Bavinck & Rothbard on Society and Inequality

This is another episode in “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The issue is of inequality is not something that started in the 1980’s or 1990’s despite modern discussions on the “issue” (hint: it’s not an issue, only living standards and poverty matter). The contrast between the rich and the poor (an over simplistic collective grouping Bavinck rejects) was all the more stark before modern capitalism and the near miraculous living standards even its restrained form has been able to produce. It is not simply economic equality that is called for today but equality of every imaginable sort. Not of the good classical liberal equality before the law, equality of liberty and freedom, or equality of dignity as human being made in the image of God. Equality is the new siren song. The sexes must be equal not in only value or dignity but in role, identity, and now with modern surgery physically (or close enough). Every desire, work, and lifestyle must be held as equally legitimate before the eyes of all. Distinctions, hierarchy, and differences of outcome of any kind must be eliminated.

Herman Bavinck has an essay on Inequality in a book published by Baker Academic Essays on Religion, Science, and Society as well a fascinating section on the matter in his book The Christian Family. In his essay on Inequality Bavinck compares and contrast two Genevan intellectuals: Jean-Jacque Rousseau and Jean Calvin. For background Rousseau (founder of Romanticism) believed society, especially property, was responsible for all moral ills affecting man. Man, according to Rousseau, needs to return to a “state of nature” where his innate goodness could flourish without the conflict introduced by property and society. He valued the emotional life over the intellect, believes man was born pure and good and could only later be corrupted by societal order.

Now, neither Bavinck nor Calvin were libertarian in any sense, but Bavinck’s thoughts on inequality from a reformed perspective are quite interesting. In his chapter on Family and Society he has a section on inequality where he writes:

“Currently, however, society is only seldom understood in this way. On the contrary, it is under attack from all side and viewed as the cause of every misery and malady. Nowadays people shift all the blame from themselves and assign it to the terrible organization of society. Improve society, so they say, and you will automatically make people happy and good![…]

When one investigates carefully, it will become apparent that the intense struggle against society actually does not focus, at least not exclusively, on the abuses arising in society, but against the foundations on which society rests. [Here Bavinck is talking about the Rousseauian, French, Jacobin, and socialist revolutionaries and their quest for complete egalitarianism.] Those abuses provide the occasion, but not the deepest cause, of the struggle. Even if those abuses could be eliminated through individual initiative or through the legislation of the state, those would not lead to the return of contentment and peace.

“Universal suffrage, government pensions, insurance laws, social legislation, model factories, and whatever else one may cite, none of them would eliminate the resistance being mounted against society itself in terms of its present foundations. The deepest complaint against which conflict is being targeted is inequality, which exists everywhere. Political revolution, so people say, has made people equal before the state; if that is not to remain an incomplete effort, it must be finished in terms of social revolution, which will make people socially equal. Inequality must be stopped, inequality in status and inequality in property ownership….Every organic, moral relationship that has existed so far must for the future be transformed into a contractual relationship: all service must become a position with a function. Similarly inequality in property may not continue; each person has equal rights and must receive as much as he deserves. In the future, people must no longer be able to be rich through a benefactor, through birth, or through inheritance, but rather wealth must be distributed strictly according to rights: every wage according to desert, or perhaps distribution according to need. This latter point has not yet been resolved.

“It requires no argument that the ideal of such a society cannot be realized in any other way than by dismantling the existing society down to its foundations and then rebuilding it according to the specifications that have been dreamt up for a new society.”

Of course, it is not simply that Rousseau and the egalitarian-left dream up a new society, but no society at all. Rothbard rightly recognized the equality, egalitarianism, and the abolition of the division of labor the call to primitivism. The abolishment of the division of labor or forced equality has always and everywhere lead to brute subsistence living standards. Only as an economy grows and produces well beyond its needs can any cultural, musical, artistic, or intellectual paths be pursued.

Current society displays in every respect the greatest inequality and the richest diversity, far greater inequality and diversity than its opponents usually imagine.”

