to embrace the morality of rational self-interest that is the foundation for separating state and the economy. But we obviously welcome converts from secular altruism and collectivism to a morality of rational self-interest with open arms.

In the end, championing the moral case for separating state and the economy is a fight of facts over faith. It is a battle for the minds of men and women who don’t like to live with contradictions between their moral and political worldviews. It’s a battle for the minds of men and women who have reverence for the facts, however uncomfortable those facts initially may be.

Does our assessment make sense? Are we too optimistic or pessimistic? Are we spot on or way out there? We’d love your feedback!

Fire away!

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