Freedom for bread

One of socialism’s fundamental tenets is its desire for the government to universally care for people, whether it be through single payor healthcare or ensuring jobs and even equal wealth for all. These are lofty and admirable goals and desires. However, what are the potential costs?

Many conservatives will point to the actual fiscal costs of doing business this way; that it will result in a higher tax burden and therefore a slower economy (because we know it’s all about economic prosperity). Others will point to the idea that if the government gets involved in providing everything for everyone, it takes away accountability and, after all, self-interest is almost a god to be worshipped by many conservatives. Philosophers and economists from the late 18th century put forth the argument that because the government receives its power from the people, the government can’t do anything that people can’t do. Therefore, because an individual cannot forcibly take money from one person and give it to another, the government should not be able to forcibly tax people and give the money as handouts to others. Liberals will say, “but taxes aren’t forcibly taking money.” Just try not paying your taxes and see how much force lies therein.

These points have some validity, but they aren’t strong enough or philosophically fundamental enough to sway me. They don’t address the fundamental problem with government (or any other forced institution)-mediated wealth redistribution or provision for all needs from cradle-to-grave. The fundamental problem has to do with agency and freedom. Let me explain.

In Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamasov, the Russian author, one-time political exile and agnostic, paints a stark picture of socialism in an interesting and powerful manner. In the story Ivan Karamasov is the intellectual, agnostic (if not atheistic) brother who is talking to his younger brother Alexei (in training in a monastery) about a poem he wrote which he entitled The Grand Inquisitor (for a quick overview, please read the link; it will likely help understand (and accept) my point).

The Grand Inquisitor describes an interaction between the Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus Christ himself. Christ appears in a small town and performs a miracle, is revered and recognized by the common people, but is also recognized by the Inquisitor who takes Him into custody for questioning. The rest of the poem is an interrogation and accusation of Christ by the Inquisitor.

Initially the Inquisitor tell Christ that if He comes about now performing miracles, He will take away that freedom of faith that He so powerfully protected while on the earth. “The freedom of their faith was dearer to Thee than anything else in those days fifteen hundred years ago. Didst Thou not often say then: “I will make you free”? But now Thou hast seen these “free” men, yes, we’ve (meaning the clergy/government/politicians) paid dearly for it, but at last we have completed that work in Thy name. For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that it’s over for good? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be angry with me. But let me tell Thee that now, today, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?”

Ivan then adds: “He (the Inquisitor) claims it as merit for himself and his Church (Ivan was mainly attacking religion here, but Dostoyevsky was an ardent anti-socialist and socialism was rising fast in Europe at this time) that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy.” The Inquisitor continues: “Thou wast warned, Thou hast had no lack of warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings. Thou didst reject the only way (in this world, in the inquisitors limited view) by which men might be made happy. But, fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us. Thou hast promised, Thou hast established by Thy word, Thou hast given to us the right to bind and unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?”

Thus, Ivan begins implicating mainly the Roman Catholic Church (but Dostoyevsky’s attack is on government) in the idea that only through large institutions of force (government always, and at that time, because it was part of the government, the Church) could mankind be happy; and that they could only be happy by giving away their freedom to a few who could handle that freedom (read the Vanguard of the proliteriat).

The next question that Alexei asks, “And what’s the meaning of “no lack of warnings”?” This is where Ivan really begins his point: “Why, that’s the chief part of what the old man (the Inquisitor) must say.” Ivan than describes the situation surrounding the three temptations of Christ by Satan in the desert. He sets it up by stating, through the Inquisitor: “Imagine simply for the sake of argument that those three questions of the dread spirit had perished utterly from the books, and that we had to restore them and to invent them anew. To do so we had gathered together all the wise men of the earth–rulers, chief priests, learned men, philosophers, poets–and had set them the task of inventing three questions, such as would not only fit the occasion but express in three words, three human phrases, the whole future history of the world and of humanity…For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole, and foretold. In them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature.”

“Judge Thyself who was right–Thou or he who questioned Thee then? Remember the first question. Its meaning was this: (Satan speaking) “Thou wouldst go into the world, and are going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread–for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though forever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.”

“But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth, if obedience (or political loyalty) is brought by bread alone? But dost Thou know that for the sake of that earthly bread the spirit of the earth (Satan/power/force) will rise up against Thee and will strive with Thee and overcome Thee? And all will follow him, crying: “Who can compare with this beast? He has given us fire from heaven!” Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime (we are at this point), and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple.”

