The following contribution is from Frederick Nymeyer, founder the journal Progressive Calvinism, which quickly was absorbed by Libertarian Press in the late 1950s. This article in particular is from Progressive Calvinism, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1956, pp. 91–95).
This was back when contemporary Reformed men, including the Dutch Reformed world, had something of substance to say to the world.
We have previously in this issue contrasted Moses and Socrates-Plato on the question of sex morality. On that question we unqualifiedly follow Moses, as being a more realistic and benign lawgiver.
But can we also follow Moses on the general principle for the organization of society, that is, in regard to his ideas of justice or righteousness, as distinguished from the ideas of Socrates and Plato [i.e., humanism]? We shall answer that question briefly and emphatically.
We believe that there is no significant difference between the ideas of Moses and the ideas of Socrates and Plato in regard to the goal of society—namely, justice (or as Moses would say, righteousness). Both, we believe, would accept the definition given by Socrates—the idea that justice is that everybody should find his proper place and get his proper due. Moses may not have been so explicit about stating the goal as Socrates and Plato, but the methods Moses prescribed are exactly suited to that end, and so the idea of justice as a result is dearly the same for both the Hebrew and the two Greeks.
But then they part company. The difference between them on the means to accomplish the objective is an unbridgeable, irreconcilable difference.
Socrates and Plato propose coercion. Moses proposes complete freedom, noncoercion, “meekness.”
We are here face to face with the wholly unique character of the Mosaic law. It is not a law “to do good”; it is instead a law “to restrain evil.” Socrates proposed a state which would accomplish the good; Moses proposed a state which would restrain the bad.
In order to restrain the bad, Moses said: honor father and mother; avoid coercion; do not commit adultery; do not lie; do not steal; do not covet. But aside from that you may pursue your legitimate self-regarding interests.1 You do not need to live for the state; nor for your neighbor; live for yourself BUT do not pursue your liberty at the expense of your neighbor (by coercion, immorality, lies, theft and covetousness against him).2
The contrast between Moses and Plato should be clearly understood. Begin with that which is not arguable, namely, everybody should find the best place in society in which he can satisfactorily perform; on this basis everybody attains his maximum potential and everybody obtains for himself maximum justice.
But how decide what each man can best perform?
(1) Are you to decide that yourself at the expense of others? If so, you are authorized to become a coercer.
(2) Is a government bureaucrat (a philosopher-king) to decide for you? Then he becomes a coercer.
(3) Is your neighbor to decide for you? Then he becomes a coercer.
Moses authorized none of these. Plato authorized the second.
Moses arranged for this system: the only acts that should be performed are when you and your neighbors can come to a voluntary agreement, that is, that you have a contract society3 and not a coercive society, a voluntary society and not a tyranny, a meek society and not a violent society.
Justice cannot be expected to be the result of coercion (1) by A for himself against his neighbors; nor (2) by a neighbor against A, nor (3) by neighbors collectively (government) against A. If coercion is inconsistent with justice, how can noncoercive justice be implemented? The following explains the way Moses’s noncoercive justice would work.
Following Socrates, we say that A should have his proper work (whatever that is), say, cobbling shoes. Suppose A, however, tries carpentry for which he is unsuited. Nobody will buy A’s unsatisfactory houses. He is obliged to change because his neighbors are not well served by his houses. A does not have his proper work and quits it. But A was not coerced in a real sense of the word. It is his choice to have gone into carpentry and to go out of it.
Say that A next turns to cobbling shoes, and assume that he does that well—so that his neighbors can profit from buying his shoes. A is now genuinely performing a service; otherwise they would not buy his shoes. His production is a brotherly deed; it does his neighbors some good.
There may, however, appear to be a possibility that justice (A’s opportunity to do his own work) may miscarry. Suppose A is a foreigner or has a certain religion or belongs to a certain race and therefore B and C and D are prejudiced and will not buy A’s shoes. But the shoes are really good. B and C and D then hurt themselves when they refuse to buy A’s excellent shoes. Injustice by a man never lasts long when it is at his own expense. In a very short time B or C or D will change his mind and buy. But the “injustice” toward A will also be frustrated by “competition.” If B and C and D are so hostile to A that they are willing to hurt themselves, then E and F and G will begin to buy A’s shoes. In fact, the more “unjust” B and C and D have been, the lower the price of the shoes and the greater the opportunity of E and F and G to profit from the malignancy and folly of the others. Eventually, the price of shoes will be the full market price. Justice will prevail.