In fact as Murray Rothbard argued “The freer the society, of course, the less has been the interference with individual actions, and the greater the scope for the development of each individual. The freer the society, then, the greater will be the variety and the diversity among men, for the more fully developed will be every man’s uniquely individual personality.” Freedom will inevitably come with inequality as the abundance of the market allows individuals to pursue specialization in a given field while others do not. There is of course much more uniformity under the most tyrannical regimes.  “On the other hand, the more despotic the society, the more restrictions on the freedom of the individual, the more uniformity there will be among men and the less the diversity, and the less developed will be the unique personality of each and every man. In a profound sense, then, a despotic society prevents its members from being fully human.” When one witnesses the cruel regimes of history one sees the bland monotony of its society, cultural endeavors, art, suppressed intellectual life, and even in its clothing and fashion any deviation from the standard of its cult-leader or ideal is suppressed.  

“For they divide society actually into only two classes: the filthy rich and the dirt poor, the super-powerful and the powerless, the abusers and the abused, tyrants and slaves. But the real society, the society that lives and breathes, does not look at all like that; the diversity is far greater, so great that no one can form a complete picture of it. The filthy rich constitute a very small minority, and of these people, membership along a continuum proceeds down to the bottom not by a big leap but rather in terms of gradual slope in various degrees and in various stages. Within society, there is not only an aristocratic class, but also an academic class, a merchant class, a manufacturing class, a middle class, a retail class, a skilled labouring class, and a labouring class. Among each of those classes there is again endless movement: there are large, average, and small merchants and retailers, and the number is by no means small of business owners who carry a far heavier load than many an employee and a labourer. The misery of society is not that classes exist according to the vocations and enterprises that are practiced, but that the classes are forcibly turned upside down and that people who are torn from these social connections are then, contrary to all reality, divided into two classes, in terms of which only outward property, apart from all enterprise, serves as the measure.”

Of course it must be considered what would really be meant by true and absolute equality of persons, possession, status, and other distinguishing mark between individuals. What exactly is “equality”? As Rothbard argued in his essay, three entities (A, B, and C) can only really be said to be equal to each other when they are in fact identical (when A=B=C). “A, B, and C can be completely “equal” to each other only if they are identical or uniform in all characteristics—in short, if all of them are, like the same size of nut or bolt, completely interchangeable.” Thus “ the ideal of human equality” can only be accomplished by the “total uniformity and the utter stamping out of individuality.” As he wrote elsewhere “The egalitarian world would necessarily be a world of horror fiction—a world of faceless and identical creatures, devoid of all individuality, variety, or special creativity.”

“Moreover, the fact that society displays such a textured diversity is not to be blamed on accident or arbitrariness, but flows from the nature of society itself. [And I would add, and I’m sure Bavinck would to, flows from the God who is Triune, both one and many, unity and diversity] For the gifts and aptitudes in terms of soul and body that are bestowed upon people already at birth are unequal. Members of the family, from which society is built, are unequal in gender, age, and relationship. The forms of labour to which people devote their strength are unequal. Therefore the society that gradually comes into existence under the operation of all these factors is unequal. A society that is a genuine society, and as such is a complex organism of relationships and operations, cannot be anything but multiform. Just as the body is one yet has many members and all the members of this one body, being many, are one body, even so has the church of Christ been formed, according to the apostle Paul. And according to this law of organic life society has also been organized.

Further on the idea of “the law of organic life,” which Bavinck speaks of he elsewhere recognizes this organization as completely independent of the state. Bavinck writes in another essay on Politics and Ethics that “This much is certain, that as far as we can go back into the past through history, we find a community that is in some way regulated externally by morals, customs, conventions, and tradition and not by the state.” Similarly he states, “the economic structure of society was never completely material but always and from the beginning included all kinds of other relationships: psychological, religious, philanthropic, ethical, judicial. In society there is no judicial superstructure over an economical foundation; the economic foundation is already largely judicial.”

“So one who opposes the diversity of class and property in society thereby opposes its organic composition and must see to it that all organic, moral relationships are replaced by artificial, contractual [I would clarify this as coercively imposed] relationships. And because the organization of society possesses its starting point and its stability in the family, the struggle against society ultimately leads to a struggle against the family, against the distinction and relationship of husband and wife, of parents and children, of those who are independent and those who are subservient.