We see this perspective in the humanism of the last 150 years. The establishment (intelligensia/aristocracy/politicians) cries out that it is more important to give bread than preserve freedom. Unfortunately government is unable to do both, because as soon as government gets involved, force is involved and freedom is gone.

“Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building (great and spacious–all the institutions of the world); the terrible tower of Babel will be built again. And though, like the one of old, it will not be finished, yet Thou mightest have prevented that new tower and have cut short the sufferings of me for a thousand years; for they will come back to use after a thousand years of agony with their tower (government). They will seek us again, hidden underground in the catacombs, for we shall again be persecuted and tortured. They will find us and cry to us: “Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!” And then we shall finish building their tower, for he finishes the tower who feeds them. And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them their bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together (I’m not sure I totally agree with this, but with in our current system it is likely true. Only through voluntary and willing consecration of goods will there be freedom and bread enough for all.). They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious.”

“Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands and tens of thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands of the great and strong, while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee, must exist only for the sake of the great and strong? (This is the accusation of socialists and communists, although the leadership of these movements are more that willing to fulfill the roles described next) No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful, and to rule over them–so awful it will seem to them to be free. But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again.”

“Choosing “bread” Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity–to find someone to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship…But Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone–the banner of earthly bread. And Thou hast rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven.”

Enough Dostoyevsky. What comes out of this is that humans will need to choose between freedom and bread: unless we give bread and care for each other independent of government. If we depend on an institution of force (government executes all its decrees and laws by force…there is no voluntary contributions) for our bread, we will necessarily give up freedom. So how do we solve the real problems of poverty and inequity and hunger? We cannot give to government the job of human individuals, families, and communities. We must voluntarily care for others and freely follow Christ. If we are compelled to do so, not only does government take increasing control of our lives where it doesn’t belong, but we resent our surplus being taken from us and given to others and we lose the opportunity to interact personally and give and the opportunity to comprehend the dire situations that others sometimes face. When we receive that assistance, that “bread,” from an institution, we lose the personal appreciation and gratitude that should be expressed to those who have given that we might eat.

An additional problem is the false view of human nature and human capacity. Humans aren’t naturally wicked, just naturally weak. It is hard for us to hold onto freedom in the face of promised earthly bread; but everytime the government makes a law we give it the power and force to execute that law. Also, the Inquisitor misunderstood human capacity: it’s not hunger that makes man unable to exert his free will; it is lack of knowledge and submission to surrounding situations. Widespread real education (not just the job training that occurs in most schools, but learning to think and reason and be moral and virtuous) and recognition that we have free will and power to exert to act and not to be acted upon allow us to maintain our freedom even in the face of hunger, poverty, and oppression.

4 Replies to “Freedom for bread”

  1. Mike,

    Great post. In trying to formulate a rebuttal, I found myself sounding like the Inquisitor. But I think that humans, like children (because we are, in a spiritual sense) sometimes have to be MADE to do the right thing for the sake of learning how to do it and what the rewards from doing it are. I don’t know how to reconcile freedom to deny others what they need with the pain they suffer; Alma said to let them have their freedom (Alma 14:8-11)–but I think they needed a dope-slap. All I can do is try to influence those I can for better (and I’m not doing a very good job at it).

  2. If we ponder how the Father acts, it is NEVER out of force. Freedom is the essence of our existence. If we do things to lessen that freedom, I think we are acting contrary to the plan. In my experience, trying to force my children has almost universally failed. Christ wanted to teach us truth and allow us to choose to follow.

    Governments are about force and so should be very limited in their role: common defense, regulating international commerce/trade (this should also be very limited), and protecting the consumer from fraud and protecting individuals from internal oppression. However, we always have to be careful with whatever we ask government to do because the unseen things that come from that expansion of power.

  3. I think you need to break up your posts. I’ve been meaning to read this for several days now, but just haven’t had the time all at once.

    You can do what I do and schedule stuff to go out in the future. That way you can write the entire essay and have it go out over a few days.

    Just a suggestion.

  4. I don’t think that I could have made my point in seriel posts. I think it’s a complicated point and wanted to make it as best I could. I’m not smart enough to say what I wanted to say with the effect I think it has in fewer words. If you think this is long…wait until the John Adams piece. BTW, you’ve read much longer things from Card.

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