September 14, 2013

Calvinism, Free Will, and Austrian Economics

By In Economics, Philosophy

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.”

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to
  • As a faithful Arminian I disagree with many reform and Calvinist stances on salvation and free will but do appreciate your thoughts here. As you alluded to we’ve a big difference in the area of irresistible/resistible grace. I don’t have the time or mental acuity at this early hour with so much work to do to give either a retort or simply move the discussion along much further. However since coming to Austrian economics several years ago I’ve found it comforting that my Arminian-freewill fits so seamlessly into the economic and social-political philosophy of libertarianism and classical liberalism. In some ways it’s helped to inform and further my faith. At the same time the non-aggression principal has been similarly furthered within my personal philosophy of life through it’s coexistence with my understanding of biblical notions on force, coercion, self defense, war, peace, etc.

    Happy trails!

    Btw I found my way here due to your retort to the Gary North/Ron Paul Homeschool huff produced by the reluctant libertarian (iirc?) site. Good stuff.

  • I have been personally wrestling over the Armenian/calvinism debate for the past few weeks, and my husband and I have diligently studied the scriptures over this. I find your explanation very interesting. It is indeed a miracle that God has replaced our fleshly desires with heavenly things. What a beautiful way to look at it. 🙂

  • Great post! Definitely something I have given a lot of thought to lately.

    Here are five different possible things someone might mean by “free will”, stolen from a website that I visited recently,

    1. That a person is not forced from the outside to make a choice.
    2. That a person is responsible for his or her choices.
    3. That a person is the active agent in a choice made.
    4. That a person is free to do whatever they desire.
    5. That a person has the ability to choose contrary to their nature (who they are).

    Say what you will about the other four, but only the last one is inherently and perfectly incompatible with Total Depravity. As you said, the last two are incompatible with Praxeology, because you are not free to (can not choose not to) act. By so doing you are in fact, acting. It is contrary to human nature to not act, and contrary to human nature to choose righteousness on our own initiative.

    I was accused, just today in fact, on the reformed subreddit of being ungodly just because I believe in the truth value of the first three definitions, though clearly my accuser either conflated it with the other two, or does not really know about any of the definitions and just parrots someone else’s teaching that did not make a distinction for whatever reason. I then challenged him to cite the scriptural passage that declared all men were mere robots without responsibility or knowledge.

    • Allow me to rephrase that:

      As you alluded to, the last two are incompatible with Praxeology, because you are not free to not (can not choose not to) act.

  • Ruel Chavez

    After reading this post, this thought comes to my mind: in natural man’s earthly quest, there are legitimate desires, which Christians can commonly share by virtue of man made in God’s image. However, there are also illegitimate desires that Christians must avoid in view of the truth that sin’s power controls the natural man. From this framework, I see that I have lot of things to learn from Austrian economists and at the same time to be on guard against ideas that contradict the plain teaching of the Bible.

    • cjayengel

      I agree. Thanks for the comment. One of the things that John Robbins has taught me is that when it comes to economics, the Christian economist can agree with the method of the Ludwig von Mises, but not the rationalist foundation on which he stood. One can only stand on Scripture and, as the Westminster Confession says, “by good and necessary consequence [deduce]” what the truth is from what we learn from the Bible. It is the only way.

  • David Kleemann

    I would add to your comments that the Calvinist believes in total sovereignty of God. Nothing happens apart from the decree of almighty God. 😉