“Indeed, society is something other and something more than a collection of families. But that notwithstanding, within the various gifts and powers, relationships and activities that are distributed among the members of the family, lie embedded  the principles of the complex order of society. Just as science extends the concepts implanted within human consciousness, just as technology strengthens the organs of human body, so too society expands and develops the life of the family. The health of the family is a gauge, if not of society’s material welfare, then certainly of its spiritual and moral well-being.”

It is interesting that Rothbard followed this same path in his essays on equality and society to the root of the family. Rothbard honed in on the New Left women’s liberation movement saying “The cry is that there are no, can be no, must be no biological differences between the sexes; all historical or current differences must be due to cultural brainwashing…at the root of the women’s liberation movement is resentment against the very existence of women as a distinctive entity.” G.K. Chesterton also remarked in comedic fashion that a feminist is one who dislikes the chief feminine characteristics. Irving Howe perceived of a feminist-liberation leader “What troubles her most of all. . .is the sheer existence of women.” In addition to gender roles Rothbard noticed a fervent focus on “Another widening rebellion against biological sex norms, as well as against natural diversity, has been the recently growing call for bisexuality by Left intellectuals. The avoidance of ‘rigid, stereotyped’ heterosexuality and the adoption of indiscriminate bisexuality is supposed to expand consciousness, to eliminate ‘artificial’ distinctions between the sexes and to make all persons simply and unisexually ‘human.’”

Rotbard also traces out the connection to the left-egalitarians strange theories of education. Rousseau is considered the father of child-centered education. Rousseau believed that children, like man in the state of nature, were basically good. The key to raising and educating them then to was prevent corruption and to turn them inward on their feelings and inherent goodness, and to explore their child-like wisdom. Increasingly the relationship between teacher and pupil became suspect. Rothbard describes the new theory of education:

“The theory holds that, in contrast to ‘old-fashioned’ concepts of education, the teacher knows no more than any of his students. All, then, are ‘equal’ in condition; one is no better in any sense than any other. Since only an imbecile would actually proclaim that the student knows as much about the content of any given discipline as his professor, this claim of equality is sustained by arguing for the abolition of content in the classroom. This content, asserts the New Left, is ‘irrelevant’ to the student and hence not a proper part of the educational process. The only proper subject for the classroom is not a body of truths, not assigned readings or topics, but open-ended, free-floating participatory discussion of the student’s feelings, since only his feelings are truly ‘relevant’ to the student. And since the lecture method implies, of course, that the lecturing professor knows more than the students to whom he imparts knowledge, the lecture too must go. Such is the caricature of ‘education’ propounded by the New Left.”

To this the Marxist added the elimination of the division of labor. They dreamed of a man who could fish in the morning, work the field in the afternoon, and be a philosopher by night. Of course this man who can do everything and isn’t a “slave” to his wages “is only viable if (a) everyone does everything very badly, or (b) there are only a very few things to do, or (c) everyone is miraculously transformed into a superman. Professor Mises aptly notes that the ideal communist man is the dilettante, the man who knows a little of everything and does nothing well.” It is a recipe for poverty, it is Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, and short” life. It is only the division of labor, social cooperation, and the exchange of the fruits of productivity around them which they are blind to that allows these philosophers to think of something so stupid.

Indeed, contrary to Rousseau this egalitarian romanticism is not a return to a state of nature but a revolt against nature, and against nature’s Creator. As Rothbard writes in his essay Egalitarianism: A Revolt Against Nature:

“The egalitarian revolt against biological reality, as significant as it is, is only a subset of a deeper revolt: against the ontological structure of reality itself, against the “very organization of nature”; against the universe as such. At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is a tabula rasa [blank slate] that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will—in short, that reality can be instantly transformed by the mere wish or whim of human beings.”

It is not however simply against biology, nature, or the universe but against the one who created it, sustains it, upholds it, and makes demands on how it be used. It is cosmic treason against the King.