Arnold Kling  

Passover Thoughts

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Robert Higgs writes,


I have been struck repeatedly by a certain fact about episodes of sudden or extraordinary expansion of the state: when push came to shove, those who resisted--often to the death--tended to be people of faith. In U.S. history they included primarily Anabaptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other marginalized Protestant sects. In Nazi Germany, many of the regime's opponents were Roman Catholics, as were the opponents in Poland under Communist rule. Atheists as a class did not distinguish themselves as resisters of tyranny or totalitarianism, although some individual atheists did resist.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

In my Notes from Haidt, I included the findings he cited that religious communes did better than non-religious ones in the late 19th century. I suspect that religious movements do well at solving some free-rider problems that give atheists trouble. Resistance to tyranny would be one example. The incentive for the individual is not to resist while hoping that others will resist.

I am troubled by the story that Jews tell concerning Passover. It is not about resistance to tyranny. Instead, it is about oppressors and victims, with a higher power intervening on the victims' behalf. My concern is that this story has gradually evolved into one in which successful individuals and corporations are viewed as oppressors, others are viewed as victims, and the higher power that we should pray to for intervention is government.

Another way to read the Passover story is as a story of emigration. From ancient times through the 20th century, emigration has been the salvation of the Jews

What is the answer to oppression? I don't believe that a higher power is the answer. I believe that choice and mobility are the answer. Imagine a world in which people could change jurisdictions freely. No restrictions on emigration or immigration. Go further, and imagine jurisdictions that are not determined by geography (the Snow Crash scenario, if you will). To me, that is a world in which the oppressors have been defeated and people are free.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (9 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

Arnold, you write:

"Imagine a world in which people could change jurisdictions freely. No restrictions on emigration or immigration. Go further, and imagine jurisdictions that are not determined by geography (the Snow Crash scenario, if you will). To me, that is a world in which the oppressors have been defeated and people are free."

That's a nice fantasy.

But why is it so much more deserving of focus than the fantasy in which people respond responsibly to enlightened discourse?

Kevin L writes:
Imagine a world in which people could change jurisdictions freely. No restrictions on emigration or immigration. Go further, and imagine jurisdictions that are not determined by geography

Wasn't the Icelandic Free State under that system for 300 years?

Matt C writes:

I suspect we are hardwired to need affiliation with something larger and more enduring than ourselves.

Theistic religion used to serve that purpose pretty well, but it's getting harder for educated people to be theists.

Guys like Dawkins sneer at religion and point at all the bad things it enables. But that's only part of the story, as Higgs points out.

I don't think we're going to have a better world when all of the purpose seeking built into the human animal has been channeled into idiotic political battles instead of religion.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

People with supernatural beliefs also have been tyrants as well (consider the Christian persecution of Jews historically), and certainly Saudi Arabia - a very religious country - is no libertarian fantasyland.

I do believe that religious supernatural beliefs have (at least in the past) been a survival benefit, or else they would not be so widespread in our species - it is highly likely they have been selected for by evolution. Whether they continue to be beneficial or not is unclear.

Also I believe it is very easy for people to move from religious supernatural beliefs to religious philosophic beliefs (such as Communism) where people hold non-supernatural beliefs that are not thoroughly tested against reality.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Two issues here of note: the religious community is able to resist outside influence in part because it is capable of recognizing the potential wealth of individuals at the community level. Local communities of the present can borrow such social wealth capture techniques, only through entrepreneurial and individualistic means.

Also, and more importantly for your wish Arnold: We don't have to go far far away for better realities, we can create them right in our own backyard. What we crave in our lifetimes are new challenges and experiences on a regular basis, and yet we have created ownership in such static and passive terms that it now weighs us down economically, socially and psychologically. More dynamic ownership strategies are at the core of the work I would complete, if I would just 'step away' from the Internet (!) and finish my notes.

Jeff writes:

I was going to say the same thing as Mr. Econotarian. Take a trip to the Middle East today and see who's resisting totalitarianism; in most places, I'll wager it isn't the devout.