Moses’s great noncoercive law has therefore three great devices to protect justice: (1) A’s free choice of his own work; (2) the self-interest of the neighbor; and (3) the freedom (competition) of all buyers (neighbors).
Society then finds its maximum potential on the basis of meekness, noncoercion, agreement, fraternity, or, if you will, brotherly love.
Any other kind of brotherly love must be based on coercion by somebody. How indeed can that be brotherly love?
And so Moses is the strangest lawgiver of all time. All other lawgivers legislated to restrict liberty. Moses alone, solitarily and grandly, legislated liberty.
All other lawgivers set some men up as rulers over other men in a positive sense. The rulers could tell those who were ruled what to do as well as what not to do. One man (or men) was authorized to lord it over other men. Some mystical public benefit was supposed to come from the coercion by the alleged wise and the alleged good men over other men—as if there were any who were really wise and really good.
Calvinists say that they believe in total depravity. Nobody, they say, is really good, or really trustworthy; we all fall into sin and unrighteousness (injustice would be the word Socrates would use). But this is purely a fictional principle for Calvinists unless they make the practical application Moses did, namely, all that you can trust to the men in government is to restrain evil. You cannot trust a government to do what is good in a positive sense—a welfare state.
As a legislator Moses is the most unique in all human history. Nobody else set out to do so little—namely, restrain evil. Nobody actually accomplished so much, namely, unleashed all the latent abilities of all men fired by legitimate self-interest but without exploitation of the neighbor.
You can think of Moses as a refugee Egyptian prince, or you can think of him as a desert herdsman loafing away his time while taking care of sheep and goats, or you can think of him as a powerful sagacious thinker in the Sinai desert, or you can think of him as a mere passive phonograph record for God at Mt. Sinai when he came down with the two stone tablets of the law, or you can think of him as a combination of any of the foregoing four—but of one thing anybody and everybody can be certain, namely, those two stone tablets represented the greatest legislation in all the history of mankind—a marvelous revelation.
Compared with that legislation, the legislation of the greatest of the Greeks is a gross error and an evil product.
We are reminded of what the English essayist wrote about Francois Villon, the blackguard French poet who “founded” French literature. Villon was a sorry specimen of mankind, living (as much as possible) off the earnings by prostitution of his girlfriend. And he was a wassailler and a thief and the rest. Of course, such a rogue would spend much time in prison, and occasionally at the end of each term would come blinking into the bright sunlight. But Villon was not much for light and beauty and goodness. He ignored all that and spent his time in all kinds of vileness; Stevenson uses the figurative expression of “munching crusts and picking vermin.” We assume Stevenson was referring to monkeys in the zoo, munching their crusts and picking vermin off each other and eating.
That is the way we look at the grand effort of Socrates and Plato. To follow them in regard to justice instead of following Moses is like “munching crusts and picking vermin” and like ignoring the great expanse of the firmament, and sunlight, and liberty, and the free winds that blow.
Three thousand two hundred years after the great legislator Moses, modem social thinkers in England and elsewhere came up with a modem version of the identical idea. This modem version took the name of laissez-faire.
The curious thing is that many conservative and liberal Calvinists are opposed to laissez-faire, a term which consists of two French words that mean the same as that Moses legislated, namely, freedom except no freedom to do wrong. In Progressive Calvinism we follow Moses and we accept laissez-faire because it is consistent with Moses.
Shall we believe Scripture? Or is it an unreliable Book? Is the wonderful soundness of the Mosaic Law proof of anything? In our thinking it is; it is proof that the law of Moses is the Law of God. Any contrary law, whether of Socrates, or Lycurgus, or Solon, or Draco, or Calvinists who believe in interventionism or in any law to do positive good is for us a law not from God but from an evil source.
What then is justice? Justice is that every man does that for which he is best fitted; further, that that for which he is best fitted is to be determined freely without coercion, according to his own inclination and not according to the command of men in government or the claims of neighbors; and finally, that the rewards for doing that for which each man is best fitted be likewise determined freely without coercion. In short, justice can exist only in a free market society, in a laissez-faire society, in a Mosaic society, in a Law-of-God society.
And when a society becomes that, it becomes prosperous—as Scripture promises. And when a society deviates from that, it becomes nonprosperous as Scripture threatens.
The teaching of Scripture and the findings of sound economics agree.
- For important phases of this problem, see the March, 1955, and later issues of PROGRESSIVE CALVINISM. [↩]
- This looks at life only from the viewpoint of neighbors, not in the relation of man to God. That is a larger and broader problem. [↩]
- See use of this term in Mises’s Human Action (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1949), Chapter VIII. [↩]