Ryan McMaken on Augustine of Hippo and the Nature of the State

Mises Daily Editor Ryan McMaken, writing at the Mises blog (called The Circle Bastiat), has a very generous commentary on some of Augustine’s political thoughts.  Whereas many libertarians who have no religious affinity for Augustine might dismiss him in total for not agreeing with more modern formulations of libertarian political theory, McMaken considers Augustine in his historical context, concluding his post by kindly saying:

[Augustine is] laboring without any of the benefits of the later contributions made to political theory laid out by later theorists such as Bellarmine, Aquinas, and others (and also covered by Rothbard here.) It could be that Augustine simply saw no way out from the conundrum he created. He is, after all among the first “debunkers” of the state in that he was among the first to reject wholesale the mythologies and patriotic propaganda of empires and city states that were so common in the classical world, but in the end, he was on his own. Today we find the same attitude from many moderns who cannot deny the brutality and criminality of the modern state, but who in the end, like Augustine, claim there is no alternative.  With no Molinari, no Rothbard, no Aquinas, Bastiat, or Etienne de la Boetie [I would add in the Reformers here –TRLEditor] to study or learn from, Augustine has a pretty good excuse for his oversights. Modern defenders of the state have no such excuse.

McMaken begins by citing Murray Rothbard, who pointed out that Augustine set the stage for the eventual rise of the Austrian School’s subjective theory of value,” stating that Augustine was “‘the first Church Father to have a positive view of the merchant’ noting that it was wrong to condemn a whole class of men for the sins of a few. Augustine also understood that valuation of goods stem from ‘their own needs rather than by any more objective criterion or by their rank in the order of nature.’” 

McMaken also says of Augustine: “In Augustine’s view, on the other hand, Rothbard notes,  ‘profound emphasis on the individual’ set the stage for future philosophical developments that recognized ‘the essential place of the individual in the natural order.’”

He quotes Augustine’s famous observation: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?”

McMaken expresses disappointment that Augustine did not seek to discover the logical implications of his accurate understanding of the State: “His repeated references to political rulers as thieves and brigands and robbers would seem to make is clear that Augustine views the state as something poisonous to human society. But then he turns around and more or less argues that it’s best to die by drinking some of that particular poison than by dying of something else.

But we are to be reminded that Augustine “was alone” and did not have the benefit of later thinkers to learn from, which might have helped him to realize the benefit of a property-rights based private law or society.  Augustine, not having more modern insight at his disposal, was not able to offer an alternative to the “kingdoms” which he noticed were, in Murray Rothbard’s words centuries later, “a gang of thieves writ large.”  McMaken is wise to not completely dismiss Augustine and treat him in the context of the first millennium.  For his time, Augustine was impressively observant.  Americans in general suffer from a deficient understanding of Empire and the nature of the Imperial State, partly due to similar State-driven propaganda that Augustine sought to oppose.  Would that the modern Christian familiarize themselves with Augustine’s argument in his City of God.

Augustine would have been greatly helped by making a distinction between the “rulers” and the “ruled,” as is absolutely fundamental for an Austro-libertarian analysis of the State. McMaken writes: “Nonetheless, Augustine’s usage of the term [the State] makes no distinction at all between the rulers and the ruled. This in itself is a fatal error, as explained by [Max] Weber, Franz Oppenheimer, Frank Chodorov, Martin Van Creveld [see Bionic Mosquito’s interaction with van Creveld –CJE], and others. Fortunately, however, it does not prevent Augustine from making some astute observations.”

McMaken makes another vital observation, namely that

…in Augustine’s thinking men are not designed at all to exercise power over other men at all, and he notes that ”by the order of nature”  men should not “have dominion over anything but the irrational creation – not man over man, but man over the beasts. ” Thus, the civil government of the world, at least since the days of Genesis, is the product of a perversion of the natural order, perpetrated by men.

That men have a desire to rule over other men is a product of the fall and brings to mind Luke 22:24-27:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

If interested, make sure you read the article in full here.