In the West, maybe there's a grain of truth to this, but I think you have to balance that against the fact that throughout history, Christians of varying stripes often had no qualms about inflicting oppression and tyranny on others when they had the chance. The Spanish in Central and South America, the British Protestants in Ireland, Jim Crow in the post Civil War U.S., etc. Even in one of the examples Higgs cites, he seemingly ignores that many Catholics were also willing and enthusiastic collaborators with the Nazi regime.

I'll buy the free-rider problem that you sketched out, but I think the conclusions one can realistically draw from that are going to be pretty narrow.

My own two-bit analysis is to speculate that perhaps religion just serves as a useful rallying point or a tool for creating a viable coalition. Remember the old saw about trying to organize libertarians politically being akin to herding cats? The same probably proves true of secularists (not surprising, considering there's probably a good deal of overlap between the two). On the other hand, Catholics/Baptists/Jews/whoever are already a religious coalition; turning them into a political coalition probably isn't that difficult in most circumstances.

VangelV writes:

What is the answer to oppression? I don't believe that a higher power is the answer. I believe that choice and mobility are the answer. Imagine a world in which people could change jurisdictions freely. No restrictions on emigration or immigration. Go further, and imagine jurisdictions that are not determined by geography (the Snow Crash scenario, if you will). To me, that is a world in which the oppressors have been defeated and people are free.

As Rothbard pointed out, the answer was natural rights. If we have absolute self-ownership of our bodies then we are entitled to the benefits of the labor from those bodies. That means that each and every one of us has the right to exchange our property with others who are willing to engage us in a voluntary transaction. You do not need to make a theological argument even though one could base the idea of natural rights on religious teaching.

Jeff writes:

From Matt Foseti's review of "Out of Bondage" by Elizabeth Bentley, a McCarthy-Era Communist spy:

Ms Bentley came from good Puritan stock. Wikipedia describes her family as "strait-laced old family Episcopalian New Englanders." I could not possibly improve upon that description. When she first joined the [Communist] Party, Bentley took the name "Elizabeth Sherman" because she was a descendant of Roger Sherman (the dude who signed the Declaration of Independence). In sum, people do not get more American than Bentley.

Communism (the ideas of which she never repudiates in her book, at least) was her way of "reconciling" "Christian ethics" with "industrial civilization." As one of her fellow CPUSA members who was in the process of becoming a minister says, "Communism is the Christianity of the future ...I, as a potential Christian minister, must per se be a Communist."

http://foseti.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/review-of-out-of-bondage-by-elizabeth-bentley/

One thing that's interesting is that Ms Bentley apparently became a communist in response to the rise of fascism in the '30's. She embraced one totalitarian ideology out of disgust with another. Maybe this is proof of Tyler's thesis about people organizing politically on the basis of who they identify against, as you relayed a few days back. But we're still just talking two different flavors of totalitarianism.

Put it in terms of memes: organized religions represent a powerful and successful set of memes, in terms of replication and proliferation. When other memes come along, they may either co-exist peacefully with the memes already planted in your brain, they might come into conflict, or they might develop a symbiotic relationship. We can surmise that in Ms. Bentley's cerebral cortex, communism and Protestantism were in symbiosis, whereas fascism was an aggressive virulent meme in a life or death struggle with Episcopalianism, and thus her memetic immune system went on high alert for a decade or so.

I have no doubt that Higgs is right that powerful memes like Christianity or other supernatural sets of beliefs will vigorously react when attacked in a way that lesser memes like humanism or atheism don't, but as Ms. Bentley reveals, totalitarianism comes in different strains, not all of which trigger a suppressive response.

David Leib writes:

The Passover (Pesach) story includes a section where a lamb is killed and the blood is spread on the door posts. That would be an extremely brave act where a lamb is revered as a god. That was a massive as of civil disobedience and faith. The must have been belief that retribution for such an act would not be coming.
When getting to the Reed Sea it is said that the waters did not split until someone was neck deep in the water. The were acts of volition.

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