Calvinism, Free Will, and Austrian Economics

Talk about a conflation between “Reformed Theology” and “Libertarianism.”  This blog site is a great resource for those that ask, “What has Reformation Theology got to do with Murray Rothbard?”  This post is in the same vein.  What does Calvinism have to do with Austrian Economics?  

Here is the problem: Calvinism recognizes that the Scriptures never present a teaching that can be construed so as to teach “free will.”  But at the same time, does not the Austrian Economist hold that the individual necessarily pursues the satisfaction of his own personal desires?  It might seem that Calvinism says: no free will; while the Austrian says: free will.  What is the “Reformed Libertarian” to do?

I believe that this confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the concept of free will as well as a lack of understanding that “will” is not to be lumped in with “choice.”  Referring to theological matters, the debate on free will wrongheaded if it is seen as a “man-is-a-lifeless-puppet” stance versus a “God-leaves-us-alone-to-decide-our-own-eternal-salvation” stance.  With the former position being held by the Calvinist and the latter position being held by the Arminian or the Romanist.  And yet this is the contemporary dichotomy.

The problem with this is that this completely undermines the Reformed position on the freedom of the will.  Rather than holding that man makes no choices or has no will, the Calvinist believes that the will is bound by sin.  When Adam sinned, the will was restricted in the sense that no matter how much God presented himself to mankind, there would be no attraction to God and therefore no Spiritual conversion either.  Man responds to his chief desires, and God is not among those desires.  Ephesians 2:3 states that before salvation, we lived among the

“sons of disobedience… in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Therefore the Calvinist does not teach that mankind, apart from Christ, has no passions and desires and that he is merely a body with strings up to heaven where the puppet master enjoys controlling those strings.  This is not the Reformed position.  The Reformed position is that man does indeed have a will, but it is bound, enslaved, by sin.  Hence, Christ sets us free from this bondage as per Galatians 5:1.

But complete (philosophical) libertarianism in itself is a myth.

[Note: I pray that the reader understands me here.  Please see the distinction between political libertarianism, which is a political philosophy; theological libertarianism, which is a doctrine regarding the role and nature of God in the life of his human creation; and  philosophical libertarianism, which is a theory of man’s ability to make choices and decisions.  The first category is a completely different subject than the latter two and those last two should be understood with their distinctions].

Complete (philosophical) libertarianism is a myth because man naturally responds to his desires.  That is, one cannot make a choice contrary to his will.  When one has a higher desire to make a sandwich than he does to go on a run, he is bound to make a sandwich (assuming these are his only two choices and assuming he has the means to accomplish either activity).  Someone may say that even though the person in our example has a heavy desire to eat a sandwich, he, realizing the healthier choice is to exercise, chooses to ignore his desire for a sandwich and takes a run.  But all that has happened at this point is he realized that, all things considered, the run was more in his favor and his desire was to be healthy rather than full.  He chose his ultimate desire.  In fact, any choice is a choice of the ultimate desire given the specific circumstances.

The Calvinist states that mankind has no good in his heart, that is, no desire for the Holiness of God.  Rather man desires “fleshly” or “worldly” things.  It takes a regenerating act of the Holy Spirit to break that bondage.

[As an aside: But once that bondage is struck down by the Holy Spirit, can that man then choose to deny the calling Spirit to salvation?  Not for the Calvinist!  Why?  Irresistible Grace.]

Man makes choices even though his will is not free.  Austrian economics is fine with this.  In fact, this is the basis of praxeological economics.   Rothbard, in his Magnum Opus Man, Economy and State, explains (page 17):

All action involves the employment of scarce means to attain the most valued ends. Man has the choice of using the scarce means for various alternative ends, and the ends that he chooses are the ones he values most highly. The less urgent wants are those that remain unsatisfied. Actors can be interpreted as ranking their ends along a scale of values, or scale of preferences.  These scales differ for each person, both in their content and in their orders of preference. Furthermore, they differ for the same individual at different times. [My bold -CJE]

Notice the bold section.  We will always choose that which is most valuable to us subjectively.  We can ask: which choice did we value or desire most?  Answer:  The one we acted upon.

The will is not completely free, because it is bound to respond to its chief desires.  Mankind was created in a way that makes him completely incapable of choosing something he does not desire.  This incapability is what is referred to when it is said that “man does not have free will.”  Man chooses and acts according to his deepest yearnings.  Both Austrian economics and Calvinism teach that man responds to those things which he values most highly.  Calvinism simply notices (via Scripture) that sin has restricted man into only desiring sinful things.

And that is why we praise God for replacing our desires for things “of the flesh” with “heavenly things